Rafa Shin, the founder of the ultra-premium mezcal brand Agua Mágica, was just one year old when his family moved from Seoul to Mexico City. Fueled by their fascination with the ancient traditions and diverse cultures of the region, her parents decided to pursue studies in Latin American studies at a local university, where they formed a small community of Korean students. The family of three traveled extensively through Mexico throughout Shin’s teenage years, but most often found themselves returning to the southern state of Oaxaca, the mecca of iconic cultural exports such as the mole, ceramics and of course mezcal. Decades later, after earning an MBA from Wharton and establishing himself in New York’s cutthroat investment banking industry, Shin would take a bold career turn, dreaming up the idea of an original mezcal unique that could truly be considered ‘magical’.
Hotels Above Par’s Design + Culture Editor Paul Jebara caught up with Shin to find out more.
What were you doing before Agua Mágica was born? And why launch a whole new brand of luxury artisanal mezcal in an increasingly saturated market?
I’ve spent most of my career in finance, focusing primarily on studying consumer businesses in Latin America, including tequila companies. As you mentioned, it’s already a saturated market, and the question I asked myself many times before starting this journey was: does Oaxaca need another brand of mezcal? And the answer for me was always: more than ever! We are at a crossroads where Mezcal becomes an industrialized “smoky tequila” or a fine spirit (like great wines). The behavior of mezcal brands will determine its path.
Mezcal is slowly becoming a commodity, driven by demand for higher volumes at lower cost. This situation has a direct impact on the industry, its people, ancestral production techniques and the land in Oaxaca. Our mission is to make our contribution to the transformation of mezcal into a refined spirit and to ensure that it receives the respect it deserves. We want to create a virtuous circle in the production chain of Oaxaca to encourage high quality production and a better distribution of profits for producers. We hope to help Oaxaca look more like Burgundy in a decade 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 because there aren’t many opinions on mezcal today (if at all!). It is still a niche and growing category in the US market, despite being Mexico’s oldest distilled beverage. Most people in the United States don’t know what mezcal is today, and the very few who do believe it’s just “smoked tequila.” I guess I can try to address these two:
“It’s smoky” — Yes, it is smoky, but there are different levels of smoke. Most mezcales sold in the United States are very smoky because they were made for cocktails. These are usually too hard to drink on their own. There are many more, like the ones we buy in San Juan del Rio. The 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 the reputation of tequila many years ago, the reputation of mezcal suffered when most of the juices sold and distributed were of poor quality. This has changed over the past five years, but there is still a long way to go.
We learned during your palenque visit to San Juan del Rio that you met over 90 mezcaleros before finally settling on maestro mezcalero, don Rogelio, as your partner. What was it about him, and the mezcal coming from the region, that resonated with you enough to invest in the relationship and the palenque?
It all started with the product. When we were picking a mezcalero and a “juice,” we tried to take a very methodical approach to picking a producer with a bunch of different scoreboards that I had created. This plan didn’t really work out, because we ended up choosing our juice the old-fashioned way: we had hundreds of samples in our house, but we all came back every night to drink don Rogelio’s mezcal! The common denominator of our favorite mezcales was that they were all produced in San Juan del Rio due to the high quality of the agave.
Don Rogelio and I immediately bonded. I could feel his integrity as a person. That’s not to say that the other mezcaleros I encountered were necessarily different, but don Rogelio’s passion for crafting mezcal and especially his love for San Juan del Rio stood out among the rest. He struck me as someone very humble and grateful, but also with a lot of authority and leadership. I could see that people in his town trusted him because he cared deeply about his community and its values. It’s just a real pleasure to hang out and learn from him on every visit.
In what ways does Agua Mágica empower and give back to the community, especially in San Juan del Rio?
I think it is very important to establish from the start what is the role of the brand in the value chain. At Agua Mágica we see ourselves as a kind of sports agent: our job is to promote the work of mezcal producers and provide them with everything they need to excel in their profession, in other words, to make the best mezcal possible. Mezcal production is extremely labor and capital intensive. It’s also half art and half science. We try to help with the capital and the scientific part of it. So far our relationship has been symbiotic and hopefully we will continue to help raise the quality standards in the industry.
I believe that giving back to the community starts with empowering mezcaleros. San Juan is a city of only 1,500 inhabitants and most of the population is dedicated to the production of mezcal. Additionally, we currently donate 5% of our profits to our “Empowering Mezcaleros” fund. The design of the program is still in progress as we are still analyzing what is the best way to have an impact, whether it is a direct deposit of money to the mezcaleros, palenque improvements or donations to the town. This fund has already racked up money since our first year of sale and we are excited to announce some great developments soon.
Part of your mission is rooted in promoting Oaxaca as the Burgundy of Mexico, a region where small changes in terroir are reflected in the final product. What are the best ways for travelers to immerse themselves in this experience when traveling to Oaxaca?
I think it all starts with understanding that the terroir is very important in mezcal. A San Juan del Rio espadin is very different from an espadin that you can grow in your garden. And a swordfish grown on one side of a mountain in San Juan del Rio will be very different from one grown a few feet from the other. Factors such as the soil, the slope of the land, and even the proximity of other plants like fruit trees – since agave picks up fruit flavors through the roots – greatly affect the flavor of agave. Even the natural yeasts found in the air in San Juan will taste very different from a chemically cultured yeast than most industrial mezcals use.
How can you experience this? Ideally, of course, with a visit to our palenque in San Juan del Rio (located about 90 minutes from downtown Oaxaca), but you can start at home with a mezcal tasting. Just make sure you’re drinking mezcals from one village (meaning the ingredients all come from one place) versus high-volume mezcal, which theoretically could be a mix of dozens of different mezcals.
Is it incorrect to assume that the big mezcal brands have exploited, for lack of a better word, small mezcal producers to be able to secure the volume they need for mass distribution?
I wouldn’t say that the big mezcal brands are the bad guys here, nor do I believe they intend to exploit mezcaleros. The production of mezcal is very difficult to scale and the only solution today is to mix several productions from different producers. This causes mezcal to become a commodity and therefore affects what mezcaleros are paid for their product.
Ultimately, it all starts with the consumer since brands will create what they are looking for. In other words, How? ‘Or’ What you drink mezcal has a direct impact on communities. If consumers only drink frozen mezcal margaritas, brands have an incentive to produce the cheapest mezcal possible. If consumers treat and sip mezcal like a fine spirit, brands will only seek out high-quality products and pay accordingly.
What exciting developments can we expect from Agua Mágica in the future?
We are a new project with big ambitions, so there are a lot of things we look forward to in the future. To start, 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 set: a mix of espadín and tobalá agaves. This new product will not only help many consumers enjoy high-quality mezcal at a lower price, but also create new opportunities for consumers to sip mezcal in bars and restaurants. It’s the perfect size for sharing with a loved one while enjoying a meal or as a digestive. We’re also developing a new product that will be made from 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 on here to learn more about Agua Mágica.
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