I’ve been hit with wine; I’ve been hit with vodka, hit with tequila, and I’ve been hit with whiskey,” says country music star Toby Keith of the various liquor endorsement opportunities that have come his way. “All the whiskey’s already spoken for … and everyone’s got a vodka, and one of my buddies does tequila. … [But] there was no one doing mezcal.”
There’s no doubting Keith’s horse sense. In the six months since he released Wild Shot, it has become the best-selling premium mezcal in the U.S. Shot and a Beer, Keith’s business venture, has sold 10,000 Wild Shot cases this year, says Vincent Viola, Keith’s partner in the company and its president. The pair hope to sell 100,000 cases a year by 2015. Keith has the advantage of being able to sell the hooch at his 11 I Love This Bar & Grill franchises, several of which are affiliated with Caesars/Harrah’s casinos.
While celebrity liquor ambassadors are nothing new, more and more stars are becoming actively involved in the enterprise they promote (at least according to the press releases). Marilyn Manson, an absinthe aficionado, worked for months with his partner testing recipes before coming up with Mansinthe. Rapper Ludacris reportedly studied cognac production in France to perfect his own brand, Conjure. But one gets the sense that for Keith, the appeal of mezcal lies more in its rising sales than in its distinctive smokiness. Although he frequently rhapsodizes about alcohol—“Whiskey for my men/ Beer for my horses,” he sings in his No. 1 country hit, a duet with Willie Nelson—mezcal figures in none of his recordings. In concerts he occasionally changes the lyrics to “mezcal for my horses,” but never does he sing about its being fit for human consumption.
Yet the Oklahoma entertainer says he fell in love with mezcal more than 25 years ago, when he was on the road and would cross the border into Mexico. Keith’s fond memories of mezcal triggered a light-bulb moment when he read about the spirit’s growing popularity in a magazine article.
Several artisanal mezcals such as Del Maguey, Los Amantes, Ilegal, and Los Nahuales have been winning awards and critical praise. In 2010 at the prestigious San Francisco World Spirits Competition, Del Maguey was judged Distiller of the Year in a field of 1,106 spirits from 61 countries. All liquor in Mexico made from the maguey, or agave, plant is mezcal. Tequila is a type of mezcal. By law, tequila may be made only from blue agave; mezcal is distilled from two dozen other varieties.
Keith admits his research into the category wasn’t extensive, other than determining that it was underexploited. “I didn’t go down there,” he says. “They just sent me the bottles.” Viola provided Keith with several from Mexican distillers before the songwriter decided on La Perla. Keith isn’t certain of La Perla’s location. “I want to say [the distiller is] in the eastern part of Guadalajara.” (Close. It is in San Luis Potosí, just a hundred or so miles northeast.)
The marketing material on Wild Shot claims it is made from 100 percent green agave. “All good mezcals are made from green agave,” Keith says. Del Maguey’s founder, Ron Cooper, who lives half the year near Tlacolula, Oaxaca—Mexico’s mezcal capital—says flatly, “There is no such thing as green agave.” The most commonly used agave in the state of San Luis Potosí is Maguey salmiana, which is sometimes referred to as maguey verde, though rarely is it the sole ingredient in mezcal. The term “green agave,” however, appears to exist only in the vernacular of marketers, playing off the better-known blue agave that tequila is made from. Viola confirms this, but claims, “Anyone involved in the production of mezcal, when talking to gringos, refers to the maguey as green agave.”
Cooper and Ansley Coale, Los Nahuales’s importer, also question Keith’s claim that La Perla’s workers “go out in the desert and pick wild green agave” rather than cultivate it. “We’re talking about hundreds of tons of agave,” Coale wrote in an e-mail. “It’s pretty hard to believe.”
Then there’s the worm. Wild Shot’s publicity campaign shows Keith with his cowboy hat over his eyes, a rakish grin, and a moth larva hanging from his lips, recalling the brand’s slogan: “Blame it on the Worm.” While both Keith and Viola claim the worm is an essential part of the mezcal experience, Cooper says that in 25 years of seeking out the best palenqueros, or distillers, in Oaxaca, not one has offered him a bottle with a worm in it.
Mexican journalist Carmen Valle Septien says the practice of pairing mezcals with worms was devised only half a century ago. In 1950 a distiller named Jacobo Lozano Paez noticed that the maguey worms, which are moth larvae, gave the mezcal a slightly different flavor. He began adding the worms to his bottles as a marketing gimmick, even attaching a little bag that contained salt mixed with powdered, dehydrated worms. In actuality, a large presence of larvae on the leaves of the maguey may indicate that the plant is diseased.
Nevertheless, Keith and Viola feel the worm is important to Wild Shot’s legend. Viola has plans to import jars of maguey worms for use by establishments that carry Wild Shot. If they wish, customers can get a worm in every shot. If the practice catches on, Viola hopes to market six-ounce jars of maguey worms to consumers.
The big trick for Wild Shot is getting people who aren’t mezcal aficionados to drink it. Tequila has the advantage of being synonymous with margaritas. But because the best mezcals have a deep, smoky flavor—the result of roasting the maguey in a pit—the spirit does not lend itself easily to cocktails. Viola says this is one of the main reasons he and Keith picked La Perla. The distillery uses an above-ground system that produces a more neutral-flavored mezcal that Viola feels will be more acceptable to North American palates and will mix more easily. Keith says they employed a mixologist to come up with a signature cocktail first dubbed “I Love this Bar-garita,” which Keith changed to the more mellifluous “Blue Mezcalita.” The drink has “a shot of mezcal, blue curaçao, and one ingredient, maybe fruit juice [actually, orange liqueur], and they blend it with ice just like a margarita,” says Keith. “It’s like a chick drink, you know?” Keith, for his part, prefers his mezcal neat. “Like a whiskey,” he says.