This year’s London Mezcal Week (15th-21st July 2019) saw hundreds of agave lovers flood through TT Liquors doors to attend supper clubs, expert panel discussions, film screenings and cocktail masterclasses as well as taking the opportunity to sample over 60 spirits – some never before tasted in the UK. Following on from their most successful year to date, we catch up with London Mezcal Week founders, Melanie Symond and Thea Cummings, to see how things are going in the downtime between events and to find out what’s in store for next year…
We take our seats on the terrace of TT Liquor overlooking the city, where the London Mezcal Week Curado Rooftop Party took place two months ago. This is the first time the duo has caught up since the event and it seems a fitting location to do so in.
Chill, banterous and with a palpable, sisterly friendship, the pair are a mixture of impassioned knowledge, natural honesty and relaxed humility. The rapport is strong and supportive, with constant back-and-forth idea bouncing and encouragement. Whilst they are each individually founders of spirit brands – Melanie of QuiQuiRiQui, possibly one of the most recognisable mezcal brands in the UK, and Thea the delicious coffee-infused Dangerous Don – there is no attempts to oversell their products or spout proverbial marketing bullsh*t. Instead, when asked how they think this year’s London Mezcal Week went, Thea answers excitedly and without pretence, “Mezcal Week was a huge success! It’s getting bigger and better each year. It’s hard work though, but it was worth it and now that it’s over, there’s a real sense of relief and achievement.”
She follows stating that they “had so much good feedback about the diversity of the brands and the good community crowd and that’s basically the only reason you do these things. We can still retain the platform we wanted […] and it’s all about growing the community and helping small brands get into the market.”
This year saw the introduction of a Seminar programme that broke up the weekend Tasting Festival and featured talks from the likes of Ocho Tequila’s Jesse Estes; Ben Schroder of Pensador Mezcal; and agave expert, author and DJ, Tom Bullock.
“The seminars worked really well”, says Thea. “It’s good to take people away from drinking but it’s also important as there’s so much surrounding the mezcal category that needs conversations that you can’t really have in the five-minutes that you’re with that individual [brand ambassador, founder or mezcalero].
Melanie and Thea transparently talk about another first for 2019 – the charging brands a small fee to participate. Whilst in pervious years, they have brought brands together free of charge, the growth of the festival and the expenses that brings mean that this has now changed.
“Charging the brands a minimal fee was something we wish we didn’t have to do but there are charges you accrue when trying to make something bigger and better. We both have small brands so I asked myself, “Would I be okay with paying a few hundred for this event?” I know I wouldn’t if it were 500 or 1,000 like some of the big expos charge, so this helped us figure out how to keep it accessible for smaller brands. The brands were all happy and if it’s not getting them the big trade deals, it’s introducing them to new retail and new consumers that will go out to find their products. It’s nice to be able to bring them an audience and the mezcals are all delicious. We still have our parameters of what you need to be included.”
What are those parameters?
M: We say “traditional mezcal”. To be a part of mezcal you need to be made in a traditional way and that’s what we’re looking for. We don’t stick to the actual categories of “traditional”, “artisanal” etc. but we hope to keep away from any industrial brands and create spaces for people without huge marketing budgets. It’s always nice to not have to sell out.
How did you both get into mezcal?
M: I was originally a TV producer. I worked on food shows and was responsible for working with the chefs and converting their five-day recipes into small segments. I did that for a number of years, loved it and through those connections, ended up in Oaxaca where I drank mezcal for the first time. It was disgusting! Subsequently I found out that there was very delicious mezcal and after an epiphany of drinking wild mezcal, I spent about six-months just in Oaxaca, travelling around distilleries and Palenques and learning about the history and production process.
That was in 2011 so there wasn’t really a lot of interest in mezcal at that time. It was made in rural locations and – without denigrating it – it was considered a poor person’s drink. I fell in love with it nonetheless and went to Mexico City where mezcal was having a cool little movement there with a bar called La Clandestina. I had some fabulous sessions with the owners, came back to London, quit my job and opened up a Mezcaleria in the basement of a kebab shop on Hackney Road. We called it Mezcaleria Quiquiriqui, which is “mezcaleria cock-a-doodle-doo”.
I didn’t have a brand at that point. I ran that for about eight-months but realised that there was no good quality affordable mezcal. So I went back to the family I’d met [in Mexico] and asked them if they’d like to start a partnership and produce mezcal for my brand, which I was going to name after my bar. They said “Yeah, we want you to have our house, third generation family recipe” and I was like “Shit amazing” and I still work with them now. We launched in 2013. It’s grown quite a lot more than I ever thought it would and here I am, on a sunny terrace, able to say mezcal is my full-time job. And I met Thea along the way.
And you, Thea?
T: I’ve always worked in bars and restaurants. I worked in a Bourbon bar called Pit Cue and decided I wanted to drive through the States, go to Kentucky, Tennessee, Louisiana and go to all the distilleries. I ended up in Central America and went to Puerto Escondido, which is where I got introduced to mezcal [same place Melanie first tried mezcal]. I was staying in a surf hostel; it was supposed to be for two weeks but ended up being for three months. The guy living opposite was called Frank and he was making basically his version of Patrón XO Café. He was going up the mountain, buying mezcal and blending it in his kitchen blender with sugar, instant coffee and vanilla essence and calling it Don Franco. He was a bit of a legend in Puerto and everyone was buying it and restaurant were buying it.
I came back to Lime Regis, stayed there for a bit and then went out to Oaxaca, worked there and then figured out how to start a brand. In hindsight, I wouldn’t have done this. I didn’t have a clue! I hadn’t done any competitor analysis or market research; I didn’t know anyone, and was like shit how do you make this work? So I turned to my peers who are now mentors who’ve helped me to figure it out.
A chap I knew told me to get in touch with Melanie so I went into her shop and told her about it Don Franco. She was like “I know that!” and we got talking and realised we had all these same connections with people on the other side of the world through mezcal. We became friends from there. Then she said, quite early on from when we met, “I want to do a day or a festival where we promote the category” and I was like, “Let’s do it then!”
M: And then Thea changed it into a whole week!
T: And it grew, and that was just over three years ago.
So, that’s how London Mezcal Week got started! What have you got planned for next year? Are you changing the formula at all?
M: We had some feedback from the brands about how things tend to become quite London-centric. We’ve been talking about seeing if it’s possible to take London Mezcal Week on tour. Whether we can actually do that is a different matter. Obviously London is where the people are… London Mezcal Week is it but I’d like to incorporate more of the UK and spread the love.
T: Maybe we can get a bus, babe. We can hire a bus, do two days in Cornwall or Bournemouth then end up in Edinburgh.
*Cue, back-and-forth sound-boarding, peppered with supporting and empowering “You’ll do it, it’ll be amazing” and “I know you’re going to make it happen”*
T: So TBC, let’s see what happens.
M: And we want to Mexican art and different cultural aspects instead of just hammering 50 mezcals. There will also be more foodie stuff. Thea has a good friend who we’re desperate to work with and get doing something extravagant and amazing.
I also want to bring a bit more rave in. We’ve been talking about doing an all-night mezcal rave. We randomly bumped into someone on the tube and they were like “I’ve just got a really late licence on a place”.
T: There’s more to do for sure.
To find out more about London Mezcal Week, click here.