We sat down with Sam Jimenez to chat about his work, Mexico, mezcal, and his drink for September’s Celebrate Mezcal Box, the Señor Rojo!
S&S: In what ways does the Señor Rojo represent the flavors of Oaxaca?
SJ: Señor Rojo is a cocktail that assimilates boldness, spices, citrus, smokiness, and flavor. To me that’s part of what Oaxaca is all about: a unique combination of ingredients that combined creates a lively and festive place.
S&S: What are some of the traditional ways that mezcal is enjoyed in that region?
SJ: Mezcal is embedded into all kinds of celebrations and life events. From a patron saint fiesta, to a wedding, to funerals and baptisms. Generally it is enjoyed out of a hollowed-out, sun-dried gourd called “Jicara” or a little glass cup used to hold candles at churches.
S&S: Is there any specific food you would recommend pairing with the Señor Rojo?
SJ: Absolutely: a good mole, quesadillas made with Oaxaca cheese, or even a nice late summer salad with grilled steak and blood orange vinaigrette.
S&S: Yum! What music do you hope people are listening to as they mix and enjoy it at home?
SJ: Lila Downs is a talented Oaxacan-American artist who sings both in English and Spanish. Her song “Cumbia del Mole,” for instance, is a good jam to mix with. Another talented band for Oaxaca with very lively music is Solovino, all of their songs are good as well.
S&S: What’s the ideal late-summer setting you imagine for enjoying the Señor Rojo?
SJ: A backyard BBQ with some dancing and friends enjoying some great food, good times, and a delicious cocktail.
S&S: How would you characterize mezcal’s rise in popularity over the last decade or so?
SJ: As one master distiller once said, “mezcal is not in fashion, it’s tradition that’s finally recognized for its quality, culture, and process.” There is more access to good mezcal with proper channels of distribution, a council that regulates quality, and a proper recognition in general.
S&S: Do you see a danger of rising demand threatening the more traditional production process? Will there always be a place for the smaller, rich-in-heritage mezcal distilleries?
SJ: That’s a very good question, let’s remember that we have learned a great deal from what happened to tequila. Since the nineties and due to demand and acquisitions by mega corporations, most tequila distilleries have been forced to expedite their production, and inadvertently become more industrialized. Several mezcal producers have taken this into account and have been taking the necessary steps in order to not suffer the same fate. From reforestation campaigns to fair trade efforts and even down to keeping their business independent and avoiding temptation to “sell out” to the global liquor giants. Small craft distillers, like Gracias a Dios, will always be there, sticking to tradition and making everything the old-fashioned way, because it is the way they were taught and it’s the only way in their mind.
S&S: What are some of the biggest things you’ve learned from your journeys through Mexico—about mezcal and beyond?
SJ: Mexico is a vast and diverse country, full of pride, culture, and history. Through my travels, I’ve noticed just how much variety there is in weather, landscapes, customs, drinks, food, and architecture. I highly recommend that people visit places like (obviously) Oaxaca, Guanajuato, Queretaro, Chihuahua, Chiapas, Baja California, and the Yucatan Peninsula.
S&S: Have you experienced a Mexican Independence Day celebration in Mexico?
SJ: I have indeed, I was born there after all. As opposed to the general misconception of Mexican Independence Day being on May 5, it is actually celebrated on September 16. People gather up at the stroke of midnight to celebrate with food, fireworks, music, and an official at any main square screaming the words Viva Mexico!
S&S: Is there a classic cocktail in which you prefer mezcal as a substitute for another spirit that’s typically used?
SJ: I enjoy a good mezcal Negroni any day. If you haven’t tried it, I suggest you do so. Immediately!
S&S: We love making our Negronis with mezcal too! What are some unusual ingredients you’ve had paired with mezcal that work surprisingly well?
SJ: Almost anything goes with mezcal, it is very forgiving. Syrups like orgeat and falernum, liqueurs like Aperol, maraschino, and Campari. Tropical fruits like tamarind, lychee, and soursop work with mezcal as well. Ever done a shot of Cupreata mezcal with guava dusted in cocoa nibs?
S&S: No—we need to try that! Is there an ingredient or technique you’re currently fascinated with?
SJ: Homemade bitters are my thing right now, also shrubs with seasonal fruits or syrups made with (certain) pits, seeds, stems, or peels that help repurpose ingredients. It is a good way to create consciousness about reducing waste.
S&S: What’s the best drink you’ve ever had?
SJ: Mezcal in a cup of fresh dark roast coffee in the morning, during the wintertime in Matatlan, Oaxaca.
S&S: What do want to be when you grow up?
SJ: An astronaut when I was very little; now it has shifted into a superhero, perhaps “Mezcal Man.”
S&S: Love it! What do you do when you’re not working?
SJ: Mountain biking, traveling, cooking, foraging, and diving reefs and cenotes, which are sinkholes in the Yucatan peninsula.
S&S: What’s your go-to drink order when trying out at a new place?
SJ: I usually respect the effort made by the bartenders to craft their cocktail list. I order from their list, starting with a mezcal cocktail (if they have it) or something bourbon based.
S&S: A mezcal cocktail is always a great way to start!