Although we're nearly a generation removed from Cheech Marin’s final cinematic turn as everyone’s favorite Latino stoner, the native Angeleno just can’t seem to shake his love for green plants that get you high. These days, though, he’s traded ganja for agave — the spiny, desert succulent used in mezcal production. He helped launch Tres Papalote in 2015 and has been busy promoting the brand ever since.
In Los Angeles, that might seem easy enough; after all, this is the largest market for mezcal in the entire United States. But Marin is working hard to make the Mexican spirit a recognizable name across the globe. Here he shares a few thoughts with the Weekly on what attracted him to the project, why he still calls L.A. home and, of course, how he feels about marijuana legalization.
What’s up, Cheech?
Oh, you know, working … and trying to do a zillion things at the same time, because I’m a Chicano and I have to have three jobs at all times.
How did you get into mezcal?
Well, I’ve seen it kinda all my life, because they’d have those bottles with the scorpion or a worm in it, and that was kinda all I knew about it. Then I started tasting it, and it was really just different. I started researching mezcals and what I found is that the one I think would be most successful is the one that’s not really too smoky but kinda right down the middle and smooth-tasting, and that’s the one that I went for.
Why mezcal as opposed to other spirits?
I like the smoky flavor, and I like that it blended well. For me it wasn’t at first a sipping kind of liquor, it was something that could be blended in so many different ways, and I was really attracted to that. And the fact that people were learning about it, and there’s always this intrigue when people are learning about something new.
Tell us about the unique design of the Tres Papalote bottle, and how you had a hand in that.
I’m a collector of Chicano art, exclusively, since about 1985, and I put together this world-renowned collection. I kinda got onto the Chicano painters very early, and I thought they were really, really good. What emerged was this story of a community told in a lot of different ways. Not only are these great painters but this is an American school of art that has not been recognized as it should be. So I started collecting that, and it’s been wonderful, still doing it. It’s like a habit.
You were born here 70 years ago, and you still consider L.A. home. What are some of the biggest changes that you’ve seen in your time here?
When I was a youngster, it was Mexico and now it’s America. The border crossed me. My grandmother, who died when she was 96, she was from Tucson when it was still Mexico. But the change is the diversification of a lot of different neighborhoods. And all of it’s a sudden it’s going to be easier to get to places because they’re really expanding transit. So now I see interaction between communities more and more. People are not as isolated. They go to each other’s communities more and more. As each individual community gets more gentrified or integrated, or whatever that it is, people are involved in each other’s food more. Especially millennials, I see them appreciate that. There is a taco truck on every corner.
How do you feel now that gringos are embracing Mexican culture — particularly food and drink — more enthusiastically than ever before?
Listen, my little blond-haired, blue-eyed friend, I think it’s a wonderful thing. Everybody’s trying more and more things, but not only getting to try them but getting to know them. Because it’s an ongoing process. My daughter, who's 24, goes down to Silver Lake and experiences all different kinds of cultures. It’s pretty cool. You go to other parts of the country and it’s still just burgers and fries. But as a whole, increasingly there is more multicultural sampling going on.
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What are the areas of L.A. today that you never imagined would develop into hip neighborhoods?
Yeah, well that’s Silver Lake, Echo Park, Boyle Heights right now. I mean, it’s going on down there, everybody’s there. It’s almost like Haight Ashbury in a sense, but with better food. And there’s a bunch of mezcal bars popping up in the East L.A. area.
Speaking of Haight Ashbury — we did just pass Proposition 64, legalizing marijuana throughout the state. Did you truly ever think you’d be alive to see the day?
I did, I always thought that I would. I thought it would eventually happen. But nothing is quite as simple as it seems; it’s like on my Instagram account … [I received this comment]: "You guys are the leaders of the movement, and you were out there fighting on the frontiers for so long, you represented the community, and now you voted for Proposition 64 to legalize marijuana … .fucking sellouts!!!" [Laughs] It just cracked me up, man. Like, OK, you can’t please everybody. But it was always a tool to lock minorities up. It’s gonna change. There’s always heavy pushback against any legalization efforts, no matter what state it’s in. You forever advance, but people on the other side of the line want to undo all of those laws and they try and push back at every chance they get.
So what’s next for you and Tres Papalote?
When I first started getting into this venture, my perception was that people didn’t know a whole lot about mezcal, because there wasn’t a face of it. How do you do it? Where do you drink it? Do you chug it, sip it, put it in mixed drinks? I wanted to be the brand ambassador to kind of educate people about mezcal, and that’s what we’re doing right now — we’re trying to get it all over. We have distributors on both ends of the country and in the middle. You can’t really learn about it unless it's there, and we’re trying to make it easier to get to. That’s the push for me: to get out there and publicize it so it won’t be a mysterious thing with a worm in it.
Tres Papalote can be found behind the bar at many a Silver Lake watering hole. Liquor stores around the city price the 92-proof mezcal at around $60 a bottle. Named after the agave from which it is distilled, this particular varietal exudes citrus and green-grass notes on the nose, surrendering to a faintly smoke and sweetened finish. Worm sold separately.