Cheech Marin is Up in (Mezcal) Smoke

Image: Tres Papalote

The resurgence of cocktail culture and the booming Craft Spirits and Craft Cocktail Movements have had fascinating results.

Most obvious is consumer interest in spending time and money in bars. In turn, that has led to the eagerness of guests to learn about bar operation, bartending, and even brand ambassadorship. It has, for the most part, been great for business.

Insatiable consumer curiosity—boosted by social media and the ease with which information can be obtained and shared online—has also led to a constant hunt for what’s “new,” or at least what lies outside of the mainstream. Tequila, whiskey and vodka may dominate on-premise sales but consumers have shown over the years that they’re ready to step away from the usual suspects.

Mezcal, as an example, has benefited greatly from this enthusiasm for “discovering” the next big thing. Consumer interest in mezcal hasn’t waned because it’s a fascinating spirit that easily imbues classic cocktails with complex flavors. Mezcal’s rise has had a positive influence on agave spirits, with Americans now curious about sotol and raicilla.

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Another intriguing development has been an increase in brand ownership and ambassadorship of spirits brands by celebrities. The business savvy among them are, like bar, nightclub and restaurant operators, always hunting opportunity. Growth in the hundreds of millions of dollars within the high-end and ultra-premium spirits segments doubtlessly appeal to business-minded celebs.

A downside to “celebrity spirits” is that sometimes the liquid inside the bottles relies far too heavily on the famous face selling it. Luckily, that’s not always the case and shrewd celebs are mostly aware that they should only lend a brand their celebrity in an authentic way.

One such celebrity is Cheech Marin who, like mezcal, boasts a rich history made all the more compelling by myth and rumor. The actor, comedian and businessman signed on a few years ago to be the face of Tres Papalote, mezcal made from wild cupreata agave and Espadín maguey. This is a case of the spirit coming before the celebrity. Cheech respects the history of mezcal and its role in Mexican history, tradition and myth.

Mezcal’s stratospheric rise in popularity was several centuries in the making. Its history includes religious rituals, the Spanish Empire, and conquistadors. However, the agave was exalted in Mexico long before the Spanish arrived. It was considered then to be a sacred plant and had a role in religious ceremonies and rituals. The piña, the heart of the agave, was cooked and its juice was fermented for consumption.

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It’s agave’s place in ritual that eventually led to mythic status. The story goes that a lightning bolt struck an agave. That strike cooked the agave, which led to it bursting open. When it opened, its consumable juice—the “elixir of the gods,” as it was called—was released. As many are now aware, mezcal is an agave spirit.

Mezcal’s story includes periods of prohibition, owing to the centuries during which segments of the Americas were under the control of the Spanish Empire. It’s believed it was Spanish conquistadors who, while experimenting with agave plants to make a fermented mash they could distill, created the first mezcal.

Hundreds of years later, enduring severe government restrictions, bouts of prohibition, and a reputation as a peerless intoxicant, mezcal is produced using a process similar to the one the conquistadors developed.

As bar professionals know, a spirit’s history is important. Storytelling isn’t just a great sales tool, it’s important for guest engagement. Explaining a history as rich and compelling as mezcal’s motivates guests to want to try it. Stories breed familiarity, encouraging a guest to step outside their comfort zone. An operator or bartender who acts as a guest’s guide while they embark on the adventure of discovering a new spirit—and find their favorite brands and accompanying cocktails—creates a valuable, engaged regular and brand evangelist.

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Of course, a spirit also needs to appeal to enough guests to make it worth an operator’s time and money. Tres Papalote’s two expressions, Tres Papalote Cupreata and Tres Papalote Espadin, strike a balance between approachable and assertive.

The Espadin expression is a 40-percent ABV joven (“young”) mezcal, meaning it’s unaged and clear. Unlike many “smoke bomb” mezcals, citrus is dominant on the palate. The smoke comes on later and makes this expression eminently sippable. Serve this to a mezcal newbie, someone who has tried mezcal but thinks they’re all big on smoke, or a guest who wants something refreshing but complex.

Cupreata is 46 percent ABV and is characterized by more smoke upfront and in the medium-to-long finish. Along with citrus, Tres Papalote Cupreata boasts more herbal notes. This is a great mezcal for guests familiar with the spirit who want to experience the smoke without it being overwhelming. As far as the story of Cupreata, this particular agave plant grows only on the mountain slopes of Michoacán and Guerrero, Mexican states along the Rio Balsas.

Both Tres Papalote mezcals are ideal for cocktails. Think the Margarita, Paloma and even the Cosmo, for starters. The bottles, which feature art from Cheech’s Chicano art collection, are eye catching on a back bar. Another compelling storytelling element concerns that art collection: it’s the largest of its kind in the world. Cheech travels to exhibit his collection so he can spread the word of the Chicano art style. Again, the art before the celebrity. He’s now also traveling to spread the word of mezcal.

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