A Toast to the Future of Mezcal with Rafa Shin, Founder of Agua Mágica

Rafa Shin, the founder of ultra-premium mezcal brand Agua Mágica, was just one year old when his family relocated from Seoul to Mexico City. Fueled by their fascination with the region’s ancient traditions and diverse cultures, his parents made the move in pursuit of degrees in Latin American studies at a local university, where they comprised a small community of Korean students. The family of three traveled extensively across Mexico throughout Shin’s adolescent years, yet would find themselves returning most often to the southern state of Oaxaca, a mecca of emblematic cultural exports such as mole, ceramics, and of course, mezcal. Decades later, after obtaining an MBA from Wharton and establishing himself in New York’s cutthroat investment banking sector, Shin would make a bold pivot in his career, dreaming up the idea for a purposeful single-origin mezcal that could truly be considered “magic.”

Hotels Above Par’s Design + Culture Editor Paul Jebara caught up with Shin to learn more.

Rafa Shin

What were you doing before Agua Mágica was born? And why launch a brand new luxe artisanal mezcal brand in a market that is getting increasingly saturated?

I spent most of my career in finance, mostly focusing on studying consumer companies in Latin America, including tequila companies. As you mentioned, it is already a saturated market, and the question I asked myself many times before starting this journey was: Does Oaxaca need another mezcal brand? And the answer for me was always: More so than ever! We are at the crossroads of Mezcal becoming an industrialized “smokey tequila” or a fine spirit (like fine wines). How mezcal brands behave will determine its path. 

Mezcal is slowly becoming a commodity, driven by the demand for higher volumes at lower costs. This situation directly impacts the industry, its people, the ancestral production techniques, and the land in Oaxaca. Our mission is to make our contribution to turning mezcal into a fine spirit and make sure it gets the respect it deserves. We want to create a virtuous cycle in Oaxaca’s production chain to incentivize high-quality production and better distribution of profits for producers. We hope to help Oaxaca look more like Burgundy a decade from now rather than Jalisco.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions Americans have about mezcal as a spirit? And how does Agua Mágica aim to disrupt these perceptions?

I wouldn’t say there are many misconceptions since there are not that many opinions on mezcal today (if at all!). It’s still a niche and developing category in the US market despite being the oldest distilled drink in Mexico. Most people in the US don’t know what mezcal is today, and the very few that know believe it’s just a “smokey tequila”. I guess I can try to tackle those two:

“It’s smoky” — Yes, it’s smoky, but there are different levels of smoke. Most of the mezcales sold in the U.S. are extra smokey since they were made for cocktails. Those are usually too harsh to drink on their own. There are many others, like the ones we buy in San Juan del Rio. Smoke is subtle and perfect for sipping.

“It’s a tequila” — Mezcal has some similarities of course, but the production technique and the agaves used make it a very different product, in my opinion. As with tequila’s reputation many years ago, mezcal’s reputation suffered when most of the juice that was being sold and distributed was low quality. That has changed over the last five years, but still has a long way to go.

We learned while visiting your palenque in San Juan del Rio that you had met with over 90 mezcaleros before finally settling on maestro mezcalero, don Rogelio, as a partner. What was it about him, and the mezcal product coming from the region, that resonated with you enough that you would invest in the relationship and palenque? 

It all started with the product. When we were in the process of choosing a mezcalero and “juice”, we tried to take a very methodical approach in choosing a producer with a bunch of different scorecards that I had created. That plan didn’t work really, since we ended up choosing our juice the old-school way: We had hundreds of samples in our house, but we all kept coming back to drink from don Rogelio’s mezcal every night! The common denominator of our favorite mezcales was that they all were produced in San Juan del Rio due to the high quality of the agave.

Don Rogelio and I bonded immediately. I could sense his integrity as a person. Not to say that other mezcaleros I met necessarily came across differently, but don Rogelio’s passion for the craft of mezcal and especially his love for San Juan del Rio stood out among the rest. He struck me as someone very humble and thankful, but also with a lot of authority and leadership skills. I could see that people in his town trusted him because he cares deeply about his community and its values. It is just a real pleasure to spend time and learn from him every time I visit.

In what ways does Agua Mágica empower and give back to the community, specifically in San Juan del Rio?

I think it’s very important to establish from the beginning what is the role of the brand in the value chain. At Agua Mágica, we see ourselves as something like a sports agent: Our job is to promote the mezcal producers’ work and provide them with everything to excel at their craft—in other words, to make the best mezcal possible. Producing mezcal is extremely labor and capital-intensive. It’s also half art and half science. We try to help with capital and the science part of it. Our relationship so far has been symbiotic and hopefully, we will continue contributing to raising the quality standards of the industry.

I believe giving back to the community starts with empowering the mezcaleros. San Juan is a town of only 1,500 people, and most of the population is dedicated to producing mezcal. In addition, we are currently donating 5% of our profits to our “Empowering Mezcaleros” fund. The design of the program is still a work in progress since we are still analyzing what is the best way to have an impact, whether that’s direct money deposit to mezcaleros, palenque improvements, or donations to the town. That fund has been accumulating money from our first year of sale already and we are excited to announce some big developments soon.

Part of your mission is rooted in promoting Oaxaca as Mexico’s Burgundy, a region where little changes in the terroir are reflected in the final product. What are the best ways for travelers to dive into this experientially during their trip to Oaxaca?

I think it all begins with understanding that terroir matters a lot in mezcal. An espadín from San Juan del Rio is very different from an espadín you can grow in your backyard. And an espadín grown on one side of a mountain in San Juan del Rio will be very different from one grown a couple of meters away on another. Factors such as soil, the inclination of the land, and even proximity to other plants like fruit trees—since the agave picks up fruit flavors through the roots—affect the flavor of the agave significantly. Even the natural yeasts found in the air in San Juan will provide a very different taste to a chemically grown yeast most of the industrialized mezcals use. 

How can you experience this? Ideally, of course, with a visit to our palenque in San Juan del Rio (located about 90 mins from Oaxaca’s city center), but you can start at your own home with a mezcal tasting. Just make sure you are drinking single-village mezcals (that means the ingredients are all coming from one place) versus large volume mezcal, which theoretically could be a blend of dozens of different mezcals. 

Is it incorrect to assume that larger mezcal brands have exploited, for lack of a better word, small-batch mezcal producers to be able to secure the volume they need for mass distribution? 

I wouldn’t say larger mezcal brands are the villains here, nor do I believe they have intentions of exploiting mezcaleros. Mezcal production is very difficult to scale and the only solution today is to mix several productions from different producers. That results in mezcal becoming a commodity, and as a result, it affects what mezcaleros get paid for their product. 

At the end of the day, it all starts with the consumer since brands will create what they are looking for. In other words, how you drink mezcal has a direct impact on the communities. If consumers are drinking only frozen mezcal margaritas, brands are incentivized to produce the cheapest mezcal possible. If consumers treat and sip mezcal as a fine spirit, brands will only look for high-quality products and pay accordingly.

What are some exciting developments we can look forward to from Agua Mágica in the future? 

We are a new project with big ambitions, so there’s a lot we are looking forward to in the future. For starters, we are launching a new product in a month called Aguita Mágica (“aguita” means little water) which will be a 200ml bottle of our flagship ensemble: a mix of espadín and tobalá agaves. This new product will not only help many consumers to sample a high-quality mezcal at a lower price point, but also create new consumer sipping occasions for mezcal in bars and restaurants. It’s the perfect size to share with a loved one while enjoying a meal or as a digestif. We are also developing a new product that will be made of wild agaves that take at least 16 years to grow, but that’s something that will have to wait until next year. Stay tuned!

Click here to learn more about Agua Mágica.

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