Highway to Heaven

15 October, 2015

Ever since growing up in the valleys of Ojoi, California, close to the Chumash people, Cooper had been drawn to indigenous people. In Oaxaca he was fascinated by the weavers and indigenous art and made a lot of deep friendships. Cooper is now godfather to “six, seven, or eight children” – so many it’s hard to count.

But above all it was the mezcal. “I spent days asking Indians where the best mezcal was. I couldn’t under- stand a word but I could follow their hands. I would drive for 12 hours. I began to understand the ritual of mezcal. Bringing it to the world was like bringing a cultural ritual. It wasn’t a business it was an art project.” Back then the Palenqueros stored their elixir in whatever they could get hold of, often gas canisters. Bottles were certainly in short supply. Cooper would return to the US with plastic water bottles of his favourite mezcal for his friends. Indeed, to this day, if you see Cooper with a water bottle, don’t think it’s for hydration.

One day in 1990 his benevolent smuggling came a cropper. “What is that shit,” the presumably ignorant border official asked him before demanding he poured the five-gallon jug away. “I decided right there no one would tell me I couldn’t bring mezcal into the US. So I got a licence.”

Cooper has more artistic than logistical instincts. For years it had just been about “making the good shit available to friends”, Fedexing meczal across the border. By 1995 he formed Del Maguey, but it was still about “liquid art”, not making money. Amazingly he acquired the domain mezcal.com, which he owned until donating it recently to the Mezcal Consejo Regulador. Cooper was also the first to market single varietal mezcal which, along with single village (terroir-led), became his signature style.

In 2011 Cooper signed Sazerac as Del Maguey’s importer. The brand has proliferated and ignited the category. Bringing mezcal to the world was Cooper’s aim, yet not his greatest success. “When I arrived [in the Zapotec villages] everyone slept on the floor – kids and grandparents together. Now they have beds and toilets and show- ers. I provided them a dependable income. I paid what producers thought their mezcal was worth. One 80-year- old producer gets 20 times what the others get. I just average the cost out. I’ve changed so many lives in Oaxaca. This is my greatest success – without even trying.”

Cooper’s impact has been significant. Just consider that mezcal production had been in a slump since the 1950s. Agave takes seven years to grow and mezcal is labour intensive to produce so had largely been replaced in Mexico by cheaper Guatemalan aguardente. Mezcal’s foe, as its saviour, had come via the Pan American Highway.

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