A Sommelier Turns Mezcal Maker

Mezcal may very well be the fastest growing spirit in the country. The agave-based elixir was not long ago virtually unknown to most Americans. Even bars that specialized in mezcal never had more than a dozen offerings in stock. Nowadays, you find mezcal-laced cocktails in hip Nuevo Latino restaurants and mezcal lists that rival those of tequila in specialty bars. Did sommelier Richard Betts foresee this trend when he made the leap from wine to mezcal several years ago and launched his brand Sombra Mezcal? Perhaps. But with the growth of tequila and mezcal being the mother of tequila, it was inevitable. We spoke to him about how the "one with the worm" (well, not really) is the greatest thing since...white Burgundy?

When did you discover mezcal?

It happened when I was 13 years old. I was a bad teenager who would do "hey mister-ing," like "Hey, mister, can you go into the liquor store and buy me something?" I grew up in the Southwest and a lot of my friends were Hispanic. We frequently got bacanora, which is a mezcal made in the Mexican state of Sonora. So, I got into it early. Fast-forward through school and grad school and lots of crappy Cuervo (no offense, Cuervo). I worked my way through a master sommelier program. In the wake of passing the MS exam, I felt depressed. I really liked tequila so I went to Tequila, but I was struck by how it was no longer made the way it once was.

And mezcal is different?

Only when I got to Oaxaca is when it started to feel good, taste good. This is where I started to get a sense of place in the spirit. Take wine. A wine needs to reflect where it's made. The French say "terroir." It has to have that or I'm not interested in it. It's the intellectual value of that sense of place that allows us to have millions of wines. That's what makes it compelling. That's what makes it fun. And, yes, mezcal is like that.

How else is mezcal like wine?

Aside from having terroir, it's also very much like wine in that there are up to 28 different varieties that you can make mezcal from. And some of those varieties thrive in certain areas. Others thrive in other areas, so it just gets increasingly complex. And interesting.

What did your wine friends say when you told them you were starting a mezcal brand?

I would tell people that I was really excited about starting a mezcal project and they'd say, "Richard, mescaline is illegal. You're going to go to jail." I'd say, "No, not that." Then they'd say, "Oh, the one with the worm in it. Yeah, I remember throwing that up in Tijuana." Well, yeah, you probably did. But no, not the one with the worm in it. That's a marketing gimmick. Real mezcal doesn't have a worm in it.

What's special about Sombra Mezcal?

We're at a really high elevation, so we're above the mesquite horizon. Mesquite is the predominant wood used to slow cook the agave for mezcal. It's very sappy and it's known to bring a smoky fire, which makes for a very smoky mezcal. Smoke is supposed to be part of it, but there should be more to it than smoke. It's like over-oaking a chardonnay: what's the point? So, we use encino wood instead to cook the agave and it doesn't cover up the agave notes. It's a type of oak, which burns cleaner and hotter, so the smoke is a part of it, but not the whole story.

What else?

In tequila, everyone bottles at 80 proof because that's the standard. It's not because it tastes good, but because they're trying to stretch a profit. When we were coming up with Sombra, we would taste it at 100 proof, then at 95, 90 and 85. We were looking for the proof that carries the most information and where it's the most delicious. At 100 proof, it was really smart, but hard to drink. We worked our way to 90, which shares all the information that we want and it's delicious. No lime, no salt, no mixers needed.

So, what's next for Sombra?

Well, despite what I said about tequila, the next thing we're working on is a tequila. I wanted to make it like it was made 150 years before it was a legislated industry, when it was about quality. It's out now; it's called Astral. It's just a blanco. It's also organic. But the main thing is that it's fermented on the agave fibers. Everyone today is throwing out the solids. It's like trying to make red wine without the grape skins. The skin is what contains all the color, tannins and flavor. So, we actually keep and ferment all the solids... We're arbiters of authenticity in the agave space.

Read more about mezcal on Food Republic:
  • How To Infuse Mezcal With Pork Fat
  • Get To Know Five Types Of Mezcal
  • A Ramos Gin Fizz. But With Mezcal?