Painter, Writer, Producer, Distiller
Painting cow brains, 2011
Jonathan Barbieri, b.1955, Washington D.C., emigrated to Mexico in the early 1980s and has lived the better part of his life in and around Oaxaca. His paintings and drawings are in public and private collections throughout Mexico, Europe and the United States.
In 2007, he partnered with Fausto Rasero to launch the iconic mezcal brand named after La Pierde Almas, a series of twenty-five paintings and drawings that conjure the world of the cantinas he frequented during the 1980s and ’90s in Oaxaca, Mexico.
In 2010, he met Maestro Mezcalero Goyo Velasco Luis, of San Luis del Río, with whom he began a life-long friendship and apprenticeship. Soon after, Barbieri acquired his first two copper pot alembics and began experimentally distilling on his own.
In 2013, he launched the first-ever mezcal-based gin, unwittingly creating a whole new category of distilled spirits. He later wrote that he was attempting to locate “The confluence of two great rivers in distilling history: the river of gin, which has coursed through the European continent for some 800 years and the perhaps, thousand-year-old river of mezcal, whose fountainhead lies in southern Mexico… Hitherto, the twain had never met… but, when the one flowed into the other, it was like pouring two world cultures together.”
Distilling brought him into contact with smallholding indigenous farmers who continue to cultivate the multi-colored and diversely textured corn first created by their ancestors over 300 generations ago. Many were engaged in an existential struggle to maintain their food sovereignty and the integrity of their communities. The weather patterns of the new century, increasingly distorted by global warming, meant that crop loss – and, by extension, seed loss – due to flooding and high winds had become devastatingly common.
By 2014, Barbieri was distilling several ancient varieties of native corn, creating whiskey with an eye on generating commercial partnerships with farmers who otherwise could not compete in a market inundated with cheap industrial corn and corn products. In 2019 Barbieri and his wife created el Taller Experimental de Destilados de Granos Antiguos, or the Experimental Workshop for Distilling Antique Grains. The following year they created the label Maiz Nation, under which they distill whiskeys and gins.
Deeply impressed by the native farmers’ self-awareness and sense of continuity with their past, their concern for the well-being of the planet and their sense of community, he collaborated with filmmaker Gustavo Vasquez to produce Los guardianes del maíz (The Keepers of Corn), a 2020 documentary film about the people who grow ancestral corn in the Sierra Mixteca, Costa, Chinantla and Central Valley regions of Oaxaca.
Barbieri continues to explore the transformative powers of painting and distilling; or, as he likes to call them, the animist arts of "mining the soul from a thing." To this end, he maintains a bodega of native corn whiskeys and rare mezcales, such as Maestro Goyo Velasco’s sublime Tepextate, which at 110 proof, is the perfect medium for the kind of “inverse-transubstantiation" he likes to indulge in.
When you come to a fork in the road, take it.