We got a heads up on a big COMERCAM meeting happening in Matatlan, Oaxaca this Saturday (full article here.) We are especially interested in this as some pretty contentious issues will likely be discussed including heavy crackdown on uncertified mezcal (small batch/small production mezcal) being sold into the market, domestic vs export market production, and regulatory controls. We’ll have a complete report next week about the meeting and what it might mean for the mezcal industry, or more specifically, small producers.
Posts from the ‘Brands’ Category
A tremendous thanks to all of you who stopped by Sub-Mission Gallery this past Saturday for our Music.Art.Mezcal. extravaganza. It was a dream come true to organize an event like this. For me, I can’t imagine mezcal existing in a vacuum without music, art and food to accompany it. It’s personal for sure and goes back to that moment in time in 2003, in the panteon in Oaxaca, surrounded by Dia de los Muertos altars, banda musica, dancers and a bottle of mezcal being passed around.
Of course a huge thank you to the artists whose work adorned the walls: Calixto Robles, Joaquin Newman, Txutxo Perez, Lapiztola Stencil, Yescka, Lorena Zertuche, Viet Chévez and Knut Hildebrandt. All of the art is for sale, so if you see something in the below gallery that catches your fancy, let us know and we’ll connect you with the artist!
Max and I had a great time talking mezcal, sharing the stories (and tastes) of mezcal from Don Pedro Garcia, Reyna Sanchez (Reinita) and Mezcal Tosba.
Check out the great photos that hopefully capture the energy of the night. There is something potent and magical about the combination of food, art, music and mezcal. We are hoping this is the first of more – and in fact, plans are underway for another extravaganza at the end of July.
Again, thanks for such a fun night!
One of the best things about going to palenques in Oaxaca is it usually means traveling to some of the most beautiful parts of the state. It also means traveling on some pretty rough roads, but more on that later.
I first met Elisandro Gonzalez-Molina in San Francisco at a mezcal tasting. He is one of the forces behind Mezcal Tosba, the other is his cousin Edgar Gonzalez-Ramirez. They are from the small pueblo of San Cristóbal Lachirioag in the Sierra Norte, a gorgeous and mountainous region northeast of the city of Oaxaca, and also one of the poorer regions in the state. Primarily Zapotec, with Mixtec pueblos mixed within, it is primarily alpine dotted by of tropical microclimates, not unlike what is found on the western side of the coastal mountains of Oaxaca.
Elisandro and Edgar came to the United States, like many of their pueblo neighbors, in order make a better life for themselves and also to send precious dollars back to San Cristóbal Lachirioag, a lasting legacy of NAFTA, that decimated these small agrarian pueblos in many parts of Oaxaca (and of course all over Mexico.) While in the US, they spent time talking about what they could do to bring economic opportunity to their pueblo, and staunch the flow of young people north. The idea of Mezcal Tosba was born; magueys were planted on Edgar’s family milpa beginning in 1999. In 2006 Edgar returned to Oaxaca to learn how to make mezcal.
The Sierra Norte is not a region currently known for mezcal production. Palenques had existed, but with so many people leaving the land for better opportunities, many of them were abandoned and the tradition began dying out. Far more common in the region was aguariente (a distilled beverage made from sugar cane), coffee and pulque.
Visiting Tosba soon became a obsession for me – not only for the opportunity to meet Edgar and see the Palenque, but also to have an excuse to travel to the Sierra Norte, where I had never been. Arranging it was another story – back and forth with Elisandro, coordinating with Edgar during one of his weekly trips to Oaxaca (there is no cell phone service in most of the Sierra Norte) and finally a meeting at In Situ to coordinate the details, including a map of how to get there.
There would be four of us on the journey – me, my partner in mezcal crime Ana JB and In Situ owners Ulises Torrentera and Sandra Ortiz Brena. We rented a more or less sturdy car (why car rental agencies in Oaxaca insist on using white cars is beyond me) and left the city at the crack of dawn on a Sunday morning.
I took the first leg of driving, mostly to ensure I’d be driving the “best” roads. Our plan was to hit the market in Ayutla, a Mixtec pueblo high in the mountains. We found a bustling commercial center where colectivo trucks unloaded people and their goods, and crisp in the clear, and quite cold, air. Luckily there was delicious coffee to be had and a filling breakfast of chilaquiles, enfrijolades and the best damn tortillas I have ever had (their rich corny flavor haunts my dreams to this day – think of the tortilla equivalent of the bread from Tartine.) We walked the market, taking in the sights and sounds of Mixteca and Zapoteca being spoken. We bought green coffee beans, flor del maguey, chilies and carne; the last to cook later that day at the Palenque. And then we found the pulque and tasted the seemingly infinite varieties and flavors to be found. Side note – I would travel for pulque and could become as obsessed with it as I am with mezcal.
We piled back in the car, though not before a couple of palenqueros called out to Ulises – we were after all traveling with a mezcal rock star – who were anxious to have him try their mezcals. It was not quite 9:30am.
I let Sandra take over the driving, a good thing because from Ayutla on it was dirt road – washed out, rutted, impassable during the rainy season, cliff hugging, you name it. The views were stunning and a constant reminder of just how high we were and just how far a drop it was off the edge of the road. I will never ever ever again complain about the pinche suburban trip to and from the coast in Oaxaca.
We met Edgar in the center of San Cristóbal, and from there, drove to the palenque – another 25 minutes on a rutted road, down the mountain. We parked our car at the top of the entry to the palenque because, while our car would have made it down, it never would have made it back up – it seems only Nissan Sentras can make that trip.
The palenque is nestled in one of the tropical microclimates. It is completely self-sustaining, growing everything needed for mezcal production – maguey, wood, fruits and vegetables – you name it, it grows. Currently there is one roasting pit, with plans for another. There is a large adobe building that will eventually house the bottling and labeling facility. Currently mezcal is transported to Oaxaca where it is bottled. There is a large tin roof covering the crushing area, the three fermentation barrels and three stills. There is no electricity, though Edgar is making plans for either solar or river generated power.
We ate papayas and lemons as Edgar showed us the lay of the land. He is utterly engaging and wickedly smart. In addition to the savings of the two cousins, they also secured a loan from FAO PESA, a UN funded program that provides capital for projects like these. Tosba makes three mezcals – an espadin, a tobala and a pechuga. Water for the mezcal comes from the river that flows down the mountain to the valley.
It was impossible to imagine how they could bottle mezcal here, or more to the point, it was impossible to imagine how the bottles would get to and from the palenque if my rattled bones were any indication. But the idea is that bottling there will provide more jobs for the pueblo.
It is stunningly beautiful at the palenque – it is surrounded by mountains and the play of light. So gorgeous and peaceful, we spent the afternoon talking mezcal and life. Edgar’s parents and sister arrived and we ate tlayudas and sopa de guias (a squash vine soup that is divine) and grilled meat and guacamole. And again I was struck by how delicious the tortillas were. I was even convinced to drink the water that came straight from the river (oh I put up a fight because it went against everything my traveler instinct told me.) It was delicious and I have to say, this is what makes the flavor of Mezcal Tosba so delicious – it really does taste like the water – fresh and slightly sweet.
After the meal, we set-off to hike to the waterfall and to see the maguey and the rest of the milpa. Edgar grabbed his rifle (jaguar country) and we set off. We walked the paths through the magueys that hugged the mountainside and eventually found ourselves walking under a canopy of trees as we neared the waterfall. We stood in silence as we listened to the water moving over the rocks and looked upward as the fading light sprinkled through the leaves. We walked back through a grove of mango, looked over at the sugar cane, stared in wonder at the pineapple bushes and then finally returned to the palenque to watch the sunset across the valley. As it turned pitch black, we lit candles and stared at the stars as Edgar regaled us with tales of the jaguars, how he lost his eye while cutting maguey and hitting a stone (now all of his employees wear eye goggles) and other nights spent under the stars. We may also have engaged in ghost stories, but I will neither confirm nor deny that.
We finally decided it was time to head back to town – the trusty Sentra taking us back up to the car, which eventually took us back to town. We arrived in time for the posada celebration complete with Banda music and dancing and pan dulce. After, we went to Edgar’s parents, where we were spending the night. Somehow there was more food to be consumed, more mezcal to be had and more talking to be done. We tried the new espadin, which prompted an intense back and forth between Ulises and Edgar about why it tasted different than the last batch. Were the maguey from a different altitude – with the answer yes. It seemed impossible for me to believe that a 50-meter difference could change the flavor, but it did – though I only noticed after Ulises had said something. Oh to have his palette!
And then it was time for bed. It felt like the middle of the night but in fact it was only 10pm.
But sleep would elude us that night. We were awoken by the jarring sound of Banda music over the municipal loud speaker at about 4am. If you haven’t heard it before, think John Philip Sousa on crack. Oddly, it was followed by Strauss and kept going till about 6am when we finally gave up on getting any more sleep. Sadly, a local musician had passed away during the night, and this was his tribute.
We filled our mugs with coffee and headed up to the terrace to watch the sunrise. As the light came over the top of the mountain, the strains of Ave Maria wafted from the loudspeaker. We sat in silence as tears rolled down my cheek as I thought at that moment I was as close to my sister who had recently passed away as I could hope to be. It was majestic.
We then headed to Villa Alta for the Monday market, loaded up on baskets and chiles, dropped off Edgar and said our farewells, and then began the long trip back to Oaxaca.
I just found this interesting new spirits site called Caskers.com which offers a variety of rare and off-the-beaten-track spirits for sale through the mail. They have a mezcal package for sale now featuring
- Union Espadin, Cirial and Barril
- Los Siete Misterios Arroqueno
- Real Minero Espadin, Largo, Tripon and Barril
- Espiritu Lauro Jovan Espadin
- El Jolgorio Pechuga (Espadin)
But it’s not cheap, it’s currently listed as $379.99 marked down from $409.99 so who knows, maybe it’ll drop further. It has been slapped with a limited supply sticker and another that only gives this sale another 10 days. I can’t vouch for the service but this is an interesting batch of mezcals so if money isn’t too much of an object, consider splurging. It also appears that it’s invite only at this point but invitations appear unlimited so, if you want one, just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll set you up.
There are so many reasons to appreciate Bricia Lopez – knowledge of mezcal being reason number one. Number two is her generosity in connecting me with her friends in Oaxaca – in this case photographer and incredibly fun Omar Alonso. We met for lunch at Biznaga and got to know one another. After food, beers and a mezcal or two, he took me next door to Zandunga to check out their mezcal collection and to meet one of the owners, Marcos Toledo. Zandunga is an interesting restaurant that specializes in Istmo style cuisine that incorporates dried shrimp, fish and vinegar in many dishes. The flavors are distinctly different from the food generally found in the centro.
And what a mezcal selection! I focused on tasting mezcals from the brand Espirituoso, two of which came from Michoacan (a pechuga made from deer and agave azul and a cenizo maguey), the third from Miahuatlan de Porfirio Diaz (an espadin, madrecuishe and bicuishe blend). They were all delicious but I have to say, the pechuga blew my socks off. Its flavor was completely different than anything I have ever tasted – so meaty and savory.
But it was the conversation with Marcos that was the highlight. We talked about the changing market of mezcal and the transition of restaurants gravitating toward pouring brands and away from house mezcals. It seems a crackdown on regulations and certifications is driving this change – with mezcalerias in Mexico City being closed for serving unregistered mezcals (mezcals that are not officially registered as a business.) He thinks it is only a matter of time before this starts happening in Oaxaca and plans on shifting to official mezcals in 2013. Next year is also when the new law comes into effect requiring all of these producers to have registered businesses in order to sell their product in the market.
A lot of it comes down to taxes, and making sure that everyone is paying – which in the case of mezcal can be 60+ percent on each bottle. Not only do costs go up for restaurants, bars, stores, etc, but also for the patrons. It also means potentially limiting the market for small producers who usually do not go through the long, laborious and expensive process of creating an official business, and who sell direct (house mezcals).
I had the extreme honor of being invited to a party to celebrate the release of Pierde Almas’ new pechuga. It was held at the palenque in Chichicapam where, last year, I had attended another party and well, we’ll just say, consumed way too much mezcal.
This year’s party was more formal, with tables covered in white linens and food prepared by the chef from Oaxaca’s Pitiona restaurant. A pig was being roasted, and a special salsa was being prepared from the fruits used in the pechuga’s distillation. It was also a chance to meet Jonathan Barbieri, the owner of Pierde Almas, and to hang out with the brothers Sanchez, who make the mezcal. There were also several importers, and much to my surprise, Josh Harris, from Bon Vivants in San Francisco. He and I have exchanged emails, but never have met in person.
In addition to this year’s pechuga (a heady combination of spice, sweet and just a smidge of savory) there was also a new mezcal that had been made with the traditional gin herbs in its third distillation. I am not a gin drinker so my best evaluation is that it tasted exactly like gin has always tasted me (cloying), with an undercurrent of a strong espadin.
There was a band playing as we ate. I sat at the table with Miguel Sanchez and Domingo Orollo who is overseeing the gin mezcal project. He was involved in the creation of Del Maguey’s Vida and is a chemist by trade. This is a growing trend – more chemists becoming involved with mezcal production.
I was driving that day, a deliberate choice to ensure there would be no repeat from last year’s drunken revelry. It is a running joke between Alfonso and I – that after last year’s insanity, and my mother’s presence, that she has forbidden me from ever drinking with him again.
As the sky began to darken, we moved from one part of the palenque to another where the stills are located, in order to watch Alonso start the process of distilling this year’s conejo (a pechuga, except with a wild hare instead of a turkey.) We watched as Alfonso measured out the spices (a turbinado style sugar, anise), fruits (apple, banana, pineapple), rice and then finally the hare placed in a cheesecloth bag with yerba santa. The fermented maguey was loaded into the still, along with the other ingredients (the conejo bag would hang above the mix) and then sealed. It would distill all night long.
The music began again, more people arrived, including La Señora Sanchez and the other female relatives – sisters, wives, nieces – and we danced. Finally we left so as not to be on the road too late at night. We gave Domingo a ride back to the city, talked more about chemistry in mezcal, and the plans awaiting us that night (Austin TV at Café Central or La China Sonidera at Txalaparta.) Perhaps the best part of having Domingo in the car with us was having him navigate the new highway (the one that will eventually go all the way to Puerto Escondido) that circumvents Ocotlan and cuts the return time almost in half. It puts you on a road that has reflector lights, a smooth surface and is blissfully free of topes.
I definitely see the possibilities of a regular mezcal Monday. Last night it was at Rio Grande on Market Street—a kickoff of sorts for SF Cocktail Week and hosted by Ryan Fitzgerald, former Beretta star bartender/mixologist, driving force for the Tequila Interchange Project (TIP), and now western sales rep for Del Maguey.
The $20 entry fee (all proceeds going to TIP) got you an evening of mezcals, mezcal cocktails, beer ,and tamales. Pierde Almas, Alipus, and Del Maguey were being poured. I am still trying to embrace cocktail culture – I’ve always liked my drinks neat, or as minimally embellished as possible but, in the spirit of cocktail week, I asked for a mezcal variation on an Old Fashioned.
It was still early, the crowd small, the bartender carefully scraped ice from an ice block on the bar, then lovingly measured, poured, and stirred my drink as I replayed Mr. Mixologist over and over in my head.
Del Maguey’s Vida is the bartenders’ choice for mezcal cocktails. It’s versatile and works with just about anything as we’ve previously written. I think in the coming year or so, Puritita Verda (Pierde Almas’ lower price point mezcal) will give Vida a run for the money.
The variation on the Old Fashioned was good – I prefer cocktails that have a more savory flavor. To go the opposite extreme, I asked the bartender to mix a mezcal variation of a lemon drop. I was hoping it could come close to that sublime lemongrass infused mezcal I had in Oaxaca last spring. Sadly the cocktail was far too sweet for my palette and the mezcal was completely overpowered by the citrus.
I tracked down Ryan to get an update from him on NOM-186, which is still making its way through the channels in Mexico. TIP has been at the forefront making recommendations and counter proposals to help ensure that some of the more draconian parts of it (the branding of the word agave for one) are modified and that small producers aren’t completely SOL. We’ll have a more in-depth piece about this next week.
A sweet surprise to the night – a chance to try Tosba, a mezcal produced in the Sierra Norte in Oaxaca (a mountainous and heavily wooded area east of Oaxaca city) and not yet available in the US (though they are working on it). Mezcals from the Sierra Norte are not commonly found outside of the area. They are rumored to be made with the purest and sweetest water in Oaxaca. Tosba is a family operation, and Elisandro Gonzalez-Molina is the US face for the brand. He was pouring an espadin and a pechuga – both were delicious. The espadin was smooth, balanced, and earthy with an underlying finish of sweetness that hung on my lips. The pechuga was divine – with a complex layering of savory, subtle roasted maguey, and fruit. I definitely put it in the top 3 of pechugas I’ve had. It was a great way to end the night.
As a heads up, I will be pouring mezcals at the Third I Filmmakers/VIP party this Saturday night at the Castro. On the table will be Pierde Almas, Del Maguey, Alipus, Metl, and the Tosba Espadin. Of course we’ll also have a private reserve surprise. Tickets are still available!
On July 21st and 28th, the quaint neighborhood of Jalatlaco in Oaxaca, Mexico played host to two nights of a mezcal extravaganza called Mezcalaria. Each night paired four different mezcals with four different dishes. Our on the ground Mezcalista Ana J.B. was there.The original Spanish was translated by Alice Groves.
It’s hard to believe that in the land of mezcal and food that this hadn’t already happened – a night of four unique mezcals, paired with four unique dishes. But Mezcalaria was something brand new here in Oaxaca. Created by Sandra Ortiz, Ulises Torrentera and chef José Luis Díaz, with the express purpose of promoting small production, artisanal mezcals and talking about it rich cultural history and significance. The team worked with the following mezcalerias to select rare and hard to find mezcals: Los Amantes, Mezcaloteca, Cuish, and In Situ. They were joined by master mixologist Erick Rodriguez.
Chef Diaz of El Teatro Culinario rounded out the two nights by creating dishes that drew upon local ingredients and enhanced the flavors of each of the mezcals – drawing out their complexities and highlighting how closely linked the food and mezcal experience is.
Some details on the pairings for the first night evening:
We were greeted at our tables with an hors d’oeuvres called Amuse Bouche – a squash flour stuffed with honey and requesón, a rich ricotta-like Oaxacan cheese, served on a hand made corn tostada. It was an exquisite taste, delightfully creamy and sweet.
Mezcal: Penc verde
Agave: Penc Verde
Selected by Ulises Torrentera
Produced in San Pedro Totomochapam
Special Edition – 50 liter production
The Penc Verde is a rare wild maguey that requires 12 years to mature.
1st plate: tepejilote (like heart of palm and very regional), quintoniles y verdologas (local Oaxacan leafy herbs) with salsa de chile guajillo.
The mezcal had an explosive yet woody flavor and its consistency paired perfectly with the flavors of the salad and salsa, leaving your palate wanting more of its unique, herbaceous taste.
The combination of sipping mezcal and nibbling on food naturally causes one’s body and soul to slowly relax. The simultaneously calming, yet boisterous ambiance, further allowed our senses to open and better distinguish the aromas and flavors to come. The energy was contagious and we were all excited and anxious to know what would come next. Diego, my friendly table neighbor seated to my right, and I were completely enveloped by the good vibes and ready for more.
Agave: Agave Mexicano
Producer: Los Amantes
Selected by: Leon Langle
Produced by: Yogama, Ejutla
2nd plate: Tasajo marinated in chili peppers and lime with slices of cuajinicuil, a sweet, tropical fruit, native to Oaxaca’s coast, neatly placed over a bed of salsa of chili guajillo.
I would never have imagined enjoying this combination, something completely different from anything I have ever experienced in Oaxaca (we don’t usually combine meat and fruit here), but found it to be quite gratifying. After all, this was an evening of experimentation.
Agave: 70% Espadin and 30% Madre cuish
Selected by: Felix Hernandez
Produced in: San Isidro, Yautepec
3rd plate: Shrimp topped with Oaxacan chorizo accompanied by refried beans and hierba de conejo (another herb native to Oaxaca), sprinkled with charred onions and slices of chile verde.
This was another combination I would have never thought of in my wildest dreams that went down with ease.
At this point we were graced with the expertise of mixologist Erick Rodriguez of Alma Mezcalara in Mexico City who refreshed our throats with a cocktail of basil, pineapple and mezcal. This was very refreshing and we recommend it highly. The mezcal cocktail culture is new to us Oaxacans– we have a long history of drinking it neat so it was a very pleasant surprise.
I found myself so elated by the combination of flavors I have known all my life but in a way I had never tasted giving me the feeling that I would finish this tasting feeling like a Oaxacan who is no longer from Oaxaca.
Selected by: Mezcaloteca
Produced in: Santa Catarina Minas
The Arroqueño maguey takes 18 years to mature. It’s wild, reasonably rare and one of the more prized agaves. It was crushed by hand, rather than by the usual tahona stone mill.
Dessert: Truffle of chocolate flavored yolk bread drizzled with basil cream and a chile guajillo reduction.
The desert was exotic – refreshing and spicy and not too sweet. It paired perfectly with the very bold mezcal, and the combination of the flavors balanced perfectly.
My hope in going to this event was to discover new flavors and combinations. They were all distinct and unique, and a real pleasure to try. The idea of educating via a pairing of traditional food ingredients and mezcal is a truly welcoming and special way to learn.
While the Los Danzantes line of Alipús mezcals have long been available in Mexico they’re just premiering in the United States right now. Craft Distillers is the importer and they should be on store shelves sometime this August. We recently sat down with Craft Distillers’ Elizabeth Grivas for a tasting of the three mezcals they are bringing into the U.S. market.
Per the tasting notes San Andres was “fermented in cypress vats and distilled by Don Valente Angel from agave Espadín grown at about 5,000 feet on thin calciferous-soiled low hills and terraces.”
We found a big push of agave in the nose and a nice integrated agave/smoke combination in the mouth. It’s a very powerful tasting mezcal with strong fruit but doesn’t overwhelm with alcohol. This was the tasting favorite so we brought it into our Pop Up Mezcaleria where it showed exceptionally well in the company of Del Maguey’s Minero, Metl’s Blanco Blend and Pierde Almas’ Dobadaán. Many tasters named it a favorite and commented on the great contrast between strong agave fruit and alcoholic push.
San Juan del Rio
Made by the same palanquero as Los Nahuales (as it is known here in the U.S. – it goes by Los Danzantes in Mexico), Don Joel Antonio Cruz y familia, the San Juan del Rio Alipús is made from 100% Espadín. Per the tasting notes from Craft Distillers it was fermented in oak vats and is the fruit of non-irrigated Espadín “grown in sunny mountain-top plantings in ferriferous soil at 4,600 feet.” They describe it as “Fruity, rich, smokey, pleasantly sweet.” In our tasting we found a full agave nose with a slight sweetness and light smoke notes. It was smooth on the tongue and displayed an even alcohol note. The palate reveals even more smoke which is the dominant impression left after a swallow. This is definitely the smokiest Alipús which should appeal to scotch drinkers who appreciate some peat.
San Baltazar Guelavila
The tasting notes describe the San Baltazar Guelavila as having been “fermented in pine vats and distilled by Don Cosme Hernandez from agave Espadín grown at about 5,700 feet in hilly, white, and rocky soil.”
We couldn’t identify the nose on the San Baltazar Guelavila with the frustratingly vague “ineffable” being used by one participant. But it has a very round mouth feel with sugar cane notes and lots of smoke. The San Baltazar Guelavila garnered the most mixed opinion of the Alipús line with some describing it as burnt, some as chemical tasting, some as earthy and mineral in aspect resolving in a briny tail.
The road to Teotitlan del Valle has changed a lot since I was first there in 2003. The pueblo sits off the main highway that heads south from Oaxaca toward the Istmo. It’s only about 30 minutes from the city but my memory of the 2003 trip is that it took us much longer and it seemed like we were heading into the middle of nowhere. Back then the road to the town was rutted and rough and, when we ended up going to taste the best mezcal our driver knew, the dirt road to the Del Maguey bodega seemed endless and long.
Not so today: Like so many excursions outside of Oaxaca there were wrong turns until finally we stopped and asked for directions from a very kind man in the centro of Teotitlan. Of course, you have to know that people will give you directions to a place even if they don’t know where it is – they just want to help. We finally arrived after more wrong turns and were greeted by the amazing team at Del Maguey, including Arturo and Francisco Martinez Martinez.
The operation has grown a lot since the last time I was there – the building that was once a small room now houses three rooms – an office, a storage area, and the bottling and waxing room (the tops of the Del Maguey bottles are dipped in a sealing wax, rather than the usual plastic wrap used by just about everyone else.) Given how successful Del Maguey has been in the US market, it is a surprisingly simple operation. And the road leading to the bodega, while still dirt and slightly rutted, is now dotted with buildings.
It is impossible to talk about artisanal mezcal in the US without mentioning Ron Cooper in the same sentence. His passion and perseverance in bringing his single village mezcals to the US has paved the way for everyone else, and certainly set the standard for quality. Del Maguey is one of the few brands in the market that is double organic certified, meaning that not only are the magueys that go into the process certified organic, but so is the mezcal making process itself. Given that the organic certification of the magueys often means certifying the entire community property of the pueblo where the maguey comes from, it is a huge task, and a huge point of pride for the brand. It also guarantees that the wild magueys known as silvestres growing in the zone are certified organic. For the actual mezcal making process, it means no air or chemicals or additives go into the process.
Del Maguey is distinct in many other ways, it’s part of the quirk of the individuals that run these operations. As another example, while some brands are re-planting silvestres, Del Maguey does not, and only harvests what grow wild on the pueblo properties, practicing responsible and sustainable techniques. As Ron Cooper has said, “only God plants this.”
Francisco Martinez Martinez was full of information about Del Maguey’s process from field to bottle. First, he reminded me that agave is a plant just like any other with seasons where the fruit is fully ripe and, since the process it truly artisanal, every step in mezcal production depends on a variety of factors. During the rainy season (loosely June-August) it can be challenging. The colder weather impacts the mezcal making process – specifically related to attaining the desired alcohol level – the higher the grade, the harder it is to achieve it. The cold weather slows or stops natural airborne microbial fermentation. For Del Maguey and their mezcals, that means alcohol levels falling between 45-50%. Del Maguey and the Palenqueros they work with are conscious about the flavors they strive for and lean toward a full bodied and bold flavor profile. That’s not to say that they aren’t also wonderfully subtle in their flavors.
We also talked about some of the regional differences and challenges in growing maguey. The Valles Centrales (the pueblos surrounding Oaxaca on the valley floor) face challenges because of the cold mornings. While Del Maguey is headquartered in Teotitlan del Valle, the mezcal is not actually produced there, but instead comes from Santo Domingo Albarrados, San Juan del Rio, Chichicapam, and Santa Ana Taviche to name a few. As Francisco said, “we make tapetes (truly beautiful hand crafted wool rugs) in Teo, not mezcal.”
But let’s get down to the nitty gritty of what we tasted…
We were very excited to taste one of their new products – their Santo Domingo Albarradas, aged for 60 days in barrels, enough to give it the flavor of a reposado, and a slight color change, but so very subtle. At 48%, it is quite the explosion of flavor in the mouth, and maintains its warmth as it slides down the back of the throat. I found it slightly less sweet than their non-aged Albarradas (which I think is a great dessert mezcal) and a little smoother.
As we were trying the mezcals, Don Francisco mentioned that several of the big mezcal companies are experimenting with making mezcal from the miel de agave – a less expensive and more industrial process, that gives the drink an essence of mezcal, but is very watered down. It also enables a factory to produce a lot more product – thousands of liters a month, vs the 2400 liters a year each of the palenques produce for Del Maguey. I also heard this from a few other people. Chisme, “gossip,” about the industry is rampant here.
Next up were a few silvestres, including two new ones – a Papalome, which is similar to a Tobala, that I loved (talk about a flavor bomb in the mouth – wow! So complex, so strong and piquant, that finishes with a warm glow in the upper body), and a Tepestate, that was refreshing, smooth and sweet with a lovely almost watermelon flavor at the end. We also tried the Arroqueño (49%) that was so elegant and again smooth despite its alcohol punch, and the Tobala which was surprisingly light on the tongue and very herbal and green in its finish. Don Francisco had us try his personal favorite, the San Luis del Rio, and one I have had before. It’s a multi-layered mezcal, perfectly combining a sweet/sour flavor that stays with you for a while.
We finished with the granddaddy of them all – the Pechuga, produced only in the fall when the fruits used in the distillation are ripe in the mountains. I have come around to Pechugas in the past couple of years. Initially I was resistant to embracing them fully because they are pretty cost prohibitive, both in Oaxaca and in other markets because of the time and complexity in their production process. But, when done well, as with the Del Maguey, have a deeply rich and complex flavor which has completely won me over. That said I still drink relatively little Pechuga simply because it’s so expensive.
A side note about certifying the Pechuga mezcal organic: It took Del Maguey three years of work with the government and stacks of legal paperwork to get their Pechuga officially recognized and certified organic. Not only that, a team of veterinarians were dispatched to the pueblo to draw blood from the chickens (pechuga can be made with either chicken or turkey) to ensure they were healthy and organic.
Once again, we found ourselves deliciously high on the mezcals we tried, and terribly hungry (how many times do I have to learn the lesson, eat first, then taste mezcal.) We stopped in Santa Maria Tule, home of the famous tule tree, and ate ourselves silly with grilled chorizo, onions, pork chops, lamb barbacoa, sopa de guias (the tender greens of the squash plant) memelas and quesadillas. It was quite simply, a perfect day.