Eight years ago, TJ Steele wanted to bring farm-to-table Mexican cuisine to New York City. He traveled around the country, researching, eating, studying, while working on putting together the concept. His stop in Oaxaca would put him on a completely different path. After visiting numerous mezcaleros, Steele would go on to start El Buho Mezcal with two other New Yorkers.
Steele took trips to the distilleries and farms to try to find small producers that could make some mezcal for the nascent restaurant concept. Increasingly popular over the past decade, the once unfamiliar Mexican spirit, distilled from the agave plant, is often referred to as tequila’s smokier cousin. “The first place I went to, they only make mezcal three times a year,” says Steele. “We asked to work for free, and they thought we were sent from God.”
When Steele asked if they could make some mezcal for the restaurant, the distillers agreed. But when he showed his business plan to investors, his aspirations fell short. He was told no one would pay for high-end farm-to-table Mexican cuisine — obviously, that sentiment has been disproved since — but the mezcal idea was one worth exploring. He was then introduced to John Henry, a brand builder in the liquor industry.
Steele and Henry met and instantly hit it off. “Ten minutes later, I was like, ‘Want to start a mezcal company?’ ” says Steele.
Together, the pair spoke to David Suro-Piñera, a big name in the tequila industry; Suro-Piñera told them the price-point they needed to hit to make it work. Unfortunately, they weren’t there with their current deal. It was back to the drawing board, so Steele headed back to Oaxaca in search of a better plan.
“We went back for a month, going around the city asking,” says Steele. “We went to a women’s craft fair and a lady said her husband knew a place. Turns out, he was a taxi driver; he took us to Pepe’s [Jimenez Mendez] place.”
Steele first met Pepe’s brother, Octavio Jr., and tried the product. Produced by the siblings’ master-mezcalero grandfather, Don Isaac, it was the exact price the partners were looking for, and the quality was just as good, if not better, than anything else Steele had tried. Steele immediately asked if they wanted to go into business. “They thought we were crazy,” says Steele. “They never expected we’d be where we are.”
Pepe, in his mid-twenties at the time, was the first person in his family to go to college. He was ambitious, hoping to expand the family business that had been run by his grandfather, Don Isaac, for nearly 85 years (it’s been in the family for five generations). Since joining forces with Steele and his team, the Jimenez Mendez family has been able to improve and upgrade the property significantly, as well as open a new seafood restaurant. The progress has been unreal for Steele and his partners. “His grandparents spoke Zapotec,” says Steele. “They would dress like you’d see out of a history book. The first time I went, they didn’t have a driveway. Then they got a new car; then a basketball court. Every time we go back it’s nicer and nicer.”
To get their product to market, Steele and Henry connected with Adam “Redford” Parker, a musician and entrepreneur who had no intentions of joining the food and beverage world. Parker lined up the financing, and did much of the work to get the product through the import process and into the U.S. In April 2012, it went to market in New York; it has launched in 15 other states since.
El Buho consumes most of Jimenez Mendez’s product — they own the recipe and the image — but Pepe and his family still sell mezcal to the local community, as they have traditionally done. Locals frequently bring empty jars and bottles that the family will fill up with mezcal. “We came in and started buying all of it, basically,” says Parker. “It’s been great. I fell in love with the family, and the mezcal, and now I visit about every six weeks.”
While the team is actively working to grow the brand even further — their goal is to become the Maker’s Mark of the mezcal world — much of their progress depends upon the slow-aging agave plants. (It takes somewhere between six to 12 years for the plants to reach sexual maturity.) To keep up with demand and the spirit’s exponentially expanding popularity, unused fields on the Jimenez Mendez property have been planted. The company has also added additional stills and increased storage capacity. “With whiskey, you can make as much as you want; there’s an annual grain harvest,” says Parker. “With agave, it comes when it comes. Our goal is to make mezcal accessible and affordable.”
El Buho Mezcal retails for $29.99. It is featured in bars across New York, such as Añejo (668 Tenth Avenue, Manhattan; 212-920-4770), Huckleberry Bar (588 Grand Street, Brooklyn; 718-218-8555), and Dos Caminos (various locations).
Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera.