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Posts from the ‘Making Mezcal’ Category

American agave spirits

Yesterday’s post about St. George Spirits’ apparent re-entry in the agave spirits world drew a ton of messages from readers about other distillers trying their hand at distilling agave. So much so that we need a list to keep track. We’ll update it as we go so keep sending in your local craft distiller’s agave spirits and we’ll report back on their different approaches.


DistillerBottlesLocationDetailsAgave Source Material
Venus SpiritsLadrón Blanco, Reposado, & AñejoSanta Cruz, CAAgave juice
St. George Spirits? Alameda, CARoasted piñas
Genius Liquids? Austin, TXTexan Sotol: Dasylirion Texanum plants from W US 90. (silvestre). Pot stilled twice.
Westland DistilleryTukwilla ReposadoSeattle, WAPartial April Fools joke but 65 bottles were distilled from agave syrup and released in their tasting room. Agave syrup.
State 38 DistillingBlanco, Reposado, & AñejoGolden, CO

 

Do you know how your mezcal labels are made?

The Vago label processTruth in manufacturing is seldom so direct. Watch this video about how Eric Ramirez makes Vago‘s labels. It’s all manual and he only uses the leftover agave fibers from Vago’s distillations. It doesn’t get more basic than this which is one of the main reasons people love mezcal. Tip of the hat to Andrew Says for bringing this to our attention.

While you’re at it watch this video from last year where Vago’s maestro mezcalero Aquilino Garcia Lopez describes how they used to hand mash roasted agave in a a canoa. Make sure to wait for the end when he talks about how much he could mash as a 21-year-old. That’s pretty unbelievable. Thank god for the tahona.

Digesting COMERCOM’s suggested changes to mezcal

Since they were released May 19th COMERCAM’s suggested revisions to how mezcals are labeled have been the source of a vigorous discussion. Clayton Szczech at Experience Mezcal has the most lucid description of what’s in the proposal that we’ve seen so definitely read his piece thoroughly.

Erick Rodriguez has long been active in this discussion and his Facebook post presents his position succinctly, here’s his opening salvo about this latest circular to give you an idea of the passion and debate this announcement has sparked:

Que puedo decir… Me cagan estos pendejos les falta tener más información y no sólo querer tomar decisiones por sus huevos, si no se revisan muchas cosas injustas para los mezcales tradicionales o una división de categorías ( industriales, artesanales y tradicionales) se seguirán comercializando “pese a quien le pese” (así como se menciona) dejemos por un momento las tradiciones, costumbres lo cultural los que trabajamos con estas familias que por siempre han sido aplastadas por sus intereses económicos y sociales, no los abandonaremos, no les diremos dejen de producir, porque seguro migraran y por consecuencia la desintegración familiar también se violenta la garantía individual de libertad de trabajo, consagrada en el art. 5 de nuestra constitución.
Habrán tomado algún día buen mezcal estas gentes?
Neee! yo me chingo un Mezcalito pal’alma…
Abracen a sus maestros. 

In brief the circular proposes changing the labeling to “mezcal” which sounds like it means industrially produced and a new category of “mezcal artesanal/tradicional” which means pretty much what you expect: Agave hearts have to be cooked underground, crushed, fermented, and then double distilled. The one interesting note about the artesanal/tradicional category is that the cooked agave hearts can be crushed with mechanical means. This is not fully surprising as you do see some palenques that otherwise are fully “traditional” in their process using mechanized chippers. 

However, circular 20 seems to cloud the distinction in the main proposal so we are going to do some more digging on that question. We chatted with a few people already producing mezcal in a traditional and artisanal fashion who say that most changes for them would be relatively small and mean slight changes to their labels. We haven’t been able to find anything on the question of whether this proposal would open the door to a tiered system for certification costs and tax rates but it certainly appears to create the legal distinction needed for that. We’ll have plenty of time to dig since it will probably take years for this to wind its way through the Mexican political system.

Oaxaca’s daily La Imparcial reported the story with quotes from COMERCOM’s head Hippocrates Nolasco Cancino.

 

 

 

Ah the romance of Mezcal Tosba, Oaxaca, and the Lopez family

Journey to the Sierra Norte and Mezcal Tosba

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 Mixe 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 Mixe 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 Mixe 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.

Chilies at the Ayutla Market

Chilies at the Ayutla Market

Beans at the Ayutla market

Beans at the Ayutla market

fresh pulque, ayutla

fresh pulque, ayutla

pulque bottles

pulque bottles

Ayutla market

Ayutla market

The view in the Sierra Norte

The view in the Sierra Norte

Roasted maguey, Mezcal Tosba

Roasted maguey, Mezcal Tosba

Cutting maguey, Mezcal Tosba

Cutting maguey, Mezcal Tosba

Mezcal Tosba Palenque

Mezcal Tosba Palenque

Tlayudas

Tlayudas

Sopa de guias

Sopa de guias

Edgar Gonzalez-Ramirez

Edgar Gonzalez-Rodriguez

The water source, Mezcal Tosba

The water source, Mezcal Tosba

Tree canopy, Mezcal Tosba

Tree canopy, Mezcal Tosba

Sunset at Mezcal Tosba

Sunset at Mezcal Tosba

Dancing in the square in San Cristóbal Lachirioag

Dancing in the square in San Cristóbal Lachirioag

Sunrise in San Cristóbal Lachirioag

Sunrise in San Cristóbal Lachirioag

Celebrating Pierde Almas’ pechuga in Chichicapam

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.

Miguel Sanchez overseeing the conejo

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 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.

 

Prepping the hare

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.

Alfonso Sanchez measuring ingredients

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.

Bebidas of Mexico video

Finally had a chance to watch the Bebidas de Mexico show that broadcast on Sept. 8th in Mexico. It’s a snazzy piece that does a nice job of explaining the cultural impact of mezcal through interviews with writers, historians, and producers from the artisanal and industrial worlds.  It is in Spanish without subtitles but don’t worry if you don’t speak Spanish – the images tell the story of mezcal in loving detail.

As a bonus it is narrated by one of my favorite Spanish speaking actors, Daniel Jiménez Cacho.  You may recognize his voice because he also narrated the oh so awesome film Y tu mamá también. Give it a watch – I can guarantee you’ll be making a beeline to grab a copita as soon as possible.

 

 

Mezcal in Zapotitlan

There’s much of interest in this 9 minute video documenting mezcal production in Zapotitlan beyond the classic romanticism of the people and landscape of Mexico and mezcal.

The mezcal maker Don Macario Partida Ramos’ discussion of the local agave is particularly interesting.  He claims that 26 types of agave grow in the area, 12 on his land, and describes naming varieties after local ranches.  That gives you a good sense of how difficult it can be to exactly define the source agave for some mezcals since many producers use different names or spellings for the same variety.  It also gives hope that there are many more agave sources spread across Mexico that might alleviate the much discussed impending shortage of wild agaves in Oaxaca.

The shots of driving through the agave fields give a great sense of its cultivation in Mexico.  Amidst rows of well ordered plants you’ll also see tall cacti and trees. This is not unusual: Frequently in Oaxaca and specifically in this case Zapotitlan, you find a more casual approach to cultivation than the perfect rows of plants devoid of any non-salable produce. The shots also reinforce the system of integrated farming in these areas; generally beans, gourds and other crops are planted around rows of agave.

There’s also a fascinating picture of their distilling operation.  The still is something we haven’t seen before and would love to investigate further.  It’s described as of pre-Hispanic even though we’ve only ever heard that distilling arrived with the Spanish so that’s a point that bears some skepticism and further research.

Miguel Partida Rivera gives great insight into how some mezcal makers think about the relationship between of mezcal’s taste and alcohol level.  He claims that authentic mezcal has to be above 45-47%.  Below that it’s “water..with a taste of Maguey but with low quality,” which is a very traditional perspective in strong contrast with some new entries in the American marketplace like Wahaka which has consciously lowered the alcohol content in its entry level mezcal in order to make it more accessible to this market.

Mezcal in Michoacan

Mezcal can be made in many places, 7 Mexican states to be precise, so you would expect wide variation in tastes and how it’s made. Here’s a quick post from Alvin Starkman about how things are done in a particular palenque, or vinata as it’s called in Michoacan.

 

Update: A reader points out that Michoacan received it’s denominación de origen in February so there are now 8 states in Mexico authorized to make mezcal.  We apologize for that error.

A visit to Palenque Roaguia

We had a chance to visit palenquero Wilfreido Garcia Martinez at Palenque Roaguia on the road to Hierve el Agua.  Here’s a quick photo gallery of the visit that provides a little insight into his process, the world his mezcal comes from and the surrounding landscape.