Corte Vetusto founder David Shepherd talks to us about being Mexican by heart, how to ensure a burgeoning category grows responsibly and why mezcal is so great.
Pride, provenance, history, tradition and a distinctive taste. Mezcal has it all. Fancy some? Good, because the category it’s still far too overlooked. Sure, the drinks industry has embraced all of its agave-based goodness for some time now, but if you asked the average person in a bar or restaurant if they’d like some mezcal, how many could answer confidently or even say they know what it is?
For those who aren’t too familiar, mezcal is a spirit made from any variety of agave. In fact, the word mezcal derives from the Nahuatl mexcalli, which basically means ‘cooked agave’. Sounds like Tequila, right? Well, Tequila is technically a type of mezcal from one specific place. Mezcal is made all over Mexico, although there are currently nine states (Oaxaca, Guerrero, Puebla, Michoacan, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas, Durango and Tamaulipas) within the official Designated Origin, established in 1995, which means the only spirit produced here can legally be called mezcal (those outside the DO have to settle for the term ‘destilado de agave’). Over 90% of mezcal is produced in Oaxaca and most mezcal is made from Espadin agave due to its high sugar content and suitability to cultivation but there are between 35-40 agave species in use.
Its origins and that of agave distillate are still a source of some debate. The earliest record of agave distillate being produced was in the late 1500s, making it the oldest spirit in the Americas. Mezcal and Mexican culture are truly interconnected. It is used to celebrate great moments in life, births, baptisms, and even death. “It’s a liquid produced in a traditional manner, not influenced by marketing. It’s genuinely artisanal and craft,” says David Shepherd, founder of Corte Vetusto. “Those words have been lifted and used heavily by big players in numerous categories, which let’s be honest, are dubious at best. But if you’ve observed mezcal production you cannot help but be drawn in by just the sheer effort and passion that goes into making the stuff. That’s what made me fall head over heels in love with it. It’s unlike any liquid I have ever tasted”.
Wider appreciation for the category outside of Mexico has been a long time coming, however, with big strides having been made in the last decade or so thanks to brands like the multi-award-winning Corte Vetusto. Since 2016 it has been a category leader thanks to an uncompromising, traditional approach and an impressive range. The name, which translates literally as ‘the ancient cut’, was inspired by its long history and the fact that both the agave and the liquid are cut during production.
Shepherd has a keen appreciation of the history and culture of mezcal. He was born in Singapore but grew up in Mexico City before spending his teenage years at school in the US. “Though I’m not Mexican by birth, I’m Mexican by heart. My first memories, my first flavours, were all Mexican and that has carried through my life” he recalls. Shepherd’s recollection of discovering mezcal reads like a spiritual awakening: everything became clear to him once his father brought a high-quality mezcal over to him while studying in Edinburgh, “I had a real love of whisky and the Islay malts. I found that mezcal experience represented the intersection or the coming together of the best parts of 100% agave tequila and these West Coast single malts, or island malts. And that was just a eureka moment”.
This love didn’t initially lead to a career, however, and Shepherd made his way in brand management and new product development. Tasting mezcal at Nico’s, a famous restaurant in Mexico City over a decade ago made him consider its potential. “That’s when the penny dropped, something happening here. There’s a growing appreciation and celebration of this hidden gem of a spirit,” Shepherd says. “I’d always wanted to do my own thing and I was lucky enough to have a friend able to invest and who was in the liquor trade. But when he first looked at the mezcal numbers he said there’s just no market in mezcal. Fast-forward five years and he recalled that conversation and said mezcal is having a moment and the timing might be right”.
From the outset, Shepherd’s ambition was to shine a spotlight on artisanal production methods and celebrate the producers. After a lot of research trips to Oaxaca, going round to a number of palenques (small scale distillers), tasting and meeting different producers, Shepherd met Juan Carlos Gonzalez Diaz, a fourth-generation maestro Mescalero (the equivalent of a master distiller) and knew that he was the right man for the brand. “I fell in love with Juan Carlos’ approach to the premium or wild agaves and approached him. He’s an incredibly passionate and very proud Mescalero,” Shepherd explains. “It was really important that he understood that we weren’t simply coming along to exploit his skillset, undervalue his mezcal or go down the dramatically commercial route as some mezcals have gone. He sensed early on that we were very aligned with our ambition to bring the best of Oaxaca to the world”.
The process of creating mezcal begins with agave. Corte Vetusto employs traditional production methods, meaning the pencas (leaves) are cut with a machete to expose the piña (heart) of the agave, which is then removed using a coa (a long wooden stick with a sharp, flat blade at the end). The piña is loaded onto trucks or donkeys before being weighed and then individually cut by an axe to ensure even cooking. Tonnes of agave is loaded in the oven by hand to ensure an even roast. “There’s four generations of experience here playing its part. Before the oven is loaded, a ritual is performed where the raw piñas are beaten with a branch of Piru to clear away any bad energy and to ask the ancestors for a successful batch,” says Shepherd. “We only use well-matured plants. We’re talking between 15 and up to 25 years. They cost more but create richer, more flavoursome and more complex mezcals. It’s a profound amount of time for the specific climate and smoke etc. to influence that plant. At the moment the brand is sourcing much of its Espadin agave, but Diaz has got planted stock that’s about one to two years off reaching maturity”.
Corte Vetusto uses traditional hornos (conical earthen pit ovens) lined with volcanic rocks in order to absorb and maintain heat to roast the agave, which converts its natural starches into fermentable sugar over 3-6 days (depending on the harvest’s size). Mesquite wood, chosen for the flavour it imparts, is placed at the centre of the oven and lit and then covered by river stones until they are white-hot. After another ritual to ward off any evil spirits and to ask for a blessing on the oven, the stones are covered with a layer of bagaso (agave fibres) from a previous distillation to prevent the agave from burning and resulting in overly smoked or bitter-tasting mezcal. The agave is then covered with a tarp and then with soil to seal the oven.
Once the cover is removed the roasted, caramel coloured agave is allowed to cool so it can be easily chopped into smaller chunks, ready to be milled. A tahona (a large volcanic milling stone) pulled around a circular stone base by a horse called Payaso (Clown), due to the distinct markings on his face crushes the chunks and the resultant bagaso (agave fibres) and juice are then transferred to large, open-topped wooden vats for fermentation. Pure spring water, which runs off the mountains behind Mitla, is added and fermentation is allowed to occur naturally, initiated only by the wild and native airborne yeasts surrounding the palenque. “They’re unique to each palenque and another key factor in the taste of the end product,” says Shepherd.
This takes anywhere from one-to-two weeks, depending on the season, humidity and the altitude of the palenque, during which time the yeasts convert the sugars to alcohol. Once complete, the resultant tepache (mash) is transferred to either a copper or clay pot still. Diaz uses both for the Tobala and the Ensambles, while the Espedin is twice distilled in the 270-litre copper-pot. “This combination of the copper and then clay distillation makes his product completely unique and represents the best of both worlds. You get the crisp bright notes that come from the copper distillation and then there’s this introduction of some earthiness and minerality and almost layering that comes from the distillation in clay,” says Shepherd. “By using the copper first, there’s still enough of the agave notes and the brightness that’s allowed to shine through at the end, in comparison to pure clay pot-distilled mezcals. It’s just genius and delivers an exceptional mezcal”.
Shepherd will always encourage people to sip mezcal neat and enjoy it like you would a whisky or brandy to appreciate its character. But he has plenty of advice on how to make the most of the spirit in cocktails. “You can start with a few of the classic gin cocktails and substitute it or you can replace the Scotch with mezcal in a Penicillin. I like to find flavours that are specifically Mexican. If you zero in on Oaxaca, pineapple, passion fruit, chocolate and coffee are all key crops so learn how to accentuate those notes that are present in the mezcal itself with ingredients like these and you’re onto something,” he explains. “Recently I’ve enjoyed simple Highball serves. The Japanese have done so well showing how a long serve doesn’t mean dilution or loss of flavour. We’ve been pairing our mezcal with tonic or soda because it’s nice to be able to showcase its versatility and demonstrate you can have a rounded and complex drinking experience with mezcal”.
Mezcal is also a great accompaniment with food and Shepherd says that in Mexico it’s very rare to drink mezcal on its own. “If you are in Oaxaca now and you order a mezcal it’s frequently accompanied by some fresh fruit with a bit of sal de gusano (worm salt) or sal de chapulin (grasshopper salt), so there are some savoury elements, a little salinity and a little heat which then is complemented and then contrasted by sweet fruits like pineapple, oranges, mango and papaya. The broad range of flavours in mezcal means that people can experiment because it’s fairly limitless in terms of the possibilities that are out there”.
While there is growing love and optimism for mezcal, the category still has challenges to face. With success comes the cynicism. Tequila has been plagued by enough mass-market brands which have prioritised highly industrial processes and led to intensive cultivation of the Blue Agave, resulting in a monoculture which has homogenised the flavour and made it more prone to disease. Mezcal is by no means perfect and it faces similar questions about the capability and ethics behind sustainably scaling-up production. “There is a very fine balance and I’m afraid a number of people are already on the wrong side of the fence. Producing at too large a scale is not only damaging potentially to the agave stocks, but it’s also undermining and going against the tradition of the Mescaleros,” says Shepherd. “People talk about sustainability and think immediately only of the plant, but there’s a sustainability argument to be had for the producers and the culture of mescal production as well and that can’t be neglected. All you have to do is look a bit further north and see what’s happened with Tequila and how bastardised that product became thanks to distilleries owned by the multinationals that are all about volume and profit”.
Perception is another issue for mezcal. From a failure to distinguish it from mezcal to the expectation by some to find a worm at the bottom of their bottle, education and advocacy are needed. “It has taken us a number of decades to overcome this association. Most curious spirits drinkers dismiss it, so thankfully we appear to be on the winning side of that now. It demonstrates that education is key,” says Shepherd. “I hate it when mezcal is referenced as ‘Tequila’s smokier cousin’ because it just doesn’t do the liquid justice. Bartenders need to convey the right messages and there’s an onus on us with our website and trade event presence, as well as the resources and knowledge we can supply retailers. I’ve worked with Hawksmoor, for example, to have a dedicated cocktail menu for mezcal week so we can introduce people to the spirit in an accessible way”.
If you’re intrigued by mezcal but not sure what a high quality and ethical bottle looks like, Shepherd has some tips for the indicators you should look out for. “As a starting point, you should be looking for the type of agave, which should be prominent. As should a reference to the village that it comes from and any credit to the Mescalero. There are a lot of brands that are buying from multiple sources and then blending into large batches,” he says. “I always urge people to look at the label and have transparency. We put the exact agave type from the scientific names and we also say how many litres went into that batch”.
If you are looking to pick up a bottle of mezcal, we heartily recommend plumping for some Corte Vetusto. The mezcal is delicious and it’s a brand that deserves to have a bright future. For what it’s worth, things are looking good in that regard. “While COVID-19 has made entering the US market a significant challenge, we are back and available in California and in Texas. The key focus is growing in the right way. We want to emulate what we’ve achieved here which is working with some of the very best in the business, Berry Bros, Harrods, Selfridges, Fortnums, The Savoy, Nobu and The Stafford Hotel and then places that are focussing on Mexican and championing regional Mexican and quality Mexican food like El Pastór and Tacos El Pastór,” Shepherd says. “I’d like to see the brand spreading its wings within the UK and start to pick off one or two countries in Europe as well but always looking to work with people who appreciate what it is that we are trying to do and why our price point is what it is. Later this year, we’ll launch our first ancestral mezcal which excites me when we’re producing small batches and are able to bring something to market that is unique to them. Hopefully Master of Malt will play a part in that evolution and story”.
We’ll certainly do our bit. The Corte Vetusto range is available here and tasting notes of its core expressions are below.
Nose: There’s a lot of minerality upfront (petrichor mostly) with some earthiness, subtly meaty smoke and crisp agave in support. Underneath there’s some fruity notes from white grape and banana as well as garden herbs, vanilla and salt-cured pork.
Palate: Some honeyed sweetness, fresh mint and more roasted agave initially followed by notes of chamomile, kiwis, aromatic wood smoke and creamy vanilla. In the backdrop, there’s dried herbs, black pepper and freshly cooked sweetcorn.
Finish: Flinty minerals, charred pepper and a touch of vegetal oak.
Nose: Charred agave, green fruit, woodsmoke and garden herbs emerge initially followed by vanilla, cured meat, pickled lime and stony minerality.
Palate: Caramel, candied orange and raisins provide a sweet opening that’s complemented by peppermint, fresh flowers, apricot jam and salty olives.
Finish: It’s a floral, earthy and faintly smoky finish.
Nose: So much crisp, fresh agave upfront with some slight vegetal notes as well as cinnamon, leather, wildflower honey and tinned peaches.
Palate: Plenty of flinty minerals, charred pepper and fresh Mediterranean herbs blend with fruity banana, prune sweetness, toasted oily nuts and anise.
Finish: Mineral-rich smoke, cooked apple and more floral honey.