“My friends all went to Woodstock. I went to Huautla,” says Alvin Starkman of his first trip to Oaxaca. “I didn’t get to meet María Sabina, but I did try the mushrooms, and that was a great experience.”
The Mazatec shaman’s niños santos (holy children), as she called them, may have been what initially drew Starkman to Oaxaca, but what convinced him to stay was the mezcal. Though not until quite a bit later.
He says it’s possible he tried mezcal back in 1969 but, like a good hippie, he doesn’t remember. It wasn’t until he returned with his wife and daughter in 1991 that he recalls his first captivating sips.
“That’s when mezcal started to come onto my radar,” he says.
Between this trip and his move to Mexico in 2004, he returned to Oaxaca many times to research mezcal and meet palenqueros, as mezcal producers are called.
He spent his first few years in the state getting to know more and more artisanal mezcal producers, either by asking friends where they got the stuff they were drinking, or just wandering the valleys with his wife.
“I’d see smoke and say, ‘Oh, maybe they’re making mezcal there.’ And we’d go off and meet new palenqueros.”
He now knows over 60 artisanal mezcal producers across the state, many of whom he considers good friends. They invite him to weddings, quinceañeras, baptisms and other family celebrations.
Soon the rest of the world began to take a similar interest in Oaxaca’s signature spirit.
“The mezcal boom, I think, started in earnest around 2007-2008, and more and more people started coming to Oaxaca to learn about mezcal,” he says.
That’s when Alvin saw his niche. There were tours with mezcal tastings on the itineraries, but they usually just tacked a 10-minute spiel onto the end of a whirlwind day of the major sights in Oaxaca’s Central Valleys.
“Nobody was offering a true, comprehensive cultural experience to learn about the palenqueros, their cultures, how they make mezcal — not for tourists — but rather for people in their villages, for bar and restaurant owners in Oaxaca and other parts of the country.”
He took a master mezcalier certification program in Mexico City, jumped through the countless hoops of Mexican bureaucracy, and in 2011 had his permit to teach about the culture and production of mezcal and other pre-Hispanic drinks.
Thus, Mezcal Educational Tours was born. He now gets so many requests for tours each week he’s had to hire an assistant to manage the business.
But it’s not only tourists that Alvin takes through the dry desert hills of the Valles Centrales. He also consults entrepreneurs and bar owners, helping them find the right artisanal producer for the mezcal they want to sell.
He has now helped develop around a dozen brands for export, one of which is the recently launched Dos Hombres, owned by Breaking Bad stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul.
“It was nice spending time with them, teaching them about mezcal,” he says, though he had a bit more in common with Cranston than the younger Paul.
“I spent a good bit of time just one-on-one with Bryan, and although he’s a famous celebrity with oodles of money, we seemed to have a fair bit in common — our attitudes on life and slowing down as we get older.”
Starkman says his love of mezcal largely stems from the human connections it creates.
The endeavor has allowed him and his wife to make a unique connection with their goddaughter Lucy. They took the money from the tours and invested it in her education. She just finished medical school and is now interning at a hospital in León, Guanajuato.
He appreciates the hard work that goes into producing mezcal and the pride that palenqueros have in their craft.
“Since the early ‘90s, I’ve noticed how palenqueros explain their craft with their heads held up high because of the pride they have in what they do,” he says.
Its history and tradition fascinate him. Depending on which school of mezcal history one subscribes to, the beverage is either 500 or 2,000 years old.
“How many industries go back four-five hundred or 2,000 years?” he asks.
Despite its age, if producers work hard to maintain their artisanal methods, he sees a bright, sustainable future for the storied product. Recently artisanal brands have been sold to large beverage corporations like Pernod Ricard, Diageo and Bacardi.
“It’s good because mezcal is now getting exposure in parts of the world where it never had exposure before,” he says. “The issue from my perspective is — how do you increase supply to meet the demand and still maintain the artisanal, the ancestral nature of the product? It’s a balancing act.”
He has faith in the palenqueros he knows to do just that.
When it comes to his own future, Starkman is just as positive about the road ahead. “I couldn’t have asked for a better story for the last half of my life than what has ended up happening.”
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