The Essence of Oaxaca, Bottled

Apr. 5, 2019

Mezcal Vago


Mezcal Vago’s co-founder Judah Emanuel Kuper didn’t fall in love with mezcal on the first sip.

Maybe it was because he and his friend Dylan Sloan were looking for breakfast that spring day in Oaxaca. Maybe it was because the self-identified “ski bum” wasn’t much of a drinker. Or maybe it was because it was handed to him in a gasoline can — yes, a gasoline can.

But it didn’t taste that great to him.

“Looking back later, I realize how fateful that was,” Kuper said.

Fateful, because years later, he fell so in love with the culture behind mezcal, he and Sloan started Mezcal Vago, a collection of small-batch mezcals that’s now part of Samson & Surrey’s growing portfolio.

We recently chatted with Judah Emanuel Kuper and talked about the people, the history, and the rich culture behind every bottle of Mezcal Vago.

 illustrated image of agave plant

The Origin Story

Like any good origin story, this one has some drama: A love triangle. A fist fight. A trek into the mountains!

Let’s start back in 1994, when Kuper and Sloan decided to go to Oaxaca. The friends had met in Tulleride, CO, where they worked tourist jobs during the ski seasons, and then would travel the rest of the year. Kuper had been to Mexico many times already, but he had never tasted mezcal until that trip.

And it wasn’t totally by choice.

As he and Sloan were crossing the zocalo (town square) on their way to a taqueria for breakfast, they ran into a crowd of young Oaxacaños who had clearly been celebrating all night. They were waving gasoline cans, which they handed over, encouraging Kuper and Sloan to drink the mezcal that was inside.

“I didn’t drink mezcal for some time after that,” Kuper said, laughing.

He might not have fallen for mezcal that day, but he and Sloan did both fall for Oaxaca, where they ultimately opened a beachside bar on an island west of Puerto Escondido — and where the real romance, both with mezcal and Kuper’s future wife, began.

Unlike with mezcal, when Kuper met his wife Valentina, it was love at first sight. She had previously been engaged to another man, hence the love triangle and subsequent fist fight. (You can read all about it here.) 

The trek into the mountains is of course true as well, as Valentina’s family not only lived there, but had been making mezcal there for generations. As he joined the family, he learned more and more about the art, the process, and the history behind their connoisseur mezcals.

“I really fell in love with the culture behind mezcal and the connection to the Earth,” Kuper said. “The sense of place you get from mezcal … it takes you on this journey. The simple, slow process blew my mind.”


 illustrated image of plant


The Mezcaleros

It’s clear why Kuper could learn so much about mezcal’s process and history from his new family: His father-in law Aquilino García and his family had been making mezcal for at least five generations.

García is now an exclusive producer for Mezcal Vago, and is a shareholder in the company, as are the other three mezcaleros, Tío Rey, Emigdio Jarquin Ramirez, and Joel Barriga.

García’s story and process is representative of Mezcal Vago’s overall approach to their mezcals: his palenque (distillery) is on the family ranch in Candelaria Yegolé, three hours outside of Oaxaca City. And he does nearly all the work by himself, using a traditional stone tahona to grind the cooked agave. The bottling is done by hand in Oaxaca City.


Image of Aquilino García making mezcal, with quote 'The whole idea behind Vago is to connect the person drinking it to the mezcalero who made it.'


“The best mezcals come from the humblest makers,” Kuper said.

And Mezcal Vago is committed to each of their mezcaleros and their craft, something Kuper takes incredibly seriously.

“We wanted to make sure everyone was paid fairly, and that’s not just about handing a farmer a check or looking at price per liter,” he said. “We look at the whole picture and think about creating generational change.”

illustrated image of mezcal bottles

The Bottles

Every consumer who picks up a bottle of Mezcal Vago can see this commitment to the mezcaleros, right on the label.

Each bottle of Mezcal Vago lists all the information about that mezcal: who made it, the agave, the pueblo, the batch size, the distillation date. It also includes the age, although all Mezcal Vago’s mezcals are joven (young).

“The whole idea behind Vago is to connect the person drinking it to the mezcalero who made it,” Kuper said. “We’re really thankful to have Samson & Surrey, as well as Breakthru, to help with that. Consumers care more about where their food comes from than ever before, and I love that mezcal fits right into that movement.”

The bottles also give a glimpse into Vago’s other huge commitment: to sustaining the natural resources crucial to the future of mezcal. Each label is made with 100% recycled agave. “When you pick up a bottle, you’ll notice the texture of that label immediately,” Kuper said.

Additionally, they consider the complexities of the agave plant, which takes 15 to 20 years to mature. “We plant three plants for every one we take from the ground, and plant more varieties than we harvest,” he said. “As we scale and grow production, we’re really looking forward to future projects in the works for continued environmental impact.”


Aquilino García in the field, along with quote, from Judah Kuper: 'I really fell in love with the culture behind mezcal and the connection to the Earth. The sense of place you get from takes you on this journey.'

The Essence of Oaxaca

While Kuper always recommends trying two mezcals at once since they’re all so different, for someone new to Mezcal Vago, the one to try first is the Elote. It’s agave and corn, but not just any corn. This is sundried, toasted heirloom corn that the families have been growing for thousands of years.

“I love that it’s so simple—just a light infusion of toasted corn,” he said. “There’s nothing more representative of the essence of rural Oaxaca.

It truly gives a sense of place.”


Oaxaca rural landscape

Photos by Joanna Pinneo, courtesy of Samson & Surrey.

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