“In the book, there’s a photograph of me at Hussong’s Cantina in Ensenada, Baja California, in 1962,” Ron Cooper says. “I had my head on the table, pretending to be passed out. It was the first time I had ever tasted mezcal and I was holding the bottle up, waiting for the worm to come down, and I got so wasted five days in a row, camping on the beach.”
Those five days on the beach sparked Cooper’s love of mezcal, and his book Finding Mezcal: A Journey into the Liquid Soul of Mexico breathes with that love. The current mezcal renaissance owes some credit to Cooper’s work as the founder of Del Maguey, a company focused on bringing the drink to Americans.
“I think there’s a few people that have mezcal for the artisanal quality, the family stuff. And there’s other people who are in there for the money. And that’s the way it’s always been,” Cooper says. “I’ve been making art for almost 50 years and never cared a bit about making money. The art world has changed to be very commercial, but there are still good artists. Same with mezcal. Part of it has gotten more commercial, and then there is the real liquid art of mezcal.”
Finding Mezcal is a celebration of that art. Part travelog, part cookbook, part photography collection, this book is what Cooper describes as a “road movie.”
“My agent was after me for two years to write a book about mezcal and I was like, I’m not going to write a book about mezcal,” Cooper says. “I’ll write a book about how I got here from there. So it’s more of an adventure.”
The recipes in Finding Mezcal help make the book particularly special. From a Minero Milk Punch to the drink named after Ron Cooper himself, you will discover how to enjoy mezcal in ways you never thought possible. Most drinks lean sharp and are frequently paired with citrus flavors, but the punch recipe proves to be a sweeter crowd-pleaser. One drink recipe mimics the flavor of a cigar, with a smoky finish. And for the more daring, the Dusty Roads recipe calls for a grasshopper garnish.
Mezcal is a Mexican liquor made out of the agave plant, not unlike tequila. Actually, tequila is a type of mezcal, in the way that chardonnay is a type of wine. The agave is harvested and then slowly roasted for four to five days, sometimes more. The roasted agave is crushed, fermented, and then distilled into mezcal. Every town has its own agave varieties and process, creating distinct flavors. Cooper found his passion in chasing these local flavors.
“I stood by the stream, hearing the rush of water over rocks as the spirit slid down my throat and into my belly,” Cooper describes in Finding Mezcal. “My feet lifted an eighth of an inch off the ground. I’d been tired but half an ounce jolted me back to life. A happy high. And the flavor—it was like being turned on. I felt like I was tasting everything around me—the earth beneath my feet, the rushing water, the slick rocks, the cold morning air, the mountains, the sky. It was as though layers were being peeled away from my mind like onion skins. I was transformed.”
It was this experience that inspired Cooper to create his own company in 1990. He wanted to support the Mexican villages he connected with and help Americans learn to love mezcal the way he did. The Del Maguey founder prefers not to mix mezcals from different villages, instead enjoying the variety that comes from celebrating each one for its individual flavor.
What will keep you coming back to this book is the beautiful photography, along with the deep love and intricate history that Cooper infuses it with. The close relationships he has built over years of discovering the purest mezcals create the heart of Finding Mezcal. His eye focuses on the human stories and connections behind “the liquid soul of Mexico.”
Cooper advises the best way to experience mezcal in Mexico is to “have two or three months … and be willing to take buses, go slow or take your own motorcycle.” But not everyone has that kind of time. If you take away nothing else from Finding Mezcal, he says: “Sip it, don’t shoot it. Take your time.”
Images reprinted with permission from Finding Mezcal: A Journey into the Liquid Soul of Mexico with 40 Cocktails by Ron Cooper with Chantal Martineau, copyright © 2018. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.