I was recently in Denver, Colorado attending the premier of a documentary film by Stephan Werk. The documentary, Sons of Mezcal, is an amazing piece of work that shows the true spirit of mezcal and its culture.
When I watched the Sons of Mezcal documentary, I realized that my dream of bringing mezcal to the world and protecting the culture that had formed my family’s legacy was not only my own, it was shared by everyone in Oaxaca. It is shared by the mezcalero families in San Luis Del Rio, the pulquero families in Matatlan and the young mezcaleros that will take up the honor of continuing this great cultural tradition.
At first, it was a strange feeling to see something so close to my heart on the big screen. But, by the end I was awestruck and inspired at the power of storytelling. When I saw the reactions to the film, I knew I wanted to share more of our stories and let more people get a glimpse into our lives
I am getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.
My name is Rolando Cortes Hernandez. I am a Zapotec native from Oaxaca, Mexico. I grew up amongst the maguey, in a small town in the corner of the Central Valleys called Santiago Matatlan. Like most towns in this area it was filled with local traditions, family customs, mayordomos and constant celebrations for what gifts that we had been given. Only later in life would I realize this spirit of family, sense of responsibility and devotion to unconditional love for other people would mold me into the person I am today.
Some say that children tend to grow up more like their father or mother, always leaning one way or the other. I don’t know if that is true for all, but I can tell you it is not for me. When I look in the mirror I see them both. I hear the things they taught me and feel them guide me in my decisions. My father taught me the importance of hard work, honesty and trust. My mother showed me that nothing is impossible when you have family. She taught me tradition and history form the unbreakable bond that keeps us all together. Above all, my parents taught me to dream, to strive everyday and to reach just beyond my grasp.
Now at 83, my father has been one of the great Master Mezcaleros for a long time, but this was not always the case. When my parents were very young, my father worked as an apprentice for a mezcalero in town. He spent his days working hard, learning all he could and dreaming of a day when he would have enough to start his own palenque. When that day came, my father hesitated. It was a risk, and he had a family to consider. Faced with the realization of his dream and the culmination of all his hard work, his thoughts were only for his family's security.
When my father told my mother about the situation, about the risks and what would happen if he failed, she only looked at him and said; “This is your dream, you have to do it. I believe in you.”
I think there are few things more powerful than those four words, I believe in you.
In Zapotec culture, life is learned and understood through stories. My childhood is filled with memories of sitting together as a family, everyone sipping mezcal and listening to my grandparents tell stories about our ancestors, or my parents telling stories from their childhoods. I listened as they talked about achievements, shortcomings and grand experiences that opened my eyes to my family's deep connection to mezcal. Mezcal and its culture was everything to my family. Through these stories I would come to learn that mezcal is more than a drink, it is a mystical experience that connects us all. It connects us to our past and enables our future. I also realized that like all precious things, it needed to be protected and cared for.
It would quickly become my singular focus. My dream was born. I not only wanted to protect my family’s legacy and the invaluable thing that had given my family so much, but I wanted to ensure the source of life for all mezcalero families would flourish. I wanted to exalt a culture and honor past generations, for without them we are nothing. I knew I needed to find people that shared my vision and wanted to help me fight for our future.
I decided the best way to preserve our culture was to share it, to show the world that mezcal is a way of life, one meant to be appreciated for more than the exquisite taste, but for its cultural heritage and the people that work tirelessly to create it. I decided to start an official brand and begin to share my family’s mezcal with the world. Filled with excitement, the first step of my journey toward a lofty dream was in front of me, I only needed to take the first step. In that moment, I hesitated. It was a risk.
When I told my father about my plans, he simply looked at me and said; “It’s your dream, you have to try. I believe in you.”
That moment feels like a lifetime ago… and it feels like yesterday. It has been a long journey for us all. A journey filled with triumph and tragedy, filled with joy and sadness, and certainly filled with as many failures as successes. After so many years working with dedicated people that share the same vision for mezcal culture and its community, my heart is overflowing with gratitude to know this story will live on forever.
I want to extend a deep, heartfelt THANK YOU to the Sons of Mezcal filmmaker, Stephan Werk. His dedication to his project was unwavering. I assume at some point, when he stood at the beginning of this journey, and he saw the long process that lay ahead, someone told him, I believe in you. I thank that person as well and I consider myself lucky that Casa Cortes was able to participate in this amazing documentary.
I will be sharing more of our history on this blog. Stephan has truly inspired me! Please check back weekly and feel free to leave a comment.
Rolando Cortes (@rolandomezcal)
Founder & CEO