It’s hard for Ivan Vasquez to pick a favorite mezcal. With more than 300 bottles (and counting) behind the bar at his nine-month-old Torrance restaurant, Madre, the decision is increasingly difficult for the curator of what’s widely considered to be L.A.’s largest selection of distilled agave spirits.
Like music or food, the native Oaxacan says that his favorite mezcal changes with his mood.
“They’re all my favorites,” Vasquez adds, thumbing through Madre’s “Mezcal Bible,” a multi-page menu of his restaurant’s collection of rare bottles of artisanal mezcal and tequila organized by agave species, distillation method and place of origin.
“I can drink a 55 percent ABV espadín or an earthy tobala. Sometimes I want to drink Marca Negra or Los Javis’ wild-grown tepeztate or a clay-pot-distilled ensemble from Real Minero. Even with the same type of agave, there are different master distillers and different pueblos that make each bottle unique.”
“You’re supposed to kiss [the mezcal],” Vasquez explains.Madre is only the latest mezcaleria to take root in L.A., but Vasquez’s obsession with thoughtful sourcing, rejection of cocktails as a selling point, and emphasis on education comes at an important time in the traditional Mexican spirit’s history in America.
Ten years ago, there were no mezcal brands being imported to the U.S. Today, there are dozens, some of which are coming from palenques with multiple generations of production experience and others that are merely exercises in punchy branding from major liquor corporations.
Vazquez’s goal is to separate the craft from the crap and set an example for how mezcalerias here can respect the soil, the plant, the time, and the artistry that goes into every shot of quality mezcal.
“Anyone can open a mezcaleria but how much passion do they have for the product? How much history do they know? How much culture do they have?” Vasquez says. “My goal is to be that guy—to be the leader who raises the standards. If you want to have a mezcaleria in the U.S., you have a challenge now.”
“When you’re drinking mezcal, you’re drinking water, soil, and weather from 30 years ago.”
Though historically less commercialized than its newer Jalisco-made cousin tequila, mezcal’s popularity in L.A. should come as no surprise. The city is home to the largest population of Oaxacans outside of Oaxaca, the state where more than three quarters of the world’s mezcal is made from the roasted core of various agaves (tequila is made by steaming only Blue Weber agave).
Las Perlas opened downtown in 2010, calling itself the country’s first bar dedicated to to the diverse spirit. Only a handful of mezcals—mostly made from the easiest-to-grow varietal, espadín—were available in the U.S. at the time, and Las Perlas mostly subsisted on tequila shots and well-driven mezcal cocktails. But as more brands entered the market, the bar’s growth and success inspired others, like Guelaguetza, the city’s unofficial Oaxacan consulate, to start stocking bottles as well.
Madre’s impressive mezcal collection started three years ago at Culver City’s El Nopal, which Vasquez took over in 2013. With years of restaurant management under his belt, Vasquez changed the menu to reflect his Oaxacan heritage, obtained a liquor license, and launched a small mezcaleria with about 25 bottles.
“I wanted to provide the whole experience of Oaxacan food and mezcal is at least half of that,” he says. “If I don’t have a shot of mezcal next to my barbacoa, it’s not a real Oaxacan meal.”
Vasquez continued to add to El Nopal’s list as more mezcales launched in the States. He traveled home to Oaxaca City, visiting urban mezcalerias and meeting the palenque owners and distillers who populate the surrounding areas, learning more about the labor and skill required to make artisanal mezcal along the way.
At Madre, which opened last August with more than double the footprint of El Nopal, Vasquez is expanding the Mezcal Bible even further, adding and removing bottles as new brands enter the market and he learns more about their sourcing and evolving production methods.
In the last few months alone, he’s added about 40 bottles and removed a dozen (including the popular Ilegal and El Silencio) based on this research. And with about 1,100 documented mezcal brands in Mexico—a number that doesn’t account for underground ancestral operations or any agave spirits being made outside the eight states approved for official mezcal production—new imports are not likely to slow anytime soon.
“‘Where is it from? What is the agave? Who is the master distiller? Is it for the well or for the shelf?’” Vasquez says he asks sales people when they offer him a new product. “If it’s good I’ll make the space. I have no limit as long as they have what I’m looking for.”
For Vasquez, the beauty of mezcal lies in its rich and diverse flavors, which reflect both the agave plant’s connection to the earth in which it was grown and the skill of the master distiller.
That’s why Madre emphasizes education over blind consumption, through everything from wall maps and drawings of the various agave types to curated flights that list the name of the mezcalero, the state, and village in which it was made, the type of distillation vessel and tasting notes.
Vasquez is on site during dinner service most nights, flitting between tables of regulars and visitors alike, acting as a sort of mezcal sommelier, describing the nuances of his latest menu additions and convincing tequila drinkers to skip the margarita and instead sip a shot of an obscure mezcal, made from some wild agave that took decades to mature.
“When you’re drinking mezcal, you’re drinking water, soil, and weather from 30 years ago. It’s unbelievable how the agave gets water when there is no water in the soil,” Vasquez says. “That’s why we say ‘besos de mezcal”—you’re supposed to kiss it. Sip it slowly and imagine how much work has gone into this glass. Look at what Mother Earth is doing for us. We have to appreciate it.”
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