Oaxaca 2015: Day 1 – Into the Night

The small plane into Oaxaca is maybe my most favorite vehicle for transport in the world. It's like flying on a Lear jet; or maybe on Airforce One. There's a row of single chairs along the left side, with doubled seats along the right; plenty of leg room and more than enough space to spread out. You can feel the speed in the fuselage and the control the pilots have with every small turn and each little bump of turbulence. It's enthralling. On my last visit, I was only on the smaller, Oaxaca-bound jet for about forty minutes. We transferred in Mexico City and the flight from D.F. is just a hop, skip, and a jump away. This trip, however, we switched planes in Houston, which meant a two hour romp across the Gulf of Mexico in the most-stylish and comfortable of airliners. What a treat it was to finally see land outside my window as the sun began its descent behind the mountains, and we began ours into the Oaxacan valley.

I cleared customs, hopped a cab into town, and met Ansley and the gang over at the hotel. We were just itching to get out on the street. The weather was warm and balmy. The Sunday night crowds were mellow and the calle was tranquillo. The Templo de Santo Domingo was illuminated as we passed by it on our way to Danzantes. Our minds were food focused. We needed nourishment and alcohol quickly.

I'm not sure what people think about Oaxaca, if they even think anything at all. But let me clear one thing up for you: Oaxaca is not some little rinky-dink village in rural Mexico where all the houses are humble and the establishments modest and minute. No. This was the seat of Cortez during Spanish colonial rule, so the city itself is nothing but immaculate. The streets are clean and cobblestoned. The buildings are orderly and in perfect condition. Oaxaca is completely cosmopolitan. It just happens to be in a rather remote area, out of sight from the everyday hustle and bustle. There are little mezcal bars everywhere, just a quick cut away from the main strip, with atmosphere galore; dripping romanticism.

If I didn't make it clear before, I'm here to visit with the Danzantes boys—the pair of brothers who took their little chain of boutique restaurants and expanded it into a full-scale brand of top-quality mezcal. Make no mistake, however: Danzantes is more about food than booze. That's why we hustled right over to their Oaxacan outpost and settled in for drinks and dinner upon our arrival. This is the best restaurant in town and I couldn't wait to eat here for a second time.

Oaxaca is the culinary capital of Mexico, which is what originally drove the Dazantes group into the region to create their chain of restaurants. It wasn't long, however, until they realized that booze and food were two peas in a pod, so they founded their own distillery outside of town and began producing what we now know today as the "Los Nahuales" mezcales. They soon branched out into the Alipus labela series of contracted, single village spirits from a different subset of producers. I immediately ordered a Mezcal Punch and a glass of Santa Ana—the village we're headed to tomorrow morning.

We ate a lot of tacos. Tongue tacos, beef tacos, tuna tacos, and tacos de chicharron. I had a few more beers before calling it a night and heading down the main avenue La Constitución towards the hotel. We've got a lot to do tomorrow and it's not going to be easy. Santa Ana is a two and a half hour drive from Oaxaca City, down country roads that bring new meaning to the word "bumpy". We'll be meeting up there with the distiller that Danzantes uses for their Alipus label. I can't wait.

-David Driscoll


Oaxaca/Mezcal Overview

Like I mentioned in the blog post about Italy the other day, I hear all this talk about a big agave spirits awakening, but I see very little action when it comes to sales. Sure, our tequila and mezcal sales are better than they've ever been, but that's mostly because we've been finding better tequilas and mezcales to recommend! I don't think our success here in the spirits department is based on a global trend or a new interest in Mexican spirits. I think it's mostly a testament to our hard work (and we have to work ten times as hard to sell one bottle of mezcal as we do a bottle of whiskey). But that's not to say that mezcal as a category isn't in a better place than it's ever been previously. At no time ever has the selection of available agave spirits been as diverse, with as many interesting selections of a high quality, as it is right now. Mezcal specifically, however, isn't as easy to wrap your head around as tequila is. It can be classified in a number of different ways and the hierarchy of price rarely correlates to an obvious level of quality. That being said, Oaxaca is the new wild west of the spirits world because in no other one location are as many producers making so many different versions of what is ultimately categorized as one single type of distillate: mezcal. It's that unruly freedom and the intense, unbridled character of the spirit that interests the most geeky of all spirits geeks. But it's that potential for supreme order and balance amidst the most savage of all flavors that has me heading south once again for my second trip to the region.

Many people consider Bourbon to be the rugged, blue-collar American cousin of Scottish single malt. It's bigger, bolder, and more powerful than the refined and softer flavors of mainstream Scotch whisky. You could also say the same thing about Armagnac in comparison to Cognac, and mezcal in comparison to Tequila. But if Armagnac is the backwoods stepchild of Cognac, then mezcal would be Tequila's hippy-dippy brother who ran off to follow the Dead on tour and pop LSD every night while dancing around a bonfire in the wilderness. It's the wildest, and wackiest of all major spirits, and it adheres to few particular rules or regulations concerning how it can be made, or what it can be made from. There are clear and obvious distinctions between Bourbon and Scotch. They're made on two different types of stills, from two completely different grains, and they're aged in different types of oak barrels, yet they're both considered types of whiskey. Cognac and Armagnac vary in much the same way (both from grapes, but different varietals), but they're both considered brandies. Tequila must be made from one type of agave only: agave azul (or blue agave). It's almost always distilled twice in a pot still, much like Scotch and Cognac, and almost all of the production takes place in the state of Jalisco. Mezcal on the other hand can be made from dozens of different types of agave, on a number of different types of still (some made from clay pots). It can be made in eight different Mexican states, from processes that vary from front to back in almost every major way, but most of it comes from Oaxaca and most of it is made from a species called Espadin. That's the ordinary stuff. However, it's the increasing amount of unique artisan production that really excites you to your inner core as a spirits drinker (or makes your head hurt trying to comprehend it).

So how is mezcal organized? In a number of different ways, which is what makes it complicated. Producers are free to categorize as they see fit. Let's look at a few iPhone pics I snapped today:

By varietal: Just like some wines are labeled as Cabernet Sauvignon, and others as Merlot, there are mezcales that are labeled by the species of agave used to produce that particular spirit. Sometimes this can be a simple Espadin distinction (a species that can be cultivated and farmed in the region), while at other times it might be something like Madre Cuixe or Tepextate—rare and wild species of agave that must be foraged by hand. The rarer and more exotic the species of agave, the more expensive the price (it's like truffles). The most recent batch of Mezcalero #10 was made from Sierra Negra, which isn't a type of agave I've often seen used (but is absolutely delicious).

By village: Just like the French label their most-famous Bordeaux and Burgundy wines by commune or village, some producers of mezcal choose to label their spirits as San Juan del Rio or Chichicapa. It's assumed that certain regions have traditional ways of making their spirits, so by marketing the name of a specific village the consumer can come to expect a certain style or level of quality in the product. Alipus does a number of different mezcales under this moniker, including the Santa Ana del Rio seen in the photo above.

As an Ensemble: Just like we have "claret" or "Super Tuscans" in the wine world, which refer to specific types of blended varietals in the cepage, many producers like to create blends of different agave distillates. These are usually labeled as "Ensemble" and often will include the specific species of agave used in the blend. In the case of Bruxo's #4, we have Espadin, Barril, and Cuishe being utilized to create a harmony of mezcal flavor.

Like Tequila: If it ain't broke, don't try and fix it. Since most customers are used to silver or blanco, reposado, and anejo Tequila, then why not use the same distinctions for mezcal? Both Mina Real and Los Nahuales utilize the classic Jalisco tradition for their mezcales.

By speciality: You know how your family has that old secret recipe for a punch bowl, or for your grandmother's spaghetti sauce? Many Mexican distillers have similar traditions for creating specific specialities of mezcal. You'll often see the word "pechuga" on a mezcal label (which means breast in Spanish), meaning the mezcal was macerated with a raw chicken or turkey breast before bottling (it's actually delicious). In the case of Mezcal Vago, they have an expression called "elote" (corn) that was macerated with toasted corn for a richer and creamier flavor. Other mezcales might be flavored with fruits, nuts, or other forms of roasted animal.

Simply by producer: What about the old fashioned way? The name of a brand, pure and simple. Fidencio's Clasico is just a no-frills, straight-forward, deliciously-smoky mezcal.

OK! Now you've got it! You can take all of this information and begin classifying and organizing the expanding-world of mezcal into structured and orderly little groups of knowledge and understanding!

Except you can't. 

Why? Because even within these sub-groups there is still a huge amount of variance. Let's say you've got two mezcales and both of the bottles say "Espadin". All that tells you is the type of agave used. What it doesn't tell you, however, is how the spirit was made. Were the agave pinas baked, roasted, or steamed? Depending on how the hearts were cooked the flavors can be wildly different from one another. What type of still was used in the distillation? A clay pot? A stainless steel pot? A copper still? Or maybe a little backyard mechanism using some left over scrap metal from the local pick-and-pull. What am I saying? I'm saying you can't know anything about how any bottle of mezcal will ultimately taste unless you know everything about the production process (or you've tasted that specific mezcal before). But who has time to figure all that shit out??!! Nobody. That's why they pay me the big bucks. To figure all this shit out for you. It's not unlike France's Burgundy region. You think you can summarize that region by some blanket statement vintage report? PLEEEEASE. Every vineyard has its own microclimate, let alone commune, and it's exactly that ridiculous amount of requisite expertise required to understand these wines that makes Burgundy the most intimidating of all wine regions for people in the field. If I had to find a distilled comparison, I'd say mezcal is easily the Burgundy of the spirits world. Try and summarize it all you want. It can't be done. 

But we'll see what I can do to help make your appreciation of it less daunting. It's worth the effort, folks.

-David Driscoll 


Back to Oaxaca

I'm back on the road this weekend. Sunday morning I'll be boarding a plane to Oaxaca City alone, where I'll eventually meet up with Ansley Coale from Germain Robin and the rest of the folks at Danzantes. I'll be there for four days taking photos, speaking Spanish, drinking mezcal, and getting to know more about the region. Of course, I'll be live blogging the whole time, so make sure you check in over the Memorial Weekend!

Until then,

-David Driscoll


More Shit You Need to Know About

Yes, this is a spirits blog, but really it's a resource dedicated to the art of drinking and all of its glories. I wouldn't be doing my job as an advocate for boozing of all types if I didn't tell you about this stupid, ridiculous deal that our wine buyer Ryan Woodhouse just pulled off. I would feel like a fraud if I let this go unpublished, despite the fact that this is not my category or my deal. K&L just got a container in of direct import wines from the Southern Hemisphere and Ryan may have pulled off the biggest coup of the year in these Sequillo wines. It's a huge fucking deal and I'm going to do my best to convey the significance of these two South African wine bottles pictured above.

To help explain exactly what's going on, let's go back a few weeks to our post from Berry Bros & Rudd in London.

Do you remember this photo from the blog a few weeks back? It's a picture of Doug McIvor standing in front of the window at Berry Bros & Rudd, where David OG and I visited recently on our trip to the UK. Rather than focus on Doug this time around, however, I want you to look at the photo on the bottom right of the frame. It's a small picture of winemaker Eben Sadie sitting on a tractor near his vineyard in South Africa. There's a reason that the most reputable retailer of wine in the UK has a photo of this man on their front window. It's because Eben Sadie is one of the most talented and in-demand winemakers in the entire world right now (in fact, Doug and I were talking about him as I snapped this picture). He's the guy that every retailer who knows anything about wine wants to be doing business with. That's why BBR is bragging about their association with him on their St. James's Street window front. He's a big deal.

Let me share with you the write-up that Ryan just sent me: Eben Sadie is probably the most revered winemaker in South Africa. He just picked up his second Winemaker of the Year award and his wines sell out upon release every year. In fact, we have to fight tooth and nail just to get a few six packs of his legendary "Old Vine Series". That is why we are so excited to be working direct and exclusively with Eben to import one of his other projects: Sequillo. Eben is first and foremost a farmer. He truly lives in the vineyard believing that organic/biodynamic, hand-tending of his vines is far more important than making interventionist adjustments in the cellar. His wines are pretty close to being "natural wines" utilizing only ambient yeast ferments, natural malo, no fining or filtration and very minimal sulphur additions. His wines are true representations of place and season without the heavy handed fingerprints some winemakers leave. 

This is what the Wine Spectator said about him: “There is no doubting both the sensory and intellectual attributes of Swartland wines produced by the likes of Sadie…They appeal to the new generation of wine consumers and sommeliers who demand top-quality wine, ideally crafted by a cool hipster-cum-artisan that goes surfing at weekends, and not some retired oil magnate who in a pique of boredom splashed out on a lifestyle winery so that he can brag about it down at the clubhouse.”

Eben is a dude's dude and everyone who meets him knows it. Although after reading this, Ryan leaned over to me and said: Though I totally get what Neal Martin is saying here (and think it’s pretty funny) I have to add that Eben must have cringed at this comment…he HATES to be called a “hipster”…and surfs whenever the waves are good, not just at the weekends!

Sometimes hyperbole isn't enough to get your point across. Shouting "This is the BEST, ever, ever, ever, ever!" wouldn't really even do these wines justice. The quality of Eben Sadie's wines speaks for itself, but usually you'll have to pony up about $40-$60 a bottle to test out that quality for yourself. Somehow, someway, our wine buyer Ryan Woodhouse worked out a deal to bring in Sadie's Sequillo wines direct: for $19 freakin' 99!!! That's just unreal. It’s about half of what they should cost. The Sequillo white is like elegance in a bottle. It's soft and seamless, yet never lacking in acidity or minerality. I took a bottle of his T'Voetpad white (the single vineyard version of this wine) to my anniversary dinner with my wife this year. She fawned over that bottle like a school girl at a New Kids on the Block concert in 1989. Get a bottle of this wine. Get two cases. Get in while it's here. ASAP. You won't be sorry. The Sequillo red blend is soft, juicy, incredibly balanced, and elegant in its profile. It's a testament to quality winemaking and dedicated vineyard practices that manifests itself clearly in the bottle. You won't wonder one bit why Even Sadie is a superstar after tasting this bottle. You'll be wondering why you didn't buy another ten cases for your cellar.

We are the only store in the United States with these wines. Ryan went surfing with Eben on a trip to the region and the two happened to hit it off while riding the waves and talking about booze. It was huge victory for K&L. These wines are a testament to what we do best as a company. Imagine if we landed a cask of Yamazaki for like $40 a bottle, or a barrel of Weller for $14.99. That’s pretty much the whiskey equivalent of what’s happening below, and it's a testament to Ryan's skill and knowledge as a wine buyer. He's doing for Australia, New Zealand, and South African wines what David OG and I have done for the spirits department: bring you the most exciting things to drink on the entire planet for prices you can afford. That's some news-worthy shit. It's some shit you need to know about.

2012 Sequillo Red Blend (Eben Sadie) Swartland South Africa $19.99 - A blend of Syrah, Cinsault and Tinta Barocca. Sourced from vines (many of them old) planted on schist, granite and gravelly soils. Fermented (wild) in large cement tanks and left on skins for six weeks before being basket pressed to large format wood casks for 12 months and another 12 months in cement tank. The wine has pure, bright aromatics of deep, spicy crushed berries, ripe currants, red fleshy plum, granite, and toasted spices and dark red floral tones. The wine is rich and layered but precise and focused. The fruit shows macerated raspberries, logan fruit, dark cherry hints with subtle leather, charred meat and dusty mineral tones showing through the purity of fruit. There is an intense soil quality to this wine that is equally impressive as the quality and fruit and floral tones. A complex wine that I love for its combination of power, purity and subtlety.

2013 Sequillo White Blend (Eben Sadie) Swartland South Africa $19.99 - Phenomenal white wine. The nose is dominated by ripe, roasted orchard fruit, poach pears, preserved apricot and yellow peach. On the palate the wine has a rich, round palate weight, a creamy dense texture that fills the mouth. Beyond the fruit profile there is wonderful savory lees character with toasted grains and pie crust nuances. Underpinning all of this is a dynamic minerality from the ancient decomposed granite soils of the region. A serious multidimensional wine that is rich and crowd pleasing in texture but also detailed, nuanced and bursting with minerality.

-David Driscoll


Spicing Up the Peninsula

There is, in my opinion, one restaurant on the San Francisco Peninsula that can hold its own against any Michelin-starred hot spot in the entire Bay Area. That's not to say there's not a bevy of great places to eat south of the city; but most of them don't have the artistry and the creativity to match the quality of a place like State Bird Provisions. Where is this magical place, you ask? It's about a ten minute walk from my house and, if you feel like treating yourself or doing something special for your significant other, then this is where you go: All Spice on El Camino Real in San Mateo. I went with my wife on Tuesday. It was our third visit, but it was just as invigorating and inspiring as our first.

I'm going to let my series of simple iPhone photos speak for itself, but let me at least say that the food is Indian-themed and the menu is seasonal. I can honestly say that I've rarely had vegetables that taste as fresh and as vibrant as I have in this little house near Highway 92. 

Corkage is ridiculously reasonable at $15. We brought a bottle of Riesling and threw it in the ice bucket while we sipped on a glass of Crement d'Alsace. You're gonna blow about $150 for two people, which you'll be begging to pay again and again as you plot your next visit.

The chocolate terrarium is one of my favorite dishes on the menu. It tastes as delightful as it looks.

Salted rosemary cream caramel. I might go back again tonight. It's that good.

-David Driscoll