For Chicanos growing up in the 1970s, the first time you ever heard the word mezcal was when your grandparents crossed the border and returned home with a trunk full of curios: paper flowers, bottles of Presidente brandy, and Gusano Rojo, a foul beverage with a slowly decomposing worm floating around like a ring in a Tomy Waterful Ring Toss game. Relatives left that bottle out as a dare — if you were stupid enough to sneak a shot of Gusano Rojo from your grandparent’s liquor cabinet, their cackling would begin before you made it to the bathroom to heave. Mezcal’s fate changed by 2010, when prominent Los Angeles places like Rivera, Guelaguetza, and Las Perlas — the city’s first mezcal bar — began to stock up on all the new producers targeting the U.S. consumer. In the South Bay city of Torrance, Ivan Vasquez’s restaurant Madre has built upon the progress made over the last decade of mezcal’s ascent, one unique bottle at a time.
What differentiates mezcal from the more commonly found tequila is its open-air fermentation process, where more than a dozen bacteria in the air emanate from groves of fruit trees, local crops, and livestock becomes absorbed into the must. Sometimes these bacteria travel for thousands of miles, likely on a planet-wide mechanism, according to molecular biochemist Konstantin Severinov of Rutgers University. Whereas tequila has a narrower agave profile — plus wood notes if it has been aged — mezcal has multiple layers of flavors that show the variety of the more than 40 different types of agaves used to make mezcal in Mexico’s 10-state DO (denomination of origin), as well as outside the DOs.
There are plenty of LA restaurants and bars showing off walls of mezcal, but Vasquez has painstakingly put together the most impressive artisanal mezcal selection around. Madre celebrates agave like no other bar, providing to its customers first-hand knowledge of maestro mezcaleros, the palenques (distilleries), and brands. Vasquez has earned the respect of small producers who won’t just sell to any bar because he’ll price their mezcal what it’s worth. He won’t talk down the price for small producers, and offers to represent their productions thoughtfully, which means some brands are willing to offer exclusive distribution to Madre. Finally, he seeks out brands that pay fair wages to workers, supporting those that use sustainable practices, like planting seeds to secure the future of mezcal.
Vasquez has turned away such big brands as El Silencio, as well as popular tequila labels like Patrón and Casamigos. He was even running specials on Del Maguey in order to clear out the half dozen or so remaining bottles. This makes for an experience filled with the kind of insider mezcal knowledge that could entertain the most discerning of spirits aficionados.
Vasquez, who has continued to be in contact with mezcal producers in Oaxaca, says production has essentially come to a halt because of a near-total loss of demand of mezcal in the United States during the pandemic. In much of the U.S., and especially in larger cities, bars were ordered to close for months at a time, which diminished demand for mezcal. In the meantime, Vasquez says many producers are shifting to farming their land with beans, corn, and squash while taking the time to clean the palenques to prepare for a return to production.
Back in Los Angeles, Madre has continued to expand its reach, adding a West Hollywood expansion in recent weeks along with its flagship Torrance and original Palms locations. Before the pandemic, Torrance’s Madre was a bustling Mexican restaurant with a bar full of diverse, young couples ordering spicy mezcal margaritas, while families snacked on chips, guacamole, and Oaxacan bar bites in the main dining room.
Since then, the restaurant has shifted to a takeout and outdoor dining model, though it still caters to mezcal fans with to-go tastings, thanks to a loosening of off-site liquor sales. Cocktail kits and mezcal flights are now an essential part of Madre’s sales, though Vasquez says his most dedicated customers relish the opportunity to buy his exclusive mezcal bottles, like Rey Campero from Zoquitlán, Oaxaca. Madre’s team has also been doing virtual tastings over Zoom with patrons who pay between $45 and $75 (which includes the mezcal flight), providing much-needed revenue and giving valuable education to mezcal drinkers.
Since all three Madres have reopened in some capacity, it’s a great time to pick up a mezcal flight and deepen your experience with the spirit. Ask Vasquez to do a vertical tasting of different maestro mezcaleros for an education you’re not likely to have in any bar in LA, regardless of spirit category. Here are five mezcals not to be missed at Madre.
5 Sentidos (Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca), distilled by “Tio” Pedro Pascual Hernandez using Tobalá (35 percent) and Tobaziche (65 percent) agaves (47.1 percent ABV)
There’s nothing like sipping a spirit with a very small bottle count, whether it’s a single-malt Scotch allocated by an independent bottler, or a one-off production of mezcal crafted with care whose prodigious, haunting flavors appear once in a blue moon. “Tio Pedro’s batches are on the very small side, sometimes the result of just one tina (large wooden vat) fermenting,” says Vasquez. You get an extra dose of minerality from the centuries-old practice of clay-pot distillation underneath a layer of sweetness from banana, cocoa powder, and honey from the surrounding area.
Amormata (Nuevo León, Mexico), distilled by Jorge Torres using De Castilla (A. Americana) agave with pulque (51 percent ABV)
This exclusive 55-liter production for Madre hits all the right notes for Vasquez’s bar philosophy. “The Maestros del Mezcal, an organization that is composed of several mezcaleros throughout Mexico, was the organization that introduced us to Amormata. Aside from promoting mezcal from regions from within and outside of the DO of mezcal, their aim as a group is an attempt to promote sustainability by the replanting and reforestation of agave and trees used for firewood in the cooking process and also ensure that their mezcaleros are paid a fair wage for their production,” says Vasquez.
In the mezcal world of aficionados, restaurateurs, bartenders, and chefs, non-DO mezcal is ancestral mezcal and held in high regard, equal in stature to mezcales from the 10 DO states. Pulque (a fermented agave drink) is added to the open-air fermentation for an uncommon finish of maize, plantain, and nanche (fruit) that has some shared aromas found in rhum agricole (a Martinique-style rum made from sugar cane juice).
Mezcalito Pal Alma (Puebla, Mexico), distilled by Asunción Matilde Vargas using Espadilla agave (65 percent ABV)
“I considered this one of my top three mezcales in our selection. It reminds me of barbacoa coming out of the underground oven covered with avocado leaves. Definitely a fine mezcal and for me identifies Puebla as the king of Pechugas,” says Vasquez. Pechugas are seasonal mezcales made with a raw turkey or chicken breast hung over the still, as well as seasonal fruit. For mezcaleros, pechugas are a ritual beverage for baptisms, weddings, and religious holidays. For Pal Alma, criollo avocado and avocado leaves define the flavor profile of this subtle, smoky gem.
Mezonte (Jalisco), distilled by Santos Juárez using Alineño and Cimarrón agaves (47 percent ABV)
“According to Pedro Jimenez, the mastermind behind this brand, Mezonte promotes the preservation of mezcal traditions in Mexico (notably Jalisco and Michoacan) and working for fair wages for producers, is a production that utilizes ancient techniques,” says Vasquez. Fifteen years ago, a landslide uncovered underground fermentation pits used in this production hundreds of years ago. It showed agaves that had been crushed by wooden mallets over volcanic rock, which were then fermented in open air vats, and distilled in Filipino-style copper pot stills. Those stills were first introduced into Mexico by Filipino sailors via the Manila galleons during the 16th century.
Juarez only produces 550 liters of Mezonte’s earthy, mineral mezcal, with spice, herbs, and citrus added to the distillates, evoking a mythical, wild spirit that stands in contrast to the smooth, smoky mezcals that mainstream consumers prefer.
Rey Campero (Zoquitlán, Oaxaca), distilled by Ramiro Sánchez Altamirano using Marmorata agave (52.9 percent ABV)
Some things are too good not to share. Vasquez recalled his first encounter with this mezcal: “When I visited Candelaria Yegole to meet this family I saw Ramiro cultivating beans, corn, and vegetables on their farms. I asked Romulo, the son, if his dad ever produces for Rey Campero.” Romulo answered that his father only distilled for his friends and festivities in town. Vasquez encouraged Ramiro to label his peppery, minerally mezcal and send it to the CRM (mezcal certification board). Since 2009, it’s been available in the U.S.