The story of how Mezcal Vago made it's way out of Mexico and into the states begins unusually: with a Colorado surf bum and an ear infection.
Originally from Boulder, Colorado, Judah Kuper became enamoured with Oaxaca over the course of many surfing trips south of the border. After struggling to make Mexico his permanent home for years, he eventually opened a beachside bar on an island west of Puerto Escondido with friend Dylan Sloan (a "ski bum" friend from his days in Telluride). After an extended bout of surfing one day, he got an ear infection, which took him to the local hospital. Kuper says he knew the moment his nurse walked through the door, she would be the woman he would marry, despite being engaged to another man at the time. After patience and hard work, he convinced her to marry him instead, and his journey into the depths of mezcal began.
Valentina's family had been making mezcal for generations, and after becoming part of the family, Kuper quickly learned to love the intrigue and nuance of the spirit. He decided to leave the bar business and immerse himself in mezcal culture. After learning as much as he could about production from his father-in-law Aquilino Garcia Lopez, he co-founded Mezcal Vago (with partner Sloan) to export the goods to America.
Vago is interesting for several reasons. First, production happens on a very small scale.
"Our producers have never put a label on anything or exported anything. These people have been making mezcal for more generations than they can remember, and doing it just to buy a new donkey or a bit of clothes, or a special occasion. Everything is really unique," Kuper said.
They only make about 5,000 liters a year in single batches, ranging from 150 liters to 700 liters, depending on the agave, Kuper explained. Most of the products (like the Elote and the Espadin) come directly from Kuper's father-in-law, and others are sourced from other small towns in the area, like the limited Tobala and Madre Cuixe.
One of the real beauties of mezcal is that unlike tequila, which is made from a single species of agave (Blue Weber), you can choose any kind of agave to distill into the smoky spirit. So every batch will taste slightly different, depending on what kind of agave is used and where it was grown. Vago currently produce six varieties of Mezcal, three of which recently launched in Texas and Colorado (and will subsequently be distributed to New York and California). Instead of crafting a flashy bottle for the brand, Kuper stuck with transparency. Each bottle will tell you what kind of agave is used, where it comes from, who made it, and more. "It's all about what's inside. It's not about me, it's not about the brands. It's about giving credit to the mezcalero, their town and their style," Kuper said.
The Espadin, Elote, and Mexicano blend are currently available at Beverage World, Wine Merchant, Wiggy's on 6th, and Spec's on Airport Blvd.
Out of the three, the one that stands out the most is the Elote. Kuper explained it's a special kind of mezcal the family creates for weddings or other special events. It's made from regular espadin agave, distilled twice like the rest of their products. The twist comes in when they take corn from the family farm, toast it on the comal (where you make tortillas), put it into the mezcal from 4-5 days and then do a third distillation. "It's subtle," Kuper said. "Nothing is more Mexican than agave and corn, so to me this is grandpa on the distillery and grandma making homemade tortillas."
Every expression is bottled at high proof, because this is the way they drink it in Mexico, Kuper explained. "This repesents truth in mezcal. When I drink, I get emotional about it, because this is what people drink in the region where so much has transpired in my life. It's not us looking for the smoothest, or the least smoky or the most smoky, it's us bringing a mezcal that gives you a sense of place, that takes you on a journey to where my father in law is from, where my wife grew up."
Because each expression is high proof, they all pack some serious heat on top of the spirit's signature smoke. But tasting through the portfolio, it's also obvious that each one was produced with skill, because the complexity of flavors from one to the other is remarkable. Toasted corn flavors really do emerge from the Elote, and there's a deep spice and earthy warmth to the Mexicano blend.
For more information on Mezcal, and a glimpse at the Mezcal Vago operations, check out this good report from the BBC below (Vago appears about 3.5 minutes in):