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It’s National Mezcal Day (21st October)! To celebrate, we’ve chosen to put the spotlight on one of our favourite brands, Corte Vetusto – a small independent company that can boast the title of “the world’s most highly awarded mezcal brand”. We join Founder, David Shepherd, to chat about his brand, how the mezcal category has changed over the past few years, what makes brands worthy of note, and where to grab the best mezcal cocktails in town, followed by a deep-dive into the exceptional Corte Vetusto mezcal range.
What is Corte Vetusto – its birth, name, and offering?
Corte Vetusto is a UK-based brand that got its start in life in 2017. Owing its birth to David’s childhood growing up in Mexico City – which sparked a love affair with agave, Mexican food, and culture, as well as a deep passion to promote and protect tradition – Corte Vetusto is a range of premium, single-origin, unaged, artisanal mezcals that have been distilled in small batches using century-old techniques (read more about how the mezcals are made here).
The name translates as “Ancient Cut” and has a dual meaning – the cutting of the agave plant and the “cut” that is taken by the distiller to separate the spirit. “Vetusto” is also the old Spanish word for “ancient”, which reflects the fact that mezcal is the oldest spirit in the Americas.
Corte Vetusto currently has three Artisanal Mezcal expressions – an Espadin, a Tobala, and a limited-edition Ensamble that changes by batch. These are all made by Maestro Juan Carlos Gonzalez Diaz in Mitla, Oaxaca. The brand recently launched its first Ancestral Mezcal, made by Maestro Isidro Damian in Sola de Vega in Southern Oaxaca (read our review of the release here). This was a nano-batch of Sierra Negra that produced just 58 litres in total and is currently a retail exclusive for Harrods, with further super limited and ultra-premium Ancestral expressions due to be released in the future in exclusive partnerships with trade and retail outlets.
What makes Corte Vetusto different?
As Corte Vetusto translates as the ‘ancient cut’, David tells us that they feel duty-bound to honour traditional mezcal production. They ensure that they only ever used fully mature agave and they uniquely distil their Tobala and Ensambles in copper and then in clay, yielding exceptional mezcals that marry the best of Artisanal and Ancestral production.
However, they also feel compelled to elevate the perception of mezcal – something they felt wasn’t being done sufficiently in the category. David elaborates,
“There’s an extensive list of brands competing to be the ‘pouring/cocktail friendly’ mezcal. Our brand purpose is different. We aim to produce world-class liquid and sell it at a price that better reflects what is inside the bottle. When you consider how long the agave takes to grow, the impact of the terroir, the skill of the producer and the sheer time and effort it takes to make this extraordinarily hand-crafted liquid, why would you choose to sell it cheaply? Frankly, it does a disservice to Mother Nature and to the men and women who make it. We’ve been honoured with over 14 top awards across the core range from five prestigious competitions. It makes us the world’s most highly awarded mezcal brand and helps us demonstrate to the trade and consumers that mezcal can go head-to-head with the world’s leading spirits, many of whom have the equipment and resources we will never know. Sharing those awards with our producer is deeply gratifying.”
National Mezcal Day 2021: Q&A with David Shepherd of Corte Vetusto
With such credentials, it’s not hard to see why we love Corte Vetusto, but it’s also worthwhile dropping in a quick note about why we’ve chosen to chat with David this National Mezcal Day.
Committed, experienced, rightfully protective, and supremely passionate, David is one brand founder who’s heart is very much in the right place. Keen to grow the category through the education of drinkers, he aims to drive audiences towards top quality producers, giving those on the ground the recognition and support they need to keep their craft alive and thrive within the industry. Not only this, he is also a delight to have a drink with, has a keen nose for quality, and is deeply embedded in the UK drinks industry. With so many international mezcal brand owners popping up who are clearly just jumping on the latest trending bandwagon, it’s a breath of fresh air to come across a UK-based company doing things the right way for the right reasons.
What changes have you seen in the mezcal category and agave arena since you started your brand?
It is really exciting to see how the category has grown in the UK since we launched Corte Vetusto in 2017. The number of brands and the breadth on offer (agave varieties) have increased significantly. Awareness and knowledge of the category has increased, especially among the trade (on & off-trade) as well as certain segments of the consumer population. General awareness does lag behind tequila, and there is still misinformation around the category. There are a number of us UK based brands who have dedicated time and energy on education and training, and the collective effort has paid off. Now, it is no longer a surprise to find a mezcal cocktail on the menu in your favourite cocktail bar. Whilst London remains the epicentre, we’re delighted to see bars with a real agave focus in cities across the UK.
How have celebrities entering the world of mezcal affected the category, in your opinion?
There are pros & cons. There is no doubt that ‘celebrity’ entrants have shed light on the category, bringing more consumers into the category. That we view as positive. The question we ask ourselves is, what is their intention? Are they in it to make a quick buck, simply capitalising on a trending spirit and selling out to the highest bidder (probably one of the big corporations)? Do they understand how mezcal is made and even have a relationship with the Maestro, or did they just pose for some PR photos in an agave field? Are they truthful and transparent about how they produce the mezcal so consumers can judge them at face value? To be fair, there are many brands masquerading as small batch and handcrafted and are anything but – and that’s an issue that is not exclusive to ‘celebrity’ or mezcal.
There’s a lot of debate and heated discussion around specific varietal agave shortages, unsustainable methods of producing tequila and mezcal, and a lack of biodiverse planting. Do you have any views you’d like to share?
We need to appreciate that mezcals DO include nine States in Mexico. Over 85% of mezcal production comes from Oaxaca and so the issues there can be interpreted as mezcal issues when, in truth, they are Oaxacan issues. We are fortunate to have tequila’s bad example and I feel that many of our industry peers are aware of the challenges and are making concerted efforts to ensure mezcal doesn’t suffer the same fate. Most mezcaleros value sustainability – it’s just something people of the land understand.
However, as the category grows, and international corporate interest follows, the question is whether their volume requirements and need to scale can be met via traditional production. Already we have autoclave and diffusers being used by some brands, allowing for immature agave to be used.
The mezcal category officially has three classifications (Mezcal, Artisanal Mezcal and Ancestral Mezcal) to help differentiate between production methods. Sadly, some exploit the grey area between those classifications, for example, by blending batches from multiple producers or regions. This gives them their volume requirement and consistent ‘homogenised’ flavour profile, but eradicates the very essence of traditional production – the impact of terroir and the hand of the maker. Sustainability is not simply environmental, there is a cultural aspect too. Whilst price isn’t necessarily an indicator of quality, we’d encourage trade and consumers to ask why certain mezcals brands are notably cheaper than others. Where is that saving coming from?
Are there any brands or figures out there who you think are doing positive things for the category?
We’ve always had a profound respect for Mezcal Vago, Real Minero, Lalocura, and Koch – they understand that mezcal is more than just the liquid, it is a culture that deserves to be shared, but also protected. We also love what Jon at Sin Gusano is doing by sourcing micro-batches from all over Mexico and bottling these uncertified mezcals (agave distillates) for people to explore the wonderful diversity of this spirit. That thrill of discovery is what brought us into the category. Naturally, we are huge fans of KOL and what Santiago and Maxim are doing over there. We have a great relationship and feel they share our vision of elevating the perception of Mexican food and beverage in the UK.
How do you enjoy your mezcal?
I try every mezcal neat and that generally is my preference – there simply is no better way to appreciate what’s going on in that mezcal. Drinking it with the Maestro at their Palenque is one of the greatest pleasures and hard to beat.
What’s your favourite mezcal cocktail?
That probably changes depending on my mood and time of day. I’d say a Mezcal Negroni is my go-to, but I recently had a Hanky Panky at KOL made with our Espadin which was a revelation. Maxim also developed a few cocktails for us over lockdown, predominantly twists on classics. The twist on the Adonis, combining our Tobala with fino sherry and vermouth is probably the most elegant mezcal cocktail we’ve tasted. (Check out our Instagram Stories today for recipes)
Where’s your favourite place to enjoy mezcal in the UK and why?
Any good quality bar that serves Corte Vetusto… Right now though, it has to be KOL Mezcaleria. London has been missing a dedicated mezcaleria. Finally we have one. They have an exceptional range of mezcals (and other Mexican spirits), delicious cocktails that showcase these spirits beautifully, and a super passionate and professional team.
We are also very excited by the arrival of Nomad in London. They’ve established a great reputation in the States and we’ve thoroughly enjoyed what they are bringing to the agave scene over at Side Hustle, which is enhanced by great food and super hospitality.
Final Thoughts this National Mezcal Day
Mezcal is an astounding category and one that has a profoundly important history that is deeply rooted in the land that agave grows, and the people who have been producing mezcal for generations.
Whilst new and international brands are coming to the category, it is vital that we as consumers question their intentions. Are they’re appropriating a culture to make a quick buck at the expense of people and nature, or are they celebrating their love for the tradition and category, looking to sustain it and introduce new audiences to true mezcal, and the maestros who create it?
For those looking to discover authentic and well-meaning brands, it’s important to look at how a brand is talking about production; whether it is being transparent about its sourcing and distillation methods; and if the price of the products make sense for liquid that has been six to 35 years in the making (how long agave varietals take to reach maturation) using slow, small batch processes, before being shipped or flown across the sea to reach us.
If you’re looking for somewhere exceptional to start, check out Corte Vetusto below…
Corte Vetusto Mezcal Range
Made from a carefully selected mixture of eight-ten-year-old cultivated and some wild agave, Corte Vetusto Espadin is double-distilled in 250 litre copper pot stills. The expression also took “Gold for Taste” at the Bartenders’ Brand Awards 2020, as well as “Gold Outstanding” and the “Mezcal Trophy” at the 2017 IWSC – true testament to the quality of the liquid.
Flambéed banana sundae, smoke, wood, black pepper, green olives and green bell peppers. There is a nose of cooked caramelised agave but vegetable and smoked fibres are detected first.
Freshly made caramel brittle and cooked agave create a beautiful backdrop for vegetal, notes and herbaceous mountain thyme to build on. Pine resin and gentle minerality pair with a creamy mouthfeel to create one of the best Espadins we’ve ever tasted.
Neat. All Corte Vetusto mezcals are perfect for slow sipping and open up over time, developing more flavour and making you fall deeper in love with them with every sip.
£55.00. Buy it online at Berry Bros & Rudd or Drinks with Sasha (£59.35)
This Tobala is made from 100% wild agave that is fully matured after 10-14 years. It is double-distilled, first in a 250 litre copper pot still and then in a small 70 litre ancestral clay pot still to imbue the spirit with both crisp and bright elements as well as earthy and complex notes. The Tobala is another award-winner, boasting “Gold” (95 points) at the IWSC 2020, and “Double Gold” at ISC 2020.
Very green and herbal: lemon verbena, sage and thyme are amongst the bouquet. Fresh coastal air and a mineral salinity dance with citrus pith and zest. Smoke swirls through the nostrils around all of this.
Caramel and cooked agave sweetness hit the tip of the tongue before washing to the back and returning as pepper and cold smoke. There is a strong black pepper flavour without much of the prickle. Juicy yet tart green apple laced with a hint of vanilla round off the palate.
Neat and savoured.
£97.95. Buy online at Master of Malt here
This is Corte Vetusto’s second limited edition Joven Ensamble bottling and is a true premium mezcal. Made using an ensemble of 10-35-year-old Espadin, Madrecuishe and Tobala agave that has been double-distilled in both copper and ancestral clay pot stills, this tiny batch of 162 bottles stands testament to Maestro Mezcalero Juan Carlos Gonzalez Diaz’s skill. The Ensamble II was also awarded “Double Gold” at ISC 2020 and “Best in Category” at the 2019 American Distilling Institute’s Judging of Craft Spirits.
Smoked agave, aromatic wood, pine resin, raw corn, malt, grass, cold caramel and floral perfume.
Wow! The seductive smoke that greets the palate demurely tapers off, heading to the back and allowing the delicious, thick and richly roasted agave flavour to take centre stage. The agave brings with it pepper, spice, thyme, oregano and a touch of anise, before candy floss and toffee apple leave the drinker with a giggle of decadence. What a stunner!
Neat and savoured.
£98.18. There are precious few of this batch left! Buy yours now at Master of Malt here