At a recent tasting at Rossoblu, the sprawling Italian outpost of chef Steve Samson, an unlikely pairing was going on. Instead of matching wine with the chef’s signature pastas and pizzas, brand ambassador George Garcia from Mezcal Mal Bien paired his spirit selections with custom-made Italian-Mexican fusion dishes, sharing tasting notes and a little of the story behind each batch. The Mal Bien founders, Ben Scott and Anthony Silas, spend most of their time in rural Mexican communities around Oaxaca and Guerrero, meeting with mezcaleros and importing batches through the label.
“We wanted to cut out as many of the middle men as we could,” Scott tells InsideHook. “We’ve got an import company here in the U.S. and an export company in Mexico, as well as the brand. Rather than it going from the guy who makes it to a broker to a brand to an exporter to an importer — and everybody’s putting their margin on it — we’re working directly with the producers. If you spend $100 on a bottle of mezcal and there are 100 hands in the cookie jar, how much is left for the guy who made it? At the end of the day, the only people who matter are the person who made it and the person who’s drinking it.”
Agave spirits are having a moment — so much so that in recent years, uber-rich celebrities from Kendall Jenner to George Clooney have slapped their name on a bottle of tequila with a nicely designed label and called it good. I’ve tried both 818 and Casamigos, and both taste fine, but something about those brands and subsequent star-fronted liquor companies doesn’t sit quite right. Distilling agave has been a traditional Mexican practice for hundreds of years, and it seems fairly obvious that local Mexican mezcaleros — who’ve been making it for generations just to drink with their families and sell within their communities — would make it best.
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Mezcal Mal Bien agrees, and if you peruse the mezcal section at an increasingly large number of bars in Los Angeles, you’ll find their bottle with its distinctively simple design cropping up on shelves. Decorated solely with a strip of lime green tape, a nod to the way bartenders and chefs around the world quickly and efficiently document things, Mal Bien’s informal label stands out. The bottle is laced with all the pertinent information, like the name of the family who made it, what region of Mexico it’s from and when it was made. Otherwise, the spirit inside speaks for itself.
Both Scott and Silas arrived at mezcal by way of an interest in Scotch whiskey, another spirit where independent bottlers might be releasing the best stuff, even if they don’t distill anything themselves. “If you have a big-name brand of Scotch and your own distillery, you have obligations to put out thousands of cases,” Scott says. “So you don’t really have the opportunity to do the coolest and the best stuff because you’re trying to keep up with the demand for normal products.”
This creates a second market, where companies without their own distilleries buy the very best barrels of Scotch they can find. Instead of being known for a specific style, they earn a reputation as curators of excellent spirits. That’s the framework the Mal Bien founders have sought to replicate in the mezcal world.
“A lot of the best people in the business are doing stuff in quantities that you couldn’t build a whole business around,” Scott says. “And we probably couldn’t maintain the level of quality if we scaled it up. Our idea was always just to showcase what we thought were the coolest, most interesting, delicious spirits. We don’t work with the same [producer] every month, but if you’re into something we’ve released, your palate is in line and synced up with ours.”
Every batch of Mal Bien mezcal is different year to year, but once the relationship has been established, they are committed to working with the same families and representing the work they produce. Currently, they have relationships with 11 different Mexican families who make mezcal, some of them in extremely isolated places where, as Scott puts it, “no one who isn’t from that community has been there for many years.” (At least that was the case when Mal Bien went in during 2020. Since visiting, a few other brands have followed in their footsteps.)
One producer, Oscar Morales Garcia, makes an espadín using a recipe developed by his late father, Lucio Morales. As a fourth-generation mezcalero on both his father and mother’s sides, the classic mezcal the family produced has been one of Mal Bien’s staple imports. But a family-only version distilled and infused with lemongrass, Zacate Limòn, recently earned a cult following when Scott and Silas brought a small amount back stateside. Morales now makes this specialty mezcal in honor of his father and mother, who died during Covid, and new batches just launched at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans.
It’s exactly these kinds of unique, hyper-local offerings — and an insistence on honoring the stories and people behind them — that makes Mal Bien mezcal stand out. Their insistence on highlighting the actual producers is a welcome consideration in a city where Mexican culture is frequently appropriated, exploited and taken for granted.
“Mal Bien is more about showcasing the person who makes it,” Silas says. “Ben and I don’t make mezcal — how could we sit there and act like this was us? It’s not us. We’re a team, and we want everybody to get the recognition that they deserve. We believe that the person who makes it, their name should be as big as our brand name on the bottle. Their GPS coordinates are on there, and it makes us very happy to showcase these families who work so hard to provide a product for people to enjoy themselves with.”
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