Chris Crisman Celebrates the People, Places, and Possibilities of Mezcal

Raised by parents who showed persistent determination and diligence in their jobs, Chris Crisman not only exhibits a strong work ethic himself, but he knows grit and dedication when he sees it. Having a keen interest in all things mezcal, he set out to document and share an example of a spirit that embodies family, tradition, craft, patience, and the pride that comes with manual labor.

How did this project come about?

My connection to mezcal starts with a bigger story that encompasses a slice of my lifestyle. It is a gift to have the opportunity to work as a commercial artist. That said, it is a complex and taxing profession that rarely allows for consistent patterns in sleep, diet, exercise, etc. Over the first phase of my career, I had not paid much attention to what I was consuming and the overall balance of my lifestyle. I was starting to feel and show the effects of what these choices were having on me. 

Early in 2017, I began the process of shifting my diet. The most significant change was choosing to cut the majority of wheat from my diet. I ate far less bread, pasta, and removed beer from a possible choice on my menu. I did not want to give up drinks altogether but certainly needed a better substitute than beer. After a few suggestions from trusted friends, I landed on agave spirits and specifically mezcal.

So much of the food and drink that we consume today is severely over-processed, and many of the ingredients have been grown or raised with significant genetic modification. On the whole, our bodies are not responding well, as evidenced by the rise of food-based allergies, diabetes, and complex cardiovascular complications in the United States. The production process of mezcal is very, very slow. It is not focused on fine-tuning efficiency that leads to more profit for the producer but choosing to create a special, unique, and limited spirit unbound by economic goals. 

What was your overall goal for this project?

I had been reading about the process of making mezcal for over a year. My goal was to create iconic images that tell the story of the process, the beauty of the places, and the heart of the people. Mezcal can be created via modern, artisanal, or ancestral methods. With this project, we were specifically focused on artisanal and ancestral processes. If you are interested, you can read more about what defines each.

The landscape is stunning. Where did this shoot take place? Was it one single village or several locations?

Mezcal is a spirit deeply rooted in Mexican culture and most evidently, in the Oaxacan region of Mexico. We visited and worked with seven different family-owned single village palenques on our trip. A palenque is a mezcal distillery where the agave is roasted, crushed, fermented, distilled, and bottled. It is not uncommon for a palenque to be just footsteps away from a producer’s home. ***We would have likely visited 1 or 2 more palenques, but food poisoning stole 18 hours from my trip. 

You have said you are drawn to those who labor, who work with their hands, and who exhibit a strong work ethic. That is shown clearly in this body of work. You have these attributes, as well. Can you tell me about the first 24 hours of your trip? 

When we decided we were going to make this trip happen, we had about 12 days from start to departure. We ran into a few snags – one of them being that there was a baggage embargo from the US to certain airports in Mexico – one of them being Oaxaca. We had to be very specific in what we brought, and in the end, I feel we made good use of each piece of equipment that traveled with us. 

Our first 24 hours of the trip went something like this: 

9 AM EST: Chris + Mike make the final pack of gear for the flight 

1 PM EST: Chris + Mike depart PHL > DFW

3:30 PM CST: Chris + Mike meet the rest of our Team at DFW (Matthew, Ezra, and Ryan)

6 PM CST: Team departs DFW > OAX

9 PM CST: Team lands in OAX. We spend 2 hours getting all the gear passed by customs. 

11:45 PM CST: Team arrives at the hotel for 3 hours of sleep

3:45 AM CST: Team meets with Local Crew and departs the hotel for the first palenque. 

6 AM CST: Team arrives at first palenque and immediately begins shooting

8:45 AM CST: Consume the first sip of mezcal. 

Did you get to know the people you photographed on the day of the shoot? How did you get them to feel comfortable in front of the camera? Any fun stories to share?

This shoot was certainly one of the most challenging and rewarding projects of the year for me. I am far from being a fluent Spanish speaker, but I can communicate well enough to get by. We also had a document that showed the work I had created over the years that was in the spirit of what I wanted to create with them. The visual language is universal and as we went along, I showed everyone the images of them that I was creating. I have also found that there are a few Spanish words that can be quite endearing if used comedically and in self-reference. Usually, these are anatomical. 

Since you have a background in environmental science, one would guess you might have had an interest in learning about the land, the agave plants, and the production process. Did any of this play into how you approached this campaign?

My fascination with mezcal is certainly influenced by my curiosity about the many different agave species. The complexity within the genus is wild, and I am learning more all the time. The complexity and variety that each plant expresses in the final distilled spirit are fascinating. Some varieties are so particular. For example, Tepextate is a species that only grows wild in the mountains and takes 20-25 years to mature. Compare that to a potato. 

Do you have a favorite mezcal? Any tips for people interested in trying it?

Access to mezcal can be limited locally. I have found great selections of mezcal in New York, Texas, and California. If your closest city has an in-depth cocktail scene, you can probably find great mezcal. Astorwines is an excellent resource out of NY, will ship mezcal, and has some great relatively affordable offerings from Alipus and Nuestra Soledad as well as higher-end and more limited products from El Jolgorio and Rey Campero. 

One note – if the ABV is 40% or below, you are not really drinking mezcal. Most offerings hover in the 42-50% ABV range. 40% is a US standard that was created a long time ago and is an excellent way to know that what you’re buying has been significantly effected to hit that exact number. 

There are too many mezcal favorites to list, but everyone should check out https://www.magueymelate.com This is the group that we worked with while in Oaxaca. They have an extraordinary signature box as well as a delivery to your door through the mezcal club. 

Follow Chris on Instagram to see more images of things, not only as they are, but as they can be.

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