Five Minutes With Susto’s Founders (Tip: Don’t Mess With This Mezcal!)

by Rhonda Jenkins on April 3, 2019 in Food+Drink, Drink, Austin,
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Susto is breathing new life into the Texas agave-derived spirits scene with a mystical drink that tradition says brings one’s spirit and body back into alignment.

We wanted to find out more about this artisanal sipping spirit and the group of Texas friends behind it—-from their personal connections to their respect for the people, cities, cultures and traditions that bind them, from Austin to Oaxaca.

How did you all meet?

The Stewarts (Duff and Liz) and the Taylors (Ingrid and James) have been longtime friends since 1993 when Ingrid and Liz met as colleagues. In 2009, Duff and James met Titi [ Rodriguez] in Tampico, Mexico at a conference where Duff, as the CEO of GSD&M,  a marketing company that launched wildly successful campaigns like “Don’t Mess With Texas”, was invited to speak about branding. After the conference, the Taylors and Stewarts began traveling often to Oaxaca to visit Titi, forging a deep friendship. Our families have grown up together, traveled together and now we are growing the business venture together.  

What inspired you to produce mezcal?  

We never considered producing anything else. We were committed to mezcal because it is part of long-standing Mexican tradition and we wanted to be involved in the community that we grew to love. Mezcal is inextricably embedded into the community and culture through its traditional artisan process by using handed-down recipes from family-led small businesses. We were also drawn to its mystical nature.

The founders of Susto connect Oaxaca and Austin through similarities, differences and long distances of desert land and mountainous range; and through sips of their mezcal, a delightful smoky spirit that dances smoothly across the palate with its light vanilla and citrus notes. Photo Rhonda Jenkins

How did you choose your Mescalero?

We blind-tasted 17 different mezcals produced from the various regions across the state of Oaxaca.  A renowned mezcal taster walked us through the intricate composition of mezcal from its production process to the unique notes and tastes, and then we all carefully graded each one. Unanimously we chose the mezcal by maestro Mezcalero Crispín Perez. The following day, we all went to meet Crispin and his family and tour his palenque. They welcomed us into their small home and offered us food and mezcal. That kind of warmth and hospitality confirmed that this was the family we wanted to be associated.

How does the name Susto reflect the spirit behind your mezcal?  

Susto means ‘scare’ or ‘fright’ in Spanish, and is often interpreted as causing a separation of the body and spirit.  In many Mexican communities, they go to the curandero (healer) for cleansing.  Often, the ritual concludes with a sip of mezcal which is believed to realign the spirit with the body.  Susto is culturally significant in Mexico, relevant to the traditions of mezcal and is easy for the Texas market to understand.

Susto is great with sal de gusano (“worm salt”). Indigenous groups of central and southern Mexico used chapulines (grasshoppers) and gusano de maguey (agave worms) centuries before the arrival of Spanish conquerors, incorporating them as a source of protein. Today, sal de gusano is often used as an accompaniment to a cocktail on the rim of a glass or to taste a mezcal along with an orange slice. Chapulines are still a common staple in the Oaxacan diet. Photo Rhonda Jenkins

How should we drink Susto?

First take a small sip to open your taste buds—-the alcohol and complexity of flavors can be overwhelming. Then take another very small sip, and let it linger in your mouth for a moment before swallowing. The third sip allows you to identify some of the flavors, which have been described as citrus and vanilla with a sweet smoky layer. In most of Mexico, it is tradition to drink mezcal with reverence, to approach your sips as kisses instead of gulps. Handcrafted simple cocktails are amazing too.

What makes Susto stand out from other mezcals?

We’re the first Austinites to produce mezcal from the source to market. Susto is woman-owned in Austin and Oaxaca, and it has also grown from a great love of Mexico, making it local, authentic and traditional. We went through the long, tedious and complicated process to obtain our own NOM and are finalizing a long term plan to get all of our mezcal from this palenque, making us the owners of the entire chain of production.

Susto can be enjoyed many ways but shines brightest with simple natural additions that do not overwhelm the delicate nuances of the spirit … and when taken in sips, more like besos (kisses) rather than gulped down like a traditional shot. As the founders say, “Fear nothing but the absence of taste.” Photo Rhonda Jenkins

In what ways do you continue to connect to Oaxaca?

Our families and company are committed to participating in and supporting the communities in which we live and work. We have updated Crispin’s palenque and are poised to bottle and label our product there soon as well, bringing in up to 25 new jobs for the community, mostly for single mothers in the town. We support boys and girls by giving academics and need-based sponsorships, enabling recipients to go to middle and high school in an area where, especially the girls, often drop out after elementary.

What else do you want people to know about Susto?

Our commitment is to run an ethically responsible business that gives back to the communities in which we live and work. We bring mezcal traditions of Mexico to markets in the United States with reverence for the product and traditions while sharing a sense of delight throughout.

Cover: Along with Titi Rodriguez, who lives in Oaxaca (pronounced ‘wahaka’), the cradle of the mezcal palenque, the Stewarts and Taylors are the first Austinites to produce mezcal from distilling to market. (L to R: Duff and Liz Stewart, Beatriz (Titi) Rodriguez, Ingrid and James S. Taylor.) Courtesy photo

Rhonda Jenkins is a mom, songwriter, photography “hobbiest” and writer who loves to experience other cultures and support small businesses and influencers through her IG @atxfickleatx