Elixir of the Gods is a Mexican-German-American co-production, made in Berlin. The show follows three passionate Agave spirit enthusiasts into the world of Mezcal, Bacanora, Raicilla, Sotol, Tequila and more. I spoke with hosts and producers Cate, Diego and Albert about their latest season. A road trip through Jalisco, Mexico that brought with it incredible experiences, learnings and connections. The team shares their advice on interviewing people in these remote communities, their passion for everything Agave, their concerns about the industry and much more.
Hello everyone! Would you be so kind as to introduce yourselves to our readers?
Cate: I am Cate Czerwinski. I am originally from the USA and I’ve lived in Berlin for 10 years. I have had many careers and now I am making my career as both a workshop facilitator and also I work with Diego at a company where we import Agave products from Mexico. I have been an Agave enthusiast for 15 plus years now, dating back to my time in San Francisco.
Diego: Hello, my name is Diego! I come from Mexico and I’ve been in Berlin since 2014. My main job is property management and then in 2017, I started a project with a friend in the Agave world and in 2018 I started another project with another friend in the podcasting world. And that’s how Elixir of the Gods began. What else can I say? I am a father of two and a happy man in general.
Albert: Hello, my name is Albert Menacher. I work professionally in audio. I work for a software company that supplies and creates enterprise audio software. So I’m an audio nerd by definition. I’ve been living in Berlin since 2014 and I got really into the podcast game in 2016. So, Elixir of the Gods is not my only podcast. There’s also a small Daily News podcast called Berlin Briefing that I am producing. My wife Abby is the voice of the podcast and I’m in the background there. I love audio and I fell in love with Mezcal, thanks to Diego, so the only logical conclusion was to make a podcast together.
Clearly there is a love for Mezcales! So how did the idea for a podcast, for Elixir of the Gods, come about?
Diego: Albert didn’t really know the drink before, but we would often enjoy a couple of Mezcales together and so, little by little, he became more and more interested. It’s a very complex world. The world of spirits, not just Mezcal. It’s a really interesting world in general. So when you start asking questions and you realize how complex it can be, how everything matters from the temperatures of the ingredients, to the hand of the producer. It’s very hard not to pay attention and awaken an interest in the subject. So after about three or four times of having these conversations, we thought maybe we should record this in another language for people who are interested but cannot get access to information.
Albert: I remember specifically one night where we had four different products and I remember them all tasting very different and I was like; “What is this madness? How is this even possible?” Back when we started, it’s true there was not a lot of information available in English and we said, you know, maybe we do this together. Diego wouldn’t call himself an expert in Agave spirits, never ever. But he knew more than I did. And so basically by recording these conversations, we could share.
We started by sharing the technicalities of Mezcal. So what kind of production methods are there, of how much of the plant is important – a basic understanding of how the drink is composed and what processes and what makes Mezcal or Agave spirit special.
…I was also looking for a good excuse because as Diego said he’s a father of two. So, when he had his children, his time naturally was more limited. So the podcast was also a good pretext to hang out together.
A quick side-bar, are Agave spirits and Mezcales the same thing?
Diego: Mezcal is an Agave spirit. When you hear us saying Mezcal, sometimes in between the three of us, it’s because historically, Mezcal is everything, but then politics came in. Mezcal means cooked Agave in the Nahuatl language. But technically there are differences. There are different appellations of origin. Mezcal is one, Tequila is another one. Soto is another one. And we can go on. But for the listeners (and readers) excuse us, if sometimes you hear us using the word Mezcal, we’re using the historical meaning of the word.
Albert: We always wanted to cover the whole world of Agave spirits, so not the legally protected term of Mezcal. Because that is only a small slice of the variety and diversity that that spirit has.
Got it! Thank you for that clarification. The podcast has been going since 2018, how have things grown over the years? Has your approach to the conversations changed?
Albert: It started like many podcasts start, two bearded guys with microphones. And we quickly realized if it’s just the two of us there will not be any new knowledge. So, we took advantage of some of the events here in Berlin where people from the industry were visiting. We put a microphone under their nose and interviewed them. So by the second season we were already doing interviews with people in the industry. The next logical step was actually speaking to the people who are making the product. Elixir of the Gods is a show about Agave culture, and if you talk about culture, it cannot just be Europeans talking about the spirits, we have to take the people who are actually responsible for their product and give them the stage. Without them, this would not exist.
This then brings us to season 5 and your road trip through Jalisco. It’s quite a big feat to leave the studio and hit the road. What were those early stages like?
Cate: I was a guest on the podcast towards the end of 2019 because I’d been to Mexico quite a few times to visit Tequila distilleries, specifically in Jalisco, and in the fall of 2019, I did a program with a brand where you actually went and worked in the distillery for five days and you went to the fields and you actually got to talk to the people who are doing the work. I like to know how things are made, and I want the real story, the real experience behind the marketing. So just after I had come back from that really incredible and perspective shifting experience, I met Albert and Diego and I confess, I did not know the podcast, but I marched right up to Albert and I was like, I just did this and it needs to be on your podcast. Since then we’ve spent time together, geeking out at festivals and everything.
And so, about two years ago I had a separate idea about going to Oaxaca to interview [Mezcal] producers and was chatting with Diego and Albert, and then it came up that Diego was gonna be close by. So we thought, why don’t we take this trip to Jalisco together to visit the producers? And that is where our colleague, Esteban comes in because he has the relationships with the producers.
Diego: Yes. Albert and I had already had the idea to go on a road trip through Jalisco, because I am from Jalisco and I was able to connect with people there. In the end, Albert was unable to make it, but Cate came at the perfect time and we kept on going. But without Albert, we know nothing about how to record. So I said to Albert, “We need training, man. How does the equipment work? I’m gonna need you online when I do the first interviews, you have to be reachable!”
Cate: I think it’s important to say that from the very beginning, all of us were also aligned on our goals. There is a lot of information out there about how stuff is produced, technical details, et cetera. But like Albert said, we want to make space for these voices that are often left out. And we want their stories. And so part of our preparation process for the road trip was just thinking about how we are gonna do that. Some of the places we went were tiny and very remote, and sometimes we were meeting people of much older generations who have been doing this for a long time, and so we had to be sensitive about showing up, you know, an American and a Mexican from the city, showing up with like this technical equipment. We talked with Esteban a lot about how to approach these conversations in the most respectful way. One, because it’s the right thing to do, but also in service of our overall goal of just having honest, respectful conversations.
Diego: The influence of Cate during this trip and her background as a facilitator was crucial. She has this human touch, she can feel the atmosphere and she’s very good at these things.
How were you received by these communities and what did your process look like on the ground?
Cate: We did have an agenda, because we were covering a lot of distance but we also needed a lot of flexibility because their world does not revolve around us, you know? People knew that we were coming and I think it prepared them a little bit for what our project was. But in every case when we showed up, we always took time just to introduce ourselves, to walk around, to get a sense for how people were feeling about us. We’d explain everything about the show, the format, what we were going to do with it before we even asked if they were open to talking to us? There was always consent involved and we were very transparent about the purposes for doing this thing.
We often didn’t end up recording at the places we came across randomly. We enjoyed the conversations but we didn’t necessarily record them because that was just a private, very chance thing.
Most of, if not all, the people you were interviewing were Spanish speakers. What strategies did you have to communicate the nuance of the situation or conversation through a podcast format, and then translating it into English as well?
Diego: Well, our format was set so that we’d receive shorter answers, like two minutes. I was also translating on the spot so if they gave a very long answer, it would be impossible to recall everything they were saying.
Cate: My Spanish listening comprehension is decent which was great because thanks to the basic set of questions I had the ability to listen actively, like just my whole body listening to what these people had to say. And then when I heard Diego give a summary, I had the freedom to ask the guest to dig a little bit deeper on something else I’d heard.
I will also say, when people find out your interest is genuine and you really are listening and you’re not just pushing through to the next question so you can get to the next place, people will open up to you. Diego and I really thought about the conversations we were gonna have, we were very appreciative, and made sure that it wasn’t strictly a transactional visit. I think in terms of navigating the communication, that level of preparation and being very clear with each other about how we wanted to relate to each other and also to our interviewees, it helped the whole process.
What was the reason for doing the Spanish first, translation after format rather than doing an overdub, for example?
Albert: We did think about that, but we wanted to have people experience the original voices. Of course, if we’d overdubbed we could have translated every word and you probably would’ve gotten more information out of it, but maybe that’s also an encouragement for people to learn some Spanish. More importantly it was to give these voices the platform. And we feel quite lucky because one of the people we interviewed passed away in March, but we have this document now, we have him talking on our podcast and sharing his joy and sharing his way of life and his identity on our podcast. And yeah, it’s a small podcast, but his voice is there and it’s preserved.
Do you have a highlight from the road trip or from the season so far?
Diego: Everything was wonderful, but I’m going to say it was spending time in these rhythms of life. We’re used to the fast life of the city. And when you get there and you see that you don’t even need a watch. You know, it changes completely the way time is measured. How peaceful it is. When you’re there and you see how they live and just the way they operate, it’s just a different rhythm you know, it’s beautiful. And the people are amazing, they were feeding us constantly! They were not treating us like guests, it was like if you arrived at your grandparents. You’re not a guest, you’re at home.
Cate: I do want to acknowledge that we had a very specific window on a very specific way the industry can work. And I would say that it is an exceptional way of working, which is one of the reasons why I’m happy to be affiliated with Diego and Esteban.
Which is to say, these are very personal relationships, and it was a privilege to be introduced within this trusted circle. I am very interested in the human stories and also the working relationships too. And so that’s something that’s usually very shrouded in secrecy and frankly, forgive my language, just like covered up in a lot of bullshit. And so to have that tiny little window into how things can operate from a consumer perspective, it’s just important to understand. So in addition to everything Diego just said, it was also, you know, important in a lot of ways for me to reflect upon my role within the industry and also as a consumer and how to carry that into my life post this trip.
Was there anything especially surprising to you on this trip?
Albert: Maybe from me, from afar. What was not necessarily surprising, but what opened my eyes a bit, was that most often Diego and Cate interviewed guys, but there was almost always a woman next to him. Usually the man gets his name written on the bottle but if you look especially at these people that Diego and Cate visited, it was always a team. Sometimes it was generational, sometimes it was wife and husband, sometimes it was father and daughter, but there was always a lot of responsibility shared by the women. And I’m very happy that we could highlight that a little bit because it’s a reality, but I don’t think it’s reflected very well in the media that covers Agave spirits.
What advice do you have for anyone looking to take their podcast on the road?
Diego: Equipment is a very important part of it. If you don’t have all the knowledge, maybe in our case we’re lucky to have this guy [Albert], but if you don’t, at least travel with some equipment.
And if you don’t mind me asking, where did you find the resources?
Cate: Thank you for asking the question. So we try to be as open about this on the podcast as I will be with you now. Esteban, who I have mentioned, is the founder of several of the brands that are importing, and so there is definitely a business interest and a business relationship at play. But a big chunk of it was self-funded, I paid my own tickets, we split lodging costs, fuel, snacks et cetera.
And to come back to the advice, really think hard about what your assets are, where your networks are. And don’t be shy because people wanna tell their stories. They do. It’s just a human thing. And to build on that, maybe this is stating the obvious, but I’m gonna state it anyway. Equipment, yes. But don’t let that stop you. I also recorded all my interviews in Oaxaca on my phone. And now there are miracle softwares that will clean that audio up for me. Sometimes you’re in a very remote place and you have to be crafty and use what you’ve got at your disposal.
Just go for it and think about cleaning up the audio later. And also, have the story in mind, but always start with people where they’re at. Just giving people the courtesy of knowing that you see them as a person, that you want to get to know a bit about them and be willing to follow their stories where they need to go rather than getting super attached to the narrative you wanna tell. I think that’s the approach that led us to very nice places on our trip.
Albert: May I add something to this? Because even though Cate and Diego were using professional equipment they were not using it how I would’ve used it. Not because they are amateurs, but because they wanted to respect the people they were interviewing. So when I heard the material for the first time I was like holy moly, how am I gonna edit this? And then thankfully Adobe came with an AI audio enhancement which makes these things really beautiful. So because we waited for a year to publish it, it now sounds much better than if we published it last year. So I’d suggest that you keep an eye out for what technology is out there because it might be able to help you later.
To come back to the Agave spirits, I can imagine you’ve had your fair share of tastings, and now getting access to the behind the scenes, the production, distribution et cetera. Have these experiences influenced how you’re able to consume this thing that you love?
Diego: I have not grown anywhere near sick of Mezcal. I only love it more every day. My passion isn’t just in the podcasting but also in the production. Bottling, export, import, distribution, the whole chain. It’s really incredible to see this world from a closer angle and that only opens up your palette. When you see it’s surrounded by pine cones and you see, sometimes there is red earth and sometimes it’s black earth, and sometimes its rainier in the region. And then you put it to your nose and you find those flavors there. Yes, as with any industry, it has a lot of flaws, there is mass production but we’re not focusing on that right now. To be super clear, I really like artisanal Agave spirits.
Cate: Exactly what Diego said. I feel fortunate to be in the industry at a time when there is a lot of noise about the preservation of this art form, if you will. And as Diego did not get into it, I’m not gonna get into that discussion. But what I will say is that we have an enormous amount of access to an enormous amount of highly complex cultural product. Where we are in the Mezcal world, is an illustration of the bounty that can come from an incredibly rich culture, an incredibly rich land, and human ingenuity. So the more I learn about it, the more I love it.
Albert: I’m not affiliated with any industry. So for me it’s really a private passion. I love Mezcal and feel as the others have described about the diversity of the product. I find it really fascinating. And maybe I’m getting into what the others are not, but I am a bit worried because there are now celebrities slapping their names on brands. And when you have big marketing things like this, they want to scale up. But Mezcal doesn’t work this way. At least artisan Mezcal doesn’t work this way. But some brands try to give you that impression and so there is this kind of clash between what the product is and how it is presented.
Like the Kendall Jenner, Lebron James, Elon Musk of it all… Well, you and your show push for conscious consumption which is very clear in your passion and in your approach to the topic, so thank you for that. To close, and speaking of consumption, do the three of you have a favorite spot here in Berlin to enjoy agave spirits?
Diego: At the same time? 1, 2, 3.
Albert, Cate and Diego: Palabra Bar!
Diego: If you wanna go have some Agave distills, it’s a very nice place and they carry a very good selection, and revolving selection, of Agave spirits.
I’ll definitely have to check it out! I have one final question, do you have a favorite sound?
Albert: I have many favorite sounds but I love the sound of wind going through leaves. I love having the window open, reading a book, and having this as a background noise.
Cate: I would say it’s the sound of a playground at recess, just unbridled joy.
Diego: I was born by the beach. So I guess it’s the ocean that calls me.
interview by Julia Joubert, for Bear Radio.
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