Ron Cooper plans potent reading

New book chronicles the artist's passion for Mexico and mezcal

By Johanna DeBiase
Posted 11/28/18

One of the greatest pleasures in life is finding your passion and following it. Falling in love with something and pursuing it with all your heart can transform a life from mundane to extraordinary.

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Ron Cooper plans potent reading

New book chronicles the artist's passion for Mexico and mezcal


FINDING MEZCAL: A Journey into the Liquid Soul of Mexico, by Ron Cooper, 271 pp., Ten Speed Press, $30.

One of the greatest pleasures in life is finding your passion and following it. Falling in love with something and pursuing it with all your heart can transform a life from mundane to extraordinary.

In his new memoir, "Finding Mezcal," artist and founder of Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal, Ron Cooper, gives us a peek into his passionate pursuit of Mexico's sacred spirit.

Mezcal is the clear liquid distilled from mature agave or maguey plants and made in rustic distilleries called palenques. These palenques can be found in the remote villages of Oaxaca where the tradition of creating mezcal is passed down through generations. Village mezcals are traditionally drunk to mark celebrations such as birth, death and marriage as part of a tribal ceremony.

In 1990, Cooper travels to Oaxaca, Mexico to work on an art project and discovers his gift for finding the best mezcal. At the time, mezcal is not well-known in the U.S. It is mostly watered-down, chemically altered and sold to city folk and tourists who want to get high by consuming the worm at the bottom of the bottle, an invention contrived for tourism. When Cooper gets his first real taste of unadulterated mezcal, he knows he can never go back to drinking the inferior kind.

Cooper writes descriptively about the mezcal he tasted in these distant villages: "Pure and clean, it tasted of desert air and wild grasses, of earth and sky. Some were sweet and fruity, some spicy, some funky, some rich, some delicate. They had flavors I'd never encountered before, but even more extraordinary was the effect this mezcal had on me. It helped crack open my mind and spirit, allowing me to tap into the soft, pulsing source of my creativity, like nothing ever had or would again. I understood it as art, plain and simple."

"Finding Mezcal" melds a reference book with a memoir and surprisingly, it works. Thanks in part to the beautiful heft of the book, which resembles an upmarket cookbook, and the organization of its chapters.

From the first glance, the book speaks to the high quality of craftmanship that Cooper pursues in his mezcal. The hard cover is an embossed Ken Price painting, and his paintings appear at the beginning of each chapter as on the labels of Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal. Inside, the book is illustrated with beautiful photos of the landscape and people of Oaxaca. The paper it's printed on is a thick high-quality stock edged in green.

Divided into 11 chapters, each chapter introduces a new theme and a new mezcal producer along with their corresponding village where they grow and produce the mezcal. At the end of each chapter is a detailed chart showing production methods and the botany of the particular maguey plant used by that producer.

Everything is included: from the elevation in which the maguey is grown, to the age it is harvested, to the still size and water source, plus much more. The last section of "Finding Mezcal" features 40 mezcal cocktail recipes developed by chefs and bartenders from around the world.

But while this detailed compendium is rich with information, it is also rich with personal story.

Cooper is adventurous and goes to great lengths to find a specially rumored mezcal in the depths of the mountains down isolated dirt roads. He often drives a beat-up car or a rental with bald tires and is uncertain if the person he's looking for will even be there when he arrives as some villages have no telephones. He commonly approaches strangers who speak in a tribal tongue he can't understand, but instantly finds connection with their shared interest in mezcal.

Cooper writes in his prologue of a typical preliminary trip in search of mezcal, "I've been driving for hours. Haven't seen another soul for miles. And here, up ahead, a little old man leading a stubby burro is coming my way. I slow down as we approach one another. He doesn't seem surprised to see me, even though vehicles are as rare as UFOs on these mountain roads. He waves…I lean way out the open window of my pickup and ask, 'Dónde está el mejor?' Where is the best? He smiles. He knows what I mean."

Once you get past the name-dropping of all the famous white male artists that Cooper hangs out with, it is easy to get drawn into his world. In time, he creates strong relationships with his Mexican producers and their families, even becoming part of the family, a godfather to their grandchildren.

In many of the villages, Del Maguey production creates a new economy for people with very little. He brings other foreigners to visit with the producers and to learn from each other.

One comes to understand that Del Maguey is more than a product for Cooper and the circle of people he has formed around him. It is a passion--a passion for life, for spirit and for drink.

"But not everyone can do what I do," he writes. "As I've said, this is my one true don, my god-given gift. You don't find mezcal; mezcal finds you. I don't show up to a village and taste every mezcal made there. I just happen to meet the one true artist, the best in the village. I've managed to forge relationships with the most genuine and honest people, the greatest craftsmen everywhere I go. My don led me to the best mezcal. My artistic license allowed me to name it."

Ron Cooper reads from his new book "Finding Mezcal," Friday (Nov. 30), 7 p.m., at SOMOS, 108 Civic Plaza Drive. He is the final presenter for Prose Month. Tickets are $8, $5 for SOMOS members. For more information, call (575) 751-0081, email or visit


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