A month in the agave life

I’m about to share some very intimate details of my life with you.

Well, kind of. I’m an extremely private person, despite the intensely social nature of my work. In this blog post, I’ll be sharing more about my day-to-day life than I ever have before. But don’t get too excited – the details will only be salacious to those whose obsession with Mexican drink approaches my own. The study, teaching, and promotion of agave spirits culture has increasingly supplanted most other parts of my life – hobbies, relationships, etc.- since I started the company now known as Experience Agave, in 2008. 

I’ve begun to expand my consulting practice and writing, and this website will be the primary platform for both. Clients, colleagues, and friends have long told me I should show more of what goes on behind the scenes, that I should take a bit more pride about how deeply embedded I am in the world of agave spirits. And I think the time has finally come to start doing that. What follows is a walk through a typical month in my high season.

I spent the holidays sightseeing in Chihuahua’s Copper Canyon, almost entirely unplugged from work. Although truth be told, I couldn’t resist a side trip to a semi-secret vinata (sotol distillery) currently being built, and did track down some excellent lechuguilla between trips on El Chepe.

Jan 5-8

Work kicked off in 2020 with a custom Oaxaca mezcal tour that I organized and led for professors and students at the University of Houston’s Hilton College. The trip was part of their “Spirits of Mexico” course, and I had planned the details closely with Dr. Nathan Jarvis. I built the itinerary around the three categories outlined in the current mezcal Norm. We began with a presentation from the CRM (Mezcal Regulatory Council) and a visit to the maguey farm they manage jointly with the Universidad de Chapingo, in Zimatlán. We visit the palenques of Douglas French (Scorpion Mezcal, Sierra Norte Whiskey) as a representative of the “mezcal” category, Leoncio Santiago and Valentino Cortés in Matatlán for the “mezcal artesanal” category, and the Ángeles family at Real Minero to learn about the “mezcal ancestral” category. Each producer and family provided a wealth of cultural, historical, and technical information, and the students were an impressively serious bunch. (At Real Minero, we were privileged to be the first to hear some big news that will be made public shortly.) 

Jan 9-10

Today I met CK and DZN. They are Turks, traveling in Mexico for a documentary project about the global diaspora of döner kebap (which became al pastor in Mexico). I gave them a private tasting flight at La Cata, and a private tour at Fortaleza. Their perceptions about tequila were changed completely. This one meant a lot to me, as I traveled solo in Turkey for four months in 2003, a week after the US invaded Iraq for the second time. It was one of the most formative experiences of my life, and the country is second only to Mexico in impacting me deeply. I will always have a special place in my heart for Turkey and the Turkish people, and having these two on a tequila tour and in our little bar was very special to me.

Jan 12-13

My Experience Agave colleague Lucie Canuel has long offered tours in and around the Nevado de Colima Volcano (in southern Jalisco) and the village of Comala (in Colima, famous for coffee and ponche). It had taken us months to align our calendars at a time when mezcal would be produced in the region, and we did a dry run of what will become a new EA mezcal tour in southern Jalisco. This area is without a doubt one of the oldest sites of distillation in Mexico. The controversial pre-Hispanic distillation hypothesis centers largely around artifacts from this area. Production remains very similar to that practiced in the sixteenth century: pit cooking, mallet crushing, in-ground fermentation, and distillation in copper and wood “Filipino” stills.  The degree of agave biodiversity is also off the charts, and I was pleased to meet yet another producer with large holdings of very mature agave. 

Jan 15-16

I hosted a visit and tasting with master distiller Mario Gómez of Amatitán, at La Cata. I met Mario when he was in charge of production at La Alteña, and his father produced Tequila Regional during its heyday. He has a new project – Casa Pecados. Mario being Mario, I had high expectations. They were met or exceeded by his two blancos (40% ABV and 53% ABV) and reposado. This tequila is further evidence for my belief that, for my palate, fermentation with fiber is one of the key elements for robust agave flavor. 

My good friend Michael Cadden also visited Tequila prior to participating as a finalist in the Patrón Perfectionist cocktail competition. Michael is one of my favorite bartenders in Seattle (a city with no shortage of great ones), an early Experience Agave tour guest, and the very first guest bartender at La Cata, back in 2016. It was fun and gratifying to have him making cocktails (including his Perfectionist entry – the “Abuela’s Marmalade”) for a couple of days at our little tequila bar. 

Jan 16-19

Coincidentally, my next few days would also have a lot to do with Michael. He organizes the annual tequila cocktail competition for Northwest Agave Fest, the winner of which gets a tequila tour with me. 2018’s winner, CD, and her boyfriend, spent three and a half days with me. In addition to a lovely day at Casa Noble (sponsors of the competition) with my old friend Dave Yan, we made private visits to Fortaleza, La Tequileña, and Cascahuín. At the latter, we were lucky to overlap with a David Suro group that included the legendary agave botanist and author Gary Nabhan. David was gracious enough to include us in the uncovering of Casachuín’s pit oven, for the forthcoming batch of the visionary Siembra Valles Ancestral

Jan 20-21

About two years ago, a neighbor brought me an unlabeled bottle of some of the best tequila I’d ever tasted. A year following, the producer, a legacy tequilero from the Sierra de Tequila, walked into La Cata. He had heard I was looking for him and enjoyed his vino. From that day, it took us nearly a year, but here we were. We’d gone to Zacatecas to buy blue agave in December. On Christmas Day, he had unloaded his brick oven, milled the agave, and started fermentation. 17 days later, he had once-once-distilled ordinario. Now, I came up to the Sierra with the writer Felisa Rogers and tequila guru Grover Sanschagrin along for tasting  and video support. We spent two days distilling around 375 liters of delicious, uncertified “tequila” that is, to date, still resting in glass. You will hear a lot more about this project soon, on this platform. 

Jan 22-26 

DJ and MJ first came to Tequila on their honeymoon, in 1998. They often spend their anniversary there, and I have the privilege of hosting them for the second such occasion. They brought along their old friends DH and KH, the former celebrating a birthday. 

As with all their EA trips to Oaxaca and Jalisco, this was totally custom. Highlights included introducing them to the El Tequileño and Caballito Cerrero distilleries, a private pairings dinner in the home of Chef Eduardo Marín, and a reunion visit to Casacahuín, where we tasted the glass-rested, single-barrel reposado soon to be released as a La Cata exclusive.

Their old friend Ramiro Ruelas joined us for the pairings dinner. Ramiro is a nephew of Don Julio González (yes, that Don Julio),, Marketing Director for Reserva de los González, and involved in a couple of other exciting tequila projects that will be making a lot of noise soon. 

At Casacahuín, we bumped into bartender friends from Guadalajara (including Braden Lagrone and his visiting brother), and found out that the one and only Beckaly Franks (founder of The Pontiac in Hong Kong) would be in town the next day.

It was a real “full circle” kind of moment to have Beckaly in our little tequila bar. We were both “babies” in the industry when we met  sometime around 2010, when we were both living in Portland, . She’s since become a total bartending legend in Asia, and it was inspiring to have her, her friend from Drink Magazine Asia, and the one and only Eduardo Oredaín, Sr., all sitting at our bar together. 

Jan 27-29 

Led a private tour for the owner of a luxury travel agency in the US. This featured a private, after hours tasting and cocktails at La Cata, private visits to Fortaleza and El Tequleño, a country-style breakfast beneath a centuries-old parota tree in an agave field, and horseback riding through the fields. 

Feb 1-2

I’ve been exploring the Cabo Corrientes (coastal raicilla) region for about three years, slowly bringing groups of friends and journalists as we figure out the  challenging logistics. This will be the first season that I offer tours proper. This weekend, Jorge Carbajal at Hacienda El Divisadero was harvesting 30-40 mezcales (agaves) for a two-ton ovenload of raicilla. I take a group including Seattle’s Maggie DiGiovani (manager of Barrio) for two days of jima and oven loading at El Divisadero and with Don Hildegardo Joya in Malpaso, and distillation with Alberto Hernández at La Gorupa. 

Feb 7-8

After a nice beach break, it’s round two of raicilla tours in Cabo Corrientes with groups including my colleague Kami Kenna, Las Perlas owner Nikhil Bahadur, and Colton Brock of Ladera Taverna in Phoenix. It a twelve hour marathon, we visit four tavernas and taste a respectable amount of raicilla. It’s going to be a good season. And, if I’m slow at getting to your messages, now you know why.