Words by Theodora Sutcliffe
“It was in 1995 that Ron Cooper, an artist with no previous experience in our industry, brought his first handcrafted artisanal mezcal to the US: Chichicapa,” recalls veteran drinks industry maven Steve Olson.
"Within a year he had four different single villages...he added three more Mezcals over the next few years. Del Maguey is basically the only brand of artisanal Mezcal from 1995 until about 2006. By 2006, there were a half dozen companies that joined us, and by 2012 perhaps a dozen more, but that is when it really began to change - VIDA launched in 2010 and changed the landscape completely."
In a year when agave spirits seem set to continue their global explosion, Olson's cocktail, Gracias Cooper [see below], pays tribute to Ron Cooper and his brand, Del Maguey. "When I first tasted these mezcals, I freaked out! We arranged for a Zapotec translator and guide, I went down to one of his villages, and Jimmy Yeager and I - from Jimmy's in Aspen - we went off into the mountains with my wife," Olson recalls. "Although I continued consulting with many companies for many, many years, I knew something was about to change - that my life was going to be about preserving the heritage of these people." Over twenty years later, he is now a partner in Del Maguey.
At first blush, agave from Mexico's Oaxaca highlands doesn't seem like a natural partner to cherries nourished in Denmark's cool orchards, but Olson begs to differ. "Mezcal and Cherry Heering are a slam dunk," he says, with an educator's passion. "The first time I tried mezcal and Cherry Heering, I was screwing around with the Singapore Sling. I stole the Blood & Sand with Mezcal from Charles Joly and tweaked it for the Sangre y Arena with grapefruit and vermouth..."
To pay tribute to Ron Cooper's discovery, however, Olson moved away from fruit-led mixes to an Old-Fashioned style drink that highlights Chichicapa's smoke. "The reason this plays so perfectly is that every one of those ingredients has its roots in Mexico: coffee is grown in Oaxaca, chocolate is native to Oaxaca," he says. "It's all from Oaxaca, but I'm Norwegian-Danish so to add a little bit of Cherry Heering to the drink is perfect."
It was that Scandinavian heritage which gave Olson his start in drinks. His parents took over a store in the little Iowa town where he grew up and turned it into Trollheim (Home of the Trolls), a Nordic wonderland complete with soda fountain, where Olson was "soda jerk". "People would come from miles around to enjoy our malted milks and ice cream sodas," he recalls.
Then a family opened a restaurant across the street, and mother and child became sick with leukaemia. "They were spending more and more time in the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and they trusted me, so they gave me the keys," Olson says. By the time he was 16 he was opening up the kitchen before school, setting up the dining room after school, racing through his homework, then running the bar all night.
"When I got out of school and went to college, it was a no-brainer to become a waiter, then a sommelier, then GM," Olson recalls. "I was always an operations guy, but I hung behind the bar because I loved it."
Like his friend Dale DeGroff, however, Olson's first love was performing arts. In his early twenties, he studied broadcast journalism, was teaching acting classes, directing TV slots for the local news, working on stage, running his own comedy troupe. "I was working full-time as the dining room manager of a world class, 5 star, 5 diamond, WS Grand Award winning restaurant when I made the decision to focus fully on our profession," he recalls. "I one day realised that I was going to die. I was getting up at 5am and shooting for the news, going out of there to the restaurants and working till 2am: I realised I couldn't do both, I needed to focus on one or the other, and I chose the restaurant business body and soul."
Since then, Olson has opened close to 50 restaurants - including NYC icon Gramercy Tavern - and enjoyed a media profile higher than he could have imagined. "I started writing and doing articles, speaking on national and international stages: I got a TV show on the Food Network," he says. "All of the things I really wanted to do I got to do, and I got them by doing what I really love to do, which is the restaurant business."
At this stage in his career, however, Del Maguey is his focus - and sustainability in particular. Among other things, the team at Del Maguey is working with an architect and other palenques to revive and modernise the ancient Mesoamerican tradition of making adobe bricks from waste agave fibres. "If we can get every producer of mezcal in Oaxaca to work with us, you can build literally 3,000 one-bedroom homes," he explains. "That would be a step to replacing the 20,000-odd homes that were destroyed in the recent rash of earthquakes - and it's something we can do if we're smart and we're working together."
It might not be the future Olson envisaged when he first went off into the mountains in 1995: yet it's definitely a vision to be grateful for. Gracias Cooper. Muchas gracias, indeed.
Gracias Cooper Cocktail
Glass: Double Old-fashioned
Garnish: Wide orange peel
Method: STIR all ingredients with ice and strain into ice-filled glass (preferably over a 2x2 cube).
45ml / 1½oz Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal Chichicapa
22.5ml / ¾oz J. Rieger Caffe Amaro
15ml / ½oz Cherry Heering
2 dash Bittermans Xocolatl Mole Bitters