Interview: Melanie Symonds & Thea Cumming

By TATTON & THOMPSON

We Sat down with Melanie Symonds & Thea Cumming, co-organisers of London Mezcal Week 2019 and owners of Quiquiriqui Mezcal and Dangerous Don Mezcal respectively, on one of their rare moments off to talk about all things agave, how London Mezcal Week came into being, and the core ethos behind the 7-day celebration.

 

Where did the inspiration for London Mezcal Week (LMW) come from?

MELANIE: In 2014 I was getting asked to a lot of trade shows, but as I was a small brand I could not afford the exhibit fee. I wanted to create an affordable platform for small, independent brands to showcase their products without the big financial burden. Like my own, most of the mezcal brands who are not owned by international companies do not have a marketing budget to allow them to take part. So, most of the time, the consumers generally only see the brands with the big financial backing and not the smaller independents. I met Thea in my mezcal shop back in 2015, and we expanded the idea to what it is today.

THEA: Yeah so it was essentially Melanie’s idea. Right back when we didn’t know each other so well she was saying how she always wanted to create a platform for small brands in the UK. She envisaged this platform as a tasting festival, so I told her we should do it, so we did and here we are three years later.

So tell us a bit about what’s going down at LMW. What should we look out for and what’s a must-do?

T: London Mezcal Week is all about educating yourself about agave spirits. The two-day Tasting Festival is the real highlight. We have around 40 brands at the show, some who are not well known at all. It is a real opportunity for people to understand the vast diversity of the spirit. We also have some exceptional speakers talking at the festival. Look out for Tom Bullock who is one of my absolute agave gurus.

M: Definitely, the Tasting Festival is the highlight of the week, as you will see an unprecedented number of small, traditionally made mezcals and other agave spirits and you can talk directly to the makers, some of whom are visiting the UK for the very first time. There will be over 60 agave spirits to try, alongside seminars hosted by some really interesting agave experts from all over the world.

“Mezcal, in my opinion, is best drunk near but I will never say no to a Tommy’s Margarita.”

 

What do you hope to achieve? What is the ethos?

M: Generally, I hope to widen the knowledge people have about the agave category and dispel some of the terrible myths that people have about drinking them.

In terms of the brands, the ethos of London Mezcal Week is to provide a supporting platform, to provide the chance to network with other people working in the agave community, and to increase trade and commercial opportunities. For consumers, it’s to increase awareness of the small traditional producers so they can make a more educated decision when it comes to drinking agave spirits.

T: We hope that we can support the category here in the UK and help it grow in the right way. Mezcal is expensive for a reason, so we want people to understand why and help them navigate the category so they can make educated choices when drinking.

What do you think is driving mezcal’s rapid growth in popularity? And what has taken it so long to make it into the public imagination?

T: It is an amazing spirit. Diverse, pure, and a continuous journey of discovery for all. I think we all want to drink less and better, and we care about smaller brands and making choices to support projects which we believe in. Mezcal is one of the oldest spirits in the Americas and it is only deserved that agave spirits are having their time.

M: I also think the bar communities’ interest in mezcal as a versatile alternative in cocktails started the global growth, but that stems from the Mexican government starting to legislate export under the CRM (Consejo Regulador del Mezcal) in 1994. This meant that, from this point on, mezcal was to be exported under controlled production guidelines meaning that it started to spread across borders, and crop up outside of Mexico in bars and through aficionados.

It also has unique flavour profiles not found in any other spirits, so when bars start to make interesting drinks this filters through to consumers. Added to this, the fact that traditional Mezcal has such an interesting and easily-traceable journey from the agave fields right to your glass fits into what Thea mentioned about consumers’ growing interest in what it is they are drinking and eating. Plus its delicious – so who wouldn’t want to drink it?

“I walked into Melanie’s shop and introduced myself. We had a mezcal and started ranting about agave spirits. Since then we have remained good friends and we’re now business partners.”

 

So give us a bit about your personal background – how did you fall in love with the category initially?

T: Growing up, all my friends and I had hospitality jobs and so I have always worked in bars and restaurants. I also grew up on a dairy farm in the middle of the Devon countryside, so agriculture and nature has always been part of me. When I arrived in London I started working at Pitt Cue, which was founded by a good friend of mine – Jamie Berger. He first got me into bourbon and was a great introductory teacher. After working in London for a few years I needed an adventure and so me and my best friend Molly drove around the US for 3 months, we spent a month in Lexington, Kentucky to visit all of the bourbon distilleries.

This trip sparked in me a real interest in spirits production but I didn’t know how much it had until I got to Oaxaca. I drank mezcal for the first time in Puerto Escondido (which happens to be the same as Melanie) and after that I was captured like so many have been before and since. Mezcal is magical and I knew I wanted to work somehow with the category. I introduced myself to everyone I could in Oaxaca and slowly I worked out how to start a brand. I was so lucky with the people I met and who guided me. My producer, Celso Martinez, has always had my back, and Alvin Starkman was also an absolute hero. I came back to London and some key figures helped me get things going. Jon Anders, Tom Bullock, Jamie Berger and – of course – Melanie, have been my guides and mentors.

M: The short and printable story is I was travelling out in Mexico in 2010 and, having an established liking for Tequila, I was introduced to mezcal. It was pretty awful mezcal to be honest. But this sparked enough interest in me to go in search of something better, and so I spent the next 6 months in Oaxaca meeting small producers and families making mezcal. I returned to the UK and opened the first Mezcaleria – seen here – in 2012, and from there went back to a family with whom I’d built a relationship with on my first trip and we created my brand, Quiquiriqui Mezcal. It launched in the UK 2013, and now I get to drink Mezcal as my job which was always the dream.

How did you guys meet?

T: I walked into Melanie’s shop on Chatsworth Road and introduced myself. She probably thought I was a bit random, but we had a mezcal and started ranting about agave spirits. Since then we have remained good friends and we’re now business partners.

M: Yeah so Thea came into my Mezcal shop in 2015 as she had started a mezcal project in Oaxaca and heard what I had done. We got drunk and London Mezcal Week was born!

“I spent 6 months in Oaxaca meeting small producers and families making mezcal. I returned to the UK and opened the first mezcaleria.”

 

What’s the best way to drink Mezcal? Any food it works particularly well alongside?

T: I get asked this a lot. Obviously the best way to drink mezcal is to sip it straight. However, there is now a wealth of amazing cocktails bartenders are creating. One of my favourite ways to drink mezcal is simply with tonic. Mezcal & tonic is a dream.

M: I’d agree with that. Mezcal, in my opinion, is best drunk neat but I will never say no to a mezcal-based Tommy’s Margarita. There is a mezcal for every food. Literally anything, as every traditional mezcal tastes different. From mango, to rubber wellies, to freshly-cut grass, Mezcal can conjure up ridiculous flavour profiles so get experimenting.

Why did you decide to work with TT Liquor for a second consecutive year?

T: TT offer an exceptional platform for us to help develop the project and grow London Mezcal Week. The team are all full of energy and want to support emerging categories in the drinks industry. They care about quality and have created an amazing place for brands to grow.

M: The venue is also awesome. It’s multifunctional, so we can collaborate in many different ways to showcase the agave spirit category. They have always shown a passion for mezcal and they are a small independent business like us, so it’s a good fit!

Looking ahead, what are some of your plans post-LMW? Both for yourselves and the category as a whole?

M: I will be heading straight back to Oaxaca after Mezcal Week as I am working with my producer to offer trips for agave lovers to visit Oaxaca and experience the world of mezcal production first hand.

The mezcal category is ever-expanding, so I hope post- LMW 2019 we can create new connections globally and can keep working with small brands to ensure they have a voice among the ever-increasing big corporations, who are buying up bigger and bigger chunks of the industry.

T: I hope to spend a little more time in Oaxaca from September. It is really important for me that I am there, supporting Celso and other producers who I might start to work with. Dangerous Don is growing here in the UK and we have some really exciting events and partnerships coming up later this year and in 2020.

The category is changing a lot and so I can’t say what will happen. What I do know is that it is important for us to keep going with London Mezcal Week so that we can support the category as a whole driving it as responsibly as possible.

BACK TO BLOG

Related Service