Fourteen years ago, Texas native William Scanlan was sitting at the bar of a favorite Mexican joint, sipping on tequila and daydreaming about a vacation when the manager pulled him aside to discuss a new kind of agave.
“Come on and try it,” he said. “It will blow you away.”
Scanlan was intrigued.
The spirit was Del Maguey Mezcal, one of the first artisanal mezcals to hit international markets, and the tasting was led by Del Maguey founder and world-renowned artist Ronald (Ronnie) Cooper, a legend in his own right and in the resurgence of interest in Mexico's “liquid art.” Scanlan was impressed by the strong, smoky liquor and the stories behind the it.
Scanlan sampled the other agave from time to time, but didn't really dive into mezcal until 2006, when he moved to Oaxaca for business.
“I was exposed to a lot more mezcals,” he said. Observing that he later moved to Mexico City, but returned to Oaxaca several times each year, he added, “I always sort of had mezcal on my mind and came to the conclusion that I wanted to do my own brand.”
Scanlan went to conferences and workshops, where he learned about distillation, milling, and fermentation techniques, and met industry experts like the makers of Real Minero, the first brand that captured his attention. Scanlan realized that adding to the competition didn't jive with his passion for the spirit.
“I began to really appreciate the cultural and historical value of mezcal production,” Scanlan says.
He wanted to share the stories that were already out there. In September 2013, during Scanlan's second or third agave conference, the Texan approached Real Minero and explained his respect for the label and desire to bring it stateside. He also contacted Rey Campero, another family-run business that has been passing down the making of mezcal from one generation to the next.
There was “a lot of trust and patience as I was getting licensed and finding distributors and trying to bring the product into the U.S.,” says Scanlan, who now runs Heavy Métl Premium Imports in Austin.
Though Scanlan has only been importing since last July, his relationships with his labels have been years in the making.
“It's really more than a commercial relationship,” Scanlan says. “I have very intimate relationships with the families. When I go down to Oaxaca, it's mostly just hanging out. Most of the business happens over the phone instead of when we're together. What I'm doing is picking the best of the best from Oaxaca in order to build up a name as an importer.”
He currently represents Rey Campero, Real Minero, and Mezcalosferea by Mezcoloteca — a company whose name translates as “library of mezcal” — and feels he's doing something special by focusing on micro-batch brands.
“Mezcal is at a different point than it was even a few years ago,” Scanlan says. “People are asking more questions and getting more interested.”
Moving forward, Scanlan is hoping to arrange conferences and workshops in which he can educate audiences and really tell the stories behind the products he imports.
“[This is] much more about the people and the families that are doing this and about them being able to tell their stories rather than me telling my story, which isn't all that interesting,” Scanlan says.
Last fall, he found himself in the Bay Area, where he not only peddled his products, but also did a tasting with the booze experts at Cask (and learned some tricks of the trade from mezcal masters at Oakland's Calavera).
“I was totally blown away by the menu that they put together,” Scanlan says. “Very innovative, very cool.”
Imported by Heavy Métl Premium Imports, you can find Rey Campero, Real Minero, and Mezcalosferea here in the Bay Area at JVS imports, Cask, Epicurean, and Healthy Spirits. But Scanlan wants to see the Mexican spirit move into unexpected places, too.
“I'd love to see mezcal in a French restaurant or Indian restaurant,” he said. His model is Champagne, which was traditionally paired only with French food, but which can now be found in fine dining and bars of all sorts.
Scanlan is also passionate about education.
“For me, this truly has become about preserving the culture and tradition behind mezcal. I really want to give back to the communities in meaningful ways.” His first effort on this front has been the construction of a library and community space in Santa Catarina Minas, a small town in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.
Scanlan's first words to any bartender, restaurant owner, mixologist, or patron are similar to the ones that first pulled him toward mezcal: “You ought to try it. Take a chance. It'll blow you away.”