I am excited to introduce Emma Janzen, a James Beard Book Award Nominated author, and editor / writer for one of the leading publications in liquid culture, Imbibe Magazine. As the Digital Editor at Imbibe, Emma has published numerous pieces of work - each just as impressive as the last. Her content features range from recipes, to industry culture & trends, to the latest on beer and wine. Basically, there is nothing in drink culture that she can't write about (Is that too much of a jump Emma? Based on what I've read, I don't think so).
Having read much of her work over time, the most captivating piece of her's that I've enjoyed recently is her new book which was published this past Summer (July 2017). Mezcal is an introductory guide to everything you need to know about the historically-rich artisanal agave-based spirit that is Mezcal. For those of you not familiar with what Mezcal is and are curious to learn more - this book has everything you need to know. The book goes beyond just learning about the spirit itself - it also teaches you about the ancestral ways that many villages in the mezcal regions of Mexico still operate and exist. Her writing takes you on a journey where she speaks with the natives and learns about their unique production methods, the best bars to taste mezcal at, and takes you through the many agave varietals from which mezcal can be produced (fermented and distilled). Her writing is authentic, informative, and showcases the spirit with the respect it deserves. It was for this book that she received her first James Beard Book Award Nomination.
All that said - I was left with some questions after reading her book that I wanted to explore with Emma herself. What actually drove Emma to write her latest book? What were some experiences that stood out to her on her journey? And, if she had to pick, where does she imbibe when in NYC? In my exclusive interview with her, she sheds light on some of these questions in addition to some of the fun stuff...you know - like her favorite Bon Vivantito cocktail..
What do you do for a living?
I am the Digital Content Editor at Imbibe Magazine, which means I manage the editorial content for the website, source/edit recipe features, come up with story ideas, write/edit said stories, source/edit/shoot photos, etc., I also write copy for our twitter and facebook channels and help out with the print edition. On the side, I do things like write books, shoot photos, write about design and architecture, etc.
What is something you would consider to be a fun fact about yourself?
I have dual citizenship with the UK, because my mom was born in England. I don't get over there nearly as often as I would like--my domestic explorations have been more intense over the past few years--but it's a culture that's long informed my worldview (and drinking habits). Otherwise, I'm not really from anywhere. I was born in Austin, Texas (fifth-generation Texan on my father's side!), but I've lived in six states across America, so my "origin story" is a bit all over the place. Feeling anchorless like that can be both liberating and kind of frustrating at times.
Before we jump into you telling us about your book, if you were to have a cocktail with any person in the world who would it be and why?
She died a few years ago, but I've always been interested in meeting architect Zaha Hadid. I'm not super into the visual aesthetics of most her buildings (usually too fanciful for my taste) but her mind-boggling creativity, her willingness to speak her mind and pursue her vision unapologetically has always been an inspiration. After working on projects all over the world she rose to the top of an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry--that can't have been easy--to eventually be the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize. She seems like a total badass who must have some incredible stories.
Okay, so you wrote one of the best Mezcal books currently on the market. What drove you to travel to Mexico and tell this story?
Part of it was simple necessity. Mezcal was one of the first spirits that I really fell in love with, but learning more about where it came from and how it was made proved to be really hard. There wasn't a single go-to resource (in English) that I felt was well-organized or thorough enough to give someone a basic introduction to the spirit. After talking to people in the industry, I realized that such a small portion of mezcal's story was being told to a mainstream audience, and the stories were all so interesting! I wanted to start getting them out there beyond the hardcore agave-loving community. So that was my primary goal: to put a resource together that would serve as a compelling (but also easy to digest) intro to mezcal.
How did your love for mezcal begin?
From the first sip, I knew mezcal was totally unlike any other spirit out there. The incredible complexity of flavor first caught my attention, and then after realizing the sheer diversity within the category as a whole I knew I was hooked. You can have a new mezcal every day and perhaps never get two that taste identical--that's so exciting.
From there, once I started learning about its backstory, the draw was mezcal's intense sense of place. I mentioned before that I don't feel like I'm really "from" anywhere, so I've always been drawn to people and products and places that have a very clear, specific and uncompromising sense of indigenous culture. What makes a spirit like Mezcal so vibrantly a representation of Mexico? It's a question I'm still very much exploring.
What is one thing you wish all people knew about mezcal that most probably don't?
It's not all about smoke. Sure, there are mezcals that feature that flavor more prominently than others, but once you really get used to drinking different ones you start to forget the smoky element altogether. The range of flavor within the category is incredibly diverse--some are grassy and herbaceous, others are mineral and briny, while others can taste like bright citrus with floral qualities. If you didn't like your first mezcal, don't get discouraged and give up! There's probably one out there that you'll enjoy.
What was your favorite experience that you had while writing this book?
I've been professionally writing about spirits for about eight years now, so I've heard every form of bullshit backstory and marketing ploy you can think of by this point, which made visiting Vago mezcalero Tio Rey in Sola de Vega so refreshing and memorable. It was Muertos and he was exhausted from hosting a dozen bartenders the day before and staying up all night stoking the stills, but he met with me anyway to share his story. It was a totally stripped-down, no-bullshit kind of meeting; There weren't dozens of bartenders around to interfere with the conversation--it was just me, Francisco with Vago and my husband who was tagging along--and we just sat there and drank coronitas and talked about his life and his work. There were puppies and chickens running around the "distillery," which is really just an open-air garage-like space next to his house, and his wife made us a delicious lunch of caldo de pollo.
Later he took us up into the nearby hills and showed us some of the wild agave he's working with. It doesn't sound like much, but I felt like I got a real glimpse of how mezcal works that day. The juice with the most soul is not coming from massive operations with dozens of worker bees buzzing around and conveyor belts transporting agaves from one step to the next. It's Tio Rey sleeping in his hammock and getting up in the middle of the night to check one thing or another. It's just him doing this the way generations have done it before him, and doing it to put food on the table.
For people that may want to travel to Mexico to have the same experience but are nervous to go, what guidance or advice would you give to them?
Traveling to Oaxaca is absolutely worth the time and effort it takes to get there. Even if you never make it out of the city proper, you'll get to understand mezcal in a more real way than you ever could in the US just by spending time with the people and the culture in the bars there. My last trip to the city was during Dia De Los Muertos, when the city is so alive and vibrant--I can't recommend it enough. The food, the sights and sounds, the whole experience is still one of the most memorable I've ever had. Stay somewhere close to the city center so you can walk instead of having to hail cabs, learn enough Spanish to get by, and make sure you snag a reservation at Mezcaloteca--that was the first thing I did in Oaxaca and it set such a great foundation of mezcal knowledge for the rest of the trip.
In terms of seeing actual distilleries and heading out into mezcal country, I've heard Alvin Starkman does a great Oaxacan mezcal tour! Most people won't have access to the same mezcal distilleries I visited simply because they're not open to the public (we're talking about real rustic outfits here; there's no mezcal trail like Louisville has for Bourbon), so finding experts like Alvin who are there on the ground and have the right contacts, etc., is the way to go.
In your book, you speak about sustainability in regards to the long-term preservation of the various agave varietals - do you feel we are in a good place in mitigating this issue? If not, where/how can we improve?
There's a lot of improvement to be done in terms of making sure the industry stays sustainable in the face of all this popularity, but I'm not going to pretend to be an expert in that area. I have my opinions, sure, but I think the people we need to be asking about this aren't necessarily bartenders and brand ambassadors, but the mezcaleros themselves. When I was putting the book together, there was so much doom and gloom from bartenders everywhere and then I talked to the people in charge of making the mezcal and most of them had more of a practical sentiment towards the conversation. The need for sustainability is something they are aware of and working towards to ensure a prosperous future.
What is the best cocktail you had on your journey while writing "Mezcal..."?
One of the most surprising flavor combos I discovered over the course of putting together the recipe section of the book was mezcal and carrot juice. It's insane the way the earthy flavors click, with a beautiful brightness that's hard to find in other pairings. Julia Momose's Electron cocktail from GreenRiver on pg. 168 is absolutely a standout, and you can find a brunch-friendly Orange Maria from NIDO in Oakland at Imbibe (http://imbibemagazine.com/orange-maria/), which is another excellent example of how those flavors sing together (with some bubbly ginger beer for added interest).
What is one cocktail trend that you wish would die in 2018?
I have a bit of cocktail fatigue right now because drinks everywhere are still so damn overcomplicated. Stop trying to peacock everything! Just make me a simple and very well made cocktail and I'm a happy girl.
What is your go-to cocktail?
Pretty much anything classic made with gin: the Negroni, G&T (bonus points for Spanish-style), gin martini (Beefeater + equal parts + twist). Or, on the flip side, pretty much anything mixed with tonic: gin, tequila, sherry--I've been reading Thad Vogler's book and he mentions Calvados + tonic which was its own delightful revelation. I also recently tried Cynar and tonic, which totally worked, too! Who knew.
Your favorite NYC bar?
It almost feels unfair to answer this question because there are so many incredible bars in New York. Of course now two of the ones I would normally cite are closed (pour one out for Wassail and Mayahuel), but I usually mention Bar Goto in the same breath anyway, because it's absolutely one of my favorite bars in the country. It's so perfectly cozy and the interiors are just gorgeous, the food and the drinks are top-notch, and you'd think a bar like that might be super uppity about things, but I've had some of the friendliest service there as well. They make you feel like a local, which makes it a place I want to cozy up in whenever I'm in town.
What is the Best cocktail you have had in NYC?
Anything from Joaquín Simó. His knack for finding flavors that work together and weaving them into harmonious symmetry never fails to impress. Narrowing down all of his great mezcal drinks to just two in the recipe section of the book was a serious task-- try the Midnight Marauder and the Lust for Life and I think you'll get my point.
LUST FOR LIFE
1½ OUNCES Del Maguey Vida mezcal
¾ OUNCE Lustau Palo Cortado Peninsula sherry
¾ OUNCE orgeat syrup
½ OUNCE fresh lemon juice
½ OUNCE fresh pineapple juice
Combine all ingredients in a mixing tin, add ice, and shake well. Strain into a rocks glass over a large chunk of ice. Garnish with a light dusting of cocoa powder.
What is your favorite Bon Vivantito cocktail?
I'm a huge fan of tonic cocktails of all sorts and tequila + tonic is one of my go-to drinks, so the Party Starter is right up my alley.