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A Talk with Mexican Spirits Master Iván Saldaña

Iván Saldaña took to studying the agave plant as a young biologist, and that set him on the road to becoming a distiller and creator of some unique Mexican spirits.
Iván Saldaña took to studying the agave plant as a young biologist, and that set him on the road to becoming a distiller and creator of some unique Mexican spirits. (Photo: Montelobos)

Iván Saldaña got into distilling by way of molecular plant biology. Not only did he co-found/create Montelobos Mezcal Joven, but he also worked with Danny Schneeweiss and Moy Guindi and used a 1920s recipe to create Ancho Reyes and the just-released Ancho Reyes Verde liqueurs. Oh, and he also holds a Ph.D. from the University of Sussex, Great Britain, has published research papers and is considered a world-renowned expert on the agave plant. Saldaña sat down with Tales of the Cocktail to talk about his spirited journey from academic labs to cocktail bars.

 Iván Saldaña

How did you, exactly, get into distilling?

“I grew up in Guadalajara, my father was involved in the industry, and I have uncles who happened to be involved in tequila production, but I never thought about it. I was really into conservation as a teenager, spending most of my summers in the South of Mexico and even California, with conservation corps. In high school, I also went to Chile to work with the National Forest Corporation, and I wanted to do biology or ecology. Later, I had to decide if I wanted to do ecology or molecular biology – if I wanted to dedicate my life to how small things are or how big things are in systems, and at that moment, I found plants. I had very inspiring teachers, and I went to McGill University in Montreal. I was super interested in how plants feel in a physical manner, how they respond to threats and changing temperatures and things like that. By my last year, I really wanted to do something on plants that can tolerate difficult conditions.”

Is that how you got interested in the agave plant?

“I found this plant stress unit in England, but all the model plants were not very interesting or impactful. There was a professor studying carnivorous plants and another studying resurrection plants – those plants in Western movies that can be dried for tens of years and then become alive again. None of them were very interesting to me, and I said I want to look at a plant in Mexico: agave. It’s very important economically, it has this incredible water resistance, and I was very interested to know more. They said yes. From the moment I chose agave as the center of my study, I took myself into the uses of that plant, and [that set me on the road] to be a distiller. I also consider myself very privileged, from my mom, my aunts and my grandmothers, that I have a great sense of flavors.”

How did you move from academic research to the world of spirits?

“As a student, I was poor, and I was traveling to Switzerland to analyze samples so I started to look for some [monetary] support. I approached a [tequila company], and they covered my [expenses] for travel and study, and the only thing I had to do was to come and do seminars to share some information about the state of the agave plant.

“I did that and that led to my five minutes of fame, as the local newspaper and national television station did a story about me. But the television showed about five seconds of me, in my white lab coat, explaining agave, then five guys getting a shot of tequila in a dive bar in Brighton, of the worst tequila in life. After I finished my Ph.D., I presented my information, and one guy at the company told me, ‘We have this great lab. Would you consider working for us?’ So I did. That’s when I started what I call my second Ph.D.”

So, you worked for Allied Domecq and then Pernod Ricard Mexico. How did you decide to go out on your own and create Orgánica Consulting?

“I wanted to make products that were weird, and at that time, mezcal was on my mind. When I started my consulting company, I was helping small business owners make their products, and that’s when I met Danny and Moy, who are now my partners. We put together their craft and their knowledge in making mezcal with my perspective on the qualities of the agave plant.”

How did Ancho Reyes and Ancho Reyes Verde come about?

“Just about every town you stop in, they offer you a local liqueur. We researched, and we did hard work. I really think what Ancho Reyes was 90 years ago would be very similar to what we’re making. I cannot claim to create it, but I was just trying to replicate the best part of it. Verde came from exploring the poblano pepper before it’s ripened. While I contributed [to its development] so did my right hand person, Guadalupe Garcia, who has the most impressive nose you can ever imagine. I have this great luxury of having all of these creative people around me.”

James Beard Award-winning Chef Rick Bayless is a big supporter of your work, and he even offered his private Library dining room as one of the places for you to introduce Ancho Reyes Verde. Tell us about your friendship.

“Through my work, I’ve met incredible people who are passionate for the same things I am, and one of those guys is Rick Bayless. He has a flat in Mexico City, and I see him every two or three months. We have done talks together [including at Tales of the Cocktail)] I first met him through my wife, Maria Alvarez, who is a culinary writer. Rick and I have a great friendship. He is very respectful of what I do, and he is very generous in supporting my work. My wife and I are not only friends with him, but also of his wife Deann. Another person whom I am grateful to is Tomas Estes [restaurateur and tequila ambassador)] and he has really been influential to me.”

Jeanette Hurt is the author of Drink Like a Woman and is an award-winning writer focused on spirits, food and travel.

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