"The dark eras are for transforming, no?" Santiago Suarez says. We're in a third-floor room of Anchor Brewing, comparing San Francisco's boom with Mexico City's struggles. Suarez is the founder and CEO of the six-year-old Mezcal Amores — Mezcal Amarás in the U.S. — and he is constantly traveling, evangelizing on behalf of mezcal's mystery.
"The first time I contacted mezcal was on a hippie beach in Mexico," Suarez recounts. "I was 18 years old, and the moment was perfect."
An older man, 60 or 65, was carrying bottles as he walked across the sand. He approached Suarez and his friends and made them an offer: 50 cents for a liter of the white spirit, a dollar if they wanted the glass bottle. Suarez held out an empty plastic bottle, and the man filled it with mezcal.
"We couldn't go into the ocean that day, so we started drinking the mezcal. It was one of the best drinks I'd ever had," says Suarez. Later, he and his friends went looking for the man. "We wanted to buy more, but we couldn't find him. He was like a myth."
The encounter stuck with Suarez. After finishing a degree in industrial engineering, he worked with a nonprofit that had a campus in Oaxaca. It was then the Mexico City native started to notice the cultural differences between regions.
"A really important part of the community was mezcal," he tells me, describing the role of the spirit in the celebration of birthdays, quinceañeras, the Day of the Dead, and other festivals. "It was a part of those special days, and I got to know it."
Suarez spent two years learning about the spirit's history and production, and launched Mezcal Amores on Dec. 12, 2010, during the celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Over time, the brand has expanded, growing horizontally rather than vertically — a distinction that Suarez insists on. While a single factory can produce anywhere from 1,000-4,000 liters, it isn't possible to use the traditional process on a grand scale.
"And if we lose the way it's produced, we lose a lot of this product," says Suarez.
While Mezcal Amores exhibits a particular flavor, process, and expression of terroir, it varies from bottle to bottle and from one mezcalero to the next. To select his partnering mezcaleros — currently there are 11 — Suarez has visited more than 200 factories throughout Mexico, some of which are dirt-floor, thatch-roof facilities run by mezcaleros who have hundreds of years of collective experience. Of the four mezcaleros who contribute to Amores' Espaín variety, three have been in the industry for more than six decades. One recently turned 93.
Making mezcal is labor-intensive and requires patience, as plants can take up to 35 years to mature. Once ready to reproduce, their leaves begin to open and the agave shoots up, growing more than 60 feet in six to nine months.
"The plant takes its whole life to survive and reproduces only once before it dies," Suarez explains. "If you think about it, you're drinking all of the energy that the plant has stored up. The plant is sacrificing its life for us, and not doing what living things want to do, which is reproduce."
Once cut, the agave's core (or piña) is extracted, cut into pieces, and cooked for up to five days over a fire made in a conical in-ground oven lined with stone. It's then sliced and ground into meal, to oxygenate it. The resulting liquid is fermented for eight to 25 days, slow-cooked, and distilled in batches of less than 400 liters. (Every ton of agave yields roughly 100 liters of mezcal.)
"Each time you do this you can't reproduce it," says Suarez. "It's very organic, unique."
Each mezcalero works according to his own specifications. There can be variations on the type of wood burned in the oven, the type of fermentation pots, and the amount of time spent in any stage. And then there is the agave itself, with 23 species and 350 subspecies. It's a wonder that one bottle of mezcal even resembles the next.
"It's a mystery we're still figuring out," Suarez says. "There is no cultivation of wild agave. That's why we don't harvest wild plants if we don't have a reforestation plan. Each year, we plant 10 to 15 for each plant we use."
Mezcal Amarás' espadin, a balance of smoke and agave flavor, is what Suarez considers "the perfect way to enter the mezcal world." It is "centered, but not explosive." On the other side is cupreata, developed in Guerrero state. Where espadín is a point of entry, cupreata shows mezcal's complexity. "We wanted to show the extremes of what it can do," says Suarez. "[Cupreata] can be spicy like chili or bell pepper. Think of the flavor green," he says, as I take small sips. It does, indeed, taste like a deep jungle green, lush and herbaceous.
When Mezcal Amores decided to distribute in the U.S. under the name of Mezcal Amarás, it did so with the desire to keep the mezcal tradition, moving when the moment was right. Though mezcal only makes up 1 percent of tequila sales, the age-old drink is quickly growing in popularity. As it does, it is important to Suarez that it is consumed responsibly and carefully: "We should honor it by drinking in celebration with friends, respecting the life of the plant."
"For me, the best way to enjoy a mezcal is sipping it," Suarez says. "You never shoot a mezcal; you should kiss the glass. If you feel like you're swallowing, you're doing it wrong." To him, a good shot should last 20 to 30 minutes. "You're taking a journey through the soul of the plant," he tells me, "Tasting the biodiversity of Mexico."