Disclaimer: In August of 2019, I was invited by Casa Lumbre Spirits, the parent company of Montelobos Mezcal, to join their industry trip to Mexico for their annual Dia de los Muertos celebration in Oaxaca. This trip included an evening in Mexico City, a visit to the Ancho Reyes facility in Puebla, and four days in Oaxaca. This trip was paid for by Casa Lumbre Spirits. News of the Campari partnership broke after arrangements had been made and it turned out that the easiest way for me to interview Ivan Saldaña was while I was in Mexico on this trip.
Casa Lumbre Spirits – The House of Fire
If you’ve ever had a chance to spend any time with Ivan Saldaña, Chief Innovation Officer of Casa Lumbre Spirits – the parent company of Montelobos, you know just how engaging he is, like that favorite professor from college whose every word you hang on, trying to absorb as much information as possible. His book, Anatomy of Mezcal, is a must read for anyone interested in agave distillates, and has been a cornerstone of understanding the basic biology and chemistry of mezcal.
The first time I see Saldaña is at the opening reception party for the three day celebration of Montelobos Mezcal. The annual event has grown larger each year in step with the growth of Montelobos. This year brought event greater reason to celebrate with the news of Campari taking a 51% ownership stake in Montelobos and Ancho Reyes. The rest of the Casa Lumbre Spirits portfolio, which includes Ojo de Tigre mezcal and a slew of soon to roll out spirits, remain fully owned by Casa Lumbre.
Casa Lumbre Spirits was formed in 2017 and is the brainchild of Moisés Guindi (CEO), Daniel Schneeweiss (CCO), and Iván Saldaña. It was born from their idea of bringing the cultural, biological and sensorial heritage of Mexico into the world of spirits. It is a thoroughly modern company, it’s pulse driven by the cosmopolitan vibes of Mexico City, yet deeply connected to the cultural past. “To be able to explore and investigate and bring to life these new projects is exciting as hell,” Saldaña told me when we spoke.
For folks paying attention to the formation of Casa Lumbre Spirits, the partnership with Campari should come as no surprise. In addition to the growing portfolio, Casa Lumbre Spirits also owns a bar in Mexico City where they can experiment with their developing products and cocktail recipes, as well as a mobile bar events company, a distribution company called Alchemia and an investment fund to assist in third party product development.
On to Oaxaca
I arrive at the opening party at Pitiona after waiting out a torrential downpour on a friend’s covered terrace. The rains are late in coming this year in Oaxaca, and the ferocity of tonight’s storm feels as if the heavens had held on to water as long as possible in order to let it go at the worst possible time for the city. This would not be the first night of rain that would begin precisely at the same time any comparsa (Dia de los Muertos parade) would begin.
The reception is packed. The rain pushed guests off the terrace and downstairs. It is hard to miss Saldaña in the crowd, he towers above everyone with his 6’3” plus frame, defying all stereotypes people may have in the US of Mexicans. We greet each other but it is obvious he is stressed by the rain. The party is supposed to move shortly to another location, a procession complete with a full on comparsa – band, dancers, etc. The rain begins again in earnest and I assure him that all will be fine. This is confirmed just an hour later at the second destination, guests having either braved the rain to walk the five blocks or having been shuttled over in vans. We are all wet, the party at Expendio Tradicion a mix of outdoor and indoor (though with an open, tented roof indoor is relative.) Neither the band nor the dancers ever stopped playing and their persistence carries over to the crowd.
As the band enters the room where the dj is playing, the cacophony of battling sounds bounces off the walls and amps the energy up a hundred fold. The DJ looks lost as the band drowns her out and she finally ceases playing. If you have not heard Oaxacan banda music, it sounds like John Phillip Sousa on crack. It is loud and discordant and it pulls you in and the next thing you know you are dancing furiously and taking shots of mezcal from the bottles being passed around. I see Ivan for the second time this evening and he is dancing so joyously, the smile gigantic on his face. As he would tell me a few days later about the Campari deal, “I am super excited. My professional opportunities are opening in ways I never imagined. In terms of exploring, the budget I have to buy equipment <for my lab> is there. Who has that luxury? We are so thankful.”
The next morning we head to the Montelobos palenque not far from Tlacolula. It is a gorgeous sunny day and any trace of the previous evening’s rain is gone, a sign of just how parched for water the land is. Because of the size of the group of invited guests, more than 100, we are divided into staggered arrivals so that the tour of the facility is more manageable. Saldaña is in his element, already speaking to a group by the entrance, talking all things agave. As we move through the palenque we see they are preparing for a roast in one of the four hornos (ovens). The building that houses the 15 tinas and eight 320 litre copper stills is a new addition and speaks to the growth the company has seen. The original distillation room remains and holds an additional eight 320 litre copper stills. In 2018 it produced 23.9k nine liter cases of mezcal, making it the fifth largest brand in the market. 2019 is on track to exceed that production. Montelobos is produced by Don Abel and Don Cuauhtemoc Lopez. Longtime agaveros, they began producing mezcal about 50 years ago. Their other palenque produces mezcal for their own label as well as for others.
We have an opportunity to taste a batch currently in the fermentation stage – it is sweeter and less acidic than I would have thought. We also get a chance to try mezcal fresh off the still. We then sit down to a wonderful lunch before heading back to Oaxaca. It turns out it was good to be on the early schedule as the groups that came through after us were caught in yet another huge afternoon rain and had to wait out their day till the rain stopped and the vans could get through the thick mud. This also ensured that the planned final party scheduled for the next day would not happen at the palenque due to the deluge and mud soaked fields as I learned later that night. As an events person, the very notion of having less than 24 hours to find a venue that could host 300+ people and to completely change all logistics, well, kudos to the team.
The Industry of Mezcal
These three days in Oaxaca are less about education and more about celebration. The guests invited are made up of bartenders and accounts who sell a large amount of Montelobos and Ancho Reyes, making this more of a reward for support than an in depth study of mezcal. Industry trips are a new thing for me, having only been on one previous trip with Banhez. Both trips have enabled me to get to know bartenders from not only the US but also Latin America. I suffer no illusion that I can keep up with them, and more often than not opt to be tired and not hungover as the recovery time for those of us over 40 can last days. The group I spend five days with is an eclectic mix of bartenders from New York, Los Angeles, and Austin. Close quarters in a van as we travel from Mexico City to Puebla to Oaxaca means rapid camaraderie and an easy rapport. Plus massive bonding as we watched Coco en route to Oaxaca – crying along with a film is a great equalizer.
The second party is a more formal affair – a sit down dinner prepared by Oaxaca’s premier chef Alejandro Ruiz of Casa Oaxaca. Once again, rain is once again the background ambiance though luckily La Calavera, the beautiful event space just outside the centro, is completely covered. The Governor of Oaxaca, Alejandro Murat Hinojosa, made an appearance as he has made the promotion and support of mezcal the centerpiece of his administration. His presence meant a heavy presence of security and I am not going to lie that having men with very large guns roaming the perimeter of the room dampened my party spirit. I also wanted to be clear brained when I sat down with Saldaña the next day for an interview.
Ivan’s Theory of the Universe
The next day, Saldaña and I meet and find a quiet spot to talk at the Quinta Real. I love talking to Saldaña – from the first time we met in 2012, I sensed a kindred spirit when it came to nerding out over mezcal. This has not changed over the years.
Saldaña is animated this morning and anxious to talk about the future for Casa Lumbre Spirits in the wake of the Campari deal and put to rest concerns people have over how this will change Montelobos. “A large company, like a Campari or a Pernod Ricard, cannot acquire something that is about the craft and then get rid of that aspect. Then the investment is put in a hole,” he explains.
When I bring up what has happened in the world of tequila and if mezcal is following in its footsteps, specifically in regards to the use of diffusers, something allowed in mezcal production under NOM-70:
“When tequila became successful in the 80s and 90s, no consumers were asking how they were making the product, it was just about meeting the demand. The challenge <for mezcal> is how you grow – it would be stupid to use a difusor and to change the craft of the product. The brand is destroyed forever.”
Saldaña pauses before adding, “Can we make mezcal for the people in the correct way? Can we be a medium sized brand that is made traditionally? Brand owners understand that the essence of mezcal is to keep an honest, clean process of production that will bring the flavors of the mezcal in the right way.”
When I talk about the irony of how people are so demanding of where their food comes from and understanding that and seemingly so unconcerned about how their alcoholic spirits are produced, he nods his head in agreement and responds “What is the alcohol people are going to choose – people need better options. We think the world deserves to drink better – we are in a place to bring products to market that bring positive impacts to the small communities… Montelobos is certified organic and much of the agave grown for mezcal is organic even if not certified. Fertilizers are not as much of a concern as usually only for the first or second year are agaves fertilized. Herbicides are a much bigger issue because those remain in the soil.”
He continues, “Creating the opportunity to offer more mezcal to the world is not a bad thing. The role of brands is to try and minimize the negative impacts.”
I ask him about how when Montelobos first came out, he was very adamant about how they would never use wild agave, but that they now have both an ensemble and a tobala in their portfolio. “It is important to look at where the wild agave is coming from. Obviously in Oaxaca there is a problem <because of the demand> but other regions still have plenty of wild agave. We work with Don Aaron Alva in Puebla who began growing Tobala by seed in 2003. He is also growing papalometl, cupreata, and karwinskiis from seeds from Oaxaca. If brands continue planting more and more, eventually overharvesting will not be an issue.”
When we start talking about agaves and species and what is called what, Saldaña puts on his scientific hat. “We have geneticists and biologists arguing about what is a cupreata, what is a tobala, when they share genetic markets. The obsession to classify agaves and varieties is complicated, and made more so with the CRM labeling rules. You can’t put Potatorum Suc, Suc being the man who identified this plant, on your label, you can only say Potatorum which is not enough.”
Our time is coming to an end, though there is so much more we could talk about. We come back around to Casa Lumbre Spirits and the future.
“With our experience with Montelobos and Ancho Reyes we now understand how to spot opportunities and act on them. We are investigating botanicals, corn, the microbiology of wild fermentation and pulque. There are distillers in Peru and Columbia who are playing around with local plants and distilling them. We can look to help this kind of spirit development by working with them to help them understand the flavor demands in the US and Europe. Casa Lumbre is a dragon of multiple heads.”
I spend the rest of the day on a walking tour at Abastos Market. We taste different nieves and sorbetes, quesadillas, empanadas, tlayudas, an incredible goat barbacoa, freshly ground chocolate. My mind is on flavors and how rooted they are to place, how no one masa tastes like another at the different puestos where we stop. We sip pulque that is fresh and another that is several days old, tepache, some pickled fruit that tastes like a bitter olive. It is limitless what is available, which I imagine is precisely how Saldaña feels.