Northeastern couple starts mezcal business in Mexico after chance roadside encounter and wild ride into the mountains

bottles of Cara a Cara mezcal on white background
Courtesy photo

For Jessica Pogranyi and Miguel Albarran, mezcal, a Mexican spirit made from agave plant, is a drink best consumed with friends over conversation and food.

That is exactly how they became friends with the Morales Garcia family, whom they met on the side of the road in a small town in the Oaxaca state, Mexico, three years ago. 

After getting sandwiches at the family’s food stand and tasting their homemade mezcal, Pogranyi and Albarran, both Northeastern graduates in the class of 2013, took a one-and-a-half hour ride deep into the mountains to see the operation. Soon thereafter they went into business together. 

With the Moraleses and their refined family recipe, Pogranyi and Miguel Albarran launched Cara a Cara, an environmentally and socially conscious artisanal small-batch mezcal brand in August 2022.

Cara a Cara, which means “face to face” in Spanish, now sells its mezcal to restaurants, stores and hotels in Mexico City, and plans to expand to the United States.

The enterprise recently won Northeastern University’s 2023 Women Who Empower Innovator Award in “Experienced Alumnae” and “Powering a Sustainable, Resilient World” categories. The award came with a cash prize of $37,000. 

“We are delighted to recognize Jessica’s inspiring vision and leadership with two Women Who Empower Innovator Awards this year,” says Diane Nishigaya MacGillivray, Northeastern’s senior vice president for university advancement and founder of Women Who Empower. “Alongside so many incredible Northeastern alumnae innovators, she stood out to us for her ingenuity, thoughtfulness and dedication to improving the lives of others and our environment.”

Pogranyi and Albarran, a married couple of Northeastern graduates, class of 2013, came to Mexico right before the COVID-19 pandemic paralyzed the world in March 2020. A couple of weeks before that they quit their successful careers in Seattle to take a break. 

Pogranyi, 33, was burned out from her job on Amazon’s social responsibility team, managing the audit program for all Amazon-made products. Albarran, also 33, led a team focused on expansion programs at a digital freight network startup, Convoy, which grew from 70 employees to 1,000 during his time with the company. Being a Mexican national, he hadn’t lived in Mexico for more than 20 years and wanted to spend time with his family.

“I started to feel a certain distance from my culture, from my family,” Albarran says. “I needed time to rebuild family bonds.”

Stuck in Mexico indefinitely and curious about mezcal, which had been gaining popularity in the U.S., the couple decided to explore Oaxaca, one of the main mezcal-producing states in the country.

Just like tequila, mezcal can only be produced in select regions in Mexico, according to a protected designation of origin that the country secured through the World Intellectual Property Organization. The difference between the two spirits is the distillation process and the type of agave each drink is made from—tequila can only be legally made from blue agave. 

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Pogranyi and Albarran first encountered the Moraleses in the small town of San Dionisio Ocotepec. The 20-something-year-old Isabel Morales Garcia and her mother were selling some sandwiches and a traditional non-alcoholic Oaxacan drink, tejate, from their food stand. They offered the couple their homemade mezcal.

“It was amazing,” says Pogranyi.

She and her husband had already tried mezcal in various places, including distilleries popular with tourists.

Isabel told the couple that her father loved making mezcal and had been dreaming of commercializing his product. Since he had passed away several years ago, Isabel’s uncle Bacilio Morales Garcia and she continued the family’s mezcal-making tradition.

Pogranyi and Albarran asked to see where the spirit had been made. They were driven to a “ranch” in the mountains where the family had been growing agave and making mezcal for generations, an hour and a half away from the town. Pogranyi says they saw all kinds of animals roaming in the greenery under the perfect blue skies during the ride. 

When they finally arrived at the Morales family property, the farthest parcel on the mountain, there was really nothing to see besides hundreds of agave plants, she says. The Moraleses explained that the family had to dismantle their simple distillation setup because they ran out of water both to produce mezcal and to feed cattle. The family had to move closer to the town built on the San Dionisio river.

Shortage of water is a common problem in Mexico. The Mexican agriculture industry uses 76% of the total annual water consumption in the country. The World Resources Institute ranked Mexico 24th in the world for water stress, which occurs when the demand for water is greater than the available supply. As of 2022, only 58% of the country’s population had water at home daily, and approximately 6 million people, or almost 5%, lacked access to drinking water. 

Members of the Morales family: Octavio Morales Garcia, from left, Isabel Morales Garcia and Bacilio Morales Garcia, the master distiller. Courtesy photo

Once the couple got back to their Airbnb, they began brainstorming ways in which they could help the Morales family produce mezcal in a more sustainable way.

“At the end of the day, if everyone’s producing mezcal all the time, and everyone’s taking the water from the river, the same thing is going to happen there that happened on the mountain,” Pogranyi says.

After a couple months of research, they learned of rainwater harvesting systems that a non-governmental organization, Isla Urbana, was installing in urban and rural communities and schools across Mexico. That find fueled the idea of creating a mezcal product that would drive awareness about the water shortage issue and allow some of the proceeds to go back into installing more rainwater capture systems. After assessing potential rainfall in the area, Isla Urbana agreed to design and build a rainwater harvesting system for the Morales distillery. The installation was completed in June 2021. 

From the initial time the couple met the Morales family, Pogranyi says, she and her husband had a gut feeling that they were good-hearted people. But before going into business with the Moraleses, they spent a lot of time building a trustworthy relationship with them. They went back to San Dionisio Ocotepec and spent about a month there, learning anything they could about mezcal production and measuring the amount of water used at every step of the process. They shared meals with the family and spent hours chatting and getting to know one another.

“We also understood that this was a unique opportunity to build something new alongside them,” Pogranyi says. “We have a really good partnership. They’ve been amazing to work with.”

Producing mezcal takes a lot of work. About 10 members of the Morales family now work for the distillery on their property in the mountains. 

They distill mezcal using rainwater captured by the rain harvesting system to offset the lack of other freshwater resources given. It takes one month to make one batch of the spirit, which translates into 200 to 400 bottles, depending on the agave type. 

Each bottle of mezcal of about 25 oz (750 ml) requires more than 5 gallons of water (20 liters) to produce. The distillery currently has a 1,320-gallon (5,000 liters) storage tank that collects rainwater for drier seasons. Depending on the season, an environmental nutrition label on each mezcal bottle shows how much rainwater was used for that batch.

It is also very important to consistently replant agave, Pogranyi says, to have a reliable supply of the raw material as plants are harvested as a whole (but only the heart of the plant—piña—is used to make mezcal). The Morales family replanted 6,000 agaves last year, and Cara a Cara is looking for a way to utilize agave leaves that currently go to waste.

Pogranyi and Albarran pay the family by the batch. The distillers set a price per liter themselves, depending on the type of agave.

“We want to make sure it’s fair [to them],” Pogranyi says.

The brand has four expressions of the spirit made out of four different types of agave, giving mezcal different flavor profiles.

“I really like to have mezcal with friends over some cheese and jam on crackers,” Pogranyi says. “It’s not your typical mezcal pairing that people are used to, but we found that it works really well.” 

Desserts also highlight the light sweetness of the spirit, she says, and due to its smokiness the Cara a Cara mezcal comes through nicely in cocktails. But since it takes somewhere from seven to 25 years to grow different types of agave, Pogranyi believes it is more special to drink some of the expressions neat.  

The Cara a Cara mezcal has been received really well at trade shows and tastings, she says, and by business-to-business clients they have been approaching personally. Pogranyi and Albarran want to make sure that their products are sold by businesses that care about Cara a Cara’s story and their business ethics correspond to the brand’s ethos and values. 

“A lot of people here [in Mexico City] have said, ‘I’ve never seen a mezcal brand or an alcohol brand really focusing on impact,’” Pogranyi says. “Being the first ones to do it and having transparency and our label having the environmental impact, I think, has resonated a lot with people.”

In August, the brand is going to enter the market in Los Cabos, a resort area located at the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula, popular with American tourists. Cara a Cara is also in the process of obtaining necessary paperwork to export its mezcal to the U.S.

When they embarked on this project, neither spouse had experience in the alcohol beverage industry. They have been utilizing the skills they had from their previous jobs, Albarran says, but they also had to find ways to accelerate their industry and entrepreneurship knowledge. He, for example, was able to get a job and continues working as a general manager at a wine distribution company in Mexico City where they continue to live.

“That’s given me a tremendous insight, whether it is permits, bank accounts or lawyers,” he says. 

The couple also turned to Northeastern’s IDEA student-led venture accelerator. This structured program helped them get clear on their business model, financials and marketing approach, Pogranyi says, and get direct feedback from professors at D’Amore-McKim School of business. In addition, they secured a $10,000 grant from the program. 

So far, Cara a Cara has been a bootstrapped project—the couple has invested about $100,000 of their own savings into the business. Pogranyi estimates that they will need about $350,000 for the next year and a half to two years and will probably need to raise capital soon to support their cash flow.

But passion for their “why” and focus on the quality of the product keeps them going, Albarran says.

“The actual beverage is the byproduct of why we do what we do,” he says. “Our ‘why’ is we want to do it better—better for people, better for the planet.”

As for being in business with one’s spouse, Albarran believes that their mutual respect for each other professionally and personally helps them deal with any challenges.

“As long as you are able to lean into each other’s strengths,” he says, “I think there’s no better co-founder that you could find.”

Alena Kuzub is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at Follow her on Twitter @AlenaKuzub.