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Thursday
May282015

Oaxaca 2015: Day 4 – Los Danzantes - Part II

It was in Coyoacán, a well-to-do neighborhood of Mexico City, that Jaime and Gustavo Muñoz opened their first Los Danzantes restaurant; not too far from Frida Kahlo’s Casa Azul. The two brothers (identical twins) wanted to showcase the quality of fine Mexican cuisine, and that meant sourcing all the best foods along with the best tequilas. The spirits game in Jalisco, however, proved difficult for these two newcomers. In looking to source an exclusive house product neither brother was able to find a reliable or trustworthy source of tequila, of a quality they were happy with. At that time—around 1996—due to a bad burn on a tequila barrel deal, they decided to look towards Oaxaca instead. It wasn’t long before their affection for the region and its potent potion of mezcales took hold. Less than a year later they had purchased a distillery site (a palenque) and begun branding their own spirits under the Danzantes name. Not long after that, a man named Hector Vázquez began collaborating with Jaime in Mexico City on sales of the brand. Both had worked in the field of sports marketing, and Hector figured he could translate that passion over to Mexican spirits as well. The grind of living in D.F., however, was too much, so Hector eventually moved to Barcelona to do his MA in communications. Upon returning to Mexico, he decided to move to Oaxaca—a region he had been fond of while working with the Danzantes mezcales. It didn’t take long before Hector ran into Jaime again, this time at the new Danzantes restaurant recently established downtown. He needed a job and his old friend Jaime was happy to oblige.

Jaime originally offered Hector the manager position at the restaurant, but Hector had grown tired of the restaurant lifestyle. He had spent the last few years washing dishes while finishing school, so he wanted to try something different. “What if you manage the distillery instead?” Jaime asked. Hector was intrigued. At this time, the Alipus project was just getting started and Danzantes had begun working with remote producers in Santiago, San Juan del Rio, and Santa Ana del Rio. Hector began driving out to the villages to buy the mezcales in bulk, then haul them back to Jaime’s apartment where they would ultimately fill the bottles by hand. After watching this fly-by-night mezcal operation cut corners and costs to stay profitable, Hector decided he should help streamline the operation. He was integral in building a new production center at the distillery site, with a real bottling team, and he started working with chefs in other restaurants to increase the sales output beyond Danzantes. Mezcal wasn’t all that popular in the early 2000s. It was the Armagnac of Mexico—maybe you’d see one or two selections at the bottom of the vast tequila list—so getting on to the menu at top restaurants wasn’t easy. Reposado and añejo were the drinks of choice, so Hector and Jaime decided they should make their own aged versions of Danzantes to compete. That’s when their mezcal business really began to blossom.

If Hector was going to be an effective manager, judging the work of his distillers and problem-shooting their methods, he was going to have to learn more about alcohol production. He began studying wine as a primer (because wine really is the closest thing to mezcal). He stopped smoking in order to improve his taste. He began learning more about chemistry, and through this realized that the wood-fired stills at the distillery could be changed to gas to maximize control of the process. The change was made and the spirits Danzantes produced instantly became cleaner and more focused. For the next ten years, Hector would run the production of all the Danzantes mezcales, including the management of the remote producers from whom they were contracting, while continuing to increase his knowledge of disitllation. In 2012, however, he fell in love with an Italian woman, got married, and moved to Italy. His protege, the current head of production Karina Abad, would take over the management job from then on. Even drinking fine Italian wines and living along the Mediterranean couldn’t keep Hector’s mind off of mezcal, however. Only a few years after leaving, he would move back to Oaxaca, return to Danzantes, and this time take a job as director of commercialization. Now Hector is the guy flying around the world, building markets, forming new relationships, and using his detailed and nuanced background to educate, and open new hearts and minds to mezcal globally. He’s an incredible ambassador for Oaxaca and its diverse set of distilled spirits.

When you walk around Oaxaca City with Hector, there’s no one he doesn’t know. As we hopped from bar to bar yesterday, we’d stroll down a side street where Hector would shake hands with a number of country farmers in town to handle some business. We’d grab a bite to eat and Hector would greet the entire kitchen staff as we ordered. When getting drinks, the bartender would almost always leave the bar to come around and offer Hector a huge hug of friendship. Everyone likes this guy—and more importantly they respect him. He’s been a salesman, worked in the restaurant, managed the distillery, spearheaded new production, created lasting relationships with important growers, and acted as a mentor to the villagers who collaborate with his company. Besides the Oaxacan Alipus selections, there’s now an entirely new set of regional agave spirits from Sonora, Michoacan, Durango, and Guerrero under the label. They’re not for sale in the U.S., but I got a chance to try them at the Danzantes store and they’re outstanding. Hector is one of the main people moving the company forward, anchoring the business, and working closely with Karina to create exciting new projects. I’m telling you all this about Hector because it’s important to understand the people behind these products. I didn’t think anyone could be nicer and more charming than Karina after I first met her, but Hector is right there with her neck and neck. I am utterly excited to begin working with both of these people on new mezcal projects between Danzantes and K&L; not only because I’ve never met two professionals with more knowledge about the product, but also because I’ve rarely met people in this business with whom I get along so well. I felt like I was hanging out with old friends as we ate dinner late last night. I didn’t want the night to end, and I definitely did not want to head home today. 

While Gustavo and Jaime were the original driving forces of the Danzantes restaurants, the mezcal side of the business is being handled mostly by these two incredible people. You can see why everything about the Danzantes brand is amazing—the quality, the creativity, the packaging, and the pricing. You’ve got two highly-intelligent people who really know what they’re doing behind this brand. I can’t wait to get back to the store tomorrow and begin selling more of their stuff because it makes me so happy knowing exactly who made these mezcales. I want to convey that story to my customers. This was a fantastic trip, but most of what made it great were the people. A big thank you to everyone from Danzantes who helped make it happen—Marcelo and Lorena, too—and I hope to see you all again soon.

-David Driscoll