James Beard Award-nominated chef Dana Rodriguez has been planning to launch her own mezcal brand, Doña Loca, for more than two years, and the bottles have finally hit Denver shelves. Rodriguez, co-owner of Work & Class and Super Mega Bien (which are both slated to reopen in May), says the debut of Doña Loca will give fans of agave spirits a chance to try traditional, handmade mezcals in the midst of a flood of celebrity brands and large-scale producers.
Doña Loca labels carry the phrase "agua bendita," which means "holy water" — because sipping a well-made mezcal is nearly a religious experience. Rodriguez searched the hills and valleys of Oaxaca, Mexico, to locate the perfect combination of craftsmanship, stewardship and ethical business practices before finding distiller Enrique Diaz Cruz in the mountain town of Santa Maria Quiegolani, more than 7,000 feet above sea level in the Sierra Madre del Sur range.
Cruz runs a farm and palenque (open-air distillery) located on rocky slopes where some of the maguey plants are cultivated and others grow wild. Doña Loca's initial offerings encompass three varietals: espadin, tepeztate and tobalá, each of which has its own unique flavor profile. Santa Maria Quiegolani is located in a remote area of Oaxaca, some three and a half hours from the capital city of Oaxaca de Juárez, and more than two hours from some of the primary mezcal-producing regions of the state. The altitude and climate of the mountain range create special challenges for growers and distillers, says Brian Smith of Classic Beverage Co., which brings the spirit to Colorado.
The altitude and cooler temperatures lead to slower fermentation of the maguey, Smith explains, which creates a more complex flavor in the finished product. And the dry, rocky slopes make for a long maturation time before harvest, adding to the complexity and terroir. Doña Loca's espadin is the only one of the three mezcals made with cultivated plants. Espadin is one of the most common maguey varieties in Oaxaca because it can be farmed, but the growing region, the weather in any particular year and the skill of the distiller can bring out vastly different flavors from brand to brand.
Cruz and his team harvest the espadin by hand, roast it in a conical pit, crush the roasted maguey with a mule-drawn stone wheel called a tahona, and ferment it in open-air oak vats using only the natural yeast and bacteria in the air, the wood and the plants. The fermented liquid is then moved into copper stills and distilled twice before being bottled. The espadin maguey plants grow for seven to eight years before being harvested, while the wild tepeztate and tobalá varieties take ten to fifteen years (and sometimes up to thirty) to reach maturity. Rodriguez recalls that the mescaleros she works with designate specific wild maguey for harvest years down the road, giving them nicknames like Grandmother, Mother and Child to designate the plants' ages.
Doña Loca's three mezcal varieties are priced according to the volume of production. Currently the espadin retails at just under $50 for a 750-milliliter bottle, while the rarer tepeztate and tobalá ring in at closer to $130. Doña Loca is run by Rodriguez and her business partners, Karen Ashworth-MacFarlane and Scott Kiere, as a public benefit corporation status, so part of your mezcal money spent will go toward maintaining high environmental and social standards.
Find all three Doña Loca mezcal styles at Marczyk Fine Wines (770 East 17th Avenue), and at Fairfax Wine & Spirits (5100 East Colfax Avenue). The spirits will also be available at Work & Class and Super Mega Bien once they reopen this spring, as well as at the upcoming Cantina Loca, which is expected to open in LoHi this summer (though the exact address is still under wraps) to showcase the spirits as well as the chef's Mexico City-inspired eats.