Innovators

The Mezcalistas Founders Built a Community for the Agave Spirit

Susan Coss and Max Garrone helped fuel the mezcal revolution by promoting the spirit through a publication, an educational platform, and consumer events

Mezcalistas
Photo courtesy of Mezcalistas.

Awarded for: Starting as bloggers on mezcal, The Mexcalistas went on to become the premier mezcal educators and authorities on the spirit in North America, helping to drive the category forward.

Many great friendships are begun over a few drinks. For Susan Coss and Max Garrone of the Mezcalistas, theirs is no exception. The friendship was born over copitas of mezcal in the open-air patio of the restaurant La Biznaga in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2003. 

Coss worked in communications, public relations, and marketing in sustainable food and agriculture in Oakland, California; Garrone worked in San Francisco in new media at Salon.com and various digital properties for the San Francisco Chronicle. After meeting Coss in Oaxaca through a Facebook post, Garrone and his wife—who had formerly worked with Coss—accompanied her to mezcal distilleries and a mezcal pop-up experience in which the traditional product was paired with modern cuisine. 

The trip was revelatory, and the relationship continued afterward, culminating, according to Garrone, in the development of a blog in 2012 as “a way to continue the investigation into what mezcal is and how it fits into everything.” 

From Passion Project to Community

The blog became the Mezcalistas, which is now one of the most well respected sources of information on mezcal. It’s wide ranging, featuring everything from tasting notes on brands to discussions of the intricacies of regulatory issues and the controversies involved. The Mezcalistas has largely focused on artisanal mezcal and traditional producers. Not that Coss and Garrone have anything against bigger brands, but they see their work as helping to level the playing field. 

“These are people who were so far below the radar, especially at that time,” Coss says, “that it became an opportunity to start telling stories of people who had never had their stories told in public.” 

Susan Coss and Max Garrone
Left: Susan Coss. Right: Max Garrone. Photo courtesy of Mezcalistas.

Coss and Garrone quickly grew their blog into something much bigger. “Our blog is a niche publication,” says Coss, “but we have seen its] audience grow and grow over time.” Their website currently attracts 12,000 unique viewers monthly, and their newsletter, which has 4,000 subscribers, is growing at a rate of about 25 percent a year.

Besides their blog, Coss and Garrone also greatly developed their events, which started as tastings in their homes and morphed into underground parties at venues in the Bay Area where Coss and Garrone would taste attendees on the mezcal they brought back from Oaxaca, presenting it alongside music and art. The parties became so popular that in 2014, Coss and Garrone turned them into Mexico in a Bottle—educational events featuring tastings and classes on artisanal and traditional Mexican spirits.

They have since expanded into Chicago, New York City, Washington, D.C., San Diego, Denver, and Los Angeles, making theirs the largest mezcal tasting events in the U.S. Josh Phillips, the owner and mezcalier of Espita in Washington, D.C., says, “[Mexico in a Bottle] sells out every year and seems to attract new brands constantly. It is somewhat a microcosm of the mezcal industry. If you pay attention, you’ll see the coming year’s trends.”

Photo courtesy of Mezcalistas.

A Trusted Source

Along with the growth of Mezcalistas has come a sense of trust among the mezcal community. Coss and Garrone have maintained strict standards of conduct in relation to their work, supporting their website primarily through events, along with some advertising.

“Because Susan and Max are not affiliated with a specific brand,” says Misty Kalfoken, who manages marketing and education for Del Maguey Mezcal, “they can evaluate any topic from the perspective of what is truly best for the future of the category—and are able to offer praise or criticism without any concern about maintaining a company line. At the same time, they empower concerned consumers through education so that they can make informed purchasing decisions.”  

That is quite a responsibility, but Garrone insists that he and Coss are just interlocutors and that the farmers are the real experts.


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The Mezcal Collaborative

The Mezcalistas continues to grow. Last year, Coss and Garrone launched their newest initiative, the Mezcal Collaborative, to educate people in the industry outside of Mexico on mezcal, with educational modules that anyone can use, especially bartenders—whom Garrone calls the front line of mezcal education. Modules include topics such as “mezcal and cocktails” and “mezcal sustainability,” the latter being one of the most prominent concerns in mezcal production, in terms of both environmental sustainability and production sustainability. 

Through their website, events, and consulting, Coss and Garrone have built an essential resource for anyone in the trade. But what ties it all together is simple for Garrone. “Mezcal is a little more distinct from just another bottle behind the bar,” he says. “That’s our project here—to help push that along.”

Derek Brown is an expert on spirits and cocktails who is based in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Spirits, Sugar, Water, Bitters: How the Cocktail Conquered the World. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ideasimprove.

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