Cecilia Ríos Murrieta eases a cork out of a tall bottle with a silhouette of a woman wearing pinup-style victory rolls on its label. "This is pechuga," she says to a group of attendees at the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity at last year's Patchwork Edible event. A clear, fragrant liquid splashes against the side of glasses as she pours samples and explains that this is a celebratory mezcal, re-distilled with the bounty of the harvest thrown into the still and a whole turkey breast suspended above the level of the liquid.
"It sounds weird, but there's no actual meat in the bottle," she says. "It's just the essence of the turkey, which ties together all the fruit."
Apprehensive looks turn to relief, as a group of people who may never have tried anything more exotic than tequila take their first forays into the world of La Niña del Mezcal, her buzzed-about attempt to make Southern California the vanguard of a growing love for regional Mexican spirits.
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Murrieta was born in Mexico City, but she moved to Anaheim as a child and enrolled at Stoddard Elementary; after five years, the family returned to Cuernavaca, but her binational identity had already been forged. "Once you've lived here and you go back, it's never the same," she says. She spent her summer holidays with cousins in Anaheim and now splits her time between Orange County, Mexico City and Oaxaca, where she has developed relationships with palenqueros, liquor distillers in the far-flung, dusty, rural mountain villages where mezcal originated.
She was introduced to mezcal by a Oaxacan friend of her brother, and she fell in love with the smoky, sharp spirit. Murrieta tried to share her love of mezcal with her friends at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, but they rejected it as campesino hooch, meant to be drunk in low-class rural cantinas. Nevertheless, Murrieta pushed into the mezcal world, rightfully banking on its current status as Mexico's It liquor. The first deal, for mezcal espadín, sealed with a handshake in the cobblestone streets of Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca, was the hardest; the palenquero's contribution to the deal was the mezcal itself, and the rest was up to Murrieta—licensing, bottling, labeling, marketing, sales. Her family cobbled together as much money as they could, and Murrieta set to work, introducing the high-end bars of Mexico City to her mezcal.
Returning to Anaheim, Murrieta brought as many bottles as she could legally carry through customs and started pouring samples, hoping the cocktail renaissance in this country combined with Los Angeles' long-standing love for tequila would spark interest in her product. It's working; there are now agave spirit bars in Los Angeles and San Diego, there are bottles of La Niña del Mezcal on bars in Orange County, and an increasing line of varietals will soon be available, from madrecuixe (a tall, yucca-like agave) to tobalá (a fiery, ultra-smoky mezcal from a squat, fat agave that grows only in the shade of tall trees).
Murrieta is leading a contingent of bartenders and cocktail aficionados on a tour of Oaxaca soon, knowing that estadounidenses who travel often bring back demand for the products they've tasted abroad. Meanwhile, when she's in Anaheim, she'll go to bars that serve La Niña del Mezcal and just sip it neat, reveling in the fruits—destined for pechuga or not—of her labor.