He still only speaks 80 words of the local language, but in creating the Del Maguey brand Ron Cooper has spearheaded a growing worldwide appreciation of mezcal and stimulated a cultural revolution in Oaxaca, southern Mexico.
"There's a Mexican saying: you don't find mezcal, mezcal finds you," says Ron Cooper. "And it happens time after time."
Indeed, there was no grand mezcal plan for Ron before he started Del Maguey. In fact, he only discovered Oaxaca and its mezcal heritage by accident.
The story starts in Los Angeles in 1970, when Ron was aged 27. One Saturday afternoon, after an opening of his "Light and Space" Artwork in a gallery, Ron was with two friends and the gallery owner - a tough, poker-playing Japanese woman called Riko Mizuno. "Riko brought out a bottle of Herradura blanco tequila (the only premium tequila in the USA at the time) and as we drank that bottle, the question came up whether we thought the pan-American highway really existed. No one remembers who asked, but two weeks later we were on the road to Panama, in a VW van covered with surfboards. We drove down the coast, got to Panama four months later and on the way passed through Oaxaca."
The time the group spent in Oaxaca, in particular in a remote weaving village called Teotitlán, would change Ron's life. They didn't actually make mezcal there, but they certainly consumed it - not every day, but at weddings that would last eight days, at funerals, baptisms, confirmations and birthdays. "One family always had something going on," says Ron, "they certainly didn't drink cocktails but there wasn't even any beer available either and there was no refrigeration. We drank a little celebratory mezcal during a three-day fiesta."
Ron was inspired to create, and after establishing friendships with the villagers, ended up financing more than 1,000 weavings over the next few years, exhibiting the work in museums and galleries in the US. Ron began travelling frequently between the US and Oaxaca over the next decade.
But the next stage of Ron's relationship with mezcal didn't occur until the late-80s, when he went down to Oaxaca with his wife and another couple and they became intrigued by pulque - the fermented juice of the agave. "I remember we were in a cab on our way to the ruins of Mitla when we were stopped by a military post - they were making sure foreigners were not being kidnapped. When we told them what we we'd been doing, one of the officers told us his uncle made good mezcal and suggested we came back the next day." They did as the officer suggested and ended up taking four litres of officer's uncle's prized mezcal back to the US. "This was the good stuff," he says.
By 1990, Ron had made enough of what he calls 'fuck you' money from commissions for his work - enough not have to worry about bills, and to do whatever the hell he wanted. "I could go to Asia, Japan, Vietnam, but this little voice inside said 'No, you are going back to Oaxaca'." Initially, he figured he would go down for three months and make art, collaborating with indigenous artists on weavings, but now he also wanted to create a special, hand-blown blue-glass bottle embellished with a profile of the local supreme god of intoxication and ecstacy. "I thought I would make maybe 50 bottles and fill them with the best mezcal."
So begun an adventure. On his own, in an old Ford pick-up, Ron would drive for hours down dirt roads and ask passers-by where to find the best mezcal. One such journey took him to Chichicapa, where he went to his first ever palenque - the place where mezcal is made. "We walked up an arroyo - a small valley stream - to this little area where there was a pit, where they were uncovering roasted agave. It was early morning, so it was steaming in the cold - they would bury the agave over a pile of hot stones for three days. All around us was this tall, bamboo-like grass growing, then there was a tiled roof-covered area with an adobe firebox and a copper pot still underneath."
This operation, as it turned out, was at the more sophisticated end of the mezcal-making spectrum. Next on the adventure was the village of Santa Catarina Minas, reached over a mountain range over a dirt road strewn with rocks. There, Ron found an old man making mezcal with a clay still and bamboo tubing. Agave mash fermented in open-air, wooden tanks, covered only with woven mats.
As he grew to understand the people who made the spirit, and to love the spirit itself, he wanted to share the wealth of his discovery. That proved easier said than done: laws dictated that mezcal must be bottled in origin, and all he returned with after each trip was a few old Coke bottles filled with mezcal. By 1990, he realised he had to form a company to legally bottle mezcal and ship them to the US in significant, if still small, volume, giving it the name Del Maguey - meaning "from the plant" from which mezcal is made.
This was a long way from a conventional business - in fact there was a distinct culture clash at times. By 1995, the year Del Maguey started in earnest after an initial pause while the US economy recovered, Ron had a white Cadillac Coupe De Ville '78, fitted with big truck tyres, with orange truck lights across the top and big white fog lights, and a roar of a V8 engine. "It was a magic vehicle. It was ice white and it must have looked like a fucking flying saucer coming in," he laughs. When he'd got one village to agree, if he expected that would make the next village more inclined to sell him their mezcal, he was in for a surprise. "At first, they were real suspicious of me and the producers were suspicious of each other. We started with small purchases, convinced them we wanted to make sure everything they did stayed in the old way, that it was not a commercial thing. That reassured them, but this was not a business, it was monkey business and if I had known how complex it would be I would have never started."
The bigger challenge in this fledgling art project/business was overcoming the widespread perception of mezcal as an inferior product, and nowhere was that more pronounced that in Mexico itself. Culturally, he says Mexico and Mexicans suffered from a lack of self-confidence, a cultural low self-esteem. "When I started Del Maguey, there was not a bottle of mezcal then that didn't have a worm in it or was not adulterated with cane alcohol, food colouring or flavourings, and the closer it got to Oaxaca City itself the more adulterated it became. I was the only person working out in these villages and bringing the pure stuff out, and after I began digging up all the old myths and rituals associated with mezcal the producers began to understand I was truly fascinated by it all, by thousands of years of oral history. They took to us because we reached out."
The problem was that back in the 1950s, cheap rum started to be imported to Mexico and destroyed the market for locally made spirits. Aguardiente was a fraction the cost of mezcal and by 1995, most mezcal on the shelves was 95 per cent aguardiente and 5 per cent mezcal. The process of convincing people that the mezcal he was sourcing was, in fact, good was a slow conversion as it bore so little resemblance to what most people were used to, and Ron had to get used to having the door slammed in his face.
"I took it to Mexico City, to what I considered to be the most elegant hotel, the Camino Real. They had a trolley on which they took fine cognacs and whiskies from table to table. I worked really hard to meet their sommelier and explain what this fabulous elixir was. It was just in a plain bottle, which might have been an issue given the other fancy bottles that cognacs and all the rest tend to be presented in. "They didn't even try it: it was like, 'why should I taste that? It's mezcal'. In 45 years almost everyone had forgotten the tradition and true flavour of mezcal."
Back home in America, a typical scenario went like this: Ron goes to Mexican restaurant, asks for the beverage manager, who calls out for whatever illegal Mexican he had working out back, who would try the mezcal and proclaim it was tequila he preferred in a bid to ingratiate himself with his gringo employers.
Even from 1995, it was still a struggle to gain recognition, but a turning point came in 1997, when the Beverage Tasting Institute in Chicago awarded Del Maguey Santo Domingo Albarradas 97 points. It was the highest-ever score in tequila and mezcal. Then, in 1998, Jimmy's, a Rocky Mountain institution in Aspen that specialises in agave spirits. The eponymous Jimmy Yeager appreciated what Ron was doing and, with Steve Olsen, a renowned wine and spirits expert, travelled down to Oaxaca to see the source for themselves. "They went down and hung out with my manager. It took them a full day to get in to Santo Domingo Albarradas and another day to get out, but they had an enchanting meeting with our producer."
Jimmy invited Ron to take part in the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, bringing Del Maguey to an international audience of wine-makers and foodies over the three-day event. "Here was Del Maguey alongside Herradura and Grand Marnier, and we were the first people to show spirits there. It changed my exposure incredibly." Del Maguey went down a storm and has participated in the fair for 15 years now.
A further spur came after 9/11, where Ron characterises a renewed pride in being Mexican - at least in the US - born perversely out of the fact Mexicans suffered as much as any race in the tragedy. After 9/11, when he went to a bar or restaurant, the gringo owner would still call out for a Mexican to try the mezcal, but now they would proudly affirm this was like the stuff their grandfather would drink. "Now that they had shared the tragedy they were able to be more honest," he says. It took longer for a similar sense of pride took root in Mexico itself though - Ron says it was only in around 2007 that the achievements of Del Maguey were recognised for their contribution to Mexicans' sense of self: their Mexicanidad.
Indeed, the cultural ramifications of Del Maguey's success run deep, far deeper than a conventional bottling and distribution business, not least because it has contributed to the social and economic development of the Zapotec villagers themselves. If before they were practically unreachable down dirt roads, sleeping in, at best, adobe houses and with little electricity and sanitation, Del Maguey has contributed to funds for construction and healthcare. Del Maguey also operates a Fair Trade-style operation, avant la lettre: "I look on producers as artists and don't pay market price, so that means, depending on the producer, we pay between five and 20 times the market value of mezcal.
"When I started, everyone slept on dirt floors on palm mats in one big pile, no one had running water or bathrooms. Now, everyone has modernised with cement floors, concrete ceilings. In Santo Domingo, our producer made enough money to send his daughters to university in Oaxaca City, and one is now an attorney. Another two producers' sons returned back from the US where they were illegal immigrants, and now they work to maintain their heritage. Teotitlàn is now one of the wealthiest indigenous villages in Mexico and Santa Catarina Minas can be reached in only half an hour now as they paved the road."
Today, Del Maguey boasts four single village mezcals, six wild variants and a liqueur-style, but in spite of that apparent success, during the first 16 years of the company's existence Ron did not draw a salary. He supported the company with loans, sold all his property and every piece of art that he sold went into it too. Happily, it's now supporting itself, he's drawing a salary and Del Maguey has agreed a strategic alliance with the Sazerac company, which now organises the shipments from Mexico, import and distribution.
That leaves Ron, now 68, to concentrate his relationships with producers and on his art - he's just featured in a one-person show in New York and sold several pieces for muchos dollar. He spends one third of his time at home in New Mexico, another third in Oaxaca and the last portion on the road, and is glad he doesn't have to deal with shipping and brokerage. "They just bring a container to my front door in Oaxaca now and get the local hardware store to fire up their forklift three miles away to fill it up. My job is production in Mexico and maintaining our culture."
Ever the artist, Ron has always looked upon Del Maguey as a creative project rather than a business. "The criteria for me for successful art is that it transforms your experience in some way. I don't care if it's a nude, a sunset or pile of garbage, it's got to have that 'A-ha' moment. If it does, then it's a successful piece of art.
"A good mezcal is truly transformative and intoxicating, so it fits my criteria of art."