Photo courtesy of Izo Mezcal
A distillery worker inspects bottles of Izo Mezcal, a San Diego brand that offers made in Mexico agave spirits.
About 16 years ago, Gaston Martinez moved to San Diego from his native Durango, Mexico. “It’s always been my dream city,” he says, “I came here for a two-week vacation and that was it.” Having become enchanted with wine while living in Bordeaux, France as a young man, he eventually settled into working as a wine broker and focused on raising a family. But in 2018, he decided to establish a new local business, one focused on producing a more closely cherished alcoholic beverage: mezcal.
The roasted agave spirit had been central to family celebrations going back generations, so he launched the business Izo Mezcal, “to bring a little piece of my hometown to San Diego,” he says.
If you’re wondering why dozens of others haven’t started a mezcal company in this city of beer- and booze-makers, it’s because technically you can’t. Like Bordeaux wines — or, more famously, champagne — the term mezcal is a protected denominación de origen, meaning it can only be applied within nine designated producer states in Mexico.
San Diego obviously doesn’t qualify, but with mezcal traditions dating back more than 50 years, Durango does. Martinez began traveling back and forth to Durango, assembling the key components of a mezcal business. First, he hired his master mezcalero, Jose Gonzalez, a biochemist who applies science to traditions learned acquired growing up in a multi-generational family of distillers. Then he found a distillery, which had been out of operation for five years in the village of Boca del Mezquital, in the bucolic outskirts of the city of Durango, about 25 miles to its southwest.
“Our neighbors are scorpions and snakes and owls and eagles,” says Martinez. The distillery itself is surrounded by ranches, where agave grows wild. Specifically, cenizo agave, a Durango-area variety that’s one of several dozen used to make mezcal throughout Mexico, and which gives Izo Mezcal its name.
Martinez notes that, like wine grapes, different varieties of agave reveal different expressions of terroir in the mezcals they produce. By far, most of the mezcals we find in the U.S. are made in Oaxaca, and by comparison, he says the cenizo agave yields a slight perceived sweetness in the back of the palate. That, he says, is due to nutrients found in Durango soil that grow plants with high sugar content, which also yield a potent beverage.
“At 94 proof,” he says, “you expect it’s really going to hurt the throat and be harsh, but it’s completely smooth.” It’s less smokey than most Oaxacan mezcals, with no standout flavor profile, rather a balance of floral, citrus, and botanical notes.
The label’s joven (or young) mezcal, is produced from the oak-smoked agave, which ferments several days on natural yeasts picked up from a nearby fruit orchard, before being double distilled and filtered. While all the production happens in Mexico, Izo’s headquarters are in Mission Valley, where Martinez leads a small team who have steadily gained traction for the brand’s growing family of agave spirits.
Since launching in January 2019, Izo has been working to expand its offerings, preparing to release other types of agave spirits including a tequila (outsourced from Jalisco) and bacanora (outsourced from Sonora), as well as making its own sotol, a similar spirit made from the Desert Spoon, a member of the asparagus family, which counts Durango as adenominación de origen. With the new year, the brand plans to release aged mezcals, including añejo and reposado.
Izo started out exclusive to the San Diego market, becoming the first and only mezcal available in local CostCos. The placement has helped it expand throughout California, including to Texas, Illinois, and Nevada. It will add Pennsylvania and New Jersey in January.
Martinez says that, despite the pandemic shift from on-premise sales to only off-premise sales, the company managed to double sales volume in its second year, and projects to double sales again in 2021. “Every year for the next five years we’re projecting to double,” says San Diego’s adopted mezcal man.