Welcome back to Thrillable Hours, my interview series about alternative careers for lawyers.
I first met Alvin Starkman at a lecture in Oaxaca about mezcal and its origins. Alvin spent well over an hour explaining the nature of artisanal mezcal production here in Oaxaca, as well as the differences between tequila and mezcal, and the ways that standardizing mezcal production en masse has changed over the years. The presentation was fascinating and I couldn’t help but remember that Alvin said he was a former lawyer. After the lecture was over, I went up and asked him if he’d be interested in participating in this series. And here we are!
I will be posting about mezcal in more detail — you know, after a bit more ‘research’. That is, I need to keep trying all the wonderful artisanal varieties in town. With artisanal mezcal each batch tastes a bit different so it’s truly as though every glass is a new and wonderful experience.
For now, here is your introduction to mezcal in the form of an interview with Alvin, a former litigator who now leads educational mezcal tours in the area.
In a 2019 profile about him entitled “This master mezcalier came for the mushrooms but stayed for the mezcal”, Mexico News Daily summarizes his business:
“Nobody was offering a true, comprehensive cultural experience to learn about the palenqueros, their cultures, how they make mezcal — not for tourists — but rather for people in their villages, for bar and restaurant owners in Oaxaca and other parts of the country.”
He took a master mezcalier certification program in Mexico City, jumped through the countless hoops of Mexican bureaucracy, and in 2011 had his permit to teach about the culture and production of mezcal and other pre-Hispanic drinks.
Thus, Mezcal Educational Tours was born. “
Below, Alvin’s thoughts about Mexico, mezcal, and life after law.
(For those interested in moving to Mexico or learning more about the country, start with the fascinating People’s Guide to Mexico, which was highly recommended.)
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Alternative Careers for Lawyers: Alvin Starkman from Mezcal Educational Tours in Oaxaca
What made you decide to follow a less conventional path than typical law school graduates? Was there a particular moment that catalyzed the decision for you?
First of all, my career was unconventional from the beginning. I began practicing law at age 35, and ceased 18 years later, in 2004, at age 53.
My family and I began becoming enamored with Oaxaca, Mexico, by the mid 90s, after having begun to vacation here 2 – 3 times a year, commencing in 1991. About 1997, we began to fantasize, “wouldn’t it be great to buy a piece of land in the mountains, build a glass house with a spectacular vista, and move to Oaxaca while still young and healthy.” We had made (Mexican) friends in Oaxaca and felt as comfortable in this city in south central Mexico, as in Toronto.
That was the first moment which catalyzed the decision.
The second moment was when, again around the mid 90s, I began to realize that I was no longer enjoying practicing law. I recall telling my wife that I felt I was turning into an a-hole because of how I was being pulled by my clients towards the unethical side of family law practice, all the while wanting to stay on the correct side. I stayed to the latter, but something about the whole thing made me feel sleazy. My wife said that this was a sign of personal growth. She’s a psychotherapist.
The third and final flash which crystalized the decision was in the course of a meeting with our financial advisor; he said that we could probably afford to retire in Mexico, by that time being debt free and anticipating that our daughter would be finished high school and ready to enter university when we moved. We had been saving for her higher education, so that was looked after.
So, it was that initial fantasy, not enjoying practicing law, and affordability. About a year before the move a very close friend died of cancer, affirming for us that it was the correct decision for the correct time.
So we bought a piece of land and built our dream home into the side of a mountain, about a 10 minute drive from downtown Oaxaca.
What do you find most fulfilling about your current job?
As a litigator practicing predominantly family law, you don’t often receive accolades from your clients. Most cases settle, and they say the sign of a good settlement is when neither side is happy when they sign the settlement document. So you are not concluding your relationship with your clients on a happy note, at least for them. You know it was a fair resolution, but they tend to consider “I could have done better.”
You spend your days arguing and negotiating with one or more of opposing counsel, a judge, a partner or co-worker, or a client. Yes, I usually won on motions and at trial, but most of my days were spent out of court. If the lion’s share of my time had been spent doing trials, I would likely still be practicing law, now at 65. But actual trials occurred about 15 percent of the time. There is nothing like being up on your feet cross-examining or making submissions to the court, in the course of a contested trial; the adrenalin rush. Win or lose, if you’ve done your preparation, it’s a great feeling.
My current job has me working 3 – 4 days a week (as often or as little as I want) teaching both novices and industry professionals and everyone in between about the culture of mezcal, agave, and fermented pre-Hispanic beverages such as pulque and their producers. Virtually every day I work I am being thanked profusely by my clients, and by the Mexicans with whom I have developed healthy working relationships. Sure, while practicing law occasionally I would receive a thank you note or a bottle around Christmas, but that happened no more than about a half dozen times a year.
No one else in Oaxaca does what I do, meaning that I teach people mezcal in a non-touristy fashion, not trying to convince anyone to buy anything. If my clients don’t buy then I do, as a thank you to my producer friends who are kind enough to allow me to explain how mezcal is made and my clients to sample. These tours help people learn and hopefully become passionate about the spirit and thus an aficionado.
I combine my background in social anthropology (B.A., M.A.) with what I have learned about cultures from having been in Mexico for so long, and pass it on to my clients. I enjoy teaching, I enjoy giving small artisanal mezcal producers business from my clients who buy bottles to take home with them, and I enjoy the thanks I receive.
I often work with staff of restaurants and bars in the US, Canada, Mexico, the UK, and further abroad, teaching them how to deal with their customers with a view to increasing business, while at the same time helping raise the profile of this iconic Mexican spirit. And I am asked to lecture about mezcal and lead tastings in Oaxaca, the Pacific resort of Huatulco, in the US, and in Canada.
Do you have any advice for professionals who are interested in leaving conventional private practice but concerned about what is out there?
If you live in a medium or large sized US or Canadian city, consider moving to a smaller community, or somewhere in Mexico where the cost of living is about half of what it is where you live today. For example, in Oaxaca you can lead the same middle class lifestyle you do in Toronto, for about half the cost; the same does not hold true if you have your sights set for example on San Miguel de Allende, fairly close to Mexico City. Perhaps consider a rural community in your state or province, or in some other country which you continually think back about, fondly recalling when you vacationed there.
Sit down with your financial advisor, and have in hand your estimated budget for your new homeland. Deal with issues which you might at first instance find repugnant, such as the life expectancy of anyone from whom you expect to inherit and go through the numbers.
If a Canadian, don’t worry about having to pay for medical care in Mexico. It is reasonable, high quality, and for a nominal sum you have the option of participating in the national healthcare insurance plan.
Mexico is by and large a safe country in which to live. It is the media which paints the entire country with a single stroke of the brush. So do the Mexico nay-sayers, who for the most part have never visited the country.
If you have interests, are someone who is always looking to learn and try new things, there will always be something out there for you to do. When we moved here, neither of us had a clue how we would pass our days. We ended up running a B & B for several years, and then when that became somewhat of a burden, I began leading my mezcal educational excursions.
Don’t wait until the appropriate age to retire. You never know what tomorrow will bring.
How did your legal education inform the way you see the world today? Do you still identify yourself as a lawyer?
I still identify as a lawyer. For the past 20 years or so, and continuing to date, I have been writing a bi-monthly column, Legally Speaking, for a Canadian national antiques and art magazine. Finding topics about which to write, reading my Ontario Reports, and going online, all keep my legal mind active.
As a lawyer one views the world a little differently from others. Even here in Mexico that’s the case, at least for me. I am frequently asked legal opinions by my Oaxacan friends and acquaintances. While of course I cannot render legal opinions because the Mexican system is so different from the Canadian and American systems, and because I am not licensed or insured to practice law, I can usually help those who seek my advice. Of course I always have to consider differences in cultural and other worldview perspectives.
What do you have to say to those who tell me lawyers can’t have fun?
I am passionate about and enjoy what I do. This becomes obvious upon review of the praise I receive, which often mentions how I feel about what I do. I have fun almost every day of my life, if not working then spending time with my wife, our friends, and/or business associates. I can honestly state that over the past 12 years living in Oaxaca, I have been bored no more than a total of about one week, if that.[divider style=”single” margin_top=”30px” margin_bottom=”30px”]
Alvin Starkman holds an M.A. in social anthropology from Toronto’s York University and a J.D. from Osgoode Hall Law School. He has written one book about mezcal (Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market: Unrivalled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances) and over 35 articles centering upon Mexican craft beer, pulque, mezcal and sustainability, as well as a further 250 articles about Oaxacan life and cultural traditions. You can find Alvin’s tours on Facebook or on his website. He can be reached at mezcaleducationaltours-at-hotmail.com.
9 thoughts on “Thrillable Hours: Alvin Starkman, Mezcal Specialist”
What a fascinating and specialized field to have found into when you moved here. I continue to hear more and more about Mezcal and as it seems to be gaining popularity and awareness in the U.S., I look forward to learning more about it. A mere week of boredom over the past 12 years seems like a pretty good ratio for this phase of your life. :)
Thanks for the comment Shannon! Agree, he isn’t doing badly at this rate :)
Good conversation, Jodi! I appreciate the many practical insights and words of advice.
Despite my own personal opinion on Mezcal (my Russian heritage impedes my ability to drink tequila, much less a dark variety of this spirit), some of my best friends are absolute fanatics. I’ve gone ahead and forwarded this article to them in response to their (very consistent) complaints about their day jobs.
Thanks Alex! I hope they enjoy the interview.
How unfortunate that people continue to use and abuse donkeys to produce this product when it’s completely unnecessary. It’s not quaint and it’s not cute. Donkeys are among the most abused animals on this planet. No animal wants to spend its days strapped to a heavy apparatus, walking round and round and round in a circle, with a man standing behind the poor animal hitting it if the man is displeased.
I’m heading to Mexico soon and was excited to sign up for this tour. But, no more. I won’t support exploitation and abuse of animals, especially when it’s nowhere near necessary.
Donkeys are the exception, since most use horses and some use a team of oxen. That photo is about 8 years old, and the palenquero now uses a horse. The alternatives are a mazo and canoa of stone or wood, or a gas (sometimes electric), powered noisy wood chipper. Some have switched to the wood chipper and others have purchased them and decided not to use them because the yield is lower and/or flavor changes. The heavy mazo of wood pounding into a canoe of stone or hollowed out tree trunk is the most difficult type of manual labor you can imagine.
But these traditions date back centuries, and are deemed both ancestral and traditional. If you want your mezcal made the way it has been made for generations upon generations, then those are the two alternatives (animal or mazo), and they give the palenquero the greatest control over how he wants his piñas mashed for fermentation. Switching to gas or electric causes the diminution of Oaxaca’s cultural heritage, and many decry this. Animals are treated very well because they are the lifeblood of the palenque. They work no more than 5 hours a day, and rest every 15 – 20 minutes.
Those who consider this abuse of animals perhaps should not explore at all outside of the city, since one often finds beasts of burden “abused,” carrying hundreds of pounds of piñas strapped across their backs, small mules and donkeys being ridden, being whipped, etc. This is Oaxaca state.
This is a crazy coincidence: 2 years ago, in preparation for our year-long family sabbatical, I pinned the link to this interview series. Husband and I are lawyers and I thought we may want to figure out an alternative to coming home. I haven’t looked at your site since (sorry!) We were too busy living and loving life on an epic road trip with our 2 kids: Virginia to Panama and back, with a 1.5 month stop in Oaxaca City. Where my husband and visiting dad took the mezcal tour with Alvin! They raved about the tour and about how much they learned and what a great guy Alvin is. So happy that his venture is getting good exposure and serves as an inspiration to all of us lawyers, that life doesn’t have to be what it is right now, despite all the time and money you put into your degree and creating and growing your professional life.
Thanks for providing some hope for a brighter career for me in the future. I burned out of after practicing immigration law for 8 years. Right now I’m a legal assistant in employment law and raising my baby. I could see myself doing something like you are describing. I also imagine folks in the pueblos might have lots of immigration law questions.