Mezcal — no longer the forgotten agave spirit on the bar shelf — has surged in popularity in the U.S. But that's not why three families have decided to produce a new brand called Susto.

Two of the three families live in Austin and have deep ties to Mexico, and they wanted to create something that would honor the rich cultural heritage of our neighbor to the south. Ingrid and James Taylor, Liz and Duff Stewart, and Mexico-based Beatriz “Titi” Rodriguez, along with their young-adult children, fell in love with the nuanced, often smoky flavor that mezcal can have and the craftsmanship behind it.

Starting in 2015, they began to talk seriously about producing a mezcal to help spread the gospel about its wondrous complexity to Austin, a town with more mezcal bars than Tiki spots. The Susto co-founders have taken a couple of big steps to make sure the brand is authentic and not just a cash grab from afar. One, they went through the yearlong process to become certified producers of the spirit through the Mezcal Regulatory Council; two, they made mezcalero, or master distiller, Crispin Perez a partner in the business.

Their company, Grupo Compadres LLC, has also awarded 10 scholarships to middle and high school students in the rural Oaxacan community where Perez makes Susto in his newly redone palenque, or distillery.

"We're the first Austinites to produce mezcal from the source to market," Ingrid Taylor said. "We have passion for it, but you still have to have a business, something that makes sense and generates good things for us and the community. That is what we've tried to do with this."

She noted that each of the co-founders brought their skill sets to the creation of the brand: Duff Stewart, for example, is the CEO of GSD&M and lent branding expertise, while James Taylor, who grew up in Mexico and has spent his career forging business relationships between the U.S. and Mexico, navigated governmental logistics — getting export permits, certifications and other needed paperwork taken care of.

He also was integral at coming up with the name of the brand, Susto, which is a term he heard throughout his childhood and refers to a mystical aspect of Mexican folklore.

"Susto means 'fright' or 'fear,' and it's deeply rooted in the culture of Mexico," he said. "When I was growing up, it was common to hear people say, 'I need to see a curandero (healer) because I have susto.' The susto comes from a near-death experience or encounter or something they saw that causes the spirit to leave the body. The body and soul become separated. To get their alignment back, the curandero gives a cleansing and often would offer mezcal at the end of it."

The tagline for the brand nods to that as well: "Fear nothing but the absence of taste."

The co-founders settled on the particular flavor profile for Susto — and the distiller, Perez, who would produce it — after sitting down at Rodriguez's residence and blind-tasting nearly 20 different mezcals. The "one that rose to the top," Ingrid Taylor said, was Perez's creation. From a family who has made mezcal for centuries, he quickly welcomed them to his palenque and won them over with his affection for and deep knowledge of the smoky spirit.

"We have all read about mezcal and tasted a lot now, and one thing that attracts us is the complexity and the sort of richness of it. It's not like a vodka that sort of mixes with everything; it's got layers, and they taste different," she said. "What stands out for us in this flavor profile is that there's some fruitiness in it. Some mezcals, the smokiness is super overwhelming, but for me, it comes in the aftertaste. I really love drinking it straight."

Still, Susto Mezcal, which just launched last week, has also proven to be a complex base in cocktails ranging from margaritas to Old Fashioneds, and its versatility has no doubt helped get the rustic spirit into local bars and stores.

The co-founders are hoping to grow the brand in Central Texas first, for the next six to eight months, before expanding elsewhere. They want to be as careful about distributing the mezcal as they have been about producing it. They renovated Perez's palenque, which ferments and distills 100 percent espadín joven agave, to streamline workflow and increase production capacity, and the company, Grupo Compadres, tries to be part of every step of the production, bottling and importing process.

That's where Rodriguez, as the managing director of Mexico operations, comes in. She was instrumental from the beginning, hosting that fateful mezcal tasting and introducing them to mezcaleros like Perez and the CRM, the regulatory council that oversees mezcal.

"She has been helping us connect to the mezcal industry in a very reverential way," James Taylor said.

Susto Mezcal is now available at the Austin Shaker, select Twin Liquors locations, Last Straw and Kome, among other places. For more information, visit sustomezcal.com.

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