It’s 1970 in Los Angeles. Ron Cooper and two friends are the few remaining attendees at an art exhibit when the art dealer pulls out a bottle of tequila. No one remembers who asked it, but while drinking a very important question was posed: Do you think the Pan-American Highway actually exists?
Two weeks later, Cooper and friends were on the road to Panama to find out. On the way, they discovered a small weaving village in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, where they ultimately discovered mezcal.
Mezcal is made from maguey plants, which are a variety of of agave that grow all over Mexico (not just in the state of Jalisco, where tequila is made). Once harvested, the hearts of the plants, or piñas, are cooked for several days, dried in pit ovens, crushed, left to ferment with water in barrels or large vats, and finally distilled in wood-fired stills. The drying of the piñas in pit ovens and wood firing gives mezcal its distinctive smoky flavor.
Also distinctive to mezcal is its presence in many types of rituals that take place in Mexico. “Every birth, funeral, 8-day wedding, baptism, 2-day birthday, etc. starts early in the morning at 4 or 5 a.m., where a judge is appointed to pour the mezcal,” says Cooper. “Everybody in that space is poured a cup of mezcal. Before anyone drinks, a cross is poured on the floor for Mother Earth and our ancestors. Everyone salutes ‘Stigebeu’ [a cheer from ancient Zapotec civilizations from the Valley of Oaxaca, Mexico]: to your health, to the health of your friends and to the life of the planet. Then the judge pours a second cup — because you can’t just have one — and that begins the fiesta.”
These fiestas are usually the only time that people drink mezcal in Mexico, says Cooper. “They don’t drink cocktails or come home from work and have a little mezcal in the afternoon. They wait for these fiestas, and they are encouraged to drink as much as they like because that gets you closer to the gods.”
Cooper knows that spirits on the American market are used more commonly than they are for these rituals, so in addition to helping to distill and bottle his line of Del Maguey mezcals, he also produces small sipping cups that only hold about 3/4 of an ounce of liquid. “I pour a tiny bit in them, and sip and refill. That’s a ritual in itself.”
Cooper’s trip to Panama via the Pan-American Highway (yes, it does exist) was a successful one not only because he made it to his final destination, but also because he discovered his passion for mezcal along the way. He set up his headquarters in Oaxaca in that same weaving village, where the many varieties of Del Maguey are bottled and stored. The bottles come in hand-woven baskets, which, you guessed it, are made from palm fiber on site by 150 women weavers in 2 different nearby villages. These bottles in baskets are more than alcohol products, he says, they are pieces of art.
“To me, a work of art is successful if, in the experiencing of it, the experiencer has an a-ha moment, that moment when the light bulb goes on,” he says. “I don’t care what kind of artwork it is — a landscape, a mountain of junk, a nude, whatever. As long as it has that transformative moment. In imbibing this mezcal, it certainly fulfills that because it is very transformative. You get high from it. You have these humorous thoughts running around the back of you head. It fits my criteria for a work of art.”
These works of art come in many varieties, one of which is chicken-infused. The product, called Pechuga, is a double-distilled batch of mezcal with wild apples, plums, pineapple and plantains added into the still for its third distillation. Also in that still is a suspended chicken. The alcohol vapors pass through the bird to create a spirit laden with chicken essence. Sounds unappetizing, we know, but Cooper says it’s actually quite a pleasant spirit — slightly salty, fruity, and spicy with grapefruit and cinnamon flavors. The judges of the World Spirits Championships agree — the Pechuga won the 2001 Platinum Spirit of the Year award.
Even if you don’t try the Pechuga variety, you should certainly attempt one of Del Maguey’s other rare mezcals. And even if you’re not celebrating an elaborate ritual, certainly cheer to your health, to the health of your friends and to the life of the planet. Stigibeu.