When he was a boy, William Scanlan’s housekeeper from Monterrey taught him and his sister Spanish at the same time they learned English. She would take them to see Mexican cinema in San Antonio and instilled in him an ongoing love for Mexican culture.
That had been his father’s wish — for his kids to be bilingual. But his father, William Scanlan Jr., could not have known then how much his son would later embrace the country along Texas’ southwestern boundary.
Now, Scanlan’s house in West Austin is a colorful shrine to Mexican folk art. Inside, walls of dusty orange and vibrant blue serve as the backdrop to all manner of sculpture and other pieces, from animal figurines to Day of the Dead likenesses. Scanlan collects Latin American art in his spare time, ever since a backpacking trip across Mexico in college — but that’s not the passion paying his bills.
Recently, he launched a new business, following a couple others that were based in Mexico: Heavy Métl Premium Imports. He brings top-notch mezcal from Mexico into the U.S. in the hopes of introducing some of the best examples of the smoky spirit to a market increasingly thirsty for it.
“I’m not going to get rich doing this. But I’m really psyched to have what I consider to be the best of the best from Oaxaca, the textbook mezcals that exemplify what mezcal can be,” Scanlan says.
Currently, he works with two longtime mezcal producers — whose families have been making the agave beverage since the late 1800s — to import their brands, Rey Campero and Real Minero, from Oaxaca. His goal is to eventually import mezcal from other states besides Oaxaca — arguably the one most known for producing mezcal — but right now he’s just gratified to have gotten such a successful start.
“Things are going well enough that I’ve already had another shipment come in, after the first one in July,” he says, noting that in addition to Texas, New York and California are also getting the mezcal. Seattle will soon, too.
A big part of his job with Heavy Métl is educating people about the mezcal. He’s sat down for countless tastings, even before officially starting the business, and introduced newcomers to the range of flavors that it can have thanks to terroir, technique and other factors that can make different batches from the same agave plant and cooked in the same ovens taste wildly varied.
Not a poor man’s drink anymore
Tequila is a type of mezcal, something that many people don’t know, Scanlan says, thanks to tequila producers carefully separating themselves in the 1970s from what was then perceived as a poor man’s drink. They even secured tequila’s very own appellation of origin — a set of standards that defines where and how the spirit can be made.
Mezcal has one, too, but it’s a little more inclusive than tequila. While tequila can be produced only from the blue agave plant, mezcal can come from multiple species of agave, often wild, taking sometimes decades to grow and found all over the countryside. Once cultivated, the heart of the agave plant — known as the “piña” — is cooked in ovens that are often earthen pits with stones at the bottom. That’s where mezcal’s quintessential smokiness comes from.
From there, the roasted agave is crushed, fermented with water and distilled in clay, copper or stainless steel. Having so many variables means, as with all spirits, that not all mezcal is going to be good. Sometimes, the agave it’s made from is burned or left undercooked but still used in distillation.
The diversity of mezcal
That’s not the case with Rey Campero, Real Minero or the next brand that Scanlan is working to bring in, Mezcalosfera by Mezcaloteca, a world-famous mezcal bar in Oaxaca. Try the range of expressions in their portfolios — which are each called by the varietal of agave they originate from — and you’ll notice “smoke” isn’t even a dominant tasting note, although it’s certainly still at the heart of each of them.
Rey Campero Madre Cuishe, for instance, is herbal and spicy; Real Minero Largo, made from the same agave species, is a little sweeter.
Both mezcal brands are standout “textbook” examples of the spirit, Scanlan says, a quality in them that inspired him to start Heavy Métl Premium Imports so that other U.S. mezcal lovers could enjoy them, too. But he also chose them to start with in part because of their efforts at staying small-batch and sustainable, he says.
“The diversity of mezcal is both to its benefit and detriment,” he says. “Some agaves are wild and hard to domesticate, but they can make for really good mezcal. It’s important for consumers to demand (of the mezcal producers) that they’re responsible and continue planting.”
So far, the two families behind the mezcal have done that, even though some of the mezcal they’ve produced has come from particularly hard-to-cultivate agave varietals. Like Scanlan, who travels often to Mexico and keeps a second residence in Mexico City, they see the importance of mezcal in Mexico’s identity and want to make sure it’s around for many more years, sustaining the livelihood of generations to come.
“When I considered getting into the import business, I knew it was going to be about more than just the brands,” Scanlan says. “It was about the families producing the brands above all.”
Discovering the magic of mezcal
If you’re new to mezcal, William Scanlan recommends starting with an accessible mezcal like Rey Campero Espadín, which is the only mezcal in the Rey Campero line that doesn’t come from wild agave. Crisp and bright, it’s got notes of tropical fruits, black pepper, vanilla and grapefruit and just a subtle smokiness.
Other tips he’s got to help you become a mezcal maven?
“Cocktails are a necessary evil,” he says. “People didn’t start drinking tequila without having it in a margarita first.”
He also says that the common mezcal accompaniments of an orange and sal de gusano — worm salt — aren’t required, but they can help if you’re trying a bunch and need to cleanse your palate. “I think they were mezcal’s response to tequila being served with salt and a lime,” he says.
Most importantly, just keep trying different kinds. Because the terroir, tools and technique behind each mezcal can range so widely, don’t rule out all mezcal made from a certain type of agave varietal if you don’t like the taste of one brand’s version. Chances are, you’ll find at least one that you do like. The more you taste, Scanlan says, the more you’ll hone your palate and discover what flavor profiles suit you best.
You’ve also “just got to accept it’s going to be smoky,” he says.