Seven years ago, Joseph Gilbert set out on a culinary quest. The Terra Linda High/Marin Catholic alumnus had spent some time working in the kitchens of several Marin County restaurants, including Marinitas and Cavallo Point. After a brief stop in Seattle, he set off to Oaxaca Mexico.
“I flew down there with the original plan of staying six months, learning some Spanish, and learning about the food of Oaxaca. Then when I was comfortable with Spanish, I was going to travel around Mexico and learn about the different regions’ food,” says the now 32 year old Gilbert.
Things didn’t quite turn out that way. He did learn about the food, getting a job at a local restaurant. But he also met another American, Jason Cox, (from Fort Wayne, Indiana), and a friendship developed, over their shared love of Oaxacan culture, Oaxacan food, and Oaxacan mezcal.
“I got a job at the best restaurant in town,” says Gilbert. “It was great and I loved the chef, the food was good, but there were a lot of issues with training their service staff and cooks.”
Gilbert came to the realization that if that was the best and busiest restaurant in town, perhaps he could do something better. Cox had experienced the same thing. Together, the two Americans came up with an idea. They would scour the local countryside for obscure artisanal mezcals and serve those spirits in a small mezcaleria.
Five years ago, the two opened El Destilado (the distillery), serving food and drink, and judging by the outstanding online reviews and write-ups in magazines like The New Yorker and Harper’s Bazaar, things couldn’t be better. Another company, Cinco Sentidos (five senses) soon followed, producing tiny production mezcals for their restaurant.
“We bottle between 19 and 27 different varieties of agaves,” says Gilbert. “We do a lot of special bottlings and one offs for liquor stores or restaurants. We also have specialty collections. There must be at least 10 to 16 different bottlings available in the States, depending upon where you are.”
Ironically, neither El Destilado or Cinco Sentidos are licensed as distilleries, and technically speaking the products they produce aren’t mezcal.
“It’s mezcal, but we call it “agave distillate” for certification purposes,” explains Gilbert. “To be certified in Mexico – like most things in Mexico – it’s kind of a political game. One; it costs a lot of money to be certified. Two; you pay higher taxes. Three; you have to wait for the government to come out and certify you, and they have to certify each batch.”
And the batches Cinco Sentidos produces are small. So small that a new term has been invented to describe them: nano-batch.
“The biggest we do is maybe 190 to 200 liters (about 55 gallons),” says Gilbert. “We never really repeat the same thing, each batch is completely different.”
Cinco Sentidos primarily works with five local mezcaleros, who actually produce the products.
“A lot of these guys are subsistence farmers, and mezcal is something they make at certain times of the year when they are not working the fields growing corn or beans,” explains Gilbert. “They don’t have the time or money to pay the government 10 to 20,000 pesos to come and certify a mezcal.”
Cinco Sentidos is not alone, more and more brands are changing over to the designation “agave distillate” because they don’t want to deal with the political side. Marin’s Sammy Hagar and his “Mezquila” are just one other such example.
But legalities aside, Cinco Sentidos’ products are a particularly intimate portrait of not only the individual agaves, but of the whole process. And a fleeting glimpse at that, because each bottling is a highly individualized testament to each mezcaleros personal process, never to be repeated, and must therefore be experienced with that thought in mind. And experiences like that don’t come cheap. You are not going to find a bottle of Cinco Sentidos for under $100, if you can in fact find it at all. As of now they only export a couple of hundred cases a year.
Gilbert says they have looked at making a few other distillates; a chile liqueur, sotol, and perhaps a digestif. But uber rare, artisanal, nano batch mezcal will remain their focus.
“I think we will stick with the agave distillate category, stuff that would typically fall under the heading of mezcal,” he says.
In the meantime, he has a restaurant to run. He has also established permanent residency in Mexico and started a family with his partner, Arlet.
“I still pinch myself sometimes,” he says. “I never thought I’d live in Mexico this long, or own a business in Mexico, or have a Mexican family.”
Gilbert says he does occasionally miss Marin County.
“Down there it’s different. Culturally much, much different, and I love it. But every time I come back here; I’m reminded of how beautiful Marin County is.”
For more on Cinco Sentidos go here: drink5sentidos.com, and for more on El Destilado go here: eldestilado.com. Currently only Flores restaurant in Corte Madera stocks Cinco Sentidos on their back bar.