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COMERCAM leadership reaffirmed

Hipócrates Nolasco CancinoI just chatted with Ron Cooper who is in Oaxaca meeting about COMERCAM’s directors. He says that “After 6 1/2 hour meeting with more than 300 producers, magueyeros and comericalizadores from all states, the present directorship was voted in for another three years.”

Next up, a potentially huge meeting about the NORMA in Mexico City on March 4th. More on that as we know it.

More on the origin of Minero

Minero

A reader named Mark Huebner wrote in with a further note about the origin of the term Minero which we originally wrote about here. His source is a 1997 book published by the Universidad Jose Vasconselos de Oaxaca, Codice Ediciones, “Mezcal: Origin, Elaboration and Recipes” by Jorge Quiroz Marquez.” We obviously need to dig up a copy but in the interim here’s the pertinent quote:

“Minero, a colorless mezcal with agreeable flavor, is produced in Santa Caterina Minas, Ocotlan.  Its name and fame may stem from the fact that only miners in the past, who were well paid, could afford to buy it.”

Special thanks to Mark for the quote. He told me “I always felt the Minero notion was old wives’ tale territory but like much Mexi-lore, there was a ring of truth to it. Makes more sense than researching the Mesopotamian source of the god Minas in Afghanistan, right? (But that god was all about the mushroom, not maguey.)” Right you are Mark!

Become a Mezcanaut, a true mezcal explorer

Mezcanautica logoNeed help navigating the rapidly changing and dangerous shoals of the mezcal world? Well, we have the event for you. Coming March 13th-14th in Oaxaca City Mezcanautica is set up to be a deep dive into the issues and questions driving the mezcal world today. Punning aside this looks like it’s going to be incredibly exciting and my Skype call with the organizers over the weekend only confirmed that expectation. And what an intriguing team it is: Graciela Angeles Carreño from Real Minero, Ulises Torrentera from In Situ, and Marco Ochoa from Mezcaloteca with an assist from William Scanlan who has been working with that group for some time. William also graciously helped translate.

The event in brief

Mezcanautica is envisioned as an annual event and since this is the first edition the theme is appropriately “The Origins of Mezcal.” It will encompass workshops, lectures, tastings, and a mezcaleria tour. The full price of the event includes all of the above except the mezcaleria tour because no one really knows how much you’ll end up drinking; best to leave that to your budget, if you know what I mean. You can find the full schedule here.

Saturday will have workshops presented by Marco, Graciela, Ulises, and others on a variety of fascinating topics ranging from Marco on the history of mezcal to Erick Baron on how to classify the scents in mezcals. The Sunday workshops will take you into the field with Graciela guiding you through the Real Minero palenque or you can visit palenques that work with Mezcaloteca. There will, of course, be structured tastings.

The lectures sound really interesting. Remember that great map of the diversity of agave across Mexico? That was created by Jorge Larson who will be giving a talk on the Denominacion de Origen. Others will address the aromas in mezcal and a dive into the evolution of agave in Mexico.

Agaves de Mexico map

And then there are the mezcaleria visits. You could do it all by your lonesome but the sort of company that this sort of event attracts will simultaneously deepen your understanding and appreciation for the culture that creates mezcal while allowing you to taste truly rare distillations.

The origin

I was really curious why such an event hasn’t happened before. Oaxaca has it’s annual Feria de Mezcal timed with La Guelaguetza in the summer and is quite a drinking scene. Graciela told me that a loose group of mezcal promotors, creators, and purveyors had long been interested in creating a more academically focused event that pulled together the people who would speak to the big questions and ideas in the mezcal world. It’s just that they’d never been able to get the organization right.

Everyone involved agreed that their goal is consumer education. Marco noted that the primary focus of “other mezcal fairs is try to sell product rather than educate consumers.” Ulises articulated the goal of Mezcalnautica as giving “the consumer credible information based on academic research and findings.”

While this conference is obviously focused on Oaxaca, everyone involved is thinking about the larger global market, especially in North American. Mezcanautica was created to really dig into the question of what tradition means and build a branding message for the North American market that is clear and resonates. As William Scanlan put it, “the US market hasn’t been pumped full of misinformation yet. This is our opportunity to give them something that’s lacking, an academic perspective, and define mezcal as a traditional, cultural, and spiritual beverage.” It’s a tough road but it is early days in mezcal’s international reputation so it’s still very possible to own that message.

Not your everyday mezcal topics

They aim to address the messaging issue by really digging into the traditional culture invested in the creation of a mezcal and the cultivation of agave. Jorge Larson is going to focus his speech on the idea of defining the Denominación de Origen (DO) by the community that produces the mezcal rather than the geographic distribution of the agave. That may sound esoteric but consider that most European wines are defined by their community names and standards rather than what vines grow wild within a certain geographic area. Sure, it’s much more complex than that but the point is fascinating. Put another way, should we be defining mezcal by the taste of the community that created it rather than by the agave that goes into it?

If you’ve been to Mexico in a Bottle or one of his earlier tastings then Iván Saldaña’s topic at Mezcanautica needs no introduction: He will be presenting on terroir and the implications for flavors in mezcal. Despite a Mexico in a Bottle audience member’s argument that we should abandon the use of the term terroir and embrace instead the Spanish word terruño, Ivan and everyone else in the world has stuck with terroir as the common description of the land and local process that gives a mezcal a distinct flavor. This is obviously one area where, despite anyone’s effort, the French have won. Aside apart, Ivan contributes enormous intelligence to this topic and is an incredibly engaging speaker so I really look forward to hearing his latest thoughts on the question; especially because the mezcal world is expanding so quickly that classic community oriented terroirs are appearing on the more global market so frequently. 

There are obviously many more speeches to attend which fill out pretty much any interest in the world of mezcal. Dr. Abisaí García will be talking about the history of agave in Mexico while Xitlalli Aguirre who also contributed to that famous Artes de Mexico map of agave distribution across Mexico will be returning to that topic for her presentation.

Jules Verne loved mezcal

20,000 Leagues Under the SeaAnd now for the fun stuff. The phrase Mezcanautica comes from Ulisses’ term Mezcanaut in his book Mezcalaria to mean ‘an explorer in the universe of mezcal.’ While we can guarantee that you won’t meet Laika on this journey, you will encounter the awesome aquatic branding courtesy of Mariana Garnica, Marco Ochoa, and Belem Romero. They took the Mezcanaut idea into a parallel and opposite direction by embracing the iconography of the 19th Century Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and diving down under the waves to discover rarefied mezcals and agaves. It’s fun stuff, check out more of Belen’s art.

Up up and mezcal to the future!

Everyone involved with Mezcanautica would love to see it flourish not only as an annual event in Oaxaca but as a roadshow across the United States. It’s early days for that latter concept but things like this have been known to come together quickly so stay tuned, you may be able to receive your official Mezcalnaut Badge of Courage in a nearby town soon.

The details

Cost for a ticket is just shy of $300 US or $4,500 Mexican pesos for all events in the three day conference except for those evening mezcaleria jaunts. You can register here. Just be warned that the proceedings will all be in Spanish so start that language refresher course today. Email William Scanlan for more details including how to take advantage of group rates at local hotels.

Mezonte Raicilla from Candido Romero – Tasting notes

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Shaky hands, low lighting, but you get the idea of the Mezonte front label.

The back label with all the glorious production details.

The back label with all the glorious production details.

Last week I tasted two Raicillas, this Mezonte and the Raicilla Venenosa Maximilliano. Clearly we need to drink more Raicillas. That’s a problem because there are only four on the market in the United States and the odd personal import like this bottle of Mezonte. Perhaps worse, they’re hard to find in Mexico. This is obviously part of a great unwritten tragedy because they taste amazing and are a huge contrast to classic Oaxacan mezcal flavor set. I can only hope that we’re in the “Rise of the Raicillas” chapter of this book where Esteban Morales‘ launch of Raicilla Venenosa in October is the first of many which will culminate in the return of the repressed distilling heritage of Jalisco.  For the time being it’s a really hit and miss game. If you find bottles like this, buy them and pay full freight to encourage their production because, as I’ve heard from Esteban and others, Raicilla production really needs financial support.

This bottle from Pedro Jimenez’s Mezonte label is an extraordinary example of the genre. Pedro is renown in the mezcal world for his Guadalajara bar Pare de Suffrir dedicated to all species of agave distillates. Plus he created one of the most engaging documentaries about mezcal with Viva Mezcal. You have no excuses if you haven’t watched it yet.

Pedro’s Mezonte label is focused on promoting solely traditional mezcals, especially those from Jalisco and Michoacan. They’re all very unique and small productions that represent the true spirit of their producers. This bottle made by Candido Romero was an explosion of floral notes throughout the nose, really something that you could go on sniffing for quite some time. It has a very lean body and eschews the big viscosity common in Oaxacan espadin. It has a light floral flavor to match the nose. I can’t emphasize how balanced it is: The flavor is an expression of the nose which only enhances the flavor ad infinitum.

Bottle No. 10 in the second Vino de Mezcal series featuring Ixtero Amarillo.

Bottle No. 10 in the second Vino de Mezcal series featuring Ixtero Amarillo.

The label is just as extraordinary as the bottle’s content. The list of all the details of its production are extensive and enlightening. Lovers of Mezcaloteca will recognize it immediately. The details are incredible including that it undergoes a 21 day fermentation. It’s made from Ixtero Amarillo which, my tasting partner Ken Taylor aka Mezcal Head, noted also recently made an appearance in the Number 10 bottle of the Vino de Mezcales line.  Sadly there are only 60 liters of this bottling but that’s just they way it should be. It’s a limited vintage and we have to learn to start treating these things like the living treasures they are.

Can I speak to the mezcal somm please?

Photo by Gobierno de Oaxaca, Degustan medios de comunicación nacionales e internacionales cata de mezcales en la Feria Internacional del Mezcal, Oaxaca  Con la degustación de cuatro variedades del elixir, los representantes de los medios conocieron explicación científica de la milenaria bebida. https://www.flickr.com/photos/goboax/14706915811

Photo by Gobierno de Oaxaca, Degustan medios de comunicación nacionales e internacionales cata de mezcales en la Feria Internacional del Mezcal, Oaxaca

A recent conversation with a fellow aficionado about the absence of mezcal sommeliers or someone relatively knowledgeable about mezcals in many restaurants or bars with big bottle lists has been rattling around my head. While mezcal is exploding in popularity it’s incredibly difficult to find anyone to help you find something to match your tastes. And, given that a glass will run you $15-20, that creates a huge problem. What neophyte is going to give it a shot without a little orientation? It may even be tricky to shake a long time drinker out of a habit because sometimes you need a prompt to try something new.

We’re pretty lucky to have a few places in San Francisco where at least one person behind the bar knows the list. Restaurants like Lolo, La Urbana, Tamarindo, Prizefighter, and Mosto are pretty reliable. (While we’re at it there’s this reminder that we need to visit Mosto and check out their resident guide to mezcal.) Then I noticed that Mexicano, a new restaurant in LA is playing up a mezcal sommelier as part of their launch media. Worst case that’s just marketing hype but, hopefully it’s a trend because the more seriously the bar and restaurant world takes mezcal, the higher the standards and, in the ideal salutory cycle, more informed consumers with more developed palates spending more on mezcal.

That ominous sound you’re hearing?

A screen shot of Eduardo Belaunzarán's Facebook update showing Fundación Agaves Silvestres's effort at cultivating tobala hiuelos in the Oaxacan valley

A screen shot of Eduardo Belaunzarán’s Facebook update showing Fundación Agaves Silvestres’s effort at cultivating tobala hijuelos in the Oaxacan valley

It’s quiet but it’s the sound of agave supply collapsing. At least that’s what Susan heard routinely in her December trip to Oaxaca. I’d heard bits and pieces of this story before, that distillers who devoted energy to cultivating all types of agave are doing well while distillers who buy agave from farmers are getting hit by huge price increases. Now it seems like there is very little agave on the market. Demand for mezcal is  high and not enough of agave, especially the wild varieties, was planted 5-10 years ago.

A recent example, the tobala collapse in the valley around Oaxaca seems to be because the first wave of heavy demand from the late 90’s into the 2000’s wasn’t replanted. Some combination of contract distillation and unreplaced harvests left everyone there without any wild agaves.

Enter new thinkers in the mezcal world like the people behind Tosba, Vago, Wahaka who are aggressively propagating agaves on their land and meeting with amazing success. When Judah Kuper from Vago first told me that they were planting lots of agaves previously only seen in the wild I had him repeat himself three times just to make sure that I wasn’t taking his comment out of context.

Now it ends up that not only was he right but the equation is so much more simple, most distillers and farmers didn’t try to cultivate the wild species because previously they just sold to local markets and they could always find enough agave supply in the wild to fill the local demand.

Once mezcal started selling well throughout Mexico and became a hot export they kept harvesting without replanting. They distilled and didn’t farm. There are  exceptions like Luis Mendez based in Sola de Vega. He has quietly been cultivating tobalas, coyotes and jabalis for the past 20 odd years, and has shown incredible success in his practices. But he’s the exception to a sad rule.

Now that the estate grown operations are meeting success and have a consistent volume other makers who contracted out for their agave harvests or distilled juice are feeling a squeeze. At the very least it’s financial both because distillers can ask for more pesos/liter but it’s feeling like there’s an honest-to-god supply squeeze which may drive some contract buyers out of business or to raise prices. The good news is that the cultivation approach is spreading rapidly. And then there’s a vast reservoir of agave throughout the country that has yet to be tapped. That’s another factor behind expanding the Denominación de Origen. In the interim Oaxaca’s central valleys are feeling the squeeze.

Days and Nights in Tijuana

[This is a truly lost piece. I wrote it in July of 2013 after an incredible trip to Tijuana and just sort of forgot about it until Max dug it out of our drafts folder on the blog. Yes, it has literally been sitting here in the blog for more than a year waiting for a few nips and tucks and we forgot about it. We can, and will, blame everything that has happened in the interim for the delay but it’s still a good piece and still fairly relevant. The figures and scenes described are more important today which only tells you that the Mexican culinary scene can still grow a ton. – Susan]

I have been wanting to go to Tijuana since hearing about the burgeoning food scene in 2012. Bill Esparza of Street Gourmet LA has been writing about it for the past couple of years and that piqued my interest. But recently there has been a steady drum beat of stories from friends and ferment in the media what with the recent New Yorker profile of chef Javier Plascencia (New Yorker subscribers only), and sundry other reporters descending on the iconic border town. Earlier this year the opportunity for a trip presented itself and I was off. With my imagination running wild of all I had ever heard (tacky, drunk college kids, dirty, horrible violence) saw (Touch of Evil) and read (Tijuana by Federico Campbell), I was excited, fascinated, and completely ready for anything.

So to Tijuana via the train from LA to San Diego and then the trolley to San Ysidro and a quick walk across the bridge to Mexico with my friend John who I talked into going with me. It is so easy going south, as if the border didn’t exist and is just some polite, diplomatic fiction that barely applies to Americans. Despite the rain, the cold and all those reservations about personal safety it turned out to be a fantastic trip.

Little did we know it was a holiday weekend, with Monday being the official observance of the first president of Mexico’s birthday. I surprised the hotel clerk when he mentioned this to us, and I said, oh, Benito Juarez Day. Only from my years in Oaxaca did I know this (he was born there and was the first and only fully indigenous president of Mexico.) This meant a lot of things were closed and the city was quite quiet. The city seems calm these days: That’s a far cry from just a few years ago when it was consumed by rampant violence that still hasn’t quite disappeared. Clearly the dark times suppressed the traditional and vivacious outdoors life of the place but it’s just as clearly coming back to life. Friends, locals, and blogs had provided a pretty comprehensive list of places to try which was a dramatic testament to just how far the place had come in a very short time.

We walked the infamous Avenida Revolucion – the main drag, party street, tacky souvenir lined boulevard. We needed food first and stopped at a taco stand recommended by Alonso at the hotel – Tacos el Gordo. We dove into Al Pastor, Suadero (a thinly sliced piece of beef cut from the brisket) and Carne Asada tacos. Without doubt, that Al Pastor was the best I have ever had – the meat so distinctive in flavor. When I pressed the guy about what the spices were, and we asked if it was Chinese 5 spice, he smiled and told me that there were actually 10 spices – and he was not budging. Bellies full, we continued onward. It was Sunday so things were quiet, and it was the day after St. Patty’s day, so it was really quiet on the Avenida. It is not a charming boulevard, and anyone who associates those classic images of colonial architecture and tree-lined zocolos with Tijuana will be sorely disappointed. But I found charm in its grittiness and striking street art. The fact is that it is not a precious town and never will be.

It reminds me a lot of Detroit, a city burdened by economic meltdown and a horrible reputation. Both cities see food as a way to rebuild – in Detroit you see it in the urban Ag movement, the growing number of food crafters, and emphasis on local food. And of course in the art. In Tijuana you see it in the growing number of restaurants and emphasis on local ingredients which encompass all the traditional Mexican food wares but also novelties like local wine and new culinary techniques. I want to believe that you can change a city through food, that it can be the blueprint on how to drive economic development.

After a few hours of strolling, we went in search of a late afternoon drink and ended up at Caesars Hotel. Yes, the same Caesars where the salad was invented, Bogey dined, and one of the original reasons for Tijuana’s fame. It is a beautiful place, with wood beamed ceilings and a very 1950’s supper club feel. The Plascencia family did an amazing job restoring the place to its full glory. We sat at the bar and absorbed the atmosphere, listening to the amazing jazz selection playing over the speaker. Eventually we were hungry again and ordered the salad, a crab stuffed pepper with an avocado butter sauce. Before we knew it, three hours had passed and we headed back to the hotel and had a nightcap before crashing.

We woke up to hard rain the next day. It was exactly opposite of how I’d imagined Tijuana, cold and dreary just like a summer day in San Francisco’s Sunset. Thankfully we were meeting up with a guy we’d been introduced to – Arturo Rodriguez, owner of La Caja Galeria. Getting there was an adventure – requiring Arturo to relay directions to our cab driver (no real address) that included lots of turns and small streets until finally we arrived in front of a beautiful, street art covered warehouse space. It’s an amazing gallery that works solely with contemporary Mexican artists. They also do workshops and gastronomic events that pair an artist with a chef and a meal inspired by the art. It was great to while away the hours sipping mezcal (of course) and talking food and art, the changing the world, and the perceptions of Tijuana.

And then it was off to more food adventures, and of course getting lost as we tried to find the infamous Torta Wash Mobile, supposedly makers of the best tortas ever. We never found it but instead ended up grabbing a taxi driven by the amazing Amado, taco aficionado and taxi driver extraordinaire. He loved that we were there to eat and as we hit a couple of taco stands on our list (Tacos Salceados and Takesos y Papas) he talked about the food he loved. He gave a description of a traditional Sinaloan bean dish that made my mouth simultaneously water and my heart contract (beans, lard, chorizo and cheese all blended together.) Food is the great gateway to meeting people and learning about a place and culture and having experiences like driving around Tijuana for 2.5 hour trying tacos – all different from one another – with a taxi driver who wanted nothing more than to proudly share his city’s diverse taco stands.

The question really is, how many tacos can a person eat before they have had enough? My answer, there is no such thing as too many, especially given the seemingly endless variations on marinades for the Al Pastor, variety of salsas, and the different ways the accompanying onions and peppers are spiced and grilled. Plus, given enough hours rambling around in a taxi, you never know.

Eventually we had to walk and that meant saying goodbye to Amado. I have his card for anyone who wants a great driver in Tijuana, just email me. Finally, the rain stopped and the sun lit everything up. We ended up at the downtown market, looking at piles of cheeses and cheap ceramics. I let go of any comparisons to the markets in Oaxaca –it’s just unfair to use Oaxaca as a baseline. But yes, back to the cheeses, of which there are many – hard, soft, aged, goat, sheep. I was impressed by the breadth of selection and the distinctive flavors, some traditionally Mexican, others more like French and Italian cheeses. Tijuana is a melting pot, it is a border town after all, and the mix of cultures and culinary styles make it unique and impossible to pigeon hole with a specific style.

We heard tell of a mezcaleria and went in search, ending up on the fish market street with an overwhelming smell and occasional fish in the gutter or on the sidewalk. The seafood here is amazing, as it should be given its coastal location. We walked by a store that sold cans of spray-paint, catering specifically to the street artists. Stencil art and graffiti are huge in Mexico and have already jumped into the gallery world. We’ve even presented a pair of shows in LA and SF which featured a Oaxacan street stencil/graffiti collective called La Piztola. In the future I’d really like to explore how that work jumped into the realm of art and what sort of impact it will have on all the artists.

We did find the place – though it wasn’t a mezcaleria as it only featured one mezcal – El Tinieblo – a mezcal from Tamaulipas, a state in northeastern Mexico. We had it served chilled – both a blanco and a reposado – and tried it in a cocktail made of tamarindo paste and chamoy (a savory sauce made from pickled apricot, plum or mango.) I wanted to buy a bottle, but not at $65 USD. We strolled leisurely back to the hotel, made a quick change and then headed out to the “gastronomic district” an area lined by dozens of restaurants. Most were closed because of the holiday. That hurt bad because the closures included Javier Plascencia’s Mision 19 where we were dying to eat. Instead we went to Villa Savario, another restaurant owned by the Plascencia family. We dined on a local cheese plate, agua chile (a style of ceviche that uses chile in addition to lime to “cook” the seafood) of scallop and tuna, Caesar salad and tuna and shrimp. We paired it with a tempranillo from the Guadalupe Valley – an area in Western Baja that produces dozens of wines. It was decadent and way too much after our afternoon of taco indulgence.

This in no way kept us from rising the next morning, our last, to a brilliant blue sky and overwhelming desire to try ONE LAST TACO STAND – Mariscos Ruben. So, at 10:30 in the morning we sat ourselves down at the stand and ordered shrimp agua chile, made fresh before our eyes in a molcajete, and fish and shrimp tacos. The agua chile was to die for, and I embarrassed myself by practically drinking the juice after we’d eaten all of the shrimp. If I could have had a beer and made a michelada with that juice, I could have died happily on the spot, with no regrets. Fortunately for me, taco trucks in Mexico don’t sell beer.

In contrast to the quick walk into the country, it took more than an hour to cross back over. The crossing is being rebuilt, to streamline or perhaps to make the process more difficult. All I know is that I hate that goddamn wall (it is not a fence) and can’t wait for it to come down some day.

Mezcal Meteoro Espadin Tasting Notes

A screen shot of the inventive Instagram presence of this new brand.

A screen shot of the inventive Instagram presence of this new brand.

Mezcal Meteoro has been around in Mexico at least since 2014 and instantly set itself apart as the most design, digital, and social media conscious brand in mezcaldom. Postings of astronauts and other astronomical phenomenon fill up their Instagram feed while sketches riff on the same topics clearly demonstrate that they’re down with the street art trend. Marketing posters for tastings, club events and the like have also made a big impression. Clearly the people behind the brand understand how to create some buzz. But we haven’t been able to actually taste their mezcal until this week so it’s finally time for some tasting notes leavened with a side of design critique instead of the other way around.

The latest object to hit the bar.

The latest object to hit the bar.

Meteoro makes one mezcal, a pure espadin which is about as straight ahead as you can get. It’s bold, bright, has a bit of smoke, and is very balanced. I tasted it next to a pair of Raicillas which could be a huge disadvantage to an espadin but the Meteoro was a great contrast in its sturdiness. There could be no doubt which glass was which and its 45% ABV doesn’t show up either way; you’re neither knocked down, nor underwhelmed.

There is clearly a play on for the cocktail market, one of the main menu items on their site is cocktails but at this point that’s par for the course in the mezcal world. Suffice to say that this is a bottle that’s good on its own, hate to see too much of it poured into cocktails. They are advertising a first anniversary party in Brooklyn this Friday 2/13/15 (the party is actually in Mexico City, check the Meteoro Facebook page for more information) so if you’re in the area check it out and report back.

As posted to Facebook.

As posted to Facebook.

Spirituality in mezcal

The  discussion of what’s traditional in mezcal reminded me of something that I keep forgetting to write about. One of the things frequently mixed into this debate is something akin to spirituality, or at least an ineffable quality that mezcal makers or defenders of tradition describe as a critical component of what they do and how mezcal is consumed. Many people define traditional mezcal by how it’s made and how it’s consumed. The latter is usually within the pueblo, and usually as part of local celebrations whether they be weddings or the big calendar events like Dia de los Muertos. Once you actually see that in action, that cultural bond is blindingly obvious. That’s what people mean when they talk about the importance of tradition. Mezcal really is a part of the traditional life of many communities across Oaxaca and huge chunks of Mexico and that’s a big part of what Pedro Jimenez was touching on with this piece and what Erick Rodriguez is after with the proposed ancestral category.

That topic reminded me of this great article on Aeon by Ross Andersen about spirituality in wine making can become part of the physical process. As long as you relegate the comment about tossing tequila back in slugs to an uninformed or malapropos comparison, it’s fascinating reading that expresses exactly what I’ve heard from many a mezcal maker. Many of the critiques leveled at the wine industry will also be familiar to anyone in the mezcal world so give it a read when you have a few minutes. Here’s a quote:

Frederic said additives distort a wine’s terroir, its expression of a particular place on the planet’s surface. ‘Wine is the blood of the earth,’ he said, ‘and if we want to hear what it has to say, we have to be quiet.’ He told me AmByth had a philosophical commitment to non-interference in winemaking. ‘We want to avoid disturbing the natural balance,’ he said. ‘We’ve been wrecking the natural balance ever since the Industrial Revolution. And I don’t mean just the land, or the sky, or the things we can see and touch. I mean the whole.’

Frederic’s rhetoric can be traced back to German Romanticism, the seismic cultural movement that birthed Steiner’s philosophy. Like many Romantics, Steiner thought that the Enlightenment view of nature was debased. He found the lens of scientific rationality too constrictive to capture the majesty of nature. Steiner conceived of the planet, and nature itself, as transcendent – and to express this idea, he drew from the available precedents: folk art, paganism, and ancient mythology. You could say he saw himself as a Dionysus living in an age of Apollo.

On a related note check out the Hawk Wakawaka poster below that details how biodynamics functions in the wine world. That’s just the first of four posters detailing the world of biodynamics so definitely visit the site where you can even purchase a print of the posters.

Erick Rodriguez gets what he wants

Checking in with Erick Rodriguez of Alma Mezcalera and plenty of other projects. He sources much of the mezcal behind the Fundacion Agaves Silvestres’ Vino de Mezcales series, guides tours of mezcal production zones, and is a real political activist when it comes to defining the future of mezcal. We’ve called him the Indiana Jones of Mezcal exactly because he combines all of these ventures in a constantly evolving state of political action. Always ethical, personable, and ready to head off into the heart of Mexico in search of its next mezcal.

The latest update is that it sounds like the NORMA as proposed in meetings across Mexico and in a recent presentation by Danny Mena in NY is going to become law. The really big news is that Erick’s definition of a traditional mezcal labeled as “Ancestral” in the proposed law looks like it’s going to remain intact. That’s pretty incredible considering the strength of industrial producers and the dynamic within this discussion. While still a niche product distillation, exports, and interest in mezcal is booming so hopefully this regulation will lay the foundation for stable growth. Everyone I know has been unusually encouraged by the process because it has been unusually transparent and quick. The organization that oversees mezcal regulation in Mexico, COMERCAM, has had open meetings and actively engaged with a variety of people in the business. This despite all the dark rumors.

I chatted with Erick to go back over his original idea and to check in on where he sees the process today. He had a pretty succinct description of the financial inequities inherent in the current system: “Look small producers can’t compete with industrial producers who are making 5,000 liters a day. If you’re small you may make  30-60 liters in one run. We can’t compete legally if we want to call it mezcal. We can’t even pay taxes because if you make a traditional mezcal the ABV is going to be higher and taxes rise with the ABV so industrial producers even get lower taxes.”

That’s been a problem for a while as the vast numbers of small producers try to make a place for themselves inside Mexico and on the international market. The tax rate has been an especially tough barrier for domestic distribution because if you’re used to drinking mezcal as part of your daily life, once you get that official stamp of approval from the government, the price of it increases for your customers. Erick was recently in Michoacan where local producers asked him to talk to the government about that issue. He said “it’s like wine in other cultures, you drink it daily but now the government wants to increase the price on us small guys while the big guys pay less.”

Erick was the person who really got the Ancestral label into the current NORMA proposal despite consistent protests that it would cloud customer information about mezcal “They keep saying they don’t want to confuse people. But it’s a necessary distinction. They don’t even want me to speak about it. They want to erase that this type of mezcal exists because it doesn’t look good for their mezcal.” And by their mezcal Erick means big industrially produced brands.

To go back over this quickly I’m appropriating John McEvoy’s nice table of the proposal here. Read his blog post on the recent presentation of this in New York both to get more depth on the topic and to get a sense for the degree of transparency involved. For the first time in collective memory there has been some form of road show about these regulations which is revelatory in its own right!

Three New Categories Cooking Grinding Fermentation Distillation
Mezcal Pit ovens, elevated stone ovens, and autoclaves – diffuser use under review Tahona, Chilean or Egyptian mill, trapiche, shredder or series of mills Wood, masonry or stainless steel tanks Stills, continuous stills, columns stills made of copper or steel
Artisanal Mezcal Pit ovens or elevated stone ovens Tahona, Chilean or Egyptian mill, mallets, trapiche, or shredder Wood, clay or masonry tanks, animal skins, hollows in stone, earth or tree trunks, and process may use maguey fibers Direct fire on copper stills or clay pots and coils made of clay, wood, copper, or stainless steel, and process may include maguey fibers
Ancestral Mezcal Pit ovens only Tahona, Chilean or Egyptian mill, or mallets Wood, clay or masonry tanks, animal skins, hollows in stone, earth or tree trunks, and processmust use maguey fibers Direct fire on clay pots and coils made clay or wood, and process mustinclude maguey fibers

The discussion about the distinction between Aristanal and Ancestral has been pretty well talked to death but take a look at Pedro Jimenez to the barricades post here, John McEvoy’s response, and our own screed about the threats from excessive industrialization. It boils down to making a distinction between people who want credit for continuing to produce mezcal exactly as it has been for hundreds of years. We think  that there’s a good argument for this both for the product and the marketplace because it allows makers like those Erick works with to distinguish themselves just like Cognac or Bourdeaux Crus.

The best news is that it looks like there’s going to be a clean vote on the NORMA within weeks, possibly even this Wednesday. From what Erick has heard the three variations of mezcal will be sealed into the law and three new states will be certified as producing mezcal, Morelos, Estado de Mexico, and Puebla.

And just as they acknowledge those states even more are emerging as mezcal producers. Erick is off to Veracruz where he recently found a bunch of mezcal distillers who blend their products in a local factory and label them as destillados de agave. He said “I told COMERCAM to mention Veracruz, they don’t even know that mezcal is made there! I asked them [the Veracruz producers] if they want to be part of the new NORMA  and they told me ‘No we’re happy with what we have.’ so I’m going to visit the small producers and find the good ones.” Just like he always does. Stay tuned because Erick is working on a very interesting distilling project that we’ll write about very soon.