Five years ago, we rented a cottage on Venice Walk Street to host a baby shower for the LA side of our family. A grid of pedestrian-only inland pathways, where the parking sits with the street’s hustle, and inside the homes open to face their magical backyards. Saturated in the day’s glow, the flower garden looked like a painting; the pinks, oranges, purples, deep reds, and the lemon trees danced in the breeze above them. With the patio doors open, the whole home had the sweet scent of soft citrus. The landlord left a gift on the counter, Del Maguey Minero, that distinctive green bottle.
Smoky and smooth, it tastes of green fruits and herbs, with surges of mixed citrus (quince). The bottle tasted like our view. Del Maguey, the brand that single-handedly revitalized the spirit often misunderstood as a ‘Moonshine of Mexico,’ introduced the term “single village mezcal.” Minero is a family affair, produced anciently by Luis Carlos and Luis Carlos Martinez in Santa Catarina Minas with clay ‘Filipino’ style stills with bamboo tubing. Del Maguey is the singular vision of the Southern California Light and Space Movement artist Ron Cooper. It all started, as so many vital life decisions do, after a few too many tequilas at an art opening. It was a group exhibition at Riko Mizuno’s influential gallery on La Cienega, where Cooper, the excellent surfboard shaper Robbie Dick, and Jim Ganzer (said to be the influence for The Dude in The Big Lebowski) debated as to is the Pan-American Highway really existed? They impulsively piled their surfboards onto a VW van and headed out on a southbound journey. It took four months to reach Panama. Along the way, the legendary Pan-American Highway guided them through little surf towns to a point just a few hundred yards away from the Zapotec village that Del Maguey Mezcal would eventually call their home – Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca.
Cooper is a fascinating man who has lived in exciting times. After a transformation post-graduation trip through the European museums, he decided he was an artist. He settled into a dilapidated Victorian close to Surf Point in Ventura. One of his housemates was a young Ken Price. Price ushered Cooper into his world, introducing him to the emerging art scene of Los Angeles: Larry Bell, Robert Irwin, Craig Kauffman, Ed Ruscha, and Dennis Hopper. Cooper’s first solo show was at Ace Gallery in 1969. He took on a studio in Tribeca for three years and spent nights at Max’s Kansas City. His works reside in some of the best public collections in the world: LACMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Guggenheim, the Fort Worth Museum of Contemporary Art, the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, and the Whitney. After two big commissions came through, he had enough money to go anywhere. Mexico. During that first trip to Oaxaca, he fell hard for the handmade pottery and hand-woven textiles. This time he would go back and make art for three months. Weaving, painting, etchings, and sculptures. But he would also travel far and wide, on dirt roads and not roads at all, from palenques to palenques looking for the best mezcal.
Years later, when he started Del Maguey, the plan was to tap his network of artist friends to create a label based on the individual villages. Art produced for the art inside the bottle. Then he invited Ken Price to contribute a drawing. What arrived was a stack of drawings. Sun-drenched landscapes, opulent and oozy, candy-colored idyllic scenes of villages most of us would never get to visit. Turns out neither did Price. He created the whole stack while in bed at home. Price never went to Oaxaca. He drew the towns of our dreams because he dreamt of them too. The original plans changed from there on out. All of the Del Maguey labels came from that initial stack. The labels offer whimsical details and storytelling elements that foster a greater appreciation for its craftsmanship and the hands that bring it to life. Price’s drawings encapsulate the essence of the spirit, capturing its history, traditions, and artistic vision that brings mezcal to the world.