Craft beer in L.A. has officially reached a saturation point. As the Arts District overflows with new breweries, brewmasters try to out-hop and out-sour one another and nearly every new restaurant boasts a “curated” beer list, bars and bottle shops are turning their attention south.
The smoky sister of tequila, mezcal also is distilled from agave, and is as ancient as booze gets. While some of the best incarnations of the drink are sold in recycled plastic bottles by the side of the road in Oaxaca (the production epicenter of mezcal), small-batch versions of the heavenly elixir have made their way to the United States.
Last year, mezcal was Mexico’s third-largest alcohol export, generating more than $26 million. Within the past year it’s been praised by food magazines, written about in The New York Times and profiled in The New Yorker. But more important to you, its craft brands are showing up and showing out in L.A.
From shiny new mezcal meccas such as downtown L.A.’s Mezcalero and Frogtown’s Salazar, which both boast dozens of varieties on its menu, to the long-standing, holy mother–of-all-Oaxacan restaurants, Guelaguetza, which serves up the liquor in house-made shot glasses, L.A. is on its mezcal game. (I first noticed the trend at my husband's bar.) These are drinks to be sipped and savored, not slammed. They’re the products of generations of family operations, who rely on old-school methods and a loving attention to detail. Here’s a roundup of some of the small-batch and artisanal brands available at bottle shops and restaurants throughout L.A.
Gem & Bolt: Cosmetically one of the hippest mezcals, Gem & Bolt distinguishes itself not just by its packaging — a sleek white bottle decorated with a black stenciled diamond and lightning bolt — but by its ingredients. This blend includes a mystical herb called Damiana, a flowering bush native to Mexico that has been credited with having “heart-opening” properties. Damiana claims to work as an antidepressant, an aphrodisiac and an overall mood improver (although all these mezcals seem to have that effect). The brand is the product of two Virginia-born artists whose creative capabilities shine through Gem & Bolt’s stylized design and marketing campaign, and the mezcal is produced by a fourth-generation master distiller in Oaxaca. Los Angeles was one of the first cities to have access to this specialty label, and has so far been joined only by Austin and New York.
Mezcal Unión: With an emphasis on providing economic opportunity for the families who produce it, Unión focuses on building its brand in order to create more jobs and supply mezcal on a larger scale. Unión sells two versions of its product: a young, unaged mezcal called Uno and a more alcoholic version dubbed El Viejo that’s made in part from the rarer Tobala agave plant. The story behind Unión’s creation teeters on biblical, in which the owners describe traversing Oaxaca drinking mezcal and stumbling upon an old man sitting beneath a tree. The “Viejo” shared his story (and his mezcal) with the travelers and said prophetically that the future of mezcal is in the union. Whether the story is true or not, Unión’s founders gathered a community of mezcal makers to produce and ship their product throughout Mexico as well as to New York and Los Angeles.
Ilegal Mezcal: Making this highly drinkable mezcal even better is its backstory. Born from a smuggling escapade in which the company’s owner stuffed bottles of Ilegal in duffle bags to transport it from Oaxaca to Guatemala for sale in his bar, Ilegal is truly a bootstrap business. Still produced in small batches with each bottle hand-labeled and numbered, Ilegal’s three mezcals — joven, reposado and añejo — are made from Espadín agave and double distilled by a fourth-generation mezcal maker in Mexico. The company boasts about sustainable production practices and, even more notably, has launched a “Donald Eres un Pendejo” fundraising campaign, which includes selling T-shirts of Trump’s face accompanied by the aforementioned slogan (“Donald is an asshole” — or jerk, motherfucker, etc.) According to its website, Ilegal has raised more than $25,000 for organizations including Planned Parenthood and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
Alipus Mezcal: This line of young mezcals is distilled at a variety of remote pueblos around Oaxaca. Self-described as a “social project that seeks to generate rural economy in Oaxaca through making and commercializing artisan mezcal,” Alipus just became available in the United States about five years ago. The products are all made through labor-intensive processes that involve roasting agave in an underground, pebblestone oven, distilling it in copper stills or clay pots, and then allowing it to naturally ferment for up to two weeks. The agave is often even ground in Chilean mills pulled by horses or mules.
Mezcal Vago: The product of a real-life love story, Vago was created when a gringo fell in love with a woman (and mezcal) in Mexico and, inspired by his new in-laws' line of the spirit, decided to create a company that exports the “finest, most undiscovered mezcals.” Founder Judah Kuper still oversees the operation with his father-in-law as the central mezcalero, but the company has expanded to include four other mezcal producers, including two that were just introduced last year. Each bottle label includes information on what pueblo the product came from, what agave it was distilled from and other details of the processing and batch size. For example, the Elote is made by a family of mezcaleros who infuse the drink with roasted corn grown on their farm. A self-described “mezcal connoisseur,” Mezcal Vago products are clear and unaged, ethically produced and now available in Los Angeles.
La Niña del Mezcal: Created by Cecilia Rios Murrieta, who was born in Mexico City but lived for a stint in SoCal's own Anaheim, La Niña was created after a trip to Oaxaca ignited Rios' love of mezcal. She scoured remote, mountainous areas of the Mexican state to find mezcal's finest producers and now sells a handful of varieties including a young, unfiltered mezcal and a triple-distilled, single-pot specialty label. La Niña also produces bacanora, a relative of mezcal that is made from agave, produced in Sonora; it was at one time outlawed in Mexico. Bacanora and many of Rios' other products are now available throughout California.