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La Muerte: Oaxacan Mezcal Makes Its Mark in South Africa

by Alvin Starkman of Casa Machaya
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La Muerte Mezcal de Oaxaca

In a quirky turn of fate, just as craft beer consumption in Oaxaca has begun to skyrocket, South Africans who have traditionally preferred microbrewery beers to commercial brews and indeed spirits, are now turning their attention to mezcal. In January, 2012, Oaxacan-distilled La Muerte brand mezcal hit the shelves in South Africa.

Until recently, mezcal (also referred to as mescal), the spirit derived from a number of varieties of agave (or maguey) plant, took a back seat to its more popular sister, tequila. But with the aid of a marketing plan currently being advanced by the Mexican government through its ProMéxico agency, the southern state of Oaxaca, producer of most of the country's mezcal, has become the darling of up and coming spirits importers.

Enter entrepreneur Rui Esteves. In less than two months his La Muerte mezcal has become the top selling Mexican spirit at popular Cape Town restaurant El Burro, known for its broad selection of tequilas; no small feat given that La Muerte had to dislodge popular products such as Patrón and Olmeca from their lofty rankings.

Since 2007, Esteves' main business interest has been beer, importing German craft beer to South Africa, and promoting it through an innovative and aggressive marketing plan. Then about three years ago Esteves began introducing tequila and other agave based spirits (as well as agave nectar) into the South African marketplace. The agave business began strictly as a hobby, with Esteves tapping the advertising acumen he'd honed during his dealing with imported brews.

But for Esteves it's always been much more than his expertise in marketing and promotion which has driven his products, and in this case La Muerte mezcal. "I love working with artisan producers who are driven because of the pride they have in what they brew or distill," he notes. "And just as importantly," he continues, "I only work with products that I love to drink myself and that form part of my life; I have no passion for whiskey, and hence I don't work with it."

And so Esteves travelled to Oaxaca about 1 ˝ years ago with mezcal in mind. He met with a number of palenqueros (producers), sampled their products, and subsequently decided to work with one individual in Matatlán, a town about a 45 minute drive out of Oaxaca and reputed to be "The World Capital of Mezcal." It must be; a sign stretching across the highway as you enter Matatlán tells you so; and above the sign there's a full-size copper still.

"It was important for me to sit down with the palenquero and his wife and family in their home before making a decision about working with them," he explains. "Meeting the rest of the family affirmed for me their passion for what they do; and learning that they have a mezcal producing tradition in Matatlán which dates to the 1800s didn't hurt either."

Although mezcal had previously been available in South Africa, imbibers really didn't have any idea about what it was or how it was made until La Muerte came on the scene. And of course the products which were available were not of the artisanal quality that Esteves has now introduced. Tequila struggled with its reputation until the Patróns began to be imported. It's taken until now for the drinking public to gain an appreciation for mezcal, through La Muerte. "South Africans are embracing it; they can't believe it actually tastes delicious," he proudly asserts.

Esteves initially chose reposado con gusano because he felt that it was a spirit which could be easily marketed at an accessible price. His other entry into the mezcal market, a five-year añejo aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels, came about as a result of a spontaneous emotional decision. "I just fell in love with it," he confesses, then adds, "what I feel about quality mezcal, and in fact about the magic of Oaxaca, I want to share with my countrymen and women."

And the branding? Esteves could have selected any one of a number of names. "Oaxaca is filled with inspiration," he gleams. "The name was influenced by Day of the Dead of course; and the respect Oaxacans have for the dead, and more generally their ancestry and heritage."

Despite the meteoric rise in popularity of La Muerte mezcal over the past couple of months, Esteves maintains that to date he really hasn't done much marketing and that for the time being he's just planting the seed and gauging mezcal's potential, in South Africa and as well in other non-traditional markets for agave based Mexican spirits.

Esteves is cognizant of the recent trendiness in some large American cities, and indeed in some parts of Mexico, of mezcals made from not only agave espadín which is used to make his reposado and añejo, but some wild and other "designer" magueyes. But he remains cautiously optimistic, planning to introduce other mezcals into select markets by taking slow, deliberate steps. "I tend to get carried away," he confesses. But judging from the initial welcome of La Muerte mezcal in South Africa, the more hastily Esteves proceeds with his plan, the better for Oaxacan palenqueros, for Mexico's economic fortunes, and for South Africans. And if Esteves keeps to his course, brewers of craft beers beware.

Alvin Starkman operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast. Alvin has written over 250 articles about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca. He is a mezcal and pulque aficionado, often taking visitors to Oaxaca to visit quaint mescal palenques and into the fields with Zapotec families to harvest aguamiel, used to ferment into pulque.

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