In 2014, while attending meetings of the American Craft Spirits Association and then the American Distilling Institute, master mezcal distiller Douglas French began to question why whiskey was not being produced in Oaxaca. After all, he pondered, the southern Mexico state had been acknowledged as the birthplace of corn, its domestication dating back somewhere between 11,000 and 14,000 years (depending on to which research one subscribes), with native strains still being cultivated today.
Mezcal of course is the agave based Mexican spirit most of which is distilled in the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca. And French is best known for his internationally distributed Scorpion Mezcal, launched two decades ago when artisanal mezcal was virtually absent in the American marketplace, and to be sure, not on the radar of most spirits enthusiasts, even tequila aficionados.
It was a combination of both fortuitous circumstance and some unproductive conduct by individuals in the administration of the Mexican agave spirits industry, which resulted in what had long been overdue; the birth of whiskey distilled in Oaxaca – under the name Sierra Norte Single Barrel Whiskey.
French’s mezcal distillery had the space to augment output and to diversify production as his American counterparts had been doing; he had been buying used equipment at auction and in the open marketplace at a furious pace yet uncertain as to its use in his mezcal production; and he became concerned about the skyrocketing price of agave as a consequence of both mezcal’s increasing global popularity and tequila producers buying Oaxacan raw material and earmarking it for the state of Jalisco’s tequila country. While French had hectare upon hectare of agave under cultivation, he was worried about being able to maintain competitive retail pricing if he was required to buy agave in the open market at inflated prices.
Finally, with aged mezcal being both out of vogue and unfashionable having not yet been “discovered” by neophyte mezcal aficionados jumping on the bandwagon, what to do with some 400 oak barrels.
So French began learning about whiskey, and experimenting with its production. While some of his existing equipment could be used in his new operation, and part of his aging stockpile of scrap metal could be adapted, he did have to invest in milling, mashing and filtering equipment not employed in mezcal production.
All was proceeding fairly well. But then beginning in August, 2015, and continuing for seven months, Scorpion was unable to supply its mezcal to its global retailers. French retooled. He cut hours of employment and salaries in half. In order to remain in business he had to. His employees had been being paid enough during regular times so as to enable them to survive and remain loyal to him. His unwavering commitment to the employment of women, predominantly single mothers, has been chronicled elsewhere.
Not able to ship mezcal, together with his faithful team he spent his time working on whiskey recipes, fabricating optimum equipment, branding Sierra Norte, sourcing native strains of corn in the villages, and planting it with the assistance of a team of ten male workers.
French’s Sierra Norte Single Barrel Whiskey is currently entering the US in three formulations, each matured in French oak casks so as to showcase its individual character and nuance; yellow corn, white corn and black corn, with red corn around the corner. He continues to work on recipes for additional whiskies, as well as for other spirits, but out of respect for French and journalistic integrity I have decided to keep details of these new projects under wraps. He expects that within two years his gross revenue will have doubled its previous high, meaning more work for more women, perhaps even some of the progeny of his devoted female staff.
French currently employs in his distillery on a full-time basis two men, and ten women, one of whom has been working continuously for 34 years, for French and before him for his late mother Roberta in the textile industry. Another has been with him for 24 years including four years prior to when French began distilling on his own and while he also was producing textiles for export.
Douglas French is likely the only American – born mezcal distiller in the state of Oaxaca; and now his wonderful whiskies, shockingly unheard of until now. His dedication to his trade as a distiller and as an employer of women in an industry dominated by male workers, is steadfast.
Perhaps history is repeating itself. It has been suggested that the promulgation of the North American Free Trade Agreement had an adverse impact on many small producers in the Mexican textile industry and that more generally 70% of Mexican industry was required to close because of it. In the wake of NAFTA, while struggling in the textile manufacturing business French found a way to keep himself and his staff above water, and in fact grew Scorpion Mezcal into a force to be reckoned with in the spirits market. And now, decades later, Scorpion has survived, and indeed thrived despite a dramatic increase in brands resulting from the recent mezcal boom and despite not being able to ship mezcal for more than half a year. What Scorpion did for French and staff previously in the textile business, Sierra Norte Single Barrel Whiskey is doing for them now. Growth and prosperity is returning.
Whiskey will likely never displace mezcal, either in Oaxaca or elsewhere in the country. But if pioneer and resilient innovator Douglas French has his way, the 2016 launch of his Sierra Norte Single Barrel Whiskey will at minimum have an impact on the retail spirits market both in the US and further abroad. Down the road this will undoubtedly mean growth and prosperity for French, his staff, and spirits production and producers throughout Mexico.
Sierra Norte Tasting Notes Compiled by Thom Bullock, Chef Pilar Cabrera and Alvin Starkman
Yellow Corn Whiskey:
Nose – notes of toasted corn, buttery popcorn with a hint of caramel
Palate – relaxed pleasing and extremely smooth with mellow grilled pineapple and subtle red chili spice
Finish – long and warm with honey, allspice and ash
White Corn Whiskey:
Nose – vanilla, almond and black squid ink with a subtle undercurrent of gym shoes
Palate – tones of green apple accented with metallic / lead
Finish – smooth with cinnamon spice
Black Corn Whiskey:
Nose – penetrating maraschino cherry and banana peel
Palate – deep ripe plantain
Finish – wedding cake with almond vanilla icing
Alvin Starkman owns and operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (http://www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).