Meet Jon, originally from Norway, and working for Amathus, one of our great suppliers, he is probably one of the world’s most passionate tequila and mezcal prophets. And if you have been lucky enough to see him give a masterclass (at the Amathus stores, at Wahaca bars, or as part of bar training) you will know exactly what we mean, We caught up with him to ask how can a Norwegian guy be so Mexican?
How did your passion for mezcal begin?
I guess it started when I first lived with Mexicans, they had a flair for living and for parties, and with parities came drinks, and part of that was drinking Tequila. I guess you can say it all started with drinking Tequila.
There was mezcal back then but mostly industrial mezcal with worms, I did not know it as industrial mezcal then, it was just mezcal but I did not like it, sure it was a little exiting with the gusano (caterpillar) in the bottle but the taste was like industrial tequila on steroids, pure petrol and even with the added caramel and sweetness it was still not pleasant.
Now mezcal seems to be so much in fashion, even Mick Jagger told the crowd in Mexico City recently that he now drinks mezcal, how did things change?
When looking back I can’t imagine the mezcal category would have been where it is now, if this had been only type of mezcal on the market, it all changed with Ron Coopers Del Maguey and his work with the village palenqueros (producers, distillers and farmers).
What they together produced was revolutionary, the palenqueros Faustino, Don Lencho, Paciano, Espiridion and El Rey made the juice, Ron the bottles and the labels and what a winning combination, here was this product, this mezcal that was high in abv (alcohol by volume) that was unadulterated, free from chemicals, free from additional sweetener, that was pre-organic, pre-biodynamic, made in a way that was unchanged for generations, in small villages by one family, that was in essence just the pure juice from the agave. How can you not love this.
For me defining moment was going to Oaxaca, I had been to Jalisco on numerous occasions, visiting tequila distilleries in both Tequila and Arandas, but seeing the first palenque was like going to another planet, sure I had seen photos and heard the stories but to see one up close was insane.
What was the distillery like?
There is a big hole in the ground where the agaves are earth roasted and a round stone basin, where a round millstone is standing, it has a horse harness attached, so the millstone can be pulled around by a horse or a mule, crushing the halved cut cooked agaves into fibres, no modern equipment, no electricity, they use wood to heat the still up and for heating up the stones in the bottom of the cooking pit.
In the tick of the action there is one guy and his family, they run the whole operation, they do everything, plant and harvest the agave. They cook, crush, ferment and distil them self, with very little outside help. For this family to make one batch of mezcal can take them anywhere from a month to two months depended if you harvest wild or planted agaves.
It’s all hand made in it truest form.
How was your interaction with the mezcal makers?
You are then invited for lunch, expertly cooked by the women, cooking downwards by hand over open fire, in some cases the day before you arrive. You sit on the best table, surrounded by the family and eating some of the best food you will ever eat, drinking mezcal straight from the still, feeling close to nirvana, wishing they could serve something else than coca cola…..
You leaving with a family richer, wishing to come back soon, you sit in the car thinking to yourself how unique this experience was, almost like traveling back in time, thinking this must be a special one and the only one left, but as you travel around and visiting other palenques you start realise they all are like this, the country side is littered with small palenques like that, sure not all of them are like this, some will have concrete floor, a corrugated metal roof and a few wall, but they all have the same layout, using the same process. Some of this mezcal producing families are indigenous to the region, they are either Zapotec, Mixtec or Mixe (and others, 30% of all the indigenous people in México lives in the state of Oaxaca)
And last but not least as it’s the Year of the Taco, what is your favourite taco ever?
There used to be this taco stand next to the big square in Arandas, called Tacos Machete which did this amazing tacos al carbon (grilled), bistek, pollo and so on…. they also did the fresh nopal pads with melted cheese that was delicious.
You can catch Jon at a Wahaca Bar near you very soon for some very special masterclasses, keep an eye on our blog for more info.