Photography by Joanna B. Pinneo
Judah Kuper’s story is your typical boy meets girl, boy picks up and moves to Mexico to be with girl, boy imports mezcal to the U.S., kind of love story.
Hailing from Colorado, Kuper moved to Telluride from Boulder in 1992 and “lived a pretty typical ski-bum life, working every kind of dumb job you can imagine,” he says. For about eight years, Kuper would work odd jobs in Colorado, saving up money to head south and hunt waves in Central America.
On his last trip to his favorite beach about an hour outside of Oaxaca, Mexico, Kuper developed an ear infection, went to a local clinic and met a nurse. The rest is history, so they say.
“I don’t know for sure if it was love at first sight, but I knew I wanted her to be the mother of my children,” he says. His earache was gone, but in its place was a new heartache. He knew he had to stay.
Along with close friend Dylan Sloan, Kuper rented a palapa on the beach and ran a popular beachside bar, all the while courting his new love.
In the end, Kuper got the girl—he and Valentina were married, and he gained a whole new family.
“I started bringing my father-in-law’s mezcal down to the bar and everyone loved it,” he says. “As I became part of her family, witness to their mastery in crafting mezcal, I knew the time had come to share these beautiful mezcals with the world.”
Along with Sloan, who lives in Ophir, Colorado, Kuper formed Vago, a company that exports Oaxaca’s undiscovered mezcal, which is like an uncle of tequila. All mezcals are made from agave plants, while tequila is made from one particular species—the blue agave. So all tequilas are mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequilas.
“Mezcal, like wine, varies with each batch. Much of the mezcal comes from my father-in-law, such as our Espadin and the Elote, but others, such as our Tobala and Madre Cuixe, come from other remote towns, from master mezcaleros whose mezcals must be shared with the world,” he says.
Their mezcal is still made in the ancestral technique, the way it’s been done for six generations—it is unfiltered, unaged and roasted in ovens for a smokiness that is like no other.
“One of our producers actually hand-mashes the agave in clay pots,” Kuper says. “It’s about as close to farm-to-table as you can get for an import.”