"“My ultimate vision is to support my local community and our sister communities financially or through collaborations to improve their education..."
Puente International: In The Spirit of Change
Assuming you haven’t lived under a rock this decade, you’ve probably noticed that hand-crafted, small batch tequila is, like, a thing these days. What you may not have noticed is the fact that mezcal, tequila’s parent liquor (if you will), is also experiencing quite the boom.
It’s safe to say that Salvador Picazo Chavez has noticed. Cofounder of heritage spirit company Puente Internacional, a carefully curated collection of libations predicated on old-world growing and distilling methods, Sal is leading the charge to bring small-batch mezcal northward and into the hands of discerning restaurateurs and consumers.
The Rich Roots of Mezcal
Sal has a long history with mezcal, and his memories run deep. “I had grown up watching my father and his 12 siblings drink mezcal from unmarked bottles in our trips to Cotija, Michoacan,” he explains. “It was a part of my upbringing and childhood until I started being able to drink. I won’t state how old I was when that happened,” he says with a knowing chuckle, “but it was Mexico, so it was okay.”
In Sal’s memories, the mezcal was always paired with cotija, the crumbly, slightly funky cheese that is the city’s namesake. “It was always a sip of mescal, a bite of the cheese,” Sal recalls. And making the mezcal was every bit as traditional as drinking it.
Sal tells stories of how long ago his grandfather used to hire a local mezcalero to come harvest agave from the family ranch when Sal’s father was very young. The mezcalero would take the agave, make the mezcal, and come back to give half the batch to his grandfather, and keep the other half for payment.
“My father remembers this vividly and said that he can still visualize the man showing up in his burro, cutting away at the agave and walking away with the agave’s pina mounted to his burro, and then coming back weeks later with the juice,” Sal says. “This story was the foundation to my love for this project and passion for its pursuit. That’s what started the whole project.”
Sal’s raison d’être was to give drinkers a taste of traditional Mexico that moves beyond the narrow scope of tequila and exposes them to the broader cultural heritage of the country’s far-flung regions.
“I knew that mezcal was a growing category here in the United States and was earning a presence,” he says. “But it was solely from Oaxaca.” In other words, it was tequila.
Confused? Think of it like this: tequila is a type of mezcal, just as champagne is a type of sparkling wine. But just as the name “champagne” is restricted to sparkling wines from the Champagne region of France, tequila is produced exclusively in the state of Oaxaca. When tequila originally applied to be a unique product, in fact, the application literally read “mezcal de tequila,” because the spirit was made in a Jalisco municipality named … tequila.
But at least 30 other types of mezcal exist that vary by their region of origin and distilling technique. Sal wanted to introduce the north to a fuller understanding of the spirit’s many faces, and use some of that enthusiasm to support artisanal growers and distillers in regions beyond Oaxaca. Soon enough, he found the mezcal he wanted to introduce to the world.
Enter La Luna
Knowing he wanted to export a version of his father and grandfather’s mezcal, he headed to Michoacan. Cotija was out, because he needed a region that was already governmentally certified to produce mezcal. Quickly he found himself steered toward the town of Etucuaro, generally, and the Perez Escot family, specifically.
After a tour of their 300-acre property, he was sold on La Luna Mezcal, a traditional spirit made from Agave cupreata. Upon harvest it is fire-roasted, hand-macerated, fermented in open-air vats and then distilled for market.
One of the main selling points of the Perez Escot brothers’ approach is biodynamic and sustainable approach to farming. For one thing, they let their plants go to seed. This is an unusual practice in an industry that increasingly harvests every plant and replaces them with clones (the little offsets or “pups” that sprout at the base of the plants). Letting plants go to seed instead of using their pups takes longer, but helps preserve the genetic diversity of the plant species – both within the farm’s stock, and beyond its borders, where wild agave seedlings take root.
In addition, the family follows traditional methods that dictate letting the plants mature for 8 to 10 years. “Now growers will start to harvest at 3 or 4 years,” Sal says, “but that’s not true to what the spirit traditionally is.”
Plus, harvesting early brings the danger of producing so much mezcal all at once that the market spikes, demand overruns supply and the traditional, hand-made nature of the spirit becomes diluted in an effort to quickly fill the resulting void. With mezcal sales growing at a massive rate – 279% between 2005 and 2015 in the United States – that’s already a risk.
And sustainable , traditional mezcals such as La Luna can help fight it.
Expanding Bar Offerings
Sal wasn’t satisfied with one spirit, though. Following a tip to Michoacan’s economic development board, he set his sights on Uruapan, where the Pacheco family was said to make a delicious, traditional-style rum.
At first, he had difficulty getting in touch with the Pachecos as none of his calls were ever returned. Finally he buttoned on a suit and went in person, and was gladly met by the owner, who told him they were glad he’d come in person since picking up the phone was a no-no in the area: “If you pick up the phone, they’ll tell you they have your grandfather, uncle, mother, cousin – and they’re going to kill them. So you don’t pick up the phone.”
Despite the rough start, Sal loved the people and the Gustoso Aguardiente Rum, and decided to carry it northward as well. He now had two offerings in his bag, but Puente Internacional didn’t take its present form until Sal was put in touch – via Tequila Matchmaker app creator Grover Sanschagrin – with Frank Mendez, purveyor of Tequila Gran Dovejo.
“[Sanschagrin] said, ‘Why don’t we work together and combine our products into a portfolio?’ So we conceptualized it, and the portfolio seemed more well-rounded,” Sal explains. “That became the last piece of the puzzle that launched us into the market.”
A Better World Through Spirits
With his offerings firmly in line, Sal turned his attention to effecting change both at home and in the Mexican provinces from which Puente spirits were sourced.
“My ultimate vision is to support my local community and our sister communities financially or through collaborations to improve their education,” he says. Supporting his community isn’t new to him: He’s currently the only Latino on the Sonoma Valley Unified School Districts board (the student population of which is 50 percent Latino), and grows organic produce in the back garden of the restaurant Picazo Café that he founded with his parents in 2009.
But now his goal is to make an impact specifically related to the liquor he loves. One way he thinks about this is through his goal to “positively impact the least-paid person in the process.” In other words, whoever makes the least for the production of a certain spirit, Sal wants do the most for them by upping wages and providing affordable housing, for example.
Think of the jimador, a type of foreman who brings in and supervises workers during the agave harvest. “These individuals work the hardest, but they typically don’t get paid as much as the next person in production,” Sal explains. His goal is to help change that.
In Uruapan, at the Gustoso Aguardiente facility, the focus is on employing single mothers as well as young men. Where another distillery of equivalent size might employ eight people, Gustoso Aguardiente employs eighty workers from disadvantaged populations. This helps “to combat cartel work by keeping young men off the street so that they have a wage through working rather than illegal activity,” Sal explains.
“The overarching theme of our company is that with these spirits we can build a business that can and will make a difference,” he adds.
Let’s drink to that.