Iván Saldaña Wants to See Mezcal Evolve

4/11/2018

 

Iván Saldaña has spent most of his life studying plants, fascinated by their ability to evolve while being rooted and exposed. 

“I fell in love with plants, biologically speaking, because they are organisms that cannot run away from things,” Saldaña said. “They can’t hide either. They are stuck where they are, which means that all calamity and difficulty must be solved from the inside out. Plants, especially agave, are extremely resilient organisms.” .

Saldaña is the founder of Montelobos Mezcal Joven, a balanced and complex mezcal recognizable on back bars and store shelves by its cloudy-grey, squared-off bottle as well as the grey ”lobo” wolf on its label. 

In addition to creating Montelobos, Saldaña is also recognized around the world as the premier authority of all things agave. He earned his PhD in biochemistry and physiology from the University of Sussex, which is interesting because Great Britain is not exactly a region of the world known for its bountiful agave fields.

“I still remember pitching my project to the dean and asking the university for funding,” Saldaña said. “I got laughed at. ‘If you want to study agave, what are you doing in England?’

“Eventually, I convinced them otherwise and they accepted my project. I did, however, have to source and transport a couple of tons of live agave to the greenhouses in England,” Saldaña said.

Despite his success and notoriety in the labs, Saldaña knew he wanted to move beyond research and create something of his own. That something would eventually become Montelobos.

The agave fields of Montelobos

Making Montelobos from Scratch 

When Saldaña decided to take the leap into making mezcal, he knew he wanted to take a different approach than other brands had done in the past. 

Up until then, most brands were brought to market by people with limited mezcal experience. They’d travel to Oaxaca, buy liters of mezcal from a producer up front, and then rebottle it, and sell it in the U.S. market. For Saldaña, that approach opened the door for too many poor quality mezcals to make their way across the border. So instead of simply buying the mezcal and reselling it, Saldaña decided to make the mezcal himself, but with the help of an experienced partner.

“In the beginning, I thought, ‘I must learn from the best,’” Saldaña said. “I want to make a mezcal with someone side-by-side, in their kitchen. I have to partner with someone who has been creating mezcal for a long time.” 

After a few trips to Oaxaca, Saldaña eventually reconnected with a family he had met a few years back when they had just become Certified Organic. The family had invested heavily in their agave fields, but they were having a difficult time developing a market for their mezcal. 

Montelobos agave roast

“I came to them and offered to buy all of the agaves they had invested in, and all of the mezcal we would produce from them,” Saldaña said. “We’d compensate them for everything, including storage.

“‘We’re going to create a brand from scratch’ I told them.”

Saldaña must have been convincing as the family accepted his offer and together they set to work developing what eventually would become Montelobos. 

“They were completely open to letting me play around,” Saldaña said. “We experimented with different woods, different fermentation times, and various oven bricks. Eventually, we landed on a mezcal that was consistent and balanced but was still multi-dimensional and had a beautifully smoky and funky character. We had created Montelobos.”

The Cocktail Conundrum

Saldaña isn’t ignorant to the fact that most American consumers first encounter mezcal as the base spirit in a cocktail. To him, this is both a blessing and a curse. 

On one hand, cocktails can be a great launching pad for unusual spirits that are unfamiliar to consumers. On the other hand, in Mexico – as well as Saldaña’s own home – mezcal is distilled to be enjoyed neat. 

Serving Montelobos Mezcal

He also sees some serious problems with mezcals that are created solely for cocktail application.

“To make cocktails in the U.S. requires a product to fall within a certain budget,” Saldaña said. “To make a mezcal fall in that budget, you basically try to take almost every single drop of alcohol you can produce – heads, hearts, and tales –  into your product so you can bring the price down.” 

The problem with this, as Saldaña explained, is that these lower-priced mezcals are often also of a lower quality, and while they may be suitable to be mixed into a drink, a consumer might have a bad experience sipping it straight.

“A mezcal produced solely for cocktail usage is not always going to work,” said Saldaña. “I think everybody has to start asking is how are we going to move on to the next level of mezcal appreciation in the U.S. Maybe it is serving a mezcal as a small sip next to a cocktail? I’m not sure, but this is not a problem we can run from. Interest in mezcal is only growing and how we’re selling it to consumers is something that needs to evolve.”

Matching Montelobos with the Market

Saldaña considers Montelobos to be the industry’s educational mezcal. Its agave heart shines in a drink, but the nuances of its soul are still best appreciated in isolation. It’s adaptable and can evolve to fit its environment and application.

Montelobos Mezcal Bottle

 
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