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What is the story behind Erstwhile Mezcal’s logo?  Why is there a baby in the black-and-white photo on the back label?  Why is our project called Erstwhile? We get asked these questions a lot from folks who are getting to know us for the first time.  I figured it is high time that I write a blog post addressing these excellent questions.

WHAT IS THE STORY BEHIND ERSTWHILE MEZCAL’S LOGO?

When we set out to design Erstwhile’s flagship line, we wanted to create something beautiful in every sense of the word.  We were confident that the quality of our mezcals would speak for itself, but the packaging needs to not just match but elevate its content.

A woman warrior holding a flowering quiote, riding a velociraptor and charging forth.  That is Erstwhile Mezcal’s logo in a nutshell.

Erstwhile Mezcal is a woman-owned, woman-operated business.  We support fellow women in mezcal production and all aspects of the industry whenever possible.  In almost every mezcal producer family we have met and work with, there is at least one strong, capable woman in the family who makes things run.

We want to honor that with a strong female presence in Erstwhile Mezcal’s logo.  The Erstwhile woman is strong and capable.  She’s got spunk and grit, but not at the expense of beauty and femininity. She is warm. She is whimsical.  She has a great sense of humor. But you do not want to mess with her.  She is surely going where she sets her mind to, and there is no stopping her.

 

A flowering quiote in the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca. Photo taken in August 2018.

A flowering quiote in the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca. Photo taken in August 2018.

Quick note on the quiote, for those who are not familiar.  Quiote is the stalk that shoots out from the core of an agave plant when it is ready to reproduce.  Depending on the agave varietal, the quiote can shoot up to a height as tall as 30 feet (about 9 meters) so that they are far out of reach from animals and harm.  It is a majestic sight to behold.

Why velociraptor?  A woman warrior needs her steed.  A velociraptor is an erstwhile creature (more on that in a moment).  And I think we can all agree that a velociraptor is much more awesome than, say, a horse. She is fast.  She is ferocious but loyal.  She has a delightful Game of Thrones sensibility, and a great smile to boot.  I mean, come on, who wouldn’t want to ride the Erstwhile velociraptor if given the chance!

 

IS THAT A BABY I SEE THROUGH THE BOTTLE?

Yes!  This is a photo of yours truly, taken in Xuzhou, China (where my grandparents lived and raised me) when I was nine months old.  Even at such a young age, I was already expressing an unmistakable penchant for riding magical awesome creatures.

We decided to use this photo as a backdrop for all the bottles in Erstwhile’s flagship line for several reasons.  In terms of aesthetics and design, it makes the bottle pop visually. When viewed from a distance, the black-and-white palette is especially stunning when the bottle is full.  It makes a beautiful marble-like background, and a striking contrast against the warm red-and-yellow palette on the front of the bottle.

This baby is also a nice juxtaposition to the velociraptor-riding woman warrior on the front.  Having poured so much of my heart and soul into the making of Erstwhile Mezcal, looking for my old self through Erstwhile’s bottles never gets old.  For me, she is a constant reminder of how far Erstwhile has come, how much farther we dream of going, and what an incredible journey it has been already.

That baby had no idea what mezcal was, let alone how it would go on to change her life thirty years later.  For me, she is a constant reminder that the creation of Erstwhile Mezcal is a dream, and specifically an American dream, come true.  As for my parents, they are first-generation Chinese immigrants with predictable traditional values.  Imagine how proud I have made them by going to law school, building a promising career at a Big Law firm in New York for years, and then ditching it all to hustle Mexican moonshine full-time.

 

WHY IS OUR MEZCAL PROJECT CALLED ERSTWHILE?

 

ERSTWHILE  /ˈərstˌ(h)wīl/

Adjective

Definition: belonging to an earlier time or tradition

Synonyms: bygone; long-ago; of old

 

My co-founder Kevin and I wanted a name that has enough gravitas to match the antiquity, beauty, history and tradition of Mezcal production.  We also wanted a name that, ideally, connects with the English-speaking audience in the United States (the destination of Erstwhile’s flagship shipment out of Oaxaca).

Though not commonly used in modern day English, the word “erstwhile” has been part of the English lexicon since the 16th century.  It is formed from two Old English words: ær, meaning “early”; and hwīl, similar to the modern word “while”.

“Erstwhile” is apropos for Mezcal because, like the craft of mezcal production, it has been in existence for hundreds of years.  It conjures antiquity, history, and tradition.  The idea of something impossibly beautiful and complex, first made in a bygone era and then honed from generation to generation, witnessing and withstanding the passage of time.

Oldest Known Map of Oaxaca City, from the archives of Erstwhile Mezcal

Oldest Known Map of Oaxaca City, from the archives of Erstwhile Mezcal

The overwhelming majority of mezcal brands on the market nowadays have Spanish names.  Back when my co-founder Kevin and I were brainstorming names, most if not all of the other ideas we came up with were actually also in Spanish, paying homage to the land where our mezcals are made.

In the end, I think it is fitting that we chose a name with roots in old English.  We wanted a name that connects with consumers and mezcal enthusiasts in the United States who do not speak Spanish.  English is also the language shared and spoken by Erstwhile’s two co-founders.  The language in which we first conceived Erstwhile the project.  The language inextricably intertwined with the growing pains of starting a project from scratch, and with the exhilarations of creating something beautiful from nothing.  English is, and always will be, Erstwhile Mezcal’s lengua materna.

Erstwhile conjures a bygone time from the past.  The more we know about a mezcal’s erstwhile provenance, by which I mean its past and its origin, the richer the experience of each sip.  A small-batch distillation is ephemeral by its very nature.  Celebrate it while it lasts, for there is no guarantee that you can experience it ever again once the batch is gone.  That is part of its beauty, and one of the many reasons I fell in love with mezcal to begin with.

But I find that the deeper I dig, the richer and more long-lasting the reward.

Take our Henequén mezcal for example.  It was love at first sip when I first encountered it at the palenque of Juan Hernández Méndez in Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca.  But I had never heard of the plant before. I set forth to learn all I could, and find myself down an unexpected rabbit hole of discovery.

An illustration of Henequén (Agave Fourcroydes) published in 1918. Source: Curtis's Botanical Magazine, London., vol. 144 [= ser. 4, vol. 14]: Tab. 8746 - [1].

An illustration of Henequén (Agave Fourcroydes) published in 1918. Source: Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, London., vol. 144 [= ser. 4, vol. 14]: Tab. 8746 – [1].

I learned that Henequén, not native to Oaxaca, is a hardy plant that grows wild in the Yucatán Peninsula’s rocky limestone terrain and thrives with virtually no water or fertilization.

This plant has been used for its fiber since pre-Hispanic times, eventually playing such a prominent role in the region’s socioeconomic history that it came to be known as the “green gold” of Yucatán.

The ruling class of European descent in Yucatán grew fabulously rich from their Henequén plantations, evidence of which you can still see today in the grand haciendas that line the Paseo de Montejo boulevard in Merida, the capital of Yucatán.

I learned about the abuse that Mayan workers experienced on these Henequén plantations, about the clash between the Mayans’ defense of their communal lands against the ruling class’s push for private ownership, eventually escalating into the Caste War of the Yucatán in the second half of the 19th century.

So when I drink Henequén now, I think about the spunk and resilience of this plant, and of the Mayans who harvested it under the Yucatán sun over a hundred years ago.  I think about the injustice of the reality they lived in, the dark underbelly of the socioeconomic conditions in which “green gold” came to be.

I think about how the day I discovered Henequén was the first time I ever drove in the Oaxacan countryside on my own, learning firsthand how those topes (speedbumps) of Oaxaca do NOT mess around.  I think about how a few months later I was back at Juan’s palenque in Santiago Matatlán. That day I saw rows after rows of bottles embossed with Erstwhile’s logo and filled with Henequén, for the very first time in my life. They were so pristine and beautiful in the morning light.

Having spent most of 2018 living in Oaxaca and working on Erstwhile’s flagship line there, this is one of my favorite memories from that year: flame trees in full bloom by the Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzman in Oaxaca City. Photo taken in May 2018.

 

So the word “Erstwhile” conjures memories as well.  I love that about mezcal.  That it is rich with portals to history and knowledge, open to anyone who is curious to learn.  That the experience of savoring a single expression is a living thing, growing as we grow.  Not static, but always evolving and gaining complexity over time.

 

Yuan Ji

Co-Founder of Erstwhile Mezcal