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The ‘Indiana Jones of mezcal’ takes on Big Liquor and tries to save a culture

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In May, I got sunburned standing outside in rural Mexico drinking moonshine from a recycled soda bottle. Sounds like the start to a Cinco de Mayo Hangover movie, but I was there because Erick Rodriguez—the “Indiana Jones of mezcal”—needed to meet with a local distiller outside Puebla, and they’d picked a Catholic feast day at the close of agave season, Día de la Santa Cruz, to do it. Marcelino Garcia’s village was celebrating at his rustic outdoor palenque, passing around plastic jugs of a booze, one of Mexico’s best, that few will ever taste.

Rodriguez, 42, tall and sturdy with a goatee, is a distributor and distiller who now runs the Almamezcalera tasting room in his native Ramos Millán, a neighborhood in Mexico City’s smallest borough, Iztacalco. Clad in cargo shorts and a bevy of silver bracelets, he had driven from Mexico City to buy any mezcal that Garcia would sell. To Rodriguez’s excitement, that ended up being 3,000 liters made from wild papalome agave, fermented in leather, distilled in a clay pot. On our way out, we made a side trip to see a second mezcalero, Navor. Everyone at his palenque was pretty blotto by then. (A man wearing a gun kept refilling my cup and insisting we both were “chingón.”) Navor didn’t have mezcal for sale, but since he and Garcia currently weren’t speaking, he asked for Rodriguez’s counsel on that. “It’s hard for these older mezcaleros,” Rodriguez explained later. “The more modernized their communities get, the more they sense they’re losing their culture.”

Rodriguez’s ability to find mezcal in the wilds of Mexico that tastes like barbecue sauce or washed-rind cheese has earned him an international following. He’ll pour you samples of a dozen, and somehow, no two are alike. His personal brand, Almamezcalera, has been behind the bar at the world-class Mexico City restaurant Pujol and Noma’s $600-a-head pop-up in Tulum. He’s hooked producers up to collaborate with brands like Wahaka and Clase Azul. (In fact, a Clase Azul rep tells me initially Rodriguez was their mezcal program.)

However, with Big Liquor now salivating over the untapped market—mezcal is the fastest-growing category, but barely 1/50th tequila’s size—Rodriguez’s job of selling unique mezcals practically lost to time for up to $1,000 a bottle suddenly gains a cultural imperative: Get these struggling mezcaleros’ excellent products into eager hands, and he protects their communities, the land’s rare agaves, and the craft itself.

“Agave producers are a species in extinction,” Raul Garcia Quirarte, president of Mexico’s National Committee for Agave Production, bleakly told Businessweek last October. The industry naturally cycles through boom-bust cycles because it’s among Earth’s slowest-growing plants: seven years for the fast ones to reach maturity. Of Mexico’s 200 species, blue agave is used for tequila, and another three dozen or........

© Fast Company