On this episode of “Next Round,” host Zach Geballe chats with Bricia Lopez, restaurateur and author, to discuss all things mezcal. Listeners will learn about Lopez’s intimate history with mezcal, and why the category’s high prices reflect the hard work of Oaxacan farmers. In addition, Lopez gives a full rundown on how mezcal is made and why it differs from tequila.
It’s no secret that celebrity tequila brands are a rising trend. Lopez comments on the appropriation within those brands — specifically those that produce mezcal — and stresses the importance of respecting the spirit. Finally, Lopez urges listeners to safely travel to Oaxaca in 2022 to experience world-class mezcal in its birthplace.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Zach Geballe: From Seattle, Wash., I’m Zach Geballe, and this is a “VinePair Podcast” “Next Round” conversation. We bring you these episodes in between our regular podcasts so that we can explore a range of issues and stories in the drinks world. And today, I’m speaking with restaurateur and author, Bricia Lopez. Bricia, thanks for your time.
Bricia Lopez: Oh, no, thank you for having me, Zach.
Z: Yeah, I’m super excited. I love to talk about agave spirits, and mezcal in particular, because for a lot of drinkers in the U.S., it’s still a category that people don’t know a lot about and have a lot of misconceptions about. I’m certainly hoping that you can help us clear some of those up. We can start with a little bit of your own backstory. I mentioned that you are a restaurateur and author, so if you could talk a little about your restaurants, your writing, and what it seems is your lifelong experience with mezcal.
B: Oh, for sure. Gosh, where to start? Well, I was born in Oaxaca, Mexico, in the southern region of Mexico. I moved to L.A. when I was 10 years old with my family. My father started a restaurant by the name of Guelaguetza, which is still around. And I run that restaurant today with my siblings — my sister, my brother, and I. It’s in Koreatown, and we specialize in everything that has to do with Oaxacan cooking and mezcal, of course. In 2019, I published our cookbook called “Oaxaca Home Cooking from the Heart of Mexico,” where I shared the recipes that I grew up eating, the recipes that my mom cooked for us as children. There, we drove into my family’s story and the whole history of what Guelaguetza was and what it is today and how it has evolved with now the second generation taking it over. And yeah, that’s a little bit about me. My journey with mezcal started, I want to say, before I was even conceived. My grandfather, my great-grandfather, my father, my uncles, my cousins, they all are in the mezcal world. I think that’s a very common thing. I was born in Mitla, which is a town right next door to where my father is from, Matatlán. If you are from Matatlán, you either make mezcal or your friend or your cousin makes mezcal. It is a mezcal village, and it is one of those regions that a lot of mezcal comes from nowadays. It’s not a unique thing for me to say I’m from Matatlán and my mezcal journey began before I was born. It’s natural for us because we’re from that region. My grandfather, uncles, and father were mezcal makers. When we lived in Oaxaca, that’s what my dad did. He made mezcal, and he was a pioneer in branding mezcal by the name and having a mezcal store. I think if any of you who are listening go to Oaxaca today, you will see that there are dozens of mezcal stores. Now, it’s evolved, obviously, but before, if it was a mezcal store, they would only sell that brand of mezcal there. My father was a pioneer, where he opened up a mezcal store, he branded it as his mezcal, and he only sold his mezcal. I would take care of his shop at like 7, 8, or 9 years old, and it was very normal. Obviously, it’s 2021, we all live in the U.S. and I think somewhat of the majority of your listeners probably live in some metropolitan city. They might say, “What do you mean you were 9 years old taking care of a mezcal shop?” It was a different time, a different place. My sister and I would take care of the shop, open, close, and I would wrangle up tourists and I would introduce them to mezcal. We would talk about it, and we would cut up lemons and oranges, and we would tell them how to drink it. In many ways, I’ve been doing that all my life. I am 35, and I feel like I’m still doing that, bringing people to mezcal and into Oaxacan cooking. I’ve been doing this since I was 6. I don’t remember a life without mezcal, and not in a way of saying I was drinking mezcal and my family was getting drunk with mezcal. It was just always there. I do remember the way my dad would fill up the bottles of mezcal. We would always work in a family-style business. And he would — I don’t even know what you call this — but he siphoned the mezcal with a little hose, and I remember when I tried to do it because I was trying to mimic my father. I was trying to help him. I remember that moment where all the smoke came to my head, and I was just like, “Oh my God.” That was my first introduction to the spirit and what it tasted like.” Again, this is in the ‘90s, we were in Mexico, different time. It’s not 2021 in L.A. by any means. I would not allow my child to do that, but yeah, that’s the way we grew up as kids. Our life mission has always been to really champion Oaxacan cooking, culture. and to change the perception in people’s minds of what Mexican food is and what it can be. It’s a lifelong journey, right? To change people’s perception of what Mexican cooking is from a dollar taco to a $45-an-ounce pour of mezcal. It’s a huge juxtaposition. I’m paying a dollar for a taco and then you’re charging me $45 for an ounce. How does that even make sense in someone’s mind? That’s just my life’s work and my family’s work.
Z: So can you talk a little bit about mezcal more broadly? Because I think most of our listeners are going to have at least a rough understanding of mezcal, probably in some way in relation to tequila, which is the agave spirit that most people know best. In terms of understanding what is it about mezcal that makes one mezcal $10, $12, or $14 an ounce and in some cases $45 or more? Where does that differentiation come from?
B: I think people who are probably familiar with mezcal, there are two camps and there’s nothing in the middle. You have the super-diehard mezcal aficionados who are collecting bottles as we speak, and then you have the people who are just familiar with the term and know it as a smoky tequila, which is, I would say, a poor definition of what mezcal is. At some point, I did say smoky tequila just because I think early on, I was just trying to make people familiar with what it is. I definitely changed that term to roasted agave because that really is what you do, you roast the agave before you distill it so I’ll start from the very beginning. Before there was tequila, there was mezcal, number one. Every tequila is mezcal but not every mezcal is tequila. Tequila, by definition, is the denomination of origin. Much like Champagne. You can only get Champagne from Champagne, France. Everything else can be named Prosecco or sparkling wine and there are so many other names but Champagne, which is technically sparkling wine, you can only get from that region. It is the same thing with tequila and mezcal. Tequila, by definition, there are two boxes that need to be checked. Number one, tequila can only be named tequila if it’s made from a certain region: Tequila, Jalisco, which is an actual state in Mexico. I’m probably going to get my geography wrong, but I want to say that Mexico has 32 states, and one of them is Jalisco. By definition, you can only name tequila, tequila, if it’s made in Jalisco alongside a few other states that have the denomination of origin. Everything outside of that, if you make tequila in other states, you can’t call it tequila, you have to call this something else. Some places call it Raicilla, some call it Bacanora. but the majority of other agave distillates come from Oaxaca. I would say over 80 percent for sure today are from the state of Oaxaca, and Oaxaca is mezcal. The other checkbox that tequila has to fill is it can only be made from one type of agave variation, the type of plant that you use. The agave that is used is called tequilana weber, and it has a very scientific name as well. It really is that blue agave but it’s not blue, right? It’s greenish with a bluish tint that you see in pictures, movies, and commercials. In commercials for tequila, you would see the jimador cutting down those plants. That really is the tequilana weber. Back in the ‘90s, a lot of friction in the tequila and mezcal world came from tequila makers who would actually buy tequila plants from Oaxaca and from other places and take them to Jalisco illegally. Due to such high demand for tequila, they just couldn’t keep up. Therefore, Oaxaca really drove the price of the plant and changed a lot of economics of mezcal back into the ‘90s. Those are the two boxes that you check. In Oaxaca, however, mezcal can be made with a variety of plants. It is such a beautiful, eco-diverse state. It is rich in biodiversity. It has highlands, lowlands. It really is one of the wonders of Mexico with the variation in plants, chilies, and birds. It’s the heart and soul of Mexico in every way. There are so many wild agaves that grow where people from regions, from different villages, use to distill their own mezcal for themselves and for the towns. Usually, in Oaxaca, if you’re talking about the early 2000s or even generations before us, these families and villages would distill for themselves or for the town. They would sell them to somebody that was having a birthday party or a wedding. Usually at Oaxacan weddings you invite the closest 400 friends that you have. So you have huge parties, which means there is a lot to drink. Then, you go to the local person and you love the way he makes mezcal. He then goes and makes a few liters of it. Also, a lot of people were traveling to Oaxaca. There were a lot of pioneers early on that realized that there were these new flavors that they haven’t found before. This happened at a time where this country was going through a revolution of the farm-to-table movement. For those who are probably listening, people under 25 probably don’t know that when they were children, people didn’t care where their ingredients came from. And I think those of us who are above 30 remember the time when nobody cared where your orange came from. Nobody was talking about free-range chickens before. There was a time, and people don’t remember that “Portlandia” came out and said, “What’s the name of this chicken and where does chicken come from?” There were all these movements happening. I would say it always existed, but it was tipping over into the mainstream, where people realized that they should care about ingredients. Then, small-batch was becoming this hot trend. Small-batch beer, small-batch IPA, small-batch whiskey. Everybody was trying to figure out how to get smaller batches of things. At this moment, there were a few pioneers that came around and realized, “What is this? Why am I not having these? These are new flavors to me.” Also, our palates were evolving. I always compare it to the beer world. In the beer world, there was a time when nobody cared about hops, IPAs and all these other things. People were just drinking Corona. But people have evolved their palates. People that love IPAs are never really going to drink the Corona again because your palate has evolved and now you’re this snooty person that looks down on people ordering a Pacifico or Corona or Bud Light. That happened in the agave world. People who were really diehard into the tequila tried small-batch whiskeys and realized, “Oh, my gosh, what is this mezcal?” They would taste it and would fill their palates with these nuances they never tried. There was a story behind it, right? “It was a small batch, and I found it off the road in Oaxaca when I was finding myself.” The reality is a bunch of white guys that were going through Oaxaca, and they were like, “Oh my God, I got in my car and I found these brown people on the side of the road and they made this thing and oh my God.” Everybody was having this “Oh my God, brown people, indigenous people, this is what they drink” moment. It exploded from there and got bigger and bigger. I remember in my restaurant where I was having difficulties finding mezcals, because I wanted to have every mezcal available for our customers. Now I’m at the point where I remember when I wanted to have everyone’s mezcal available. I’ve been having this mind shift in the past few months where I just want to have maybe 10. It’s gotten to the point where it’s too much. It’s the idealization of this indigenous story. When I realized very early on that it was the same, the majority of the brands that you see out there today are made in a handful of palenques. The stories that we heard early on of “this is from a family, this is from this” are very few. Those are the ones that are the most expensive. That’s when you say, “What’s the difference?” It’s that it’s gotten to the point where you have a handful of producers of mezcal that make the same juice for 80 percent of the brands you see. Then, you have those small-batch stories that we first fell in love with mezcal for. Now, the economics are just not there for that bottle to be $45. That bottle is going to be anywhere from $200 to $300. It is what it is because there’s so much that goes into it. A plant can take up to 20 years to grow. This is all handmade. These are people’s lives. People who don’t understand it or who fail to see it are just people who really don’t value the culture and don’t value the work that goes behind mezcal. However, you do have those very few mezcales that do it well and invested a lot in the past five to 10 years. They built their own palenques and are making great mezcal that you can find at an affordable price. I don’t know if that was too long, but that really is mezcal in a nutshell, I would say.
Z: Well, it’s obviously a big topic, so I wouldn’t expect you to be able to cover it all in 30 seconds. A couple of other questions that move out of what you were just saying. I want to start with a conversation that’s been going on around tequila in particular of late is this idea of cultural appropriation. You have an ever-growing number of celebrity tequila brands. Often, people who don’t have any historic or ancestral connections to Mexico. Is that happening in mezcal?
B: Oh, it’s happening. I would say 70 percent of the brands are owned by white guys. It’s the same story. I’ve been in situations where I look at them and think, “Do you have anyone who’s from Oaxaca working with you?” No. Then you see their Instagram, and it is these people with dreamcatchers and flowy outfits on their way to Coachella. You’re selling this lifestyle, and you’re butchering and violating the essence of what mezcal is. But yes, it’s happening. It happened with tequila. It happens with everything, really. It happens in every culture, and they have the audacity to think that it’s OK. There is zero respect. You see it in Oaxacan cooking. In Mexico, if you’re not from Oaxaca, as a chef, you would never open an Oaxacan restaurant in Mexico in other states if you’re not from Oaxaca, unless you partner with an Oaxacan chef. There are probably two Mexican chefs who have opened Oaxacan restaurants outside of Oaxaca, but they’ve done it with Oaxacan chefs out of Oaxaca. Yet in the U.S., you have white chefs left and right opening Oaxacan in restaurants with zero remorse for appropriating a culture just because they think it’s OK. That’s what’s happening with mezcal. That comes with everything that has been spoken about in the past year of this place where they think it’s OK.
Z: From that point, to be honest, a lot of our listeners are white people, I’m guessing. What then as a consumer or even as a member of the trade in the United States, whatever your race or background is, if you’re not Oaxacan, what is in your eyes the way to interact with mezcal respectfully? How should it be treated, and how would you like to see it talked about, consumed, or positioned? In the end, people want to drink it and people want to serve it. It’s not only going to be in the hands of those who are of Oaxacan or Oaxacan descent.
B: 100 percent. I’m so glad that you asked me this question. Number one, right now there hasn’t been any travel because of where we are in the world, but things are opening up. I highly encourage people to, come 2022, book a trip to Oaxaca and go experience it. Go support those farmers yourself. Go to Oaxaca and educate yourself on what it is. Number two, support brands that are actually owned by people of color, by people who are either from Oaxaca or who are Mexican. I would say those are the two major things that I would say. Number three, this is what I always tell people, don’t you ever out loud say, “It’s too expensive for tequila or that’s too expensive for mezcal. How dare you sell this? This is too expensive for Mexican food, too expensive for mezcal.” In my opinion, that is a racist comment. Those bottles that are pricier are the ones that come from those farmers that actually bring what Oaxaca is and who are Mexican-owned. People are expecting it to be a $2 shot of tequila like Hornitos, which if that’s what you want to do, go for it. But for me, that’s been my life mission.
Z: An interesting piece that I think our listeners may not be familiar with is the idea of these mezcal bottlings that are a single agave species, compared to something that is more of a blend. Is that something that you find interesting? I certainly have found in my tastings that there are distinct differences across the different wild agave species. For people who are interested in exploring nuances and differences in spirits, what does that look like?
B: I think why people love mezcal so much and why I love it so much is because you can have two bottles of mezcal, and they look the same. They’re clear. They’re not hidden by any aging process. There’s no wrapping of the flavor of the actual agave plant. You can have an Espadín, you can have a Tobaziche, and you can have a Papalote. We can have these three different agave plants, and if you put them next to each other, they will taste wildly different. I think that that’s why people love wine so much, and why they are collecting these bottles. And it won’t taste like that again in the next batch. That was only done in a 2010 or 2015 because the plant was a certain way. It was one of the first times in the spirit world that that was seen. When you look at whiskeys or when you look at reposado tequila or añejo tequilas, that comes from the barrels and the aging process. There’s no aging here other than the plant. People think, “Well, you can only get that in wine because it’s not distilled, right? When you distill it, how can it be different?” I think that’s what blows people’s minds.
Z: It definitely blew mine the first time.
B: Let’s say you take 10 tequilas and they’re all blancos. From brand to brand, there’s possibly a slight differentiation and for the very sophisticated palate, you can tell the difference from one brand and another brand. Yet, there’s an underlying, similar taste, right?
Z: Well, you’re using the same agave, as you said before. So there’s only so much variation that’s possible there.
B: In Oaxaca, what happens because of the plant and because your mind is used to seeing a blanco tequila so it should all taste the same, right? Your mind is so trained, but then we taste them side by side, and your mind is just blown. How could this be possible? How can this be so different? Then you go and explain it’s a different agave plant and you dig into the region and the type of distillation process. It’s very similar to that of the wine world. I think that’s why people love mezcal so much, because it just gives them something else. It’s for people who generally love the taste and understand there’s more to the drink than just doing it for getting drunk. It’s about enjoying the drink, and that’s why people love mezcal so much because it just gives them a different taste they’ve never had before.
Z: Well, I think that’s a wonderful place to leave it. It certainly echoes my own experiences as I’ve had the chance to learn a little more about mezcal, and I’ll definitely be excited to finally get the chance to take a trip to Oaxaca in 2022. Thank you so much for your time.
B: No, thank you.
Z: For those of you listening, you can find more of Bricia’s work — both written and then, of course, the restaurant — they will be linked in the description of the show. Again, thank you so much for your time, really appreciate it.
B: Thank you.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, please leave us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now for the credits.
VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and in Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tasting director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening and we’ll see you again.
Ed note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.