Richard Betts, Mezcal, Oaxaca, Sombra, Betts & Scholl, Mexico, What Mezcal to Drink, The Mezcal process, how is mezcal created, distilled, natural fermentation, recommendations,

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Master Sommelier, Winemaker, & Mezcal Producer

Mezcal Q & A With Richard Betts

Q. Tell us about Sombra Mezcal...

A. Sombra - it’s a happy diversion, born out of a good time. I was a big believer that agave based spirits are physically uppers. I have empirical results that this is true - just party a lot and see what happens. I talked to Charles Bieler and we decided we should do this.

Q. What’s your favorite way to enjoy mezcal?

A. I am an equal opportunity imbiber, so I say however makes you happy! This includes neat, or with a Modelo Especial can, or in a margarita, but always with friends and a smile - this part is key. Ultimately, we think Sombra is one of the purest expressions of espadine agave grown at high altitude - detailed, aromatic and delicious (as well as mixable).

I do like it in classic agave cocktails (such as the coin margarita), but we also have some very cool cocktails cooked up by Jim Meehan of PDT. The Margarita 2.0 is a favorite.

[see recipe for Margarita 2.0.]

Q. Which mezcals do you recommend?

A. When you go shopping, the list is very short in terms of great mezcal:

1. Del Maguey, for sure. Ron is the Godfather. He’s the guy that first brought it to America. You can easily spend $100 to $200 on a bottle of his mezcal and it’s worth it. It is a real artisan thing.

2. Sombra (“The Shade”), of course. Ron [from Del Maguey] helped us get started and now we are off, on our own, doing our own thing. I think we are doing a pretty special thing.

3. Los Amantes (“The Lovers”) is fantastic. They have the Casa Mezcal in Manhattan and Oaxaca as well. That’s Willie [Guillermo] Olguin - he’s great.

4. Los Danzantes (“The Dancers”) - they are also quite good.

5. Ilegal - they do a good job. They are a little different. Their mezcal is a little more smooth and less overtly a product of the process, meaning the fire and the smoke. It’s definitely delicious.

Incidentally, bad names are part of the genre.

Those are the ones that come to mind. Which is easy. It’s not like choosing a good wine, where there’s 853 chardonnays from California. There are pretty much five good mezcal producers. So choose the one that is in your liquor store, the one that fits your budget, and ultimately, the one that you enjoy.

[See details.]

Tequila vs. Mezcal

Q. What’s the difference between tequila and mezcal?

A. The tequila guys say, all tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila, as if tequila is in the special spot. But they are just in the spot that jumped up and down about it first. Good for them, super smart. But in my esteem, it is not true to the heritage of the process. We wanted to find something that was really compelling intellectually and as a beverage. Ultimately, you have to be able to drink it. Of the seven states in Mexico where they make mezcal, Oaxaca was the place we thought was the most interesting.

Q. Why mezcal and how did you choose San Luis Del Rio in Oaxaca?

Sombra Margarita

Photography courtesy of Sombra

A. They make what could be considered mezcal all over Mexico.

- in Chihuahua, it’s called Sotol

- in Sonora, it’s called Bacanora

- in Jalisco, it’s called Tequila

- in Oaxaca or Durango, it’s called Mezcal.

Tequila has taken the lead, but 100 years ago the tequila bottles didn’t say tequila, they said vino de mezcal. They have only separated themselves for marketing. In that process, they neutered what made it special.

- Instead of using the different heritage maguey, they use weber blue [Tequilana Weber Blue]. It grows big and fast and it’s soft, so it’s easy to cut, and easy for the Jimador to work with... not because it tastes better, but purely for industrialization.

- Instead of using fire, they started to use steam, because it’s cheap, easy and quick.

Being guys that come to this from a wine perspective and are into sense of place, we thought we should go back and find the heritage product and that’s what we are doing with Sombra. When you land in Oaxaca, you are at 5,000 feet and we found the higher you go, the more specific, the more detailed it gets and the more palatable it is to us. We are now at 9,000 feet up in the Oaxacan Sierra and it is there that you find this amazing precision and eminent drinkability.

Making Mezcal

Q. What does it take to make a good quality mezcal?

A. To start with, there is no worm. If we were to come up with criteria that were objective on what makes a good one.

1. Heritage Agave

Mountain grown agave of heritage variety. Espadin or toal or any of the 28 different heritage varieties of maguey from which you can make mezcal. But espadin is the predominantly used variety and that is the genetic mother of blue agave.

2. Respect The Process

Chopping the firewood, digging the pit, building the fire, roasting the agave, a horse pushing the millstone to grind it up, and fermenting naturally (which is huge).

3. Taking The Time To Get It Right

The fermentation takes 7 to 9 days to do it naturally, but for some reason, that is too long to wait for some of these guys. So they’ll add plant fertilizer to speed things up. You can see these little white pellets on top of the fermentation vats. It’s crazy. You can taste it all the way through. It’s so gross.

4. Taste

It should be smokey and it should be smooth.

Q. What’s with the worm?

A. It has a real taste, but it tastes like shit... it tastes like dirt. With wine, if I made a bad wine and I could put the worm in it, and all you would taste is the worm. But you would see the worm. You’d be thinking about the worm. You’d be psyched about the worm. And it would be all about the worm and therefore you don’t actually think about that the wine tastes bad and the worm tastes bad. You are just excited about this machismo experience - this John Wayne idea of moonshine. It covers up the flavor of a bad distillation and provides a gimmick. There is no worth to the worm. It’s insanity. And good for them, it’s smart. There’s a guy who puts a scorpion in it now!!


Q. Have you thought about selling kegs of mezcal?

A. Sure, why not? I am thinking about the next direction we are going to take it. Truth be told, Charles Bieler, my partner in Sombra, the mezcal we produce - was the first guy to put wine in a tetra pack and make it cool. He was the first guy to put wine in a keg and make it cool. Charles and I operate at different ends of the wine spectrum and we bring it together with the mezcal. We have very complementary views and skill sets, so I might actually end up with mezcal in a keg.

Q. Has anyone done that?

A. I saw tequila in kegs in Texas, coming out of the tap. Full on with the frozen tap head. It was amazing.


Q. How’s the food in Oaxaca?

A. Amazing food.

Q. Where do you like to eat?

A. Itanoni is a place that just serves lunch, it’s all based on corn. It’s crazy. You can eat dishes based on 28 different varieties of corn, Peaches and Cream and classic sweet corn. The Oaxacan people are all about corn.

At Itanoni, there are two comal -- a comal is a domed hearth with a little sideways flue where you feed the fire and the comal is dipped on the top. There is one woman per comal and they have all these amazing bowls filled with amazing things. They slap together whatever form of the corn you order. She makes it and puts it on the comal and puts the stuff in it, and it’s really great. It’s like an artifact. You really don’t find food like that anywhere.

Marco Polo for great fish in Oaxaca. Oddly, you are an 8 hour drive from the sea, but they cook amazing fish in these wood burning ovens. It’s only open for lunch.

It is kind of strange, in Oaxaca, you have to work hard to get your dinner act together, but lunch is awesome.

[See details.]


Details of Richard Bett’s recommendations for where to eat and drink around the United States, France and Mexico, as well as where to research wine and who to follow on Twitter.


- Margarita 2.0


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