On this episode of “Next Round,” host Zach Geballe chats with Ron Cooper, founder of Del Maguey mezcal. Cooper discusses his journey in creating one of the early players in the mezcal space, which began with a life-changing trip to Oaxaca in 1986, where he tried mezcal for the very first time.

Mezcal’s rising popularity, as well as Cooper’s adoration for the spirit, prompted him to found Del Maguey in 1995. The popular brand is now known for offering single-village expressions of mezcal, which Cooper says enables small producers and their families to thrive.

Curious to browse Del Maguey’s lineup? Learn more at delmaguey.com.

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Zach Geballe: From Seattle, Wash., I’m Zach Geballe, and this is a “VinePair Podcast,” “Next Round” conversation. We’re bringing 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’ve got the pleasure of speaking with Ron Cooper, the founder of Del Maguey. Ron, thanks so much for your time.

Ron Cooper: Hey, Zach, it’s great to be on air with you, and thanks to VinePair.

Z: I can’t start anywhere but with this question: What were some of your first experiences with mezcal, if you remember them, I guess?

R: Oh, I do. I was fortunate to grow up in Southern California in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. I was there through ’82. However, during that time, life in Southern California, our nearest neighbor was Mexico. As an art student about to graduate, a group of us went down to Baja California in Ensenada, and we went to Hussong’s Cantina and we camped on the beach for five days. I had the opportunity to sip a not-very-good mezcal, but it was smoky and interesting. Each day for five days, I went back, and that was my preferred sipping. That was even before I tasted tequila. After that, I kept going back to Baja, camping out in these beautiful bays, and we would always bring back a bottle of some not-so-good mezcal to Southern California and share it with friends. Those were my earliest experiences.

Z: And when you were bringing it back to Southern California, were the people around you even at all aware of what mezcal was? Or was it basically, “Here, just drink this?”

R: Well, I’m not going to mention any brand names, but everyone’s reaction was slapping their forehead and going, “Oh, my God, I had that when I was in college. I can’t tell you how bad I was hung over.” That was the reaction, except for a few cool people that were into drinking good wine and began to explore different spirits. It was a unique spirit, and everyone wanted to try it.

Z: OK, so you have this experience earlier on in your life. You probably remain interested or are at least a consumer of mezcal. At what point does it go from being a thing that you enjoy drinking, to “Here’s a business I want to take on?” Was there anything, in particular, that prompted that?

R: Absolutely. In 1986, some art patron friends took myself and my wife on a trip down to Mexico City, Puebla, and Oaxaca. I led the trip because I had driven down in the early ‘70s from L.A. to Panama and found Mexico to be really interesting. We went to drink pulque in Mexico City and in Puebla, but when we got to Oaxaca, we were stopped by the Federales at a checkpoint. “What are you doing here? Where are you going? We’re protecting you. Is this taxi safe, or are you kidnapped?” “No, no, no, no. We’re here to drink a little mezcal and celebrate New Year’s.” They replied, “Mezcal?! My uncle makes mezcal in the mountains.” I said, “Really, can I get some?” He said, “Yeah, he’s coming down tomorrow with some liters. If you come back, I’ll have some for you.” Well, it was mind-blowing. It was so different from the earlier stuff that I had ever tasted. It was just incredible, so I bought a couple liters. I brought it home and I started tasting it with friends. Everyone went crazy for it. The chef, Mark Miller, who started Coyote Cafe and Southwest cuisine, said, “Man, when can you bring some more of this in? I want it on my back bar.” Steve Wallace, who is a great wine and spirits purveyor in L.A., did the same thing. He said, “Man, this is really something. You ought to bring this in.” In 1990, after I had a couple great successes with large bronze commissions, I had a lot of money that I could afford to go anywhere I wanted to go. The first thing in my head was Japan. Well, then this little voice said, “No, no, no, no, you’re going to Oaxaca. You’re going to make art with local artisans.” And when I was there, I went out every three days for three months out to the dirt roads, and I asked people, where’s the best? Donde esta mejor? They pointed their fingers and I couldn’t understand Zapotec, but I just drove patiently down a dirt road with no signs until I saw a big grinding wheel out in the field. And I’d asked the farmer, “How do you do this?” Invariably, they would come back with an empty Coke bottle, brandy bottle, or rum bottle, and they’d fill it with their mezcal. I brought it back, and my friends in Oaxaca, the weavers I was working with, would go, “Where did you get that?” It was jaw-dropping. When I crossed the border to come back to the U.S., I had a 5-gallon wedding mezcal and a big bamboo basket on the side of my truck. The Texas official says, “You can’t bring that in here.” And I went, “What? I’ll pay any duty.” They said, “No, no, no, a U.S. citizen is allowed 1 liter to cross the border.” I had to pour out the majority of this 5-gallon super wedding mezcal from Chichicapa, tearfully. I decided right then and there, no one would ever tell me I couldn’t bring mezcal into the United States. In order to make it available for me and my friends, I had to get a license to export from Mexico and a license to import into the U.S., and I did.

Z: With this early part of the story that I’ve read about, I think there’s a certain romanticism of this idea of exploring and finding the best mezcal. However, when it came time to bring that into the U.S. and start, frankly, trying to explain it to consumers — as you said before, there were some well-placed people who understood the appeal. How did you even explain the product? How did you set it apart from, as you described, people’s college hangover experiences? What was that early messaging like?

R: I’ll tell you in a second, but I think it’s time for us to have a little sip together. What do you think?

Z: Oh, I’ll be honest, Ron. I had already started, but I’m with it.

R: I’m pouring a little bit of Las Milpas. A mezcal from the San Dionisio Ocotepec region in a place which is just a rancho out in the country, and it’s called The Cornfields. So here’s to you and everyone listening.

Z: Cheers.

R: All right, so how did I explain it? Well, the first thing that happened was when I got back in 1990, Steve Wallace brought a writer who had just returned from Poland, writing and studying the vodkas of Poland. Steve Wallace came out from L.A. with his girlfriend and this writer, and we spent two days sipping through 28 different single-village mezcals that I had brought back and collected during this time. Fortunately for me, the 5-gallon wedding mezcal was a sacrifice, and it saved me from the customs officials going through the back of my pickup with three months’ of art, pottery, sculpture, weaving, furniture, just a load of stuff that I had accumulated. And these other 28 samples were all down, buried safely underneath a bunch of stuff, so we spent two days tasting. And of course these guys spread the word to their friends that they had this incredible experience of never before tasted single-village mezcals. When I actually started to travel to different states and hook up with different distributors, they would take me into a bar or restaurant, and I always found that chefs had the palate that immediately realized what this was, how unique this was. And then bartenders. I started with chefs and then migrated to bartenders and — oh, there are some funny stories, but I don’t want to take up all your time.

Z: Well, one story would be quite welcome, if you have just one.

R: All right. St. Louis, Missouri. A young salesperson takes me to a restaurant and bar. The owner comes up to the front of the bar. I have a bag with three or four different mezcals, wonderful woven palm fiber baskets, and little sippy cups. And he takes one look at this stuff and he says, “I’m not going to taste that.” And he goes, “Hey, Juan!” He shouts back to the kitchen and Juan, the dishwasher, comes out, and he goes, “Juan, taste this.” Juan sips it and goes, “Oh, mezcal. I don’t like mezcal. I like tequila.” And then people started hearing about it. Sommeliers, like yourself, started spreading the word. Jimmy Yeager in Aspen invited me in 1998 to my first Aspen Food and Wine Classic, which was international. We had a table and I was pouring mezcal. People were sipping it and going, “Oh my God, this is incredible.” I’ve done 20 years of Aspen Food and Wine Classic. Also, Jimmy Yeager immediately made mezcal front and center on his bar. My buddy Steve Olson, under the table, everywhere he went, carried a flask of Tobala with him, and he did wine education and spirits education. But the word got out and everyone knew that he would go outside, take a break, have a sip from this magic flask, and everyone started following it. So Steve Olson, a.k.a. wine geek, now a.k.a. Maguey geek, was huge in terms of turning people on. That was it.

Z: Gotcha. I definitely understand how that word of mouth and testimonials from professionals helped pave the way. Now, you talk about mezcal to people after a number of years of it being more and more understood, more and more widely available, with a lot more brands and producers available in the states. When you talk about mezcal to people in the trade or to consumers, is it a different conversation than it was 20 years ago?

R: Oh, there are so many people that are knowledgeable about mezcal now. It’s incredible. I think the worm is dead. I think I killed the worm. And then mezcal used to be misspelled as “mescal” because of the Webster dictionary. I think I’ve cured that, too, and spelled it properly with a z. There’s so much education, so much experience, so many other people actually bringing good mezcal to the U.S. or to the world, to Europe, Asia, and Australia. It’s amazing, so I really don’t have to convince anybody that mezcal is worth sipping anymore.

Z: The thing that you mentioned before is that Del Maguey has always been, I think, in large part focused on some of these single-village expressions. Was that always the idea as opposed to, perhaps, individual species of agave? Or both? I don’t know, I guess I think about the ways you can classify mezcal in a couple of different directions. Is it just that the villages were the places you were visiting, and that made the most sense as to how you organized the portfolio, I guess?

R: Well, there’s a famous Mexican dicho, or saying, that you don’t find mezcal, mezcal finds you. What I’m most proud of is enabling these small, single-village producers and their families. They are so proud of their tradition of their fathers and their grandfathers and their great-grandfathers, their ancestors. And when I started, mezcal really didn’t leave the villages. It was just made for rituals, births, funerals, weddings, and feast days. They don’t drink cocktails. They drink during fiestas. They sip during fiestas. If you happen to drink a lot and get pretty loaded, they consider it getting closer to the gods. For the first 17 years, I personally paid for the honor of being in this deep traditional culture, and then it started paying me back. Basically, just being able to be with these people and participate in their fiestas and in their cultures and to watch them when I just had a little money, utilize that money. I never told anyone what to do with it, but they knew exactly what they wanted to do, and I’ve watched these families benefit in a gigantic way. Bringing sons back from the U.S. from picking grapes or roofing, to actually become great mezcal producers, palenqueros themselves. In the most remote village of Santo Domingo Albarradas, Esperidon sent two daughters down to Oaxaca to the capital. One daughter shopped and kept house for the other daughter who went to college and became the first college graduate, the first woman attorney ever in this village. The first high school graduate in this village. So just enabling these people and watching them develop has been miraculous for me. It’s been just a beautiful, beautiful experience.

Z: Very cool. And I’m curious to you, one last question for you Ron, if you don’t mind. I’m wondering, as you look back and then look forward, do you see there is a continued interest and growth in mezcal? Do you see it as more — as I see it — these very special, very distinctive, and unique expressions of place and the agave plants themselves? What do you see going forward?

R: The majority of the positive is small people getting involved and sharing. Bringing out wonderful varietals, wonderful expressions, because there are so many different varieties. The hand of the maker is huge. Altitude and terroir are important as well. The vocabulary of mezcal is closest to good wine. I think that is the future. It’s never going to slow down. There are regions where the denomination of origin is not allowed just because of politics. There are so many small producers, I think that will eventually find its way to be justified so that everyone has the ability to export and share. Then there’s the other end, which is giant corporations and famous people jumping in, just getting a brand and not knowing really what this is all about. We made a partnership four years ago with Pernod Ricard, because they were powerful enough to help us preserve the tradition and culture of mezcal. That’s where we’re at. We’re just continuing. I’m going back down in June with our team, and there are a couple of places that I forgot to go up the river, go up to the dirt road. I had tasted this unbelievable mezcal in a little store on a Sunday morning down in a gully on the way to Miahuatlàn. And I got to go up that road because it’s been 26 years, but I have to go up that road and see who that is that was making that flavor. Taste memory is amazing, and you never forget a good taste.

Z: Well, I think that’s really inspiring. I’m glad that you still feel that there are things to explore and discover. It continues to feed the whole romance and the notion of mezcal and this category that those of us who maybe don’t get to travel to Oaxaca all that often, or ever, can still explore through these bottles. Well, Ron, thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate it. Pleasure hearing from you about this story. And I look forward to seeing what you find up those rivers and roads as you continue to travel.

R: I’ll tell you what, if I find anything new on this trip in June, Zach, you’ll get an empty Coke bottle full of it.

Z: Oh, perfect. I love that idea. That’s fantastic, thank you.

R: Thank you.

Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please give 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 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.

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