Filmmaker Stephan Werk remembers his first visit to Oaxaca, Mexico, and its palenques — as mezcal distilleries are called — as if it were yesterday. "It doesn't take much to get into your bloodstream," he says. "It's dusty and sweaty and hot. But it's less about the process of distilling mezcal; it's about the intuition and the knowledge, not the equipment. How do you know when it's fermenting? You can actually listen to the bubbles. And when you meet the families who make mezcal, they take you in as if you're literally a family member."
Mezcal infused itself so much into Werk's bloodstream that he created a documentary about the complex and often misunderstood spirit. The result is Sons of Mezcal, which makes its world premiere at Denver's Mayan Theatre (110 Broadway) on Thursday, August 26. Tickets are still available on the theater's website (where you can also see the trailer), but they're selling quickly, so plan accordingly.
Werk, a graduate of the University of Colorado film school, traveled the world as a kid, "tagging along" with his dad, who owned a video production company, or accompanying his mom to Europe and Indonesia in her work in the travel industry. "I had a fascination for cameras, buttons and storytelling early on," he recalls.
But it took a post-college job managing a liquor store in the Vail Valley to expose him to mezcal for the first time. "I brought in a mezcal, and I really didn't know anything about it," he admits.
Over the next three years, however, he learned more about the process of turning maguey plants into mezcal and became familiar with more brands and the idea of pairing the spirit with multi-course dinners. "And then I saw a picture of Tío Pedro Vásquez riding a horse through mezcal country, and it was just so beautiful," he says. "I just wanted to know more."
"The first trip we did was a 72-hour location scout — it was just sensory overload," Werk remembers.
After that, he returned for 24 days straight of filming at the palenques of 82-year-old distiller Don José Cortés and several other families who produce under Cortés's line of mezcals. "There's only so much you can get in one trip down there," Werk states. "We slept in the palenques or in the families' homes and rooftops. And then we went back to get Don Jose's life experience, from his childhood on."
At the end of all that, Werk had hours and hours of footage to sift through, but he couldn't quite figure out how to turn it into a feature-length story.
Tony White, a Denver journalist, photographer and videographer, didn't know Werk, but serendipity brought them together in Oaxaca — over pours of Cortés's mezcal.
White graduated from Metropolitan State University in 2015 (now forty years old, he was late to college, spending his younger days traveling to write and take photos) with a degree in multimedia journalism and video production, and began working for various publications (including as a freelance videographer for Westword). He was also supplementing his income with bartending jobs, which is how he met Brian Rossi, owner of Palenque Cocina y Agaveria in Littleton. White immediately took to Rossi's extensive collection of agave-based spirits from all over Mexico, and his skill as both a storyteller and bartender convinced Rossi to send White to the country to learn more about mezcal and bring back his knowledge to share with the restaurant's team.
Down in Oaxaca, White began working in a bar that represented several brands under the Cortés family umbrella. He had met Asis Cortés (grandson of Don José) at mezcal dinners at Palenque and was serving drinks at Asis's bar when Werk and his production crew came in. "I just happened to be working at this bar in Oaxaca when Stephan was there doing pre-production, and it was just so bizarre," White recalls.
"There was Tony, working for the same mezcaleros, at the same time," Werk adds; both were surprised that they'd never met in Denver, given their similar ages and lines of work.
Needless to say, the two instantly bonded. So when Werk hit his creative block over how to frame the story, he turned to White and they sat down to figure out a compelling narrative.
For Werk, the entire experience making Sons of Mezcal went beyond just filming the technical process of making a distilled spirit. "I found that there was nothing out there that shows the Zapotec way of life and the families," he notes. "I gained an utmost respect for the process and the families. The cool thing about the film is that you see it all happening in real life — the passing of tradition on to the next generation.
"The deep roots of mezcal in Oaxacan culture, they go beyond the technical details," he continues. "I wanted to convey how important it is to perpetuate that generational lineage. The maguey plants spend eight, twelve, fifteen, twenty years in the field. You're not thinking about now; you're thinking about your children. Don José is planting agave with his grandchildren that will be harvested after he's gone; that's a powerful thing. The bottle that will hold that mezcal will have his fingerprints on it, and his son's and grandchildren's."
White gained more than an appreciation for Oaxaca's signature spirit. He ended up meeting his girlfriend there and moving there permanently in 2019 to be with her and continue his career as a writer covering Oaxacan food, culture and spirits.
"I've traveled around the world as a journalist," White says. "That moment I first set foot in a palenque was such a visceral moment. You just really feel the culture; you can smell it, you can taste it. It was like being baptized into a world I never knew existed. That's when I knew I had to make this place a part of me."
"The movie is very sentimental, ethereal, emotional," adds White, who is credited as co-storyline editor. "Mezcal is worthless unless you share it. It's meant to bring people together; it's ceremonial and familial. It's literally consumed from birth to death: A drop of mezcal is sometimes put in baptism water or even on the baby's lips."
Werk, as director and executive producer of Sons of Mezcal, says he's proud to debut his documentary in Colorado, which has become his home after years of exploration. He's planning to bring some members of the Cortés family to Denver for the screening, and after that he'll show the movie in other cities and also shop it for streaming distribution on major platforms.
If you miss the chance to see the film at its Denver premiere, you can still get into the spirit at some of Denver's best mezcal bars, including Palenque Cocina y Agaveria (2609 Main Street, Littleton), La Doña Mezcaleria (13 East Louisiana Avenue) and La Diabla Pozole y Mezcal (2233 Larimer Street).