It all began with a handblown blue bottle. Ron Cooper, the 60-year-old founder of New Mexico-based Del Maguey, Single Village Mezcal, is an artist who turns to Mexico for inspiration. In 1990, on a trip to Oaxaca, he began an art project that involved creating 50 blue bottles and filling them with prime mezcalthe Ur-tequila. "I'd cross rivers, go 12 hours up mountains, and I'd find these Zapotec farmers making mezcal," he recalls. The best were jaw-droppingly good: very smoky and extremely potent (topping out at 98.8 proof), but smooth enough for sipping. "I made it my mission to bring this elixir to my friends," Cooper says, and in 1995 he launched Del Maguey. After almost a decade of painstakingly promoting his mezcals, business is finally taking off: Sales shot up 40 percent last year.
Del Maguey's mezcals are produced slowly, naturally and in small quantities, which explains the pricefrom $40 to $200 per bottle. Hearts of the agave plant are roasted in pits for up to five days, then ground in horse-powered mills and fermented for 14 to 30 days. "It takes time, but we're extracting flavor," Cooper says. The flavor varies from mezcal to mezcal. He imports seven kinds, including Santo Domingo Albarradas, which is spicy with notes of pear, and Tobala, made from wild agave, with hints of tropical fruit (505-758-1211; www.mezcal.com).