Mezcal, a distilled spirit made from an agave plant native to Mexico, was once regarded as inferior to tequila, its more high-profile, industrialized cousin. It was also known for the worm in the bottle, a marketing gimmick once employed by low-quality producers. Today, mezcal's popularity is booming, not only landing on cocktail menus around the country but also spurring full bars devoted to the stuff.
Such bars have opened in New York City; Houston; Washington, D.C.; and Los Angeles. Guelaguetza, the famous Oaxacan restaurant in Koreatown, has a bar stocked with more than 50 bottles of mezcal. Las Perlas, a downtown mezcal bar, serves creative cocktails that include poblano peppers and roasted chapulines (grasshoppers). In September, Mezcal & Tacos, a bar and restaurant by chef Rocio Camacho, opened in Bell.
Javier and Jaime Mateo, brothers from Mexico's Oaxaca state, have watched both mezcal and their own brand, Los Javis, grow in popularity. In 2011, they launched Los Javis in Los Angeles with just one case, in one restaurant and one liquor store. Now Javier, who runs the distillery in Oaxaca, and Jaime, who handles distribution from Culver City, have seen their mezcal labels land on the shelves of all the Trader Joe's stores in California, where they are sold for $27.99 and $29.99.
Theirs is a story that starts in Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca, home to much of the region's mezcal production. This is where in 1979, the brothers' father, Javier Mateo, and his brother built a palenque, a mezcal distillery.
Unlike most other brands that source already-made mezcal from individual mezcaleros (mezcal distillers), Los Javis does its own growing, harvesting, exporting and distribution. Control over the agave-to-bottle process ensures that the earthy, smoky flavor created by roasting the agave hearts for several days in the ground does not overpower the flavor from the terroir — a result of the microclimate where the plant is grown.
The Mateo family maintained a small production until 1994, when a severe economic recession hit Mexico. In 1999, Javier immigrated to Los Angeles in search of economic opportunity, working in restaurants as a bartender and manager.
Eleven years later, Javier returned to Oaxaca with his wife and two young children after his father was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Both brothers were living in Los Angeles at the time and wanted to go home to be with their father, but one of them needed to stay in L.A. to continue distribution. Since they could not come to a decision, they flipped a coin to determine their futures, and Javier won.
Javier launched the Los Javis label in 2003, named to honor his first-born son and his father, both named Javier. "At that moment, I decided — together with my family — to leave a legacy for my children and their children," said Javier. "We are not only mezcaleros, but also the guardians of our traditions and of the legacy that our parents and grandparents left us. Part of that legacy is to pass on the torch and to not lose the tradition."
Los Javis employs 50 members of the local Oaxacan community. The company also employs residents of San Juan Teitipac, their mother's hometown, in the agave-growing process. Their agave has won awards in competitions for the last five years for its size, weighing in at a massive 620 pounds.
For several years after the business was launched, Jaime kept his day job. He worked at Terrace, a Venice Beach restaurant, during the day and delivered mezcal to bars and restaurants around the city at night.
"I often make trips to downtown L.A. at 1 a.m. when I get an urgent text message from a bartender," said Jaime, who has close relationships with many local bartenders and restaurateurs. In 2013, he walked into Mercado restaurant and put a bottle down on the counter in front of the manager, Marco Ramos. Ramos was so inspired by Jaime's dedication that he went to work for him. Today, he's part of a team of eight that is expanding the company in California and Europe.
In a time of increasing tension between the United States and Mexico, Los Javis represents a cross-border survival story. Over the last six years the company has expanded to eight countries and opened 120 accounts in the Los Angeles area alone. The brothers' dream is to leave a legacy for the next generation by continuing to expand the brand and by creating a sustainable economy in Santiago Matatlán.
Portnoy is a professor at USC where she teaches classes on food, culture and social justice issues in Latino Los Angeles. Her recent book is "Food, Health, and Culture in Latino Los Angeles."