Or, mezcal must have arrived given that someone is spending $74,000 for a bottle.
We have a few germane questions:
- Who’s the shaman?
- What’s his spell?
- What’s Oaxaca Agave?
- Why don’t these people have a web site?
Or, mezcal must have arrived given that someone is spending $74,000 for a bottle.
We have a few germane questions:
In case it hasn’t hit your town quite yet, a tsunami is on its way from Mexico to you. Get ready: mezcal is on the roll! Here in Mexico City and in many other areas of the country, recently ho-hum tequila is being replaced by this high-powered delight of the hundreds-of-years-old wave of the future. Many of you may already know mezcal as that bottle from Oaxaca with the worm in it, but Oaxaca is just one of the Mexican states where mezcal is produced. And just an aside: 99.999% of the time, that bottle with the worm in it is for tourists and other rank neophytes: it’s usually rotgut.
Although there are upwards of 200 varieties of maguey, relatively few of those make up the majority of mezcales. Those few are: espadín (used for 90% of all mezcal production), tobala, tobasiche, tepeztate, arroqueño, and the maguey pictured above–thecupreata which grows in Michoacán and several other states.
Mezcal is produced for personal use and for sale in all of Mexico’s 31 states, but only eight of those states have received the prized Denominación de Origen (abbreviatedDO: certification of geographic origin). The largest mezcal production in the country is in the state of Oaxaca, which in 1994 was the first Mexican state to receive itsDenominación de Origen. Today, seven other states have the certification. Most recently (in November 2012), the state of Michoacán received its DO status.
Cupreata maguey cactus in flower, near Etúcuaro, Michoacán. The flowering spike of the maguey is the quiote. A cupreata maguey plant needs eight to ten years to mature; like its cousin the common century plant, the entire plant begins to wither and die once thecupreata flowers. By day, birds pollinate the maguey. By night, bats do the same. Once the flower dies, the plant produces runners that grow into baby plants–and the life cycle of the maguey begins again.
Rocío Díaz of Michoacán, creator of the acclaimed and prize-winning video Documezcal, has graciously givenMexico Cooks! permission to use her video as a learning tool in this article. In a way that words cannot, the video gives you direct insight into artisan production of mezcal.
Mexico Cooks! recently hopped on a guajolotero (what you might think of as a chicken bus) to meet some new friends who promised to take me to meet an artisanal mezcal producer in Michoacán (west-central Mexico), where mezcal and its production are a way of life.
Every small town has at least one mezcal producer and frequently more than one; some small producers have been distilling the drink for private use for 50 years or more. Commercial production of mezcal is relatively recent; many connoisseurs consider commercial mezcales to be inferior. The good news? The best mezcal is the one you like, not the one someone–even if that someone is me–tells you to like.
Among people who drink mezcal and study its history, origins, and traditions, there is a good bit of controversy regarding its production and destinations. Until next week, I leave you with your homework: read the linked article so that you will know what the controversies are. Whether or not these matter to you is entirely up to you. Remember that the article is strictly about the mezcales of Oaxaca. Photo and article (click the link here) courtesy MezcalPhD.
Next week, we will talk about a particular mezcal from Michoacán.
We’ve chatted with Cristina Potters from Mexico Cooks! for quite some time about collaborating on a mezcal related topic because she writes one of the best blogs on Mexican culture around. I’ve read it for years just to keep up on the local culinary scene so my interest and fandom pre-date this blog.
In true kismet fashion when we were in Mexico City a few years ago visiting our tequila obsessed friends Scarlet and Grover who run Taste Tequila we even connected Cristina to them and they ended up having a great meal. Sadly we’ve never met in person because our travel plans are always at odds. Mayahuel willing that will change soon but in the interim Cristina has invited us to re-publish her recent series on the alcohols derived from the maguey starting with today’s post on one of the most fascinating drinks imaginable, pulque. You can find the original post on her blog here, we’ll run two more pieces from her series over the next week so if you’re anxious head over to her blog to read them immediately.
Oh and should you want a very personalized tour of Mexico then definitely take a look at what Cristina can offer.
This Mexico Cooks! article was originally published on April 24, 2010. Today, read it again to begin a series of occasional reports on the remarkable products given to us from the heart of the magueycactus. Aguamiel, pulque, and mezcal all come to us from the abundant hand of Mayahuel, goddess of themaguey.
An agave atrovirens cactus. This enormous blue-gray plant, native to the ancient land which became Mexico, continues to provide us with pulque (POOL-keh), a naturally fermented alcoholic beverage. The maguey, with pencas (thick, succulent leaves) which can grow to a height of seven to eight feet, matures in ten to twelve years. At maturity, the plant can begin to produce liquor.
Pulque, native to Mexico, is suddenly all the rage in countries far from its origin. Folks who have most likely never seen a maguey cactus ‘on the hoof’ argue the relative merits of natural versus flavored pulques, canned versus straight from the barrel, and so forth. Mayahuel, the goddess of the maguey, is laughing up her sleeve at this current rash of pulque acficionados; pulque has been well-loved in what is now Mexico for longer than humankind can remember.
Legend has it that a thousand years ago and more, Sr. Tlacuache (Mr. Opossum, above) scraped his sharp claws through the heart of the maguey and slurped down the world’s first taste of pulque–and then another, and another, until he had a snoot full. His meandering drunken ramble allegedly traced the path of the rivers that flow through Mexico. Photo courtesy Juan Palomino.
A drawing from the Codice Borbónico (1530s Spanish calendar and outline of life in the New World) shows Mayahuel, goddess of the maguey, with a mature cactus and a pot of fermented pulque. The first liquid that pours into the heart of the maguey is called aguamiel (literally, honey water); legend says that aguamiel is Mayahuel’s blood.
Aguamiel actually comes from the pencas (leaves) of the cactus. In order to start the flow of liquid into the heart of the plant, the yema (yolk) of the plant is removed from the heart and the heart’s walls, connected to the leaves, are scraped until only a cavity remains. Within a few days, the aguamiel begins to flow into the cavity in the heart of the plant. The flow of aguamiel can last anywhere from three to six months. Today, the men who work the maguey to produce pulque are still called tlaquicheros. The word is derived from the same Nahuatl origin as the name for the original tlaquichero: Sr. Tlacuache, Mr. Opossum.
An early tlaquichero removes aguamiel from the heart of the maguey by sucking it out with a long gourd. Today, workers use a steel scoop to remove up to six liters of aguamiel per day from a single plant. Aguamiel is not an alcoholic beverage. Rather, it is a soft drink, sweet, transparent, and refreshing. Once it ferments, however, it becomes the alcoholic drink pulque, also known as octli.
The fermentation of pulque can start in the plant itself. Aguamiel, left in the plant’s heart to ‘ripen’ for a few days, begins to ferment. For commercial production, which began in the 19th century, tlaquicheros removeaguamiel from the maguey and transfer it to huge steel tanks, where it ferments.
The heart of the maguey, full of aguamiel. The tool balanced in the liquid is the same type gourd that is pictured in the early drawing seen above. Between extractions of aguamiel, the leaves of the maguey are folded over the cavity where the liquid collects to prevent insects and plant debris from falling into the heart.
By the end of the 19th century, pulque was enormously popular among Mexico’s very rich and very poor. Weary travelers in the early 20th century could find stands selling pulque–just for a pickmeup–alongside rural byways. Travelers riding Mexico’s railroads bought pulque at booths along the tracks. Pulquerías (bars specializing in pulque) were in every town, however small or large. In Puebla and Mexico City, legendary pulquerías abounded.
This common image hung in pulquerías all over Mexico. Clients could order the amount of pulque they wanted according to the drawings–and be reminded of what they had ordered when the pulque had laid them low. Image courtesy of La Voz de Michoacán.
Pulque lovers spent long evenings in their favorite pulquerías in an alcoholic haze of music, dancing, laughter and delight. Far less expensive than other hard liquors, pulque carries with it the romance of ancient legend, the tradition of a nation, and the approbation of the gods.
Natural pulque is a pale white, semi-viscous, liquid with a slick, thick feel in the mouth; many people are put off by that feel, as well as by its slightly sour taste. Even for those who dislike natural pulque, another kind of pulque–called curado (in this instance, flavored)–is delicious. Natural pulque, combined with blended fresh fruit, vegetables, or ground nuts, becomes a completely different drink. Bananas, guavas, strawberries, and the tuna (fruit of the nopal cactus) are particular favorites.
Feria de Pulque (Pulque Fair) in the State of Mexico. Each of the jars holds pulque curado, each flavored with a different fresh fruit, vegetable, or type of nut.
Mexico Cooks! first tasted pulque about 30 years ago, in Huixquilucan, in the State of Mexico. Huixquilucan, once known to its inhabitants as Huixqui (pronounced whiskey), used to be a small town, and Mexican friends took me to its small-town fair where home-made pulque was for sale in what seemed like every booth offering food and drink. “Try it, you’ll like it a lot!” my friends giggled. “Just a little taste! C’mon!” I was nervous: I’d heard about pulque and its slippery slimy-ness and its inebriating qualities. Finally we stood in front of a booth offering pulque curado con fresas: pulque flavored with fresh strawberries. “Okay, okay, I can try this.” And I liked it! The first small cupful was a delicious, refreshing, slightly bubbly surprise. The second small cupful went down even more easily than the first. And then–well, let it be said that I had to sit down on the sidewalk for a bit. I truly understood about pulque.
Try it, you’ll like it a lot…c’mon, just a little taste!
Our next Mezcal Martes tasting at Lolo in San Francisco is “Meet the Karwinskiis” on July 8th 6-7:30 we will be tasting 4 mezcals for $25
Last time out we tasted a variety of espadin mezcals, the bedrock agave behind most Oaxacan mezcal. This time we head out into the wild world of silvestres with a side-by-side tasting of four Oaxacan mezcals made from the Agave Karwinskii family which is one of the most common wild agaves found on the market. These bottles reflect the variety of terroir and their makers’ hands and offer great comparison so RSVP, we look forward to seeing you there. San Francisco Weekly just highlighted the event as well.
Recently I discovered Anna Bruce‘s photography because she covers our favorite subject, the world of mezcal, with great aplomb. We chatted about her photos over email. The interview is below with minimal editing for clarity. You can find our more about her work and life on her web site, Tumblr, Instagram, FaceBook, and Twitter. Should you be fortunate enough to live in London you can see a selection of her mezcal photos at the Charlotte Street branch of Wahaca. She has also photographed a tremendous variety of subjects and brings great insight to all of them. Just take a look at her portfolio here.
How did you come to this project?
When I was younger my family had lodgers in the house. I was good friends with 2 Mexican girls who stayed with us for a while, and when I was 19 in 2008 I visited them in Mexico. On that trip I tried my first taste of Mezcal, and went to mezcalerias in DF. One of my friends had an idea about bringing a Mezcal bar to the UK, but at that time it was not possible due to importing laws/trade regulations.
A couple of years ago the first Mezcal bars opened in London. I was curious as to how this could be, and discovered that the mezcal industry was changing and new certifications meant that we could now get it in England. During my research I began to understand more about the artisinal process of making mezcal, and the controversy surrounding the regionalisation of mezcal and the certification. The more I read the more questions I had about how mezcal would change as it gained popularity outside Mexico. I had been looking for a project that would get me back to Mexico, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. I approached the Mexican embassy in London with my proposal to photograph the process of making mezcal; focusing on the fact that it was both a new Mexican import to the UK, and that the process may change as the product needs to reach a larger/broader audience. The embassy gave me a media scholarship to spend a month in Oaxaca photographing the process in July 2013.
Since then I have been back twice to exhibit a selection of the images in December, and for a further research trip in May, to photograph more distilleries in Oaxaca, as well as in Jalisco and Michoacan.
How did you meet the palenqueros that you photographed and where are their palenques located?
For my initial trip, my Mexican friends put me in touch with the brand owner of a mezcal called ‘el Mero mero,’ and a lot of the images from that time were taken at the distillery of don Justinos Garcia in San Dionisio, where that mezcal is made. He also took me to his fields near Santiago Matatlan where I photographed him harvesting espadin. During the trip I met others involved in the mezcal industry, mostly with the help of Hector Audiffred from Amores Mezal and photographed the Amores and Danzantes distilleries in Matatlan.
I was asked to accompany a writer for the trip in May, and he has contacts through importing speciality brands from Mexico to the UK. Brand distilleries we visited included Derrumbes Rey Campero, Real Minero, Alipus and Del Maguey. We visited a broad variety of distilleries making tequila, raicilla, and mezcal, in Jalisco, Michoacan, and Oaxaca. Michoacan was fascinating as it is a newly certified mezcal- the first in the region, (producing for Derrumbes). Until recently they have had to call their spirit ‘distillate of agave’.
When I went in 2013 I spent a long time looking at each step of the process focusing predominantly on Justino. I stayed at his house with his family, including his father and son- ( who had previously run the distillery, and who he will pass it on to). The more recent trip was a whirl wind, sometimes driving to see two or more distilleries in a day and stopping regularly to photograph fields and different varieties of agave growing wild at the side of the road.
What interests you most about the world of mezcal?
While I was in Oaxaca I got to meet a lot of the creative community. Speaking with them, as well as mezcal makers, it is fascinating to learn about the cultural history of mezcal, and how it is represented creatively (and perhaps informs creativity). I would like to make a further study into the relationship between mezcal and the arts in Oaxaca.
Have these photos appeared elsewhere?
A selection of photos from the first trip are on permanent display in the Charlotte Street branch of the restaurant Wahaca in London, Wahaca’s in house magazine also published an article about the work, and the Express newspaper covered the exhibition opening. An installation of 200 pictures was shown at Taller Espacio Alternativo in Oaxaca and subsequently at the London School of Economics as part of a week of lectures focusing on Mexico.
Any plans to return to Mexico for another series on the world of mezcal or something else?
I am returning to Mexico in July of 2014 to work with Puente, a charity working to reintroduce amaranthe into the Oaxaca area. This will be alongside working with and documenting an artist residency focusing on nutrition and ‘first foods’ in the area such as amaranthe and corn. Hopefully this residency will become an exchange, as we have found accommodation and work space to offer 5 Mexican artists in the uk.
I think there will be more mezcal related work in the future (I hope so).
Fundamentally, the question boils down to this: will the Norm follow the model of Tequila, and allow for potentially unlimited growth in production, or the model of Cognac and limit production methods (and therefore growth) to preserve quality and increase prices? This will be the central conflict of mezcal in the coming months and years.
It’s fantastic that COMERCAM has gotten this far and that many of the parties are involved look to Cognac as a model. I’ve advocated the wine world’s model of denomination of origin, Cognac’s works perfectly to achieve the same goal because it focuses on the constraints inherent in the mezcal industry materially (there is only so much agave to go around as well as other environmental factors) and culturally (there is a definite tradition of mezcal production that’s worth protecting).
The proposal as defined now does a pretty good job of achieving these goals and that alone is something of a triumph. Of course it’s very early in the process. Clayton spends a good chunk of his article looking at how the larger industrial powers within the mezcal industry are working against these proposals because they want to create a mass market from mezcal.
A key letter (in Spanish or English in Clayton’s translation) from Javier Flores on behalf of Casa Armando Guillermo Prieto which is the company behind Zignum, makes it very clear how the industrial producers look at the issue. To paraphrase ‘Mezcal has a great history but in order to fulfill global demand we need to increase production because that’s what consumers demand. Consumers also demand a product that is certified by chemical analysis. And, by letting us produce mezcal in volume we’ll employ local workers. Remember, we’re wholly owned by Mexicans unlike some mezcal and many tequila brands?’
Clayton also highlights the efforts of long time mezcal advocates Erick Rodriguez aka Erick Almamezcalera and Marco Ochoa from Oaxaca’s beloved Mezcaloteca to carve out a third “rústico” category of mezcals that would apply to the truly traditional palenquero who uses only the most basic and time honed techniques.
Perhaps most important you get a chance to comment on the proposal so definitely tell COMERCAM what you think through their page here.
Correction: Tory Smith got into contact with us after seeing this post to correct two points, the original post has been updated accordingly.
Correct post follows:
Just got word from Tory Smith over at the mezcals.mx Mezcal’s Club (sic) that there have been a few changes to the program. They added an extra bottle to each shipment so the price has risen from $295 to $395 US/shipment. Tory assured me that “Those who signed up for the last one will still get the same rate of $295.”
The last shipment contained Nuestra Soledad San Baltazar, El Tinieblo Edition Especial, and a pleasant surprise – Sabios de Lua. We were pretty impressed, especially with that Sabios de Lua because it’s impossible to find in the US. The next shipment contains the Marques Salmiana from Guanajuanto, the Sangremal Espadin from Oaxaca, and the Buen Viaje Espadin from Oaxaca. They have a little promotion running through July 1 where you can get an upgrade to their Gold membership if you’re one of the first 100 people to sign up so act soon if you want in on that.
As I hinted in my previous post about Mezcal’s Club there is at least one other mezcal club out there, this one is called Club del Mezcal. They have an active Twitter and FaceBook presence but I haven’t been able to get through to them so if you hear anything please give me a buzz. There are numerous other options should you live or receive shipments in Mexico. Oaxaca’s justifiably lauded Mezcaloteca sells its stock within the country so if you’re lucky enough to have that option definitely email them about their current catalog.
Mezcaloteca founder Marco Ochoa (no, not that one) gave a great presentation at Mesamerica 2014 which I wish we’d attended. Check out their program to get a sense for how awesome it must have been. Studded with stars like Alice Waters and Mario Batali but also plenty of local talents with plenty to say. Take a look:
Since they were released May 19th COMERCAM’s suggested revisions to how mezcals are labeled have been the source of a vigorous discussion. Clayton Szczech at Experience Mezcal has the most lucid description of what’s in the proposal that we’ve seen so definitely read his piece thoroughly.
Erick Rodriguez has long been active in this discussion and his Facebook post presents his position succinctly, here’s his opening salvo about this latest circular to give you an idea of the passion and debate this announcement has sparked:
Que puedo decir… Me cagan estos pendejos les falta tener más información y no sólo querer tomar decisiones por sus huevos, si no se revisan muchas cosas injustas para los mezcales tradicionales o una división de categorías ( industriales, artesanales y tradicionales) se seguirán comercializando “pese a quien le pese” (así como se menciona) dejemos por un momento las tradiciones, costumbres lo cultural los que trabajamos con estas familias que por siempre han sido aplastadas por sus intereses económicos y sociales, no los abandonaremos, no les diremos dejen de producir, porque seguro migraran y por consecuencia la desintegración familiar también se violenta la garantía individual de libertad de trabajo, consagrada en el art. 5 de nuestra constitución.
Habrán tomado algún día buen mezcal estas gentes?
Neee! yo me chingo un Mezcalito pal’alma…
Abracen a sus maestros.
In brief the circular proposes changing the labeling to “mezcal” which sounds like it means industrially produced and a new category of “mezcal artesanal/tradicional” which means pretty much what you expect: Agave hearts have to be cooked underground, crushed, fermented, and then double distilled. The one interesting note about the artesanal/tradicional category is that the cooked agave hearts can be crushed with mechanical means. This is not fully surprising as you do see some palenques that otherwise are fully “traditional” in their process using mechanized chippers.
However, circular 20 seems to cloud the distinction in the main proposal so we are going to do some more digging on that question. We chatted with a few people already producing mezcal in a traditional and artisanal fashion who say that most changes for them would be relatively small and mean slight changes to their labels. We haven’t been able to find anything on the question of whether this proposal would open the door to a tiered system for certification costs and tax rates but it certainly appears to create the legal distinction needed for that. We’ll have plenty of time to dig since it will probably take years for this to wind its way through the Mexican political system.
Oaxaca’s daily La Imparcial reported the story with quotes from COMERCOM’s head Hippocrates Nolasco Cancino.
As if all the other problems in the world of mezcal weren’t enough here’s word that drug cartels are smuggling liquid meth in bottles of tequila thus exposing cross-border shipments of tequila and, presumably, mezcal to greater scrutiny. For a long time, perhaps time immemorial, bringing in a few bottles of mezcal not found outside of Mexico let alone the little palenque of origin was normal practice. Most of those bottles aren’t labeled so I can’t imagine what border guards are going to do now that they suspect meth in every bottle. Consider yourself warned next time you drive a few bottles over…