Vicente Reyes is standing at the front of our bus in a forest green military jacket as we drive down a highway outside of Oaxaca City, Mexico. “Should I start from the mythological part?” he asks the us like a camp counselor building suspense for a ghost story. A chorus of yes rings back to him. His audience is a group of glamorously bohemian travelers from all over the world, the kind you’d meet looking impeccably costumed at Burning Man (Potentially literally. They all go to Burning Man together, and have been going long before the layman found out about it). Reyes, co-founder of Gem&Bolt mezcal and director of operations for Mexico, begins to tell the tale of agave.
Today, the agave plant is just as generous—particularly when you look at the spirits that come from it. By 2025, the tequila market is projected to hit $6.36 billion. By the end of 2022, the world is allegedly going to drink $840 million worth of mezcal. Gem&Bolt will only make up a fraction of that titanic figure and it isn’t trying to be the Jose Cuervo of mezcal, although its founders do have a mission of disrupt the industry.
It’s the best legal drug out there.
Coon and Adrina started experimenting with mezcal and damiana when the childhood friends began running a speakeasy in Oakland, California they called Gem&Bolt. On a trip to Oaxaca with a mezcal industry insider, Adrina fortuitously met Reyes, laying the foundation for their future business partnership. Back in Oakland, Gem&Bolt speakeasy guests took to damiana quickly, and soon Adrina and Coon were driving thousands of liters of their elixir to Tulum where they were throwing more mezcal-filled parties. They wanted to take the spirit to Mykonos, but couldn’t bootleg their product overseas. The solution: officially launch Gem&Bolt as a legitimate mezcal brand.
Our bus reaches the distillery where that legitimate mezcal is made. It’s a simple, open-air facility you could lovingly call rustic. Bougainvilla grows wildly at the front gate next to Gem&Bolt’s spray painted logo. We meet Ignacio “Nacho” Martinez, the fourth generation mezcalero in charge of the drink's production. While Adrina and Coon once infused damiana into mezcal, they now work with Martinez to distill mezcal with damiana (think of it like gin—the damiana is put in a basket inside of the still, allowing its essential oils to join forces with the agave spirit as its distilled).
Reyes shows us exactly how that’s done on a tour of the property, explaining every detail from the roasting of harvested agave hearts to checking the alcohol percentage of the finished product. While this facility serves its purpose for now, the company is working on inventing the most environmentally sustainable mezcal-making operation possible. The trick is to change it enough to make it greener, while preserving tradition and keeping costs low. They want to impact the industry by coming up with something that can be adapted by others cheaply. “Innovation is key in Oaxaca,” Reyes tells us. "We love to learn from the outside world and adapt.”
The parties are important. After all, the mezcal would not exist if it hadn’t been Adrina and Coon’s prowess for hosting elaborate events. Gem&Bolt is both a lifestyle and an aphrodisiac-laced mezcal. We reach the sprawling, overgrown estate bathed in soft golden lights. At check-in, we’re given glass flasks for mezcal drinking, and a damiana tincture to set the mood. The party is a feast for the senses immediately. A man walks around with smoking copal incense. There are alters to those who passed this year, like Anthony Bourdain. There’s a massive set up of Oaxaca delicacies, and even more massive art instillations. The dance floor—if you can call a large lawn a dance floor—is alive with bejeweled and feathered bodies. It’s exactly the kind of production you could expect from Adrina and Coon; ornate but not try-hard, over-the-top but just enough.
The mezcal or maybe the damiana is working. We get happy and stay happy.