Ron Cooper: Finding Mezcal

A couple of weeks ago, I visited Ron Cooper at his studio in Ranchos.

I’ve know Ron and his partner, (fellow artist), Sandra Lerner for many years and have profiled Ron here on taoStyle in the past.

But it has been awhile and so much has happened for him since then. The company he started in 1990, Del Maguey, is now world-renowned. The James Beard Award Winning, traditionally prepared and distilled mezcal, is used to craft artisanal cocktails in trendy bars and restaurants internationally – it’s become so popular it’s practically a household name.

Ron Cooper himself found early success as a visual artist with his work evolving out of Southern California’s “Light and Space” and “Finish Fetish” movements of the mid-1960s, and he is recognized as a pivotal artist of that moment

As an artist, Cooper’s work explores color and light using disparate materials including fluorescent light, neon and glass. He has also worked with metal and in recent years, plastic and discarded objects which he incorporated into his Dichos series.

In 2009 Ron Cooper was included in a group exhibition at the Harwood Museum in Taos, curated by his friend Dennis Hopper. (Hopper Curates – Larry Bell, Ron Cooper, Ronald Davis, Ken Price & Robert Dean Stockwell.)

Art continues to be the main focus of Cooper’s life – the day I visited he was on the phone with a New York gallery discussing the sale and shipping of a large piece, but clearly mezcal and cars compete with that possessive muse for the artist’s attention.

He restores and races old cars at various events year ‘round, and at this point has three garages where his cars are kept and worked on.

“I have three hobbies,” he laughed as he told me, “art, mezcal and cars.”

“When I was thirteen, my best friend and I built model cars.” He recalled as we sat together on the long sofa in his studio, surrounded by art (his and other’s), intriguing objects, books and of course, a table filled with bottles of the magical elixir made in Oaxaca.

Cooper discovered mezcal (he says it “found” him), while still a Chouinard art student on a road trip with a few friends,  to Ensenada, a sleepy surf town south of the border. They camped on the beach, surfed and partied. On one of those evenings Cooper first tasted mezcal.

“It was love at first sip,” he told me.

it would be almost a decade  before Cooper would try mezcal again. By the early ’70s, his work was in LA’s hippest galleries, and with money in the bank and time on his hands, together with two friends, they bought  a VW bus and headed for Panama, stopping along the way to explore a renowned weaving village in Oaxaca,

It didn’t take long for him to realize he was in the heart of mezcal country and a life long love affair with both the liquor and the land, began.

He’ll be back in LA this summer for a book signing at the Gogosian Gallery – his book, co-written with acclaimed Food & Beverage writer, Chantal Martineau, is out on the shelves now.

Finding Mezcal recounts Cooper’s love affair with the spirit and the people who make it; its meteoric rise in popularity; and the delicate balance between sharing mezcal with the world and facilitating its preservation.

So reads the promo for the book, which Ron drops into my lap so I can feel its weight.

“It’s heavy.” He smiled.

In more ways than one.

Dividing his time between Taos and Oaxaca, Cooper and his partners slowly transformed the villages they worked with, bringing water and electricity to the people who worked with them. There are now roads connecting these villages and the people there are flourishing with the robust and sustainable economy Del Maguey has helped them develop.

By the mid-2000’s Cooper would be single-handedly responsible for sparking a virtual mezcal movement in the United States,  and as demand for Del Maguey grew, Cooper knew he needed to size up.

After almost two decades as his own importer, in 2016 (after winning the Beard Award), Cooper and his team flew to Paris to meet with the CEO of Pernod Ricard and group in a private dining room of The Peninsula Hotel.

“Alexandre Ricard looked at me and said, ‘You know, my Grandfather was an artist, and he started this company. You started your company as an artist, and I want to be your partner.’ I knew then I found a home for Del Maguey.” He told me.

In this informative and very personal book, Cooper who is certainly a major catalyst of the artisanal mezcal movement and largely responsible for popularizing Mezcal  in the United States—shares everything he knows about this culturally rich, and now hugely in-demand liquor, along with several recipes using the spirit.

The book is illustrated with photographs and artwork by Cooper and his late friend, Ken Price, who’s work graces the labels of Del Magaey.

As I got ready to leave, Ron showed me a small building he had recently restored next to his studio. What had once been a ramshackle shed, was now a pristine, small “crypto mother-inlaw’s house” as Ron described it.

A kiva fireplace in the corner of the bare, stark little room with its windows looking out over the valley below, reminded me of how precious a moment of quiet space must be for Cooper these days.

We walked over to the house he shares with Sandra, stopping to look at one of his old trucks on the way. There was major construction going on behind the house and he explained that they would live in the new addition, restoring and remodeling the old adobe house, for Sandra to use as her studio,

“He took over mine,” she reminded me when I went in to say hello.

Sandra was already at work on some botanical drawings.

“I think I’m inspired by the thought of having a studio again!” She laughed.

Ron had told me that the couple had just celebrated their 27th year together, and that Sandra had made him a book, chronicling that time with photographs and other ephemera.

She showed it to me, flipping through the pages, winding down memory lane.

Ron said goodbye before leaving himself.

“I’ve got to go to Ace,” he informed us, “need some parts for something upstairs.”

I took my leave as well, and walked out into the bright afternoon light wondering what new challenge Ron Cooper would find for himself next, once the new house has been built and the next series of art has been made?

Hardly one to rest on his laurels, no doubt he’ll continue to surprise us with his “hobbies”.

For more on Ron Cooper’s new book, Finding Mescal, please visit the site linked below. You can find Del Maguey mezcal here in Taos at the Cellar.


The Cellar


Editor’s note: One story Ron told me that day stands out and deserves to be added to this piece. Ron had really wanted Penguin as his publisher, but the revered house only prints paperback copies, as fate would have it, during the bidding war for the book, the imprint he finally chose ( Ten Speed Press) a house run by women (with Polly Raye’s daughter Hannah Raye,at the helm), wound up being owned by Penguin.


All photos taken on my iphone