The Sin Gusano range is all about small-batch, authentic, and delicious agave spirits. The kind of booze we probably would have never tasted were it not for founder Jon Darby. We spoke to him to find out why he swapped the city for spirits, how he aims to introduce people to a whole other world of mezcal, and more.
Jon Darby doesn’t have a background in drinks or hospitality. He worked for a decade in finance, then tried his hand at being a financial journalist. Frustrated with his career, he took a break to Mexico in 2016. There he was introduced to mezcal, inspiration struck and everything changed. “I didn’t really know anything about mezcal before then. My friend Alvin Starkman runs a company called Mezcal Educational Tours of Oaxaca and he developed these relationships with these really small-time producers. You head out with just him in the car and see all kinds of family-based production. It was mind-blowing for me. I realised I wanted to work in mezcal,” he says.
He called his boss from the beach and quit his job, eventually extending a ten-day stay into three months, hiring cars, knocking on doors, and asking around looking for small-batch mezcal to enjoy. “I would just go in looking for telltale signs of mezcal production, usually a big stone wheel in a field. Generally, people were welcoming and friendly and you could buy a little copita (a plastic shot) from the local tienda (store). When I came back, I thought I’d go to London’s mezcal bars. As it turned out, there was really nowhere that was anywhere near the level of interest that I’d found in Mexico. That was a lightbulb moment”.
Darby exploited this gap in the market and turned this passion into his own brand: Sin Gusano. It means ‘without worm’ in Spanish, which Darby describes as a “piss-take of the outdated perception that mezcal is just rough tequila with a worm in the bottle”. The idea for his brand was to bottle some of the family-made spirits he tasted and leave behind the gimmicks and slick marketing. Before he could source and import his own spirits, he opened a pop-up in Brunswick East, a cafe in London, in May 2017 mainly selling other brands and a couple of samples he brought back.
Sin Gusano: a different kind of brand
An almost year-long residency followed in 2018 in Haggerston, then in 2019 a collaborative pop-up with Pensador Mezcal in Soho. For obvious reasons, the pop-ups dried up, but Darby now runs a subscription service called the Mezcal Appreciation Society, which fills the gap of a place where people can engage and get to know the product better. This is not a typical brand, so education is key. “I want people to see what I found in Mexico because the reason I got so inspired because it was such a rich experience. These kinds of mezcals can seem unattainable and hard to get your head around if someone just puts it in front of you with no information and a hefty price tag”. Eventually, he has plans to have his own space with a tasting room, bar and shop.
So far Darby has bottled 18 different distillates from 12 different producers in three different states under the Sin Gusano name. Another 12 are on the way. They are all limited releases, so once they’re gone, they’re gone. It’s certainly not the easiest way to create a brand. Doing it Darby’s way means more distance traveled, shipping, bottling, and labeling. More relationships to build. “It’s a massive logistical headache. But this has been a passion product for me. I’m rejecting the typical brand approach where you find one producer, strike a deal, buy as much of their product as you can and put all your money into branding to tell everybody that that’s the best version of that product in the world. I’m saying ‘there is no one best; they are all fascinating and it’s up to you to decide what your palate prefers’. It’s like the opposite of Casamigos”.
The Sin Gusano range is also a tremendous example of the terroir that exists with agave-based spirits. “That’s where mezcal should be going, talking about agave variety and regional varieties. Three Espadíns made in three different places taste completely different. It’s an internal debate within mezcal right now, as the industry promotes certain standards of production but it doesn’t give any particular kudos to regionality. And if mezcal is going to grow sustainably then different regional variations are going to need to be protected and understood”.
Not quite mezcal
Darby is not a fan of the regulatory body that protects mezcal, the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal. And you can understand his frustration. Everything he bottles is essentially mezcal but cannot always be called that because the legislation is too constrictive. “It doesn’t protect all these massively different profiles. Take our spirit made from the tepextate plant. It’s the rarest agave and takes the longest time to reach maturity, some people say 30-35 years. It has a lower sugar content, yield, and higher methanol levels, about 450mg, or 0.45%. But the legal methanol limits imposed on the mezcal certification is 0.3%. It’s an arbitrary number. The EU legal limit for methanol is 1.5%. It’s not that it’s safer to drink, it’s just that they haven’t thought about the perspective of protecting biodiversity when they’ve made the mezcal regulation. It’s been thought through from the perspective of ‘how do we commercialise something and sell shitloads of it’.
Championing the craft and heritage of these small-batch agave spirits doesn’t just extend to creating the Sin Gusano brand, however. The project is now officially carbon neutral, with Darby carrying out a full analysis of his supply chain and purchasing credits to offset it. The aim will be to reduce that creation year on year and, in line with the legal requirement, he plans to make the full report and certification visible on my website in the coming days. Darby adds that “this might make us the first carbon-neutral agave spirits bottles in the world,” and to be honest I can’t evidence of another at present.
Darby also donates 10% of UK profits back to Mexican charities. The main charity partner is the Chicago-based S.A.C.R.E.D (‘Saving Agave for Culture, Recreation, Education and Development’), who work with NGOs and people on the ground in Mexico to improve local communities and ensure more sustainable practices. “They implemented a rainwater-catching system to reduce their need for imported water, they built a library in a mezcal-producing community, they have a project that donates agave pups to an agricultural school that’s teaching people how to grow more varied types of agave from seed. As I said before, this is a passion project. The ambition is not to sell my brand for millions of dollars. It’s to go to Mexico and engage in the craft I really enjoy while supporting the things that I think are deserving of support”.
Highlights of the range:
Produced from a duo of wild Cuishe and Coyote agave, released as part of the Sin Gusano range. It’s distilled in a copper alembic with refrescador, which is a method using a condenser that essentially allows for two distillations during a single pass through the still.
Nose: So fragrant and fruity, with roasted apricot, tangy pineapple, creamy coconut, cucumber, and a little corn on the cob with some oaky smoke, black pepper, and some mineral-rich earthiness in support.
Palate: The agave is fresh and sweet and joined by more ripe tropical fruits, toffee, lightly smoked pepper, fresh mint, hints of potpourri, and mixed spices.
Finish: Some orchard fruit joins in the fun among a little caramel and flinty minerality.
This unaged spirit from Sin Gusano was produced from the most common agave variety, Espadín in San Luis del Rio, Oaxaca, and bottled at 42.8% ABV.
Nose: Olive brine, charred bell peppers, a little petrichor, and cucumber lead with smoke from a spent bonfire, watermelon, a touch of tropical fruit, and some sweetness from white chocolate and raspberry bar.
Palate: Plenty of sweet agave is at the core of this palate which has some pleasant earthiness and an almost chalky quality. Notes of wood smoke, white pepper, floral honey, cedar, lime peel, and red fruit are present throughout.
Finish: A delicately sweet finish lingers with some citrus and mineral qualities.
This vegetal number, produced in Amatlan marries the Tobala and Tepextate agave varieties, with 75% and 25% of each variety respectively.
Nose: Bruised pears, roasted agave, dried grass, and some fragrant smoke are present among notes of orange peel, charred pineapple, strawberry milkshake, and wet pebbles.
Palate: Through more of that minerality comes tart citrus, green apple, eucalyptus, garden herbs, vegetal oak, and charcoal smoke.
Finish: Peppery spice flickers through some tangy fruit.
This particular release was distilled by Maestro Sergio Juárez Patricio in San Augustin Amatengo using Tobaziche agave crushed by a tahona wheel pulled by two bulls. After a four-day open-air fermentation, the agave is distilled in a copper alembic still with a refrescador.
Nose: Smoke-dried grass, numbing sichuan peppercorn, dried flowers, stone fruit, chilli chocolate, and a little ground cinnamon are supported by a gentle wave of mineral-rich smoke.
Palate: Sweet and aromatic spice weaves through waxy orange peel, soft cooked agave, dried earth, pink peppercorn, anise, and underlying notes of caramelised banana and toffee apples
Finish: Ripe green apple, cinnamon, and flinty minerality.