‘Most people thought you could never make any money from making mezcal,’ says Yola Jimenez, co-founder of the eponymous YOLA Mezcal brand, now in its 14th year of production. What began as a passion project, fueled by Yola's grandfather's ‘obsession’ with the sweet-sharp fermented-agave spirit, has become a lifestyle brand that has both mezcal and women at its core. It's on the shelves in Mexico City's leading restaurants (such as forever-packed hotspot Contramar) and has made its way across the border into the US, with stockists ranging from California all the way to Miami.
Born in Oaxaca and raised in Mexico City, with a stint at the University of Cambridge in the UK, Yola's been around mezcal all her life. She remembers her grandfather's friends popping over every day for a tipple, decades before the agave-based liquor was on everybody's lips. ‘It was considered a peasants' drink back then,’ says Yola, who adds that many native Mexican families in Oaxaca used to make their own mezcal.
Keen to show her international, cosmopolitan group of friends back in Mexico City the very best of her roots, she began introducing them to her grandfather's mezcal at dinners and, in doing so, found a pair of ready and willing business partners. Yola's LA friends – Gina Correll Aglietti and Swedish indie-pop musician Lykke Li – were all for seeing what a bigger production of mezcal might look like and set about making YOLA Mezcal a reality together.
‘When I went to see the producers my grandfather had linked me up with, I saw so many women working in all of the stages of mezcal production,’ says Yola. Although women were the chief laborers in the agave farms and fermentation houses, it was the men who were ‘taking care of business’.
‘There's nothing going on in these small towns. No prospects. So, the young guys leave and the women are left behind,’ she says of why she found so many women working in mezcal production. Having graduated in women's studies at Cambridge, Yola had a female-centered business in mind. ‘It just had this very hierarchical structure that really jumped at me,’ she says.
Yola began by working with one agave farmer's daughters and their friends; they worked in all stages of the processing of mezcal, from harvesting to baking in an earthen oven and fermentation. Back in Mexico City and LA, Yola and her business partners took to bringing small batches of mezcal back and sharing it with the bars and hospitality businesses that they had strong ties with.
‘It kind of just blew up,’ Yola says of the seemingly overnight popularity of mezcal, which also coincided with a revolution in Mexican culinary knowledge and Oaxaca having ‘a moment’.
YOLA was at the epicenter of the cultural zeitgeist, but it was more than just mezcal that interested Yola and her co-founders. ‘It's important to have women in positions of power and making these economic decisions, because we focus on different things to men,’ says Yola, who had no previous business experience before launching YOLA.
She says having three female founders is paramount to how the business is run, with women at its heart. Men were taken out of the equation at YOLA, with the women making the mezcal paid directly, fairly and given a chance to contribute to how the business would be run.
‘I wasn't about to start telling them how to do their jobs,’ she explains. Yola says she encourages the exchange of ideas and that business conversations aren't focused on expansion and growth, but instead on things such as how there might be space for children, so that childcare doesn't impact the workers' economic situations.
Despite their own privileged positions, Yola and her partners also came up against sexism in this male-dominated industry. ‘We were going to so many meetings with older white men telling us “That's really cute” when we pitched them,’ she says. This didn't faze them. Instead, they looked to female investors and focused even more on their central theme of supporting women.
More than just a drinks label, YOLA Mezcal has become a lifestyle brand. You only need to scroll through the company's Instagram to see that it's about much more than alcohol. From collaborations with female chefs to parties with Mexico City's art crowd and festivals pioneering women in the arts, YOLA is an alcohol brand with a conscience. ‘Yes, we host fun parties, but we're always trying to tie it up to something thoughtful,’ says Yola, who incorporates activism and fundraising benefits into as many brand events as she can.
‘The economic power and shift that can happen in a community by employing women and paying them fairly can really change the world. It's changed developing nations,’ says Yola, whose concern now is growing the business fairly and creating a sustainable, zero-waste mezcalería in Oaxaca, where her international community can visit and exchange experiences and ideas with the local community she employs.
‘We want a bigger space so we can hire more women,’ she says, a far cry from the businessmen she met in boardrooms at the start of the YOLA journey.
Yola's Mexico City
Based out of the leafy neighborhood of Roma in Mexico City, Yola starts her day in Panaderia Rosetta. ‘They just make the best coffee there – mine's an almond or oat milk latte. Elena [Reygadas], the owner, is a very good friend and a great supporter of us at YOLA,’ she says. Then it's off for a stroll through neighboring Plaza Río de Janeiro for inspiration. ‘It's a really cute space to walk around, but not just that – there are a couple of galleries that I like to drop by to see some good art,’ she says, referencing OMR gallery.
A deep appreciation for artisanal craftsmanship and contemporary art feeds another of Yola's pastimes. You can find her picking up traditional Oaxacan fabrics at textile store Remigio Mestas. ‘It has pieces from lots of artisans and it just opened. I think it's so impressive – I go there a lot,’ she says. Art galleries Kurimanzutto and LABOR are other favorites, along with Museo Tamayo – ‘It's just really well-curated,’ Yola says.
Well integrated into Mexico City's hospitality scene, many in Yola's circle own high-end restaurants and bars, but she won't say ‘no’ to a traditional taco or two, when hunger strikes. ‘If I'm feeling really hungry and want a really good taco, I go to this cantina [bar] called El Sella, which has insanely good tacos done in an old-school way, with traditional Mexican touches,’ she says.
Dinner's at wine bar Hugo, which Yola loves for its natural wines and veg-heavy menu. ‘My girlfriend is vegan, and [it] has a lot of really great salads and fresh vegetables. The food is delicious,’ she says. Another favorite that comes up again and again in conversation is Rosetta, a sister restaurant to Yola's morning coffee spot.
Written by Courier correspondent Anastasia Miari.