Two local women connect with a business partner and artisan mezcalero in Oaxaca, Mexico, to bring traditional-style Susto Mezcal to Austin.
By Chantal Rice, Photos by Julia Keim
In Southwestern Mexico, just miles from the bluest ocean waters, amid colonial structures erected from green volcanic stone and displayed against a backdrop of lush mountains, imposing ruins, colorful local treasures and a wealth of culture lies the city of Oaxaca. It is here that tradition, folklore and mysticism meet, and the results are transcendental. A beloved component of Oaxaca’s history is mezcal, the distilled spirit painstakingly made from agave. Indeed, it is a mezcal ritual that curanderos, or Mexican faith healers, have long turned to when local villagers are struck with susto, the sensation of fright after a significant event or a moment of high emotion. A sip of the smoky spirit, they profess, wards off such fear, helping to bring the body and soul back into alignment.
Now, thanks to a local partnership that honors Oaxacan tradition and the craftsmanship of mezcaleros, Austinites can relish in the enchantment of this artisan spirit, a spirit that’s unlike any other. Susto Mezcal, launched in late 2018, is the vision of longtime locals and friends Ingrid Taylor and Liz Stewart, who partnered with esteemed Oaxacan businesswoman Beatriz “Titi” Rodriguez, to bring the extraordinary experience of mezcal to discerning Texans.
“We found we loved Oaxaca and loved the culture of mezcal,” Taylor says. “The culture around mezcal in Oaxaca, there’s a mysticism about it. It’s fascinating to experience it there, and we felt like it would really resonate in Austin.”
The business came together during the course of several years and involved many trips to Oaxaca, known as the cradle of mezcal artistry, as well as Taylor and Stewart getting educated about what it takes to become international entrepreneurs. And while Susto has become a family affair, with the women’s husbands and even adult children involved in the business, Taylor and Stewart are quick to note ownership of the company is split evenly between the two of them and Rodriguez.
“It is 100 percent woman-owned,” Taylor says, adding that element was of particular importance when launching the company.
Also of particular importance, Stewart says, was the goal of lifting up the community of Oaxaca with their entrepreneurial endeavor. Susto is not a white-label brand; Taylor and Stewart knew if they wanted to make an impact with their product in the U.S., they needed to choose the more difficult path of becoming certified producers of mezcal and rely on a traditional mezcalero to craft their spirit. After a journey of discovery alongside Rodriguez that was aimed at identifying the best Oaxaca-made mezcal for their brand—which included keeping a meticulous reckoning of the countless mezcals they tasted from a variety of mezcaleros—they met Crispín Pérez and immediately fell in love with his mezcal and his story.
Stewart refers to Pérez as a “maestro mezcalero,” and notes his devotion to his indigenous Oaxacan heritage, as well as his inherent entrepreneurial spirit, despite many economic limitations, and his remarkable palenque, the small distillery from which he laboriously creates his handmade mezcal, a palenque he was able to expand thanks to funds the Susto founders received from the Mexican federal government for the project.
As part of their commitment to Pérez’s local community, the women also made it their priority from the outset to financially support that community, a small town called San Dionisio Ocotepec, in any way they could, and have already contributed $2,000 in the form of 10 scholarships to middle-school children there.
With their dedication to Oaxaca secured, Taylor and Stewart have set their sights back on the Lone Star State, where they are currently working to help educate Austinites about the delights of mezcal, a lofty goal, considering many imbibers deem mezcal an overly smoky version of tequila that is always served up with a worm. This is far from the luscious, smooth, approachable and entirely sippable spirit that is Susto Mezcal.
Susto is currently available at several Austin-area restaurants and bars, as well as select liquor stores.
“What we’ve said from the beginning is we want to be really strong in Austin. It’s our home and where we want to make a mark. Our first goal is to do well here, then do well in Texas,” Taylor says. “Then beyond that, within the next few years, we’d like to grow outside Texas.”
Stewart concurs, saying their loyalty to Austin, the town they’ve both called home since the 1980s, further drives them to make a lasting impact here with Susto.
“We love being accountable to the Austin community,” Stewart says. “It hooks us into the pulse of Austin, and that’s really meaningful to us.”