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Los Borrachos – throwing a mezcal tasting when #lovewins

It takes some cojones to throw a mezcal tasting in San Francisco during the annual SF Pride celebration. Add to that the historic Supreme Court decision on same sex marriage, a Giants home game, and the farewell Grateful Dead concert, and you are looking at truly committed mezcal lovers who made their way through mayhem to taste some really new and exciting mezcals, paired with great eats.

Erick Rodriguez and Adrian Vazquez, Los Borrachos, put together this tasting event at Bartlett Hall to showcase traditional mezcals. In addition to brands already in the market like Wahaka, Tosba, Del Maguey, Don Amado, Alipus,  and Mezcalero there were some new bottles from the Heavy Metl fold – Rey Campero, Mezcaloteca, and Real Minero – which will soon be imported to the United States as well as fresh bottles from Erick’s Almamezcalera label. Totally new to the market and making their debut were Mezcal Los Gentiles and Chaneque.

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How you pace yourself at events like these is the big question. I go for tiny tastes. I also try to focus on mezcals I’ve never had first and see how it goes from there.

Erick Rodriguez of Almamezcalera

Erick Rodriguez of Almamezcalera

My first stop was with Almamezcalera. Erick was pouring three new mezcals all distilled with spices and herbs and made from espadilla, a wild espadin, and distilled in clay and wood. I will not call these “healthy” mezcals, as I think mezcal holds medicinal properties period. I started with the Cilantro and Hoja Santa which was incredibly herbaceous (of course) and vaguely anis like. At 54% it was big, spicy and smooth. Next up was the mezcal distilled with ramos – considered a cleansing herb – and at 61% it was surprisingly non-alcoholic, very green and herbaceous. It felt more medicinal in the same way that Fernet does. Last up was the cinnamon and cacao, also at 61%, which was neither sweet nor perfumey which was what I was expecting and why I tasted it last. All three of these mezcals would work great as both aperitivos and digestivos.

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Next up was Chaneque, a major reason I braved the insanity to come to the tasting. I had tried their madrecuishe once in Oaxaca and was intrigued. Juan Carlos Rodríguez, owner of Chaneque, had the whole lineup, and a couple of special mezcals under the table. I rolled through the 59% Coyote from Matatlan; the Mexicano from Sola de Vega (surprisingly musky and not the usual hot sweetness I’ve come to expect from Mexicanos); a 52% 8yr aged (in glass) Espadin from Zoquitlan which blew my socks off with its thickness and richness, and proof of why an Espadin should never be considered pedestrian; a very dry and mineral 52% Tepestate from Sola de Vega that had a strong bite in its finish; and finally a 47% Tobala from Matatlan that had the perfect sweet finish to it. Chaneque should be in the market in a couple of months with the Espadin, Madrecuishe, and Tobala.

Clase Azul Cenizo Mezcal

Clase Azul Cenizo Mezcal

The 49% Mexicano from Los Gentiles was very subtle and had the lovely sweetness you get with this maguey. I saved their collaborative project from Clase Azul – a 44% Cenizo from Durango – for last. This project is an experiment with only 6,000 liters produced (a drop in the bucket for this tequila brand). Created with the idea of economic development and jobs – it is part reforestation/cultivation of a wild agave, part art project with is ceramic black bottles, and beaded tops, and a price point of $225.

Creme de Poblano soup from Mayahuel

Creme de Poblano soup from Mayahuel

Thankfully among all the mezcal was some pretty delicious food from Lolo, Uno Dos Tacos, Colibri, Mosto, and Mayahuel in Sacramento which wins the prize for most dedication to come all the way to SF in the midst of the traffic nightmare. And their creme of poblano chile soup – delicious. For me the true treat was the delicious drunken cake from Polvorón Panaderia in Hayward – course textured, moist and only slightly sweet. And their Tres Leches is the bomb. If you can’t get to Hayward, don’t worry, you can get the cake at Uno Dos Tacos.

Pastry from Polvorón

Pastry from Polvorón

 

 

 

Penca

All the pencas shorn from a piña at the Tosba farm.

All the pencas shorn from a piña at the Tosba farm.

Penca is one of those fantastic wandering words in Spanish that has picked up a number of connotations. In the mezcal world it means the leaf of an agave plan. Pencas come up all the time when talking about mezcal because you have to cut them off in order to get to that starchy core, the piña, without which you wouldn’t have any mezcal. But literally it translates as “main rib” in a botanical sense and is used to describe the ribbing in vegetables like cabbage and spinach. In Mexico it’s also used to describe the pad of a prickly pear cactus. In Chile it’s used for “prick,” and I don’t mean to prick your finger… In Spain it can mean big nose or a chicken’s rear end, the area colorfully known as a “parson’s nose” in Oxford English.

But back to the mezcal world! Pencas occupy a big role in Mexican culture because they have been used in an incredible variety of roles. Today most are left in the fields as compost but historically they’ve been used for all their fibrous goodness. Their tips have thorns so those were used as sewing needles, fishing hooks, ornaments, and additions to weapons. The fibers of the pencas are so strong and long that they were frequently used as thread. The whole leaf is also really strong so it was occasionally used as a building material for a roof or siding. Dried they are also a fuel for fires. Still today some mezcaleros use them to fire their stills, thus completing some cosmic cycle.

Read more of our entries in the Mezcalistas Encyclopedia of Mezcal and email us questions or ideas for future entries.

Maestros del Mezcal: Bringing the makers into the process

A papalometl plant in Sindihui, a town in the Mixteca Alta.

A papalometl plant in Sindihui, a town in the Mixteca Alta.

I recently chatted with Rion Toal about the Civil Association of Maestros del Mezcal. The organization was founded by Abel Alcántara to provide a platform for mezcaleros who are cut out of or estranged from the entire certification and branding process. They are moving a variety of directions, most recently in creating public platforms for the mezcaleros, but they are also working on reforestation efforts and investigating distribution platforms for mezcaleros.

Wooden canoas for fermenting in Yutanduchi

Wooden canoas for fermenting in Yutanduchi

Maestros del Mezcal sponsored its first even this past December in Oaxaca and things went well enough that they have another coming up July 12th in the Panuelito, right next to Santo Domingo in Oaxaca. They plan an exhibit of endangered magueys, discussions of reforestation strategies, a special dinner, sales of rare mezcals, and the opportunity to meet mezcaleros from very remote areas of Oaxaca. They are also planning a national meeting of mezcaleros in Acapulco later this summer. That meeting is still in the planning stages so we will update as we hear more.

In the interim Rion kindly translated a conversation with the organization’s founder and president Abel Alcántara that ranges from how, and why, he started the organization to where it’s going and the state of mezcaleros in today’s world

Abel Alcántara at the first meeting of the Civil Association of Maestros de Mezcal in Oaxaca December 2014

Abel Alcántara at the first meeting of the Civil Association of Maestros de Mezcal in Oaxaca December 2014

Abel Alcántara

How did you start this organization and what was your impetus for launching it?

I studied sociology and I have always been interested in social problems, in particular regarding organizing people. I have helped create organizations for supply, production and consumption and my grandfather was a mezcal producer and marketer in my native Guanajuato.

I understand that you started it in Guerrero, can you tell me how that came about?

20 years ago I was a coordinator of Priority Zones for Sedesol in Guerrero. At that time I helped create an organization of traditional mezcal producers in the mountains of Guerrero. Timber, marijuana, opium poppies, and maguey and mezcal are the principle products of this region. Mezcal, for its tradition, history, uniqueness, and quality is a flagship product of the area, so I decided to focus my work on organizing mezcal producers.

What are the organization’s goals today? Do you have longer term goals that you’d like to start addressing soon?

Most outsiders simply look to market the distillate. Maestros del Mezcal is aimed at driving the organization of the producers. We focus on making a sustainable comercial project that includes the interests of all participants, the encouragement and recognition of the producers, recognition of their history, and protecting and managing wild maguey.

What are the biggest problems facing the mezcal industry today?

Shortage of cultivated maguey, disappearance of, and extreme pressure on, some wild magueyes, and combustibles [trees], lack of resources to improve palenques and certify producers.

An agave reforestation project in Santa Catarina Minas which grows a variety of local agave, especially the native  karwinski variations.

An agave reforestation project in Santa Catarina Minas which grows a variety of local agave, especially the native karwinski variations.

What are the biggest opportunities?

Building confidence in the producers’ business and their product. Recognition of mezcal as a fine distillate by the middle and upper classes in Mexico and abroad.

What do you think of the current NOM 70 proposal?

It is an improvement on the former definitions, we have always pushed for a distinction between traditionally and industrially produced mezcal. I do believe that it can be improved upon, above all by clarifying that COMERCAM cannot define or regulate the quality of mezcal; it is only an instrument that promotes and insures compliance with the standard. COMERCAM can be reformed, change and improve.

What’s your approach to certifying small producers in COMERCAM so that they can export?

Convincing the producers as to the benefits of certification and the NOM, and that their product will be sold legally beyond their region and at a better price. Explaining to the producers that they will not be taxed until their product is being sold legally (i.e. until they are seeing revenue). Convincing the federal and state governments to support this emblematic distillate that creates jobs and resources for the indigenous and marginalized populations.

A mezcalero from the Civil Association of Maestros de Mezcal's first meeting in Oaxaca in December, 2014.

A mezcalero from the Civil Association of Maestros de Mezcal’s first meeting in Oaxaca in December, 2014.

What are their biggest challenges in getting certified?

The lack of economic resources that the producers have and the lack of information that reaches their communities.

What are their biggest challenges in reaching the Mexican and North American markets?

Economic challenges: The producers cannot afford to dabble in the whole process from production to marketing. They need investors and partners and not just people who buy their mezcal. They need financial resources to improve the process and preserve the traditional and artisanal characteristics, and partners to market their product, with all that this implies.

Given the great interest in mezcal globally, are you seeing younger people working in distilleries?

It has slowed down migration out of the towns. Some young people are beginning to feel proud of their parents and the mezcal they produce more so than they have in the past. They engage more in the process and after studying or working abroad many have returned to make and market mezcal. Being a mezcal producer now has a greater status, especially among the new generations, than it has in the past.

Abel Alcántara in Yalalag, Oaxaca

Abel Alcántara in Yalalag, Oaxaca

All photos courtesy of Rion Toal.

An agave spirits club comes to San Francisco

Healthy Spirits' agave spirits selection.

Healthy Spirits’ agave spirits selection.

Recently I’ve noticed a veritable stockpile of agave spirits at Healthy Spirits which resides in a rather unique location, the corner where the Castro, Duboce Triangle, and, stretching the imagination, Western Addition meet. It is renown for a wide beer selection, a huge whisky line up, and its hummus. But now agave spirits? What gives?

In the past month or so the collection got very organized in a corner of the store and, one day, a sign went up announcing an agave spirits club. I got in touch with the power that is at Healthy Spirits to survey the contours of this new club experience. The man in charge is Eli Rodriguez who you may recognize from the tequila scene.  His family owns Mi Casa Tequila, one of the better tequilas around, and to my knowledge, the only one from Michoacan to be imported to the United States. Like many of us Eli is an equal opportunity agave spirit aficionado so he’s bringing that interest to the corner of Healthy Spirits.

They already stock a fantastic variety of tequilas, sotols, and mezcals ranging from the usual suspects to specials like Wahaka’s vegan pechugas and Mezcal Marqués, a rarity from Guanajuato. The club is designed to feature stranger bottles for aficionados and Eli has great ambitions to eventually make some very rare offerings. He’s already fast out of the blocks with the first month’s selection, the Venus Spirits Ladrón Agave Spirit distilled in Santa Cruz. To catch up on the details of this American agave spirit take a look at my profile of Sean Venus and the Ladrón idea here. Eli has his own interview and musings on Ladrón as part of a hand out for the Healthy Spirits Agave Club, ask him for it.

The mechanics of the club are straightforward; one bottle per month at an average price of $80. Members also get 10% the monthly selection so that they can stock up on favorites and 10% everything else in the store which, I can testify from personal experience, is quite valuable. You can sign up at either Healthy Spirits location, the other is on Clement St. Eli promises a web site devoted to the club soon that will make sign up “even easier for anyone.”

 

Waiter, is that a ham in my mezcal? Tasting notes from the Del Maguey Iberico

The Del Maguey Ibérico on the ABV bar.

The Del Maguey Ibérico on the ABV bar.

No doubt you’ve already heard about the Del Maguey Ibérico. It’s a collaboration between Del Maguey and star chef José Andrés to make a pechuga out of jamon iberico. It received ample coverage, if ever something screamed marketing stunt, this was it.

That and its price tag of $200 per bottle are the reasons it took Susan and me so long to give it a taste. A normal two ounce pour makes it quite an investment, but recently Susan and I descended on ABV, Ryan Fitzgerald’s tautly run agave bar and bistro kitchen right as they opened at 2PM on a Monday. I admit that I was the first through the door but I was closely followed by a cluster of people. Fortunately San Franciscan drinking culture is alive and well.

ABV is far more than just an agave outlet. The whole place is run with great sensibility with a trio of wines on tap including the amazing Scholium Project red and a bunch of Moonlight brews on tap. Dive into their menu, especially the Pimento Cheese Burger which is a real highlight and the extraordinary kimchee fritter.

And ABV is one of the ideal places to sample something like this because they don’t only offer that big two ounce pour, they also offer the perfectly reasonable (indeed it should be standard) one ounce pour which at $15 for the Ibérico is entirely doable. Our great Peruvian bartender Enrique gave us a pour in a clay copita and away we went.

Suffice to say that it’s a huge surprise.

Del Maguey Iberico Pechuga
49% ABV
Lot SCM 135
NOM O41X
Santa Catarina Minas
Clay still

A copita full of the Del Maguey Ibérico.

A copita full of the Del Maguey Ibérico.

It has a very sweet nose, neither of us got any smoke.

The body is extraordinarily light, some sweetness but completely unexpected, none of that typical agave sweetness nor the oil that I associate with pechugas. The cured meat obviously changes the pechuga equation dramatically. You’d be hard pressed to call this out as 49% alcohol, because the flavor, body, and every other indicator don’t point in that direction. The lean body make it a great pick for sipping alone.

The finish is dusty, leathery and endures long past your last taste.

Yet another argument for experimentation in mezcal.

It came from Utopia: A North American Sotol

A sotol piña from Genius Liquids' production.

A sotol piña from Genius Liquids’ production.

While I was stumbling through the world of North American agave spirits I happened upon the first example of a vertically integrated operation in Texas, one that is technically making a North American sotol from Dasylirion texanum grown, cooked, fermented, and distilled in Texas. We all knew it was going to happen. Native American tribes were already using Dasylirion texanum for some foodstuffs, possibly as an alcoholic beverage, but now it’s joined the world of craft spirits.

The man behind this creation is Mike Groener who owns and operates Genius Liquids in Austin, Texas and got a wild hair up his ass to create this sotol because everything lined up perfectly with the idea. As with many of these situations, he knew someone who knew someone who had a ranch where this elusive Dasylirion texanum was growing wild and they took it from there. As with most of these things, trial and error played a greater role than most would admit.

Genius Liquid’s “Desert Spirit Texas Sotol” is being released in early June so put your money down to see the latest, greatest, entry in the mezcal innovation race or just marvel at where this is all headed. Just ping Mike on Twitter to see if you can secure a bottle. He was kind enough to walk through his entire process.

Genius Liquids' Desert Spirit bottle.

Genius Liquids’ Desert Spirit bottle.

How did this whole idea of a North American sotol get started?

The basic premise, the thesis of any good spirit, is to take a plant or fruit from a specific region and process it with as light a touch as possible in order to preserve and concentrate the flavor. Mezcal is the perfect example, you seldom proof it down, you seldom add yeast. It’s a very natural process, a really basic formula, the best way to express terroir.

When it comes to spirits, I didn’t really start caring about what I was drinking until my mid-20’s,when I started to treat spirits like a fine meal. So I started with gin about four years ago. I dug into its wonderful history; there are so many different varieties, and it’s such an intriguing place to start.

Upon thinking about new frontiers in distilling, we really wanted to do something innovative. So, we created the De Terra Collection, an annual release of a Texas grown fermentable. Think of Parker’s Heritage releases as an example. The first release, Desert Spirit Texas Sotol, came together quite fortuitously.

The path to sotol started for me when I attended an Alamo Drafthouse tasting with Judah Kuper from Mezcal Vago. He did a private tasting with Bill Norris, the beverage director for Alamo Drafthouse, where you get to sample spirits and talk with the producer. Judah seemed like he fell into a serendipitous situation; he literally married into it. He had such a straightforward description of his passion for mezcal and the details  of production. He made mezcal clear and easy to understand, with an unpretentious attitude.

Genius Liquids' graphic explaining Sotol's relationship with agave spirits.

Genius Liquids’ graphic explaining Sotol’s relationship with agave spirits.

After that, I got intrigued by the process and started there. That was almost three years ago. I turned my wheels and thought a lot about what we could do in the United States that would reflect the terrain and local taste like Judah does with Vago in Oaxaca.

The opportunity arose 11-12 months ago when a bit of communication came down the pipeline. Justin Elliott, from Qui in Austin, said ‘hey, let’s go down to Utopia, TX and look at a property. Someone told me they have a lot of sotol plants.’ I didn’t know much about sotol, but read and researched as much as I could prior to the trip.

It’s about three-and-a-half hours outside of Austin in West Texas. It’s the only place I’ve been in Texas where there are plateaus and valleys, they narrowly resemble mountains. You drive through these valleys and end up in a small town called Utopia, TX. We met this guy, Travis Sutherland who has been running a music festival, Utopiafest, on this property and his family has owned the property for four or five generations. He had an understanding of the potential of the plants and contacted someone who knew someone.

"Is this the plant you've been looking for?"

“Is this the plant you’ve been looking for?”

Travis says ‘Is this the plant you’ve been looking for?’ My first encounter was not particularly friendly. The plants are spiky, dense, and you think of them as having a prickly personality. They are a perfect metaphor for sotol in general. The texanum varietal is smaller, grows at lower altitudes, and has less available sugar because of the extreme summers we have in Texas.

I took a few of the plants home, chopped them up in the front yard, and cooked them to get a sense of their makeup. We didn’t know if we could even create a spirit from them, but, we just loved the idea that we could be the first in a space race to fully create something like an agave spirit outside of Mexico. I spent the next few weeks analyzing every facet of the piña; taste, smell, texture, color, etc.

What sort of mistakes did you make early on and what did you learn as you worked with the sotol?

At first I baked the sotol leaves to get a sense of their flavor and convert the starches but I ended up just drying them out completely. It took a few months and a few failed experiments in cooking, but ultimately I got a pressure cooker. It was a ‘Let’s see what this pressure cooking bit does.’ It’s a common practice in tequila, a shortcut for them, but for us it’s not a shortcut as much as a necessary evil to preserve and convert as much sugar as possible. 

After the roast.

After the roast.

Over time as I pressure cooked the piñas there was a profound change in the plant. The smell and flavor transformed and it filled my house with this amazing rye scent. After my first successful cook, I peeled the cooked leaves, they are intensely fibrous, unctuous, and have a delicious grainy flavor. Ultimately I found a way to cook them consistently with a pressure cooker. However we did have months of testing with an underground pit. We still plan on exploring this in the near future.

How did you scale that up once you figured out the basics?

For now we use a series of pressure cookers to cook everything, but are planning on flying out a key mezcalero in Michoacan to help us build another pit. Typically the more grain you use in a liquid, the higher the sugar content will be – that’s a pretty common foundation in brewing and whiskey – but the more leaf material I added didn’t increase the sugar at all. We use now about 50 pounds per each fermenter. At around 7-10 pounds per piña, this means we use up to 10 piñas per fermenter since the core is removed along with some other woody pieces. To get about 55 gallons you need about 500 pounds of piñas. 

Travis harvests, cooks, and then shreds the pinas in Utopia and delivers them to the distillery. We then steep the leaves for 48 hours and pump out the sugary brown liquid, which is then fermented for about 10 days. Each fermenter results in one ordinario run in our pot still. They don’t yield much. We get a maximum of ten liters of ordinario from each batch.

Before fermentation

Before fermentation

We did our first spirit run 2-3 weeks ago. It was the culmination of about 20 batch/ordinario runs. All stored in stainless and then blended to 49%. Bottles are here, labels coming soon [Genius has since received the labels and has bottled 13 liters of their first batch]. The distillate starts at 160 proof. We blended this batch down to our final ABV of 49%. That will vary slightly by batch.

It’s been non-stop, constant experimentation with failed ferments, different types of yeasts, and various cooking methods. Luckily these plants aren’t really worth anything outside of this purpose so we didn’t lose a lot of money, just time. Currently, these plants are absolutely wild, varying in ages and potentially well over 20 years old. The long term plan is to absolutely regrow the plants. Sotol is great in that the plants will grow back after being harvested. When harvesting, Travis isn’t disrupting the root system, so the plants are already starting to regrow. There’s a massive amount of land, and so far we haven’t even made a dent in what’s growing there.

I talked to many people about sotol production methods to get an understanding of how they ferment and distill. But the point is that we’re playing a different game. These plants are even more hostile to giving up their sugar.

I just want to learn from and pay homage to the the best. I was lucky enough to visit Aquilino’s palenque for a day and ask every possible question because the process and sharing of tradition is very important to me. [Aquilino is the maestro mezcalero who makes many of the Vago mezcals], if this Sotol is made with love like his mezcal then it will definitely work.

Rolling fields of sotol

Rolling fields of sotol

What are your tasting notes for your sotol?

The most interesting and perplexing drinking experience I’ve ever had was with the Del Maguey Tepextate. It was a funky roller coaster of pineapple, rubber band, sweetness, and vegetal notes. I can’t explain it but the sotol starts with a nice level of alcohol reminiscent of lowland tequila, it smells vegetal but when you taste it you’ll get some peach, mid-palate sweetness, and then minerality at the back of the palate with subtle rye notes. It’s a very unique drinking experience, akin to a Tobala.

What’s your release plan?

We’re releasing this for a few reasons. We want to be the first to do this completely domestically. A few other distilleries are trying agave spirits, but they’re all either using syrup or their fruit is processed in Mexico. This is a fine approach but we want to have control over every aspect of production.We’ll release our first two batches in early June.

Most of the bottles will be allocated to bars, but I think we’ll have a few at the distillery and via retail. I have a feeling that it will all be swiped up in Texas because we won’t be able to make much of it. But we’ll see what happens, perhaps expanded distribution to other states is on the horizon. We’ll adjust our process as we go. We could get a larger pine fermenter for instance. We’re aiming to charge $79-80/bottle. [If you’re interested in purchasing a bottle email your inquiry here.]

A generator can be useful for a few things, scale, but also powering entertainment.

A generator can be useful for a few things, scale, but also powering entertainment.

What else are you distilling?  

We produce two gins as well, one normal strength at 45% and one navy strength at 57%. We have another gin project where we’re exploring Texas dry gin. This will probably be out late summer. We also have an oaked gin which we will release in June. We’re trying to do a speciality De Terra release every year. We’re looking into a pechuga next year using brisket and possibly a Rum Agricole.

Are you entirely focused on local expressions?

Yes, we caught wind of a large karwinski bundle in West Texas. I want to use stuff in Texas to highlight the terroir here, it’s unique. I think someone was trying to grow blue Weber, but no confirmation on that. I guarantee you that no one is growing karwinski in West Texas looking to cash in. Agave Americana also grows throughout Texas, but I haven’t found a big enough plot of it yet. Once I do though….

IMG_3150

The “Desert Spirit Texas Sotol” fermenting away.

 

What about the fermentation: Are you using wild yeasts? Any other special steps to your process?

We are really transparent about what we do. We are in fact using a Epernay yeast, it’s an early champagne varietal [DV10]. We also get some infiltration from other proximate yeast. We use a copper pot still, we only distill up to 50 gallon batches. We invite anyone to come and take a look at our operations. We don’t currently have a tasting room because we’re in a really small spot, but we do host tours regularly. It’s not the wonderful aesthetic experience that I want to provide, but in time we’ll move to a larger facility.

The sotol has been a really difficult product to bring to fruition, but it’s a delicious spirit. I don’t know if anyone will care that we’ve done this, but at least we were the first. We’ve done it the right way and I think the media coverage is piquing people’s interest about agave spirits. By us doing this, the “some guys in Texas,’ story, we’ll hope to elevate the conversation around the agave portfolio. I think tasting is believing on this one.

All photos courtesy of Mike Groener.

Anyone interested in purchasing a bottle should contact Mike via email.

Sarah Bowen interview

Sarah Bowen

Sarah Bowen

Sarah Bowen is an Associate Professor of Sociology at North Carolina State University who has long studied the impact of the tequila and mezcal industries on Mexico. Most recently she wrote a great portrait of the battles over how to define mezcal in the winter issue of Gastronomica. Those debates consumed the mezcal world in 2011 and 2012, ultimately culminating in the defeat of NOM 186 and the Mexican government’s proposal to copyright the term “agave.”

It’s well worth reading and is something of a preface to her upcoming book, “Divided Spirits: Tequila, Mezcal, and the Politics of Production,” due out this September from the University of California Press. We are really looking forward to that and will definitely post our notes on it as soon as it’s available.

Here’s an excerpt from the official description of the book:

This book tells the stories of tequila and mezcal, two of Mexico’s most iconic products, to investigate the politics of protecting local products in a global market. As people yearn to connect with the people and places that produce their food, the concept of terroir—the taste of place—has become increasingly salient.

The growing global demand for tequila and mezcal has led to fame and fortune for a handful of people, while excluding and marginalizing many others. Thess cases analyzed in this book illustrate the limitations of relying on alternative markets to protect food cultures and rural livelihoods.

Sarah has published widely in the academic world about the history and contemporary issues with how tequila and mezcal are managing their Denominacion de Origen. It’s a huge story in Mexico and part of an even bigger one as producers of traditional goods as diverse as cheese and spirits struggle to retain control over their intellectual and cultural property in an increasingly globalized marketplace.

Mezcal is currently embroiled in exactly this discussion about the proposed NOM 070 and Sarah delves into this debate  that apparently pits authentic back country distillers against industrialists. But that romanticized portrait is only part of the story, significant issues are seldom discussed like who’s really getting paid? Is that romantic story even true? Is it sustainable? Is the agave listed on the bottle even in the mezcal? And, perhaps most important she raises the big question of whether the industry has to stay static like a fly in amber or whether it can become a dynamic force.

We talked recently to delve into these questions, how she sees the mezcal industry developing in the face of NOM 070, and what role North American consumers play in the entire debate.

How did you get started studying the world of mezcal?

I have been looking at this topic since 2002. I started out looking at the shift to agave cultivation in southern Jalisco during the agave shortage in the early 2000s. I did my dissertation on the Denominación de Origen for tequila, and I have been studying mezcal for about six years. In all this time that I’ve been looking at the history of regulation of tequila and mezcal, it seems like it’s been going in one direction. Almost all of the changes made to the regulations have been expanding the markets for tequila and mezcal and increasing exports. It’s not at all in the direction of helping small farmers and producers. In the last few years, with the failure of NOM 186 and now the proposed revisions to the norm for mezcal, it feels like we are seeing a major shift in the evaluation of the tequila and mezcal industries..

 Why now? Who’s behind it?

 My article in Gastronomica is about the campaign against NOM 186 and the proposal to copyright the word “agave.” American bartenders, retailers, and consumers played a big role. In my interviews, people that had been organizing against the campaign told me that no one was really paying attention until realized that boycotts by American consumers were possible. That played an important role. The case of NOM 186 offers a lot of hope,  because there’s this movement coming out of the US and Mexico, of people who care about artisanal mezcal and are aligning themselves with small producers. This offers small producers an opportunity that, unfortunately, they wouldn’t have on their own. As Americans that care, we also have to be careful because our interests don’t necessarily align with those of the small mezcal producers. We really need to think about our role.

 How would you encourage American consumers to think about this and act?

Try to be educated about how mezcal is produced. It’s hard to do when you’re here in the US. Try to know something about how producers and farmers are being paid. This can be difficult, because not all companies want to be transparent about this. But we should support companies that are paying the workers and producers well, not just because their mezcal or their tequila tastes good. The most important thing is to start talking about the workers and producers.

Can you offer any specific guidance to consumers? Are there any brands they should follow, any specific stories?

There are some interesting brands like Mezcal Sanzekan, which is owned by a cooperative of mezcal producers, or Real Minero, which is Mexican-owned. But then there are other models too, like companies that are part Mexican, part American, or Americans that are working with small producers in respectful and fair ways. 

Part of the issue is that getting into the American market is hard to do, so Mexican producers frequently have to work with someone else to get access to the market. My main point of hope is that so much has changed in past 10 years. Just the fact that consumers are talking about all these things makes me really hopeful. When I started this research, no one was talking about terroir, there was hardly any artisanal mezcal available in the US, and no one was talking about environmental practices and sustainability. Now that’s what we talk about. I think that talking about workers and producers is the final step. There isn’t a hard and fast rule; it is hard to figure it out. But I am heartened by the fact that people are talking about mezcal in a more thoughtful way than they were even 5-10 years ago.

What do you think of the proposed Norma?

I was shocked by the proposal, because it is just a radical break from the previous norma for mezcal and the tequila norm. But the problem is that we have no idea what’s actually going to happen. If something even close to the proposal passed, it would be a major shift. As part of my book, I analyzed the regulations and the Denominaciones de Origen for tequila and mezcal. Since 1949, they have evolved in one direction: towards making mezcal and tequila less specific, less tied to particular places, with a focus on expanding markets. The original mezcal norma was almost an exact copy of the norm that regulated tequila, so the proposal is a big change. I’m intrigued to see what will happen.

Are there any other models people should think about other than European wine?

 My dissertation research compared the Denominación de Origen for tequila with a case in France: Comté cheese, which is protected by an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), which is France’s version of a Denominación de Origen. Comté cheese is exemplary even in France. That case showed me what a focus on tradition and terroir can do. The AOC included rules that preserved the specific characteristics of the region, but that also had positive effects on farmers. As an example, they had a rule that all of the milk used to make Comté cheese had to come from within a 25 km radius of where the cheese was being made. This helped preserve the link to terroir and the taste of the cheese, but it also helped small farmers and cheesemakers, by discouraging industrial groups form coming in, because the made it harder for them to industrialize and achieve economies of scale.

So there are examples that show the potential for what these kinds of labels can do. But it’s important not to idealize it too much. There are lots of examples of AOCs in France that are industrializing, where big companies are buying out out the small ones. So it’s not a perfect solution. You have to look in Mexico for things that will work there. To my knowledge, tequila is the first Denominación de Origen outside of Europe. Mexico is very different from Europe, so the exact same model isn’t going to work there. What is odd about Denominaciones de Origen in Mexico is that the legal definition is basically an exact copy of the French definition, but even though the idea of terroir is right there in the definition, in practice, the rules have never gone in the direction of preserving tradition or terroir. Some of the producers and retailers that I’ve talked to have proposed having smaller Denominaciones de Origens, which would be linked to a particular village or region, where there’s a sense of tradition in how mezcal has developed in that place.

Politically what examples are mezcal makers looking at? Do they just look at the tequila model?

I’ve talked to many mezcal producers who say, “Look at tequila; it’s been very successful. They built the market and improved quality.” That is true. The market for tequila tripled between 1995 and 2008. By many measures, it’s been very successful. But it has not been successful in terms of protecting the agave farmers, the environment, or the traditions that make tequila unique.

The interesting thing about mezcal now is that there’s this divide between those who want to follow the tequila model, and people who don’t want that. Mezcal still has many small producers and traditions that have developed in particular regions, and there is still a chance of preserving that. The path for tequila has basically already been chosen.

Politically, who knows? The role of the US matters. The United States has a lot of influence in Mexico. The United States agrees to protect tequila and mezcal as Mexican products, but we don’t recognize the concept Denominación de Origen as a legal concept. As an example of the influence of the US, a few years ago, a lot of people, including the president of Mexico at the time, proposed requiring that all tequila be bottled in Mexico. But they backed down due to opposition from the bottlers in the US and some of the tequila companies, many of which are owned by multinational companies.  That case demonstrated the power of the US. In Mexico, the the revisions to the laws that established the procedure for establishing quality standards (the normas) for all Mexican products in the early 1990s were part of a fundamental neoliberal shift in Mexico, focused on increasing access export markets and foreign capital.  The normas and the Denominación de Origen are not focusing on preserving tradition and terroir. They are about preserving market access.  It will be interesting to see what happens with this proposal to change the normas that regulate mezcal. Whatever happens with this proposal will tell us something about which way the wind is blowing.

What about tequila? Could it change?

I interviewed a lot of tequila producers in 2006, and I think maybe one person used the word terroir. Many farmers, and some of the tequila producers, would talk about the way the agave grown in certain regions had particular characteristics, so there was definitely an understanding of the idea of terroir. But now there is a lot more emphasis on terroir. Some companies are saying that their tequila is single estate tequila, or even from a single farm or ranch. So there has definitely been a huge increase in how much people are talking about terroir.

I think that some companies are doing interesting things, but I also think that some companies rely on a rhetoric of terroir, while continuing to source their agave from different regions. This may happen even more during periods of shortage. For the big companies especially, their strategy involves sourcing agave from all over the DO region, to get the best best price and supply. And of course, some companies have been accused of illegally buying agave from Oaxaca during periods of shortage. So in terms of really preserving a link to terroir and helping farmers and communities, for the biggest tequila companies, their talk about terroir and place is just rhetoric, because if they were really talking about it, it would really make them less flexible and put farmers at an advantage. We need to be talking more about the role of farmers in the tequila industry. But even when we’re talking about single estate tequilas, we’re not talking about how farmers are paid and treated. There are a lot of risks associated with cultivating agave for farmers, because it takes so long to mature. The prices fluctuate, and there is a lot of uncertainty. There needs to be more talk about the role of farmers and agricultural workers, and how they are being compensated.

Bien picado

Bien picado is a term you don’t come across that often in the mezcal world but it’s rich in associations. Literally it means  “well eaten” or “nibbled.” It refers to agave plants which, after their quiote is cut off, are attacked by the adult versions of our otherwise tasty gusanos.

This came up recently when I tasted Vago’s Bien Picado with Judah Kuper because the term also refers to a type of mezcal. The Vago post on their very limited run Bien Picado (which is only available in Texas) is well worth reading — it delves into the term and production process in a level of detail that will fascinate any aficionado. The mezcal itself is a unique flavor and a great opportunity to support small production runs like this one. We’d love to see more limited bottles like this and Wahaka’s recent vegan pechugas.

Read more of our entries in the Mezcalistas Encyclopedia of Mezcal and email us questions or ideas for future entries.

A North American agave spirit rises in Santa Cruz

Venus Spirits' agave spirit, El Ladrón blanco, left, reposado, right.

Venus Spirits’ agave spirit, El Ladrón blanco, left, reposado, right.

I’ve been following Venus Spirits since they announced an American agave distillate in May of 2014 because this idea of a North American agave distillate is absolutely fascinating. St. George Spirits tried to do one years ago and we occasionally hear about someone growing agave for a distillate in California so it has felt like only a matter of time until someone grafted North American craft distilling onto Mexico’s national spirit. Recently it’s been abundantly clear that the distilling community is up to the challenge because the more I look into it, the more of them I find. I even ran into someone on a trip to a Oaxacan palenque last week who had been noodling on the idea.

I finally got around to setting up an interview with Venus Spirits’ master distiller Sean Venus this April. In mid-conversation he said, ‘looks like the St. George guys are up to it as well, or is this an April Fools prank?’ as he pointed to his Instagram feed which featured a shot of St. George distiller Lance Winters hefting half a roasted piña in the Alameda distillery and another of tanks of roasted piñas. I was as surprised as he was but that little encounter spawned a bunch of research and blog posts which led me to get punked by a true April Fools prank from another distiller and leads me back to my conversation with Sean Venus.

The aging rack at Venus

The aging rack at Venus

Sean launched Venus Distilling in the spring of 2014 with a gin and has since added another gin, an agave spirit, an aquavit, and a trio of whiskeys.  The distillery itself is hidden away in Santa Cruz’s West Side. The corrugated metal ceiling and poured concrete flours are part and parcel of the efficiency model from many a distillery, auto mechanic, and office park. But this one is just down the road from a fast evolving micro-hood of breweries, vintners, a salumeria, and sundry other craft food producers. What used to be the home of the town’s light industry hosts the 21st Century version of American production. It’s a fun scene, well worth a visit because most of the places have tastings and, once you park, it’s all walkable. Venus has plans for a tasting space soon, more on that later.

Sean comes out of the brewing world where he got his start as a teenager when his physics teacher demonstrated the wonders of fermentation to him. A stop in one of the microbrew capitals of the universe at the University of Oregon eventually led to work at Gordon Biersch and ultimately to this distilling venture in Santa Cruz.

He arrived here on the edge of the Pacific because his wife has roots in town and kids are already very much a part of it. Sean is obviously bringing his take on agave and everything else he distills. As he noted during our tasting he emphasizes the aromatics. And that’s the first thing you notice, his gin is full of lavender and citrus while the aquavit is an explosion of scents. He noted with some chagrin that his lavender comes all the way from France because that’s the only organic source matter he’s been able to find. Step outside the distillery and the smell of the sea hits you making the formation of aromatics in his spirits all the more vivid.

Gin, aquavit, agave spirits, and whiskeys.

Gin, aquavit, agave spirits, and whiskeys.

Sean has been selling the Ladrón Blanco since September 2014 and is set to unveil a Reposado and Añejo later this year. His real bread and butter is the gin which is terrifically floral and a steal at just about $30 retail. We stopped by U Save Liquors off Mission St. on our way home to grab a bottle and remain shocked at the price point. You know you’re in new territory when craft distilling becomes more economic than industrial products.

Back to the Ladrón: It’s an agave spirit. Sean and I chatted a bit about the definition question, why not call it an agave distillate? Sean’s perspective is pretty simple, that the word “spirit” is more fun and meaningful. I agree and I’ve switched my own vocabulary from the overly technical and distancing “distillate” to spirit. As for how it’s made, the base material is 50 gallon drums of agave juice from Guadalajara. I don’t know much about how it was produced.

Sean told me that he worked with a supplier in around Guadalajara that he had worked with during his days in the organic food industry to get a juice that preserved as much agave flavor as possible. That’s just the latest in a series of approaches to the source material question north of the border, the explosion of interest in distilling from agave is only matched by experiments that extends into the entire production process because the production environment is so different. Sean uses a closed fermentation system which can move fast, which is 10 days for him, to incredibly slow, six weeks at Venus Distilling. When you compare that with the 5-7 days that seems something like a standard in many areas of Mexico you get an idea of just how different production is in Santa Cruz than Santa Catarina Minas.

Venus Spirits still

Venus Spirits still

Distillation occurs in classic hand hammered copper pot stills. Two of them stand to one side of the distillery. This is about as far as you can get from a classic Mexican mezcal distillery. Everything is pristine and, on the day of our visit, had just been cleaned after a distillation run so it was doubly so. These contrasts are quite dramatic. The similarities are pretty obvious: The location is just as small and everything is dependent on the distiller’s sensibility.

We chatted a bit about how he blended the Ladrón because I was really curious how someone approaches the idea of mezcal as an outsider. The thought lurking there is something like, ‘how does a guy in Santa Cruz study mezcal in order to copy it’ which, it instantly became clear, is the wrong way to think.

The Ladón is clearly its own spirit, not a tequila, not a mezcal, nor modeling itself on any other Mexican agave distillate. It’s a fresh idea based on the source material at hand. Sean mentioned that he started with the middle of the distillation run and only later realized that he needed to cut in heads and tails in order to give it nuance. That’s pretty standard stuff for mezcal distillers but he’s not out to make the next great American tequila or mezcal, he’s following his own tastes and working with the material to make something that he appreciates.

Botanicals and some time on oak create Venus' second gin its distinct color.

Botanicals and some time on oak create Venus’ second gin its distinct color.

Big picture, that’s the really interesting element that North American distillers can bring to the world of agave spirits. I love very traditional mezcals as much as anyone but every once in a while I’ll taste a novelty that opens a door onto new possibilities. I’m really curious to see how this evolves exactly because of all the pushing and pulling in the craft distilling space. People try things out because they sound neat, might fulfill a personal taste, not necessarily because that’s the way things have always been done. I’m sure there will be duds along the way and that categories will evolve not to my, or many a traditionalist’s taste, but that’s the world of trial and error. Put another way: I may not really like hopped up beers or over oaked chardonnays but I’m happy that someone is working with them.

The Ladrón neck

The Ladrón neck

As a sign of that state of things Sean told me that traditional tequila enthusiasts haven’t fallen for the Ladrón. I understand that completely because it really doesn’t hew to the classic tequila structure. After all, it’s distilled from juice, not the bagasse so I’d assume its flavor would be different.

The Ladrón has a nice inside label with a story behind it. Ask when you visit.

The Ladrón has a nice inside label with a story behind it. Ask when you visit.

As for how to classify it: The nose is really round and fruity. It almost has grappa notes to it. The flavor is cleaner and lighter than a classic tequila with a decent alcohol edge. You definitely get that classic agave fruit in the body but it doesn’t have much viscosity or the caramel that you might expect in a Fortaleza. It’s much closer to a Tapatio. While we were tasting Sean said what we were thinking while tasting, “it tastes like an eu de vie.” That said it sounds like cocktail bars are really interested in the Ladrón. It’s starting to pop up here and there so we’ll see how they integrate it into their programs. And don’t think it’s a lightweight, it weighs in at 47% ABV. We were also lucky enough to taste the Reposado at barrel strength, 106 proof. Sean says he’s going to cut it to 47% before he bottles it but now it’s redolent of the whiskey barrels it rests in, something akin to an agave whiskey because that agave fruit is present and integrated with the oak.

Sean pulls a sample of the Ladrón Reposado.

Sean pulls a sample of the Ladrón Reposado.

The Venus tasting room is a work in progress. When we visited it was framed and swatches were sitting around but they’ve made a ton of progress since and Sean is planning on opening in lat May/early June. Until then email them to set up a tasting. One of the perpetual frustrations for distillers in California is that they can’t sell their products in the tasting room. There’s a bill under discussion in the legislature now which might change that. If you’re curious and want to get involved check it out because, who wouldn’t want distillers to reap the fruits of their labor, right?

The origins of mezcal

Patricia Colunga‘s documentary “Los Mezcales del Occidente de México y la Destilación Prehispánica,” where she tries to establish the pre-hispanic origins of mezcal is now available for rental on Vimeo. You can watch it in English or Spanish, the rental is $10 for a 72-hour period or you can just buy it for $15. Here’s the embed for the English trailer.

Mezcals from Western Mexico and the Pre-Hispanic Distilling – Trailer posted by Dany_Aldana on Vimeo.

Patricia is also finalizing another documentary that may be of interest. This one delves into the basis for the diet for the societies the preceded the Maya, Toltec, and Olmecs and especially how they used agave for food. As their press release says

“This documentary unveils the diet that could have been created 10,600 to 4,400 years before the present, before the invention of pots and comales, and even before the domestication of species fundamental for the traditional agriculture system called milpa, cornerstone of the great Mesoamerican civilizations.”

They dig into which ingredients and recipes may have been used with a goal of recovering this lost culinary culture and confronting the current illnesses of the Western diet. It sounds fascinating so we’ll pass along news of its final release as soon as we have it. As with the “Los Mezcales del Occidente de México” documentary this one titled, “Mesoamerican Diet: Origins,” is directed byPascual Aldana with Patricia and Daniel Zizumbo sharing in the writing.