Although mezcal, like tequila, also derives from the agave plant, the resulting smoky spirit is often polarizing for drinkers who prefer tequila’s sweeter, more herbaceous nature — but that’s not the case with a new mezcal called Gem&Bolt.
The mezcal is launching in Austin, its first U.S. market, with a party this evening at Whisler’s and the East Sixth Street bar’s upstairs mezcalaria, Tobalá. And people trying it for the first time will notice that the typical smoky profile is layered with botanical notes, making it an all-around more accessible spirit for sipping on its own or in cocktails.
Those botanical notes come from damiana, a shrub native to Mexico and other parts of Central and South America that herbalists say can have beneficial properties for those who ingest it. For larger-than-life artists AdrinAdrina and Elliott Coon, infusing mezcal with damiana was a no-brainer when they decided making their own brand of mezcal was the right next step for them, as longtime friends and business partners who grew up in a Bohemian outpost in the mountains of Virginia.
They chose to infuse the mezcal with damiana not just because of the added complexity that comes from the herb. They also chose it because “medicinal art,” Coon said, has been part of their brand since they opened a speakeasy together in Oakland, California.
But with the infusing, they’re staying true to Mexican tradition, not introducing new methods to making mezcal — adding herbs to the agave spirit has always been done.
“There’s quite a tradition of infusing herbs with mezcal in Oaxaca and the other states where mezcal is legally made,” Coon said. “However, it’s not common to find these in the U.S. The ones in Oaxaca with herbs are the ones you’d find in mezcalarias, which have a bunch of bottles without labels on them and oftentimes came from a neighbor. So a lot of them are self-infused at the bar itself or by someone’s family. They’re old family recipes that haven’t reached the commercial level.”
By bringing Gem&Bolt to the U.S., the artists are introducing a hidden side of Oaxaca, where 80 percent of the world’s mezcal is produced (legally, the spirit can only come from certain parts of Mexico).
But neither AdrinAdrina nor Coon expected they would be in Austin now, spreading the gospel of their beloved spirit. A visit to Oaxaca and its capital city to research mezcal for their Oakland speakeasy a few years ago wasn’t supposed to be permanent.
“We fell in love with the city, the culture, the art and, of course, the mezcal itself,” Coon said. “It really resonated with us. We moved our whole operation from Oakland to Oaxaca and opened our speakeasy in a beautiful abandoned hacienda in downtown Oaxaca. After awhile, we thought we needed our own brand.”
Their speakeasies (the Oaxacan one is also now closed down) had been called Gem&Bolt, a name that especially resonated with the duo when they learned a piece of Zapotec legend explaining the creation of mezcal. Before researching these myths of the Zapotecs — an indigenous civilization that settled present-day Oaxaca some 2,500 years ago — AdrinAdrina and Coon had been worried about calling their mezcal by an English name “and looking like imposters,” Coon said.
The Zapotec tale would prove to be their vindication, however.
“The origin story says that a lightning bolt struck the agave plants that then produced the fermented juice that locals would later come to distill,” Coon said. “That was really powerful for us because if you cut off the spines of the plant, it looks remarkably like a gem. So that moment when we discovered that lightning hit the gem, essentially, and created mezcal, we thought it was meant to be.”
Another challenge for AdrinAdrina and Coon was convincing the locals that these two American women really weren’t interlopers looking to cash in on a spirit that is finally getting its day in the sun. More mezcal brands than ever are getting imported to the U.S. and around the world, which means that many once small-time producers have to find ways to scale up while maintaining the integrity of their mezcal. It’s a spirit that Mexico fiercely guards.
“It was difficult from the beginning,” Coon said. “We were two white females coming into a world dominated by men and and by Mexicans very protective of a spirit that truly does need protecting. They want to make sure people come in with the right intentions. It took us awhile to be received from that context, but we were and we’ve been welcomed with open arms from other brands.”
They found a fourth-generation master distiller in Oaxaca who was willing to adapt to the more herbal recipe. Each batch, she said, “is carefully regulated to make sure the mezcal is produced with really strict, traditional methods. It’s a highly regulated industry, which we think is beautiful so that this important spirit is preserved.”
And now AdrinAdrina and Coon are taking the U.S. by storm and hoping that Gem&Bolt strikes a chord first in Austin, already a city of mezcal lovers. The party at Whisler’s, kicking off at 8 p.m. tonight, is not-to-miss for a first taste of the mezcal and of the brand as a whole, which both insist is more than about mezcal.
“We’re an art and culture brand celebrating how people drink,” Coon said. “Celebration doesn’t have to be drunken debauchery, and drinking doesn’t have to be either. We like to call alcohol a ‘spirit’ because it creates an ambiance for celebration — opening yourself up to other people.”
For more information, visit gemandbolt.com.