Co-founder and President Gaston Martinez is mixing business operations in San Diego with production in Mexico, a cocktail producing off-the-charts growth.

A native of the Mexican state of Durango, Martinez joined his friend Linda Belzberg and her son Torrey Belzberg to create IZO Spirits in 2018. Their goal: to preserve the legacy of pure mezcal, have a positive impact on Martinez’s hometown in Durango, and share an important bit of Mexican culture with the country’s neighbors in the United States.

The company owns four acres of land in Durango along with a distillery of about 4,900 square feet where they produce between 15,000 and 20,000 bottles of liquor each month. Mezcal Joven was IZO Spirits’ first product and is still a best-seller. However, the company’s portfolio has grown substantially since launch, now featuring five different mezcal varieties as well as tequila, sotol, and bacanora.

The creation of IZO Spirits’ products begins with the harvesting of agave by jimadores, farmers who specialize in the identification of ripe agave plants. “Our [manufacturing] process is controlled from ground to glass,” Martinez notes.

The distillery uses Agave Cenizo, a member of the Agave Durangensis family, for its mezcal. “This agave has a high sugar content,” Martinez explains. “The terroir, the high altitude, everything that Durango can offer for a plant, creates a completely different flavor spectrum and profile of mezcal that is just beyond anything else out there.”

The jimadores strip the leaves from mature agave to reveal the piñas, or hearts. Once the hearts are quartered for transport, burros are used to pack them to the dump trucks that then deliver the agave to fire pits at the distillery lined with lava rock and filled with locally selected oak.

The agave hearts are stacked on top of the burning oak and covered with a tarp and layer of dirt. The hearts bake in this way for three to six days before being ground to extract their juice. The distillers transfer the juice to fermentation tanks, where water is added to reduce the sugar content. After three or four days, the fermented juice is distilled to produce aguavino.

The aguavino is distilled again to produce mezcal, and the addition of filtered water reduces the alcohol content to create the finished product. IZO’s Mezcal Joven is unaged, so it is immediately bottled, hand-corked, and hand-labeled. IZO’s Mezcal Reposado rests in American Oak barrels for two months, and the distillery’s Mezcal Anejo is aged for one year before bottling.

It’s a very hands-on process, with little to no room for technology or automation. Even the company’s bottle caps are crafted by hand out of onyx found in Durango. “It’s very labor intense,” Martinez says. “But we want to keep it that way. We want to make sure that we keep as close as possible to our heritage and tradition. Every time people grab a bottle, we want them to see that it is done in Mexico by Mexican hands.”

Challenges: Martinez says sustainably harvesting agave is the distillery’s biggest challenge, especially given the eight to 10 years each plant requires to reach maturity. “Agave is a natural resource,” he continues, “and we are doing our part and actually growing small agave plants in our nursery in order to take them back to the wild. We have to maintain the sustainability of the plant because it is the main component of our business.”

Opportunities: Martinez says the breadth of IZO Spirits’ portfolio is the distillery’s biggest opportunity. “As far as I know, we are one of the few companies that actually have almost all the agave spirits of Mexico under one label,” he explains. “I heard that even from the buyers who said that they had never seen so much from only one label. To have that impact on those regions in Mexico is overwhelming and pretty neat.”

Most of the company’s portfolio was added in late 2020 and early 2021 in response to shifting consumer purchase patterns during the pandemic. Instead of primarily drinking spirits on premises at bars, restaurants, and hotels, Martinez noted that consumers were buying alcohol at liquor and big box stores for off premise consumption.

“At that time, we only had the one product on the market,” he explains. “And I realized that our presence on the shelves was kind of weak. So, we decided to add more products and brought everything else that you see now. We worked super hard to start 2021 with more options from our brand.”

Photos courtesy IZO Spirits

As a result, the company enjoyed 400 percent growth in 2021 and is expecting between 300 and 350 percent growth this year. “Our growth is off the charts,” Martinez continues. “We’re just trying to keep up. It’s a good problem to have.”

Needs: Simply put, more people. Both for the distillery in Mexico as well as the corporate office in San Diego where the branding, marketing, and sales to distributors are handled.

“I define any company as having three elements,” says Martinez. “They are process, product, and people. We have the process and the product, but we always need people. Finding those that are the right fit for us is very important. It’s all about the people that help us produce this product. It’s all about the people that help us promote it. It’s all about believing in what we’re doing and understanding why we’re doing it.”