Liquid Art: Creating Single Village Mezcal

Excerpt from 2011 LA Times article by Wyatt Peabody

You find yourself tearing down a seemingly endless dirt road in a Jeep—a rooster tail of dust marking a path as your body jolts in the back seat. The radio signal renders faint traces of a Mexican narco-ballad on the blown-out speakers.

Then the stark landscape pulls you back: a labyrinth of trails among steep mountains adorned in a sea of maguey (agave) plants— the raw material behind pure mezcal, one of the most complex distillates on Earth. Your destination is a Zapotec Mexican Indian village nestled along the Rio Hormiga Colorada, 8,000 feet up in the Oaxacan Sierra, where village elder and master mezcal distiller, Paciano Cruz Nolasco, awaits.

Hunched over the wheel is Ron Cooper, the architect of mezcal’s resurrection, who has single-handedly revitalized this Mexican spirit. His eyes gauge your awareness in the rearview mirror, and with a 500-foot drop a hair to your right, you realize you’re in the hands of a crusader and that his sense of danger is different from yours.

His journey from world renowned artist, to mezcal visionary, started with a single question on a summer night in 1970: “Do you think the Pan-American Highway really exists?” Four months later, along with California buddies, Venice artist Jim Ganzer and Malibu surfboard shaper Robbie Dick—hastily piled thier boards atop a VW van – they headed south for Panama. En route, the fabled highway led them to the Zapotec village that Cooper and his company, Del Maguey, Single Village Mezcal, now call home: Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca.

For Cooper, formative thoughts of his “liquid art” company Del Maguey, Single Village Mezcal began in 1990, and he started following rumors of pure mezcal down dirt roads. But it was
 his visual art career that inadvertently began his fascination with the spirit. Among his works—which have been featured at the Whitney, Guggenheim, LACMA and in a recent show curated by Dennis Hopper at Taos’ Harwood Museum—was the production of a sculptural limited-edition of 50 hand-blown blue glass bottles bearing the Aztec god of intoxication, Ometotchtli, meant to be filled with pure mezcal, the likes of which few foreigners had tasted.

When his zeal led him to try to cross the border with a five- gallon jug of sacred wedding mezcal—gifted by Zapotec farmers after an eight-day celebration—the Texas border patrol forced him to dump his beloved distillate. He obliged but says, “I decided right then and there I would go into the liquor business. Mezcal like this didn’t exist in the U.S.—nothing even close.” Does Cooper still find time for his fine artwork? To those who would unwittingly pose the question, he might just look at you—fire in his eyes—and say, “What the f–k do you think this is, man?”

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