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db Meets: David de Rothschild

David de Rothschild is a British adventurer, ecologist and environmentalist. Born in London in 1978, as a teenager he competed in Britain’s junior eventing team as a show jumper. In 2002 he studied at the College of Naturopathic Medicine in London, where he received an advanced Diploma in natural medicine. In 2006, he spent over 100 days crossing the Arctic from Russia to Canada, which saw him become the youngest British person to reach both geographical poles. In March 2010, de Rothschild launched a 60-foot catamaran called Plastiki, built from 12,500 reclaimed plastic bottles, across the Pacific, sailing from San Francisco to Sydney. His latest project is The Lost Explorer, a range of three hand-crafted mezcals made in collaboration with co-founder Thor Björgólfsson, an Icelandic entrepreneur, and master mezcalero Don Fortino Ramos. Housed in recycled glass bottles, the mezcals are sealed with natural cork and biodegradable beeswax. The range, which will be distributed by Proof Drinks in the UK, costs between £62.50 for the Espadín and £140 for the Salmiana.

Where did the idea for The Lost Explorer mezcal originate from?

I’m passionate about mezcal and wanted to make a sharable product that I’m proud of. Mezcal is such an interesting space to be in with a lot of variables. It’s been my favourite drink for a long time. I started drinking it in back in 2006 when I was spending a lot of time on the West Coast. There has been a rise in sipping Tequilas recently, and I wanted to delve deeper into the complexities of mezcal, which is as nuanced as wine.

What is it about mezcal that you love?

Mezcal is a way more interesting spirit to me than Tequila. I view it as being like Tequila’s smarter, more sophisticated older sister that shares similarities with beautiful whiskies. Mezcal is an ode to the agave plant – everything is grounded in it. There are 200 species of agave, 29 of which are used for the production of mezcal, I love that we get to play and paint with this palate given to us by nature.

How did you go about developing The Lost Explorer range?

I’ve worked with big brands for 20 years in the sustainable space, advising companies like Levis on how to use less water in the production of their jeans. I wanted to develop my own sustainable product with sharing at its heart. There’s still a lot of disposability in the sustainable space, but I feel there’s a savouring and a depth to the mezcal experience. The goal was to make the best mezcal.

I spend a lot of time in Mexico and partnered with master mezcalero Don Fortnio Ramos, who helped bring The Lost Explorer to life. There’s a real vibrancy to Mexico, it’s such an old culture with so many layers and a strong craft tradition. People have been making agave spirits for centuries in Oaxaca, where we’re based. It was traditionally used as a household greeting when guests visited. The industry is very niche and fragmented and reminds me of people making gin from stills in houses in London during the time of Hogarth’s Gin Lane.

Talk me through the production process…

We have a huge supplier network for our agave plants, which take years before they’re ready to be harvested. Agave is a really clever plant; it’s full of sugar in the desert, which is devoid of life. Its spikes protect it from animals and it stores up all its sugars for its moment of procreation.

The character of agave differs depending on where it’s grown. Tobalá agave grows in rocky surfaces and is able to capture rainwater, while Salmiana, known as the ‘green giant’, is a lot bigger in size, lower in sugar and more herbaceous in nature.

Once the agaves are harvested they are cooked using local reclaimed wood in earthen ovens, ground and macerated, fermented in open-top wood barrels and double distilled in a copper alembic still. When it comes to mezcal making, some people are throwing in jamón legs and chicken breasts into the stills, but then it becomes a cooking show.

Did it take a long time to perfect the three expressions?

I sipped my way through a lot of mezcal during the development process. We chose Espadín for our flagship mezcal as it can be cultivated more easily than the others and there is more ready access to it. It’s a good entry point for people who are looking to get into mezcal and works well in cocktails. The agave is harvested after eight years, leading to a subtly sweet and well-balanced mezcal with hints of apple and a mild smoky finish.

I’m a bit of a petrol head when it comes to mezcal and really like that strong smoky sensation you get from it, but it can become a bit overwhelming in cocktails. I wanted our Espadín expression to be very approachable to help people understand that there is a lot of sophistication in the mezcal experience.

Tobalá one of my favourite strains of agave as it’s really herbaceous and produces something very unique. Ours is harvested after a decade and has hints of tobacco, cocoa, vanilla and leather, offering a unique balance between wood aromas and umami flavours.

Our Salmiana expression meanwhile, which is harvested after 12 years, is like nothing I’ve ever tried before – it’s so sensual and gentle; it almost like a gin. It has a sweet and spicy profile with hints of green chilli, grapefruit and fresh agave. I’m particularly excited about it as it has so much character and is so unexpected. Don Fortino refined the recipe during early morning taco sessions.

What do you hope to achieve with The Lost Explorer brand?

I want to bring people back to the primal, cultural ritual of drinking agave spirits, which is an energetic experience that allows you to taste Mexico and the agave plant. Mezcal is something to be savoured. We need to replace ‘now-ism’ with slowness and rituals, which are missing from our daily lives. I want people to appreciate the craft and magic behind mezcal and offer them a story in liquid form.

To have any chance of standing out in this market you have to pay homage to the craft. Consumers and bartenders have so much choice these days, so you need to capture their attention.

Will the three expressions be made each year?

The Espadín will remain our core variant, along with our two wild expressions, Salmiana and Tobalá, depending on what nature provides us with. We love exploring the tastes that come from the different agave strains, so we will look to include new strains and blends of those strains into the range in the future.

We’re also interested in making vintage mezcals, where we can pre-sell certain vintages and play with limited editions in a similar way to wine.

Should the drinks industry be doing more to be greener?

We could all be doing more. I tend to prefer to talk about sustainability and how, in our case, we want to be able to respect our planet and its communities while maintaining a certain level of mezcal making. I don’t think it’s just about being ‘green’. Our production is carried out in a manner that benefits the local mezcal-producing community in Oaxaca and also protects the land’s biodiversity.

Commitments in place at the moment include: Don Fortino being a shareholder in the company; rainwater conservation; the use of reclaimed wood; replanting at least three agaves for every agave we distil; creating fertiliser from agave waste; and using solar panels. We’ve also created ‘The Lost Laboratory’, which will play a leading role in the support of environmental improvements in the making of sustainable artisanal mezcal.

 What is your vision for the brand going forward?

We’ll work with what our audience wants, what barmen like, and what we can harvest sustainably. We’ll introduce limited edition blends down the line. Quality and attention to detail connect all three expressions.

We’re aiming the brand at people who want to drink better. You can go out and have a drink or you can have an experience. The mezcal category is still quite fragmented and there aren’t any big players yet, so I hope The Lost Explorer becomes a new firm favourite. My wife is my harshest critic and it has passed the taste test with her. Proof Drinks will be putting it out into high-end hotel bars and restaurants in the UK.

Being an explorer, you must have many a wild story to tell. Can you share one with us?

I was doing a story in the Ecuadorian rainforest documenting the damage international oil companies had caused by drilling the vast oil reserves, and how it was affecting local communities in the Amazon. I wanted to tell the story of the local Achuar tribe, who are known for being fierce warriors. I didn’t get off to a good start with them as I ended up arriving unannounced in the wrong place – a lot of knives came out and there were death threats.

I found myself sitting in a hut with the tribesmen drinking chicha, a local concoction made from fermented corn, saliva and spices. It’s pretty punchy moonshine and I didn’t want to appear rude, so I drank a lot of it and was getting progressively merry.

Suddenly the chief of the tribe emerged with a large wooden box. He leaned in and pulled out an old ghetto blaster from it, which he asked me how to use. I turned it on and it started blasting out Wake Me Up Before You Go Go by Wham and I ended up teaching the tribe how to dance to ‘80s pop music, pulling out my cheesiest moves like feeding the chickens. It was a very surreal moment that I’ll never forget.

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