Romancing the Bum: Judah Kuper & Vago Mezcal

Fifteen mezcals are a few too many - at least for this little rabbit. But was a night of Vago romance worth it? Hell yes!

Judah & the Seattlites (Judah Kuper & Spirit Industry Folk of Seattle)

Given enough time, I could write a book on Judah Kuper – founder of Vago Mezcal. His story might even be better than my own. A high school dropout, Judah lived the life of a ski and surf bum for years before he discovered Oaxaca…and his first taste of mezcal: poured into his mouth out of a gasoline can by a group of young graduates careening along the city’s alleyways. From there everything flowed. He and his friend opened an island bar off the coast of Puerto Escondido where he fell in love with a Oaxacan nurse, wooed her away from her Mexican fiancé, and married her. Fate pulled a few more strings, and within a short period of time Judah began selling his father-in-law’s mezcal, christening it “Vago” (translated as “bum”). You can read about it in his words at http://vagomezcal.com/.   What Judah did next was remarkable. In a mere nine months he’d squared away all the paperwork, started a U.S. company to import the family mezcal (i.e., selling the mezcal to himself), and began to export. There were no lawyers, no investors. Judah and his bar partner each threw in half the cost to launch. The first shipment went out in March 2013 with 1,800 bottles. It took a couple of loans to get things in full swing, but those were paid off almost immediately. Their mezcal is now found in 15 U.S. states and is on the verge of launching in Mexico. Their production is maxed out.   I must admit, I’m fascinated with how a surf bum launched a wildly successful (and highly respected) mezcal brand in such a short amount of time without investors - I’d love to pick his brain on the details. He’s an inspiration to this recovering nomad and her Aztec dancing husband looking to build something substantial.

What inspires me the most, though, isn’t his rocket to success, it’s his company ethic, which is reflected so clearly in the quality of his mezcal.   We made an appointment to meet with Judah at his office cum bottling warehouse for Wednesday afternoon. I was expecting an hour or so casual meeting with a couple of tastes, max. Noel and I arrived to find four industry professionals in from Seattle at the bar ready to dive in. And dive we did.   Judah and Houston – a San Antonio beverage director newly recruited to Vago – poured and shared the back-stories. We began with his espadin (50.9%), which is the smoothest of that variety I have tried. We then moved on to the Elote – an espadin to which Aquilino Garcia Lopez (Master mezcalero and Judah’s father-in-law) adds toasted maize to the alembic, giving the final product a hint of corn. As far as Judah knows, they’re the only ones to do this.   Vago mezcals are made by two family members: Aquilino who uses a copper alembics are found in Candeleria Yegole, and “Tio Rey” whose mezcal hails from Sola de Vega, and uses olla de barro (clay pot distillation). The mezcals are made 100% in the traditional manner, using stone, clay, wood, manual labor and love; none of them are aged or contain added flavors, sugars, or chemicals. The company is so dedicated to the essence of maguey art (if you will) that they even make their labels out of 100% recycled bagazo (the agave fibers left after fermentation).   “Aquilino’s mezcals have an elegance to them, whereas others try for that, but end up watery,” Judah states. And indeed, while all of Aquilino’s mezcals we tried were over 50% ABV (versus many that are on the market which are between 38-45%), they’re smooth, elegant, and yet full of flavor.   We went from espadin to cuixe to arroquño, to patitas de ixtlé, to tobalá, to coyote, to ensembles. I could give you the tasting notes, but after #7 the details start to get fuzzy. And really, what’s the point? You have to experience them yourself.   Several bottles stood out as particularly intriguing. Taste #7 (77% blanco, 23% sierra negro) came from agave that was planted 45 years before! Tio Rey had been walking by this plant since he was 10 years old until one day, it was finally ready to harvest. The taste was a beautiful balance of green herbs and baking spices.   Talk about a limited batch! It was this mezcal that prompted Nathan Weber, Seattle spirits importer, to produce the quote of the night:

“Mezcal is the only spirit that’s more like wine             than wine is.”

  Then there were two “bien cocidos”: one with 62.9% espadin and the colas (tails) of tobalá, and another with 52% espadin and colas of mexicano.  The first tasted of spearmint and licorice, and was part of a limited batch of 20 bottles; the second had peach and nectarine flavors.   “I think a big part of the future of mezcal is blending,” said Judah. All of his ensemble (blended) mezcals are made by roasting, fermenting, and distilling the agave varieties together, rather then mixing the final products.   Somewhere between tastes #10 and #15 (I’d lost track at that point), and just after our “palate cleanser” (cheap Prosecco, which the Judah swears is the best palate cleanser you can find), Houston poured us three different tobalás: one 100% wild that tasted of melon and prosciutto, one that was cultivated by Tio Rey and distilled in a clay pot (my favorite of the night), and the third for comparison’s sake: Del Maguey’s tobalá.   What a difference! Whereas Vago’s tobalás are elegant, bright, and spicy, Del Maguey’s was thick, heavy, and tasted of cheese and smoke. That weightiness, I’m told, is characteristic of Del Maguey’s mezcal. While I enjoyed it, it wouldn’t be my go-to bottle. Perhaps through our own mezcals I’ve grown a fondness for a crisper, more complex spirit.   To each his own. For my part, I can say that my night of Vago romance was the most fun I’ve ever had at a tasting. It was also the first time (outside of our own house) I’ve enjoyed every single one of the tastings put before me. As Noel said, on a scale of 0 – 100, “Vago mezcal is 100.” 

Bums of the world: there is hope for us yet!

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