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Posts from the ‘Making Mezcal’ Category

It came from Utopia: A North American Sotol

A sotol piña from Genius Liquids' production.

A sotol piña from Genius Liquids’ production.

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

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

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

Genius Liquids' Desert Spirit bottle.

Genius Liquids’ Desert Spirit bottle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After the roast.

After the roast.

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

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

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

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

Before fermentation

Before fermentation

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

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

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

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

Rolling fields of sotol

Rolling fields of sotol

What are your tasting notes for your sotol?

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

What’s your release plan?

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

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

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

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

What else are you distilling?  

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

Are you entirely focused on local expressions?

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

IMG_3150

The “Desert Spirit Texas Sotol” fermenting away.

 

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

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

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

All photos courtesy of Mike Groener.

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

A North American agave spirit rises in Santa Cruz

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

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

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

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

The aging rack at Venus

The aging rack at Venus

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

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

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

Gin, aquavit, agave spirits, and whiskeys.

Gin, aquavit, agave spirits, and whiskeys.

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

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

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

Venus Spirits still

Venus Spirits still

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ladrón neck

The Ladrón neck

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

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

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

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

Sean pulls a sample of the Ladrón Reposado.

Sean pulls a sample of the Ladrón Reposado.

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

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.