Just over two years ago, a chance encounter at a gas station in Mitla (located about an hour from Oaxaca de Juárez) between Rogelio Juan Hernandez and Rafael Shin led to the creation of Agua Mágica, an ultra-premium mezcal underpinned by tradition and Oaxacan culture. The bright, smooth, gently smoky elixir is perfect for sipping, and its entire process is imbued with folklore, poetry, romance, ancestral wisdom and a little magic.
This exquisite mezcal is made in San Juan del Río, a Zapotec community where all the land is communally owned. The culturally-rich, picturesque region is lush and mountainous, and believed by many to have been blessed by the gods with all the natural elements needed to make perfect mezcal: fresh river water, rich soil and the ideal altitude for growing agave.
A maestro mezcalero, don Rogelio has been making mezcal since he was 15 years old—carrying on a long family tradition—and now works with his son. The land in San Juan del Río is inherently important to don Rogelio, his family and his ancestors. “It is the heritage we have,” he tells us. “It is what helps us generate income, it is what our community feeds from.”
The fact that San Juan del Río’s community, culture, land and history are also important to Shin was crucial to don Rogelio when deciding to collaborate. “He told me that as Agua Mágica grows, we, our palenque and San Juan del Río, will also grow,” don Rogelio tells us. “One of his goals is for San Juan del Río to be recognized as the ‘Bordeaux of mezcal,’ since recognition is never given to our community. He respected our ideas and way of working. He supported us in creating better planning and structure. And he never haggled over our mezcal.”
Shin (whose family moved to Mexico from Korea when he was just a baby) tells us about their first interactions at the gas station and then in San Juan del Río. “For me,” he says, “it was his integrity as a person. Don Rogelio’s passion for the craft of mezcal and especially his love for San Juan del Río stood out. He struck me as someone very humble and thankful, but also with a lot of authority and leadership skills. I could see people in his town trusted him because he cares deeply about his community and its values. You can see it in every aspect of his life history. In addition, he was very transparent and clear about his vision for San Juan while also being open to dialogue.”
Taking part in the project meant don Rogelio would be able to “pursue my greatest dream and goal in life: to have a palenque; to be an example and leader for the community; to give work to the community, especially women; and to make San Juan del Río important to the world.”
The duo, despite being strangers, shared a vision. They assembled an all-Mexican team for the endeavor, with the mission to produce ultra-premium mezcal, preserve artisanal practices, protect the diverse agave, and encourage and empower small producers (they donate a portion of yearly profits to five other family-run palenques in the area), all while drawing well-deserved attention to the town.
Among the many talented employees based in Oaxaca, Sara Aguilar—who has 18 years of experience verifying the quality of mezcal with El Consejo Mexicano Regulador de la Calidad del Mezcal (the mezcal regulation authority)—is a fundamental contributor. Aguilar oversees quality control, but she offers much more than an objective, scientific viewpoint. “Her biggest talent, in my opinion, is how she connects with mezcaleros by finding that fine line of respecting their craft and also advising them on science in a complex production process that has so many variables,” Shin tells us.
Together, the entire team created and refined Agua Mágica, which is crafted with local agave (better known as maguey in Oaxaca), fermented with fresh river water and crafted using traditional techniques. The main expression, Agua Mágica Ensamble, is made from seven-year-old Espadin and 15-year-old Tobalá agaves. The smooth mezcal contains subtle smoky, mineral and fresh notes and has “changed the preconception that many people [outside Mexico] have about mezcal: that it’s a very smoky and strong drink,” Shin says.
Shin and don Rogelio approach mezcal production with comprehensive attention to detail and respect—they honor the plant and the process. “My grandfather said something very true,” don Rogelio tells us. “‘You have to take care of the quality of the work, from the sowing, because if a drunk guy walks out and the sowing is poorly done, the magueys can fall and get hurt.’ We want people to have respect for mezcal, that when they put mezcal on a shelf, it is at the level of the best wine because it is a unique, handmade product, it takes a long time to produce, and they value it and see all the work and the process what it means to do it.”
Seeing how much time, energy, effort, respect and passion goes into making mezcal helped Shin appreciate it in new ways. “It’s not only the romantic part of it,” he says. “All this sacrifice actually makes a huge difference on the quality and taste of the product. So when I think about feelings, I would say it would be only fair for people to appreciate and respect what they are drinking and enjoy everything San Juan del Rio and its people have to offer through a single bottle.”
As for the “right” way to drink it, Agua Mágica can be sipped on its own—even for those who don’t usually drink mezcal (or tequila or whiskey) straight. Traditionally, some drops are spilled from the copita onto the ground, to give back to the earth. But there’s no doubt that Agua Mágica can be also be used when crafting high-quality cocktails. (It’s especially sublime in a negroni.) “The mezcal needs to be taken in kisses,” don Rogelio tells us. In order to “feel the notes of flavor and smell in each sip.”
From the storybook packaging to the golden mesh encompassing the green-tinted bottle and the upside down poem on the label (meant to be read while pouring), the brand’s visuals perfectly pair with the mezcal itself. There’s a romantic, fairytale element that permeates Agua Mágica, but ultimately it’s about honoring Oaxacan traditions and culture, and the ritual of celebration.
Hero image courtesy of Dalí Nelio for Agua Mágica