We’re proud to have shown this previous to our sustainability panel on Saturday, November 12th, the night before Mezcal: Mexico in a Bottle San Francisco this year. The filmmaker behind this effort, Eric Wolfinger, introduced it and chatted with the audience a bit about the project. We’ll be talking to him in more detail soon because this is quite a stunner. Read more
Is it finally time for our “mezcal is having its moment” piece? That’s a conversation Susan and I have had many times in the past year or two. I even started writing it a few times and our latest t-shirt is an allusion to that question. If we were waiting for a sign from above, the last week certainly gave us lots of ammunition because three, count ’em, three big publications ran their mezcal pieces last week. And not just some run of the mill publications but The New Yorker, Afar, and The Los Angeles Times.
How did we get here? It’s pretty simple: While tequila grew by leaps and bounds as an incredible export through the post war era it really took Patrón and its followers in the 80’s to establish tequila as something with its own unique coolness factor. That led to enormous demand for tequila; to sip it, shoot it, mix it in cocktails. Hell, Robert Towne, who wrote Chinatown among many other classic movies, even titled his 1988 film Tequila Sunrise in the midst of this boom. Soon enough tequila was stocked in every bar worth its salt while tequila bars proliferated and the margarita became the most popular cocktail in the United States, if not the world. That much demand meant enormous production which, in the inexorable capitalist logic to these things, led to the complete industrialization of tequila. The bottles, dollars, land, agaves, and everything involved in this story are staggering. But it all meant one thing, what was once a dynamic and original spirit had become sadly commodified.
Patricia Colunga‘s documentary “Los Mezcales del Occidente de México y la Destilación Prehispánica,” where she tries to establish the pre-hispanic origins of mezcal is now available for rental on Vimeo. You can watch it in English or Spanish, the rental is $10 for a 72-hour period or you can just buy it for $15. Here’s the embed for the English trailer.
Patricia is also finalizing another documentary that may be of interest. This one delves into the basis for the diet for the societies the preceded the Maya, Toltec, and Olmecs and especially how they used agave for food. As their press release says
“This documentary unveils the diet that could have been created 10,600 to 4,400 years before the present, before the invention of pots and comales, and even before the domestication of species fundamental for the traditional agriculture system called milpa, cornerstone of the great Mesoamerican civilizations.”
They dig into which ingredients and recipes may have been used with a goal of recovering this lost culinary culture and confronting the current illnesses of the Western diet. It sounds fascinating so we’ll pass along news of its final release as soon as we have it. As with the “Los Mezcales del Occidente de México” documentary this one titled, “Mesoamerican Diet: Origins,” is directed byPascual Aldana with Patricia and Daniel Zizumbo sharing in the writing.
A screenshot from Ulises Torrentera’s Mezcaleria app.
That sneaky Ulises Torrentera popped an iOS app on mezcal into the App Store last week with nary a notice. Actually he did flag it on Twitter but it feels like this will just spread by word of mouth so take a look and tell him what you think. Maybe it won’t rock your world but it’s exactly the sort of thing that mezcal has been missing.
Ulises is the owner of the In Situ Mezcaleria in Oaxaca as well as the Farolito mezcal brand and author of three books on mezcal. I guess, an app was the rational next step. The real question is why no one else did it before. Susan and I have talked about it but never managed to achieve the momentum and time to do it. Fortune to the bold and all of that. Ulises did it.
The app is really quite simple, an introduction, shots and descriptions of the most common maguey, and a guide to how its made. The photos and layout of the steps to make mezcal make this a great A/V tool for tastings and conversations so I’ll be definitely be using it in that capacity. There’s lots of room for additional information including agave types and details about history. Hopefully Ulises is thinking of this as a first version and will develop it further.
A screenshot from Ulises Torrentera’s Mezcaleria app.
The app is also something of a living advertisement for El Farolito and In Situ in that those are the only items listed under the Mezcales and Mezcaleria menus but, again, that’s what you get to do if you create the app. It’s all in Spanish but the translation shouldn’t be that hard for anyone who has a decent understanding of the language. I’ll be asking Ulises about the possibility of a translation when I’m in Oaxaca later this week so stay tuned.
Last month Patron launched a new tequila brand in the United States that is notable for what it borrows from mezcal and some of tequila brands who never gave up on the traditional manufacturing methods. Roca Patron is marketed entirely on the basis of being milled with a tahona. That’s the only thing you see called out in the magazine advertisements, their web site, anywhere they market it. It’s all about the rock. Aside from admirable discipline in marketing, they are literally running a text book case of single message marketing that should be live tweeted from marketing classes the world round, this represents something of a shift in the greater tequila and mezcal business.
The call to authenticity in distilling has always been a part of the Mexican story. That picture of the maestro mezcalero out there in the middle of nowhere hand harvesting piñas, roasting them underground in a pit, milling them with a donkey’s help, wild fermenting them in open vats, and then distilling them over an open fire, is a huge part of the romance of mezcal. It’s also been a huge part of the romance of tequila. Some brands like Fortaleza have always emphasized their use of the tahona while others reference the romance of the hacienda and other nostalgic Mexican stereotypes. And, lest anyone think this is just an American phenomenon, it’s a huge deal for Mexicans as well because it’s a big part of the local culture and how Mexicans like to see themselves. Sort of like the American obsession with freedom.
But this tahona marketing push is something new for the tequila business. The big brands like Patron have always been happy to craft their marketing campaigns so that they trigger associations with agrarian Mexican traditions like the hacienda house, rolling hills covered by blue agaves, the worn hands of the jimadore as he hacks into an agave. But they’ve never built a whole brand around a single component in that process and, to my knowledge, never built a product around it either. Smaller brands never abandoned the traditional processes, the aforementioned Fortaleza has been a stalwart along with a few other producers while the major tequila brands moved to more mechanical extraction processes in order to speed production and guarantee consistency of their product. By emphasizing the tahona it seems like they’re trying to associate themselves with the artisanal movement while extracting a premium price. It’s a fascinating development that’s not without positive developments because if Patron has a tahona driven facility perhaps others will take notice and refocus on tequila’s artisanal roots.
The title is more ominous than the AFP article and video piece but it does provide a great snapshot of the mezcal industry now. A few distillers have created their own brands and managed to crack the North American market like El Jolgorio which is featured here. They have been a big and colorful force in the United States over the past year along with Vago and similar brands controlled by their producers.
Other distillers continue a long business of selling their product through intermediaries so that it ends up white labeled. This can be dicey for both sides since brands don’t control a stable supply while producers don’t have a stable outlet for their production. We’ve seen contracts broken and unhappy partners left and right. We’ve also seen this business structure continue to work just fine so it probably won’t disappear soon.
But this video also highlights two big issues: First, some, no one is sure how many, distillers are finding it difficult to enter these paths to the new markets. The competition in Mexico is growing as the international market grows and new sources for mezcal open up like the state of Michoacan which has barely touched the North American market. But the issue where we’d really like to see more on-the-ground reporting is on sustainability because it’s such an important and tricky problem to address.
This week we are re-publishing a trio of posts from the brilliant Cristina Potters at Mexico Cooks! about pulque, mezcal, and what Michoacan brings to the table. We started with pulque on Wednesday, moved to a mezcal primer Friday, and we wrap up with today’s post on a very special mezcal from Michoacan.
The region is seeing renewed interest since it joined the ranks of officially recognized mezcals. Recently we’ve tasted quite a few from the mezcal obsessed who have toted them home in their luggage. We look forward to seeing some on specialty liquor store shelves soon. You can find the original version of this post here.
Michoacán Mezcal Uasïsï, Brought to You By Mayahuel–The Goddess of Maguey
When you read last week’s article, Mexico Cooks! had just boarded a guajolotero (often called ‘chicken bus’, in English slang) to go with friends to meet a mezcal producer in Michoacán. I also left you with homework, class: did you read the article linked here? Give it a once-over, if you didn’t already, and then let’s get going down the road. Click on any photo to enlarge it for a better look. Photos by Mexico Cooks! unless otherwise noted.
Close to the northern edge of the Tierra Caliente, outside Etúcuaro, Michoacán, there’s a well-hidden vinata (mezcal-making setup)–it’s just beyond this field ofcupreata maguey. To get there, you need to go with someone who knows how to find it. The mezcal producer, Ignacio Pérez Scott, is the fourth generation of his family to dedicate himself to production of the liquor. He produces traditional mezcal which he then sells to select bottlers for branding. We’re visiting the vinata with Maira Malo Hernández, owner of the mezcal brand Uasïsï (wah-SHEE-shee), and her daughters, Viridiana and Mayra Méndez Malo. Sra. Malo’s daughters and her sons, Juan, Carlos, and Jorge Méndez Malo are also part of the Uasïsï team.
In the shade of the vinata, mezcal producer Ignacio Pérez Scott shares an affectionate moment with Maira Malo Hernández.
Uasïsï, the name Sra. Malo chose for her mezcal, is the Purépecha word for bat. It’s this bat that pollinates thecupreata maguey, among other magueys.
Don Nacho (“don” is an honorific title, used with great respect, and “Nacho” is the Mexican nickname for Ignacio) told me that his cupreata maguey (seen here with its spike of yellow quiote–the maguey flower) takes eight to ten years to mature. Once it matures and throws up the flower spike, the plant can be harvested.
When the producer harvests the maguey plant, the first task is to remove the quiote (flower stem); the pencas (leaves) are removed next. The pencas were removed from the places where you can see the diamond shapes on the outside of the hearts. The pencas can be used in cooking, particularly in making traditional barbacoa and mixiote. The corazón (heart) also known as piña (pineapple) of each maguey plant is then chopped into smaller pieces for baking. In the photo above, Mezcal Uasïsï owner Maira Malo Hernández pitched in to chop some of the piñas. Photo courtesy Uasïsï MMH (Maira Malo Hernández).
Here you can see the size of the chopped piñas de maguey. Each piña can weigh as much as 80 to 100 pounds. Photo courtesy Uasïsï MMH.
Pine logs, stacked firmly into the fire pit. Photo courtesy Uasïsï MMH.
Don Nacho is tamping the volcanic rock evenly into the pit, on top of the pine logs. Photo courtesy Uasïsï MMH.
The fire in the pit is red hot and smoking. Photo courtesy Uasïsï MMH.
The fire is burning evenly now, and the piñas are ready to be placed in the baking pit. The pit will be loaded with approximately 150 piñas weighing a total of about four tons. Photo courtesy Uasïsï MMH.
The burning pit is covered with petates (woven reed mats) and then with mounded earth. The piñas need to bake for a full week. Photo courtesy Uasïsï MMH.
After a week, the piñas are thoroughly baked and are now uncovered. At the bottom right-hand corner of the photo, you can see some petates (woven reed mats). Photo courtesy Uasïsï MMH.
The more than six foot long pine-lined trench where the baked piñas are hand-chopped and smashed with axes.
The vinata crew has moved some of the baked piñas to the trough and are hand-smashing them with axes so that they can be placed into the fermenting tanks. Don Nacho and his crew use no machinery during any stage of their mezcal production. Photo courtesy Uasïsï MMH.
These are the tinacos (covered storage tanks) where the baked and smashed piñas are fermented. The fermentation process takes a week.
Post-fermentation, the process of double-distillation begins. This is the alambique (still), made of pine. As the mezcal distills, the metal top allows condensation to drip back into the still.
The other side of the alambique. Don Nacho explained that the wooden still will last for about one year; after that, the wood will be replaced.
This is the fire hole, where a pine wood fire actually cooks the fermented maguey piña mash to distill it. Above the metal arch of this fire hole are several inches of concrete, the top of which you can see in the photo just before this one. No fire actually touches the wooden still.
The finished product: Uasïsï Mezcal Joven. Photo courtesy Uasïsï MMH.
Both sides of the bottle. The front label, on the right, tells you that this is joven (young, unaged) mezcal with 48% alcohol content. The back label, on the left, gives all the pertinent information about the mezcal: the number and lot of the bottle, the exact provenance (village or state) of the mezcal, as well as the type of maguey used. Photo courtesy Uasïsï MMH.
Tamarind or pear flavored mezcal Uasïsï: made slightly sweet with real fruit, it’s perfect for dessert. Photo courtesy Uasïsï MMH.
This Uasïsï tasting was held at UNLA (Universidad Latina de América) in Morelia, Michoacán.
And what, you ask, does Uasïsï joven actually taste like? To start with, if you have tasted other mezcales, you probably and immediately think smokey. Uasïsï is not in any way smokey. To my palate, Uasïsï joven tastes fresh, like the green of the maguey. It has slight lingering tones of Michoacán pine. It carries a hint of flowers. Because the alcohol content is high, the first sip feels strong in the front of the mouth. As it moves to the back of the tongue, it mellows. And the moment you swallow that first drop, filled with the flavors of Michoacán, you immediately want another. Uasïsï is an extraordinary drink, destined to be a star in the world of mezcal.
Now that you know you want a bottle (or two or three–don’t forget about the tamarind dessert mezcal) of Uasïsï mezcal, where can you get it? The Uasïsï home base is Mex*Calli Mezcalería, Buenavista #5, Pátzcuaro, Michoacán.
Otherwise, my good friend Maira Malo Hernández and I (pictured at Morelia en Boca 2014 with Mexico City chef and chocolatier Luis Robledo Richards) invite you to buy Uasïsï at:
Blvd. Juan Pablo II #315
Agua y Sal Cebichería
Campos Elíseos #199-A
Col. Polanco, México D.F.
La Catrina Comedor & Mezcalería
Av. 5 de Mayo #661
It’s entirely possible that Uasïsï mezcal will be coming soon to a liquor store near you. Check back with Mexico Cooks!from time to time and we’ll keep you up to date on the possibility of export to countries outside Mexico. And if you’re planning to be in Mexico and would like to visit thevinata, Mexico Cooks! can make that dream come true. The experience is magical.
This week we are re-publishing a trio of posts from the brilliant Cristina Potters at Mexico Cooks! about pulque, mezcal, and what Michoacan brings to the table. We started with pulque on Wednesday, today it’s Mexico Cooks! mezcal primer. You can find the original version of the post below here.
A Mezcal Primer
Sign in front of a Mexican welding shop: “We weld everything except a broken heart. For that we have mezcal.”
In case it hasn’t hit your town quite yet, a tsunami is on its way from Mexico to you. Get ready: mezcal is on the roll! Here in Mexico City and in many other areas of the country, recently ho-hum tequila is being replaced by this high-powered delight of the hundreds-of-years-old wave of the future. Many of you may already know mezcal as that bottle from Oaxaca with the worm in it, but Oaxaca is just one of the Mexican states where mezcal is produced. And just an aside: 99.999% of the time, that bottle with the worm in it is for tourists and other rank neophytes: it’s usually rotgut.
An agave atrovirens cactus–the same photo Mexico Cooks!published last week–that is used to make pulque. The maguey cactus is also the base for mezcal.
Although there are upwards of 200 varieties of maguey, relatively few of those make up the majority of mezcales. Those few are: espadín (used for 90% of all mezcal production), tobala, tobasiche, tepeztate, arroqueño, and the maguey pictured above–thecupreata which grows in Michoacán and several other states.
Mezcal is produced for personal use and for sale in all of Mexico’s 31 states, but only eight of those states have received the prized Denominación de Origen (abbreviatedDO: certification of geographic origin). The largest mezcal production in the country is in the state of Oaxaca, which in 1994 was the first Mexican state to receive itsDenominación de Origen. Today, seven other states have the certification. Most recently (in November 2012), the state of Michoacán received its DO status.
Cupreata maguey cactus in flower, near Etúcuaro, Michoacán. The flowering spike of the maguey is the quiote. A cupreata maguey plant needs eight to ten years to mature; like its cousin the common century plant, the entire plant begins to wither and die once thecupreata flowers. By day, birds pollinate the maguey. By night, bats do the same. Once the flower dies, the plant produces runners that grow into baby plants–and the life cycle of the maguey begins again.
Rocío Díaz of Michoacán, creator of the acclaimed and prize-winning video Documezcal, has graciously givenMexico Cooks! permission to use her video as a learning tool in this article. In a way that words cannot, the video gives you direct insight into artisan production of mezcal.
Mexico Cooks! recently hopped on a guajolotero (what you might think of as a chicken bus) to meet some new friends who promised to take me to meet an artisanal mezcal producer in Michoacán (west-central Mexico), where mezcal and its production are a way of life.
Every small town has at least one mezcal producer and frequently more than one; some small producers have been distilling the drink for private use for 50 years or more. Commercial production of mezcal is relatively recent; many connoisseurs consider commercial mezcales to be inferior. The good news? The best mezcal is the one you like, not the one someone–even if that someone is me–tells you to like.
Among people who drink mezcal and study its history, origins, and traditions, there is a good bit of controversy regarding its production and destinations. Until next week, I leave you with your homework: read the linked article so that you will know what the controversies are. Whether or not these matter to you is entirely up to you. Remember that the article is strictly about the mezcales of Oaxaca. Photo and article (click the link here) courtesy MezcalPhD.
Next week, we will talk about a particular mezcal from Michoacán.
We are Susan Coss and Max Garrone. We like mezcal and think you should to. We are committed to telling the story of mezcal within the context of its history and cultural connection. We also think education should be fun and delicious. And we are deeply committed to supporting the craft of production and the people who work tirelessly to bring us mezcal.
We write this blog and conduct mezcal tastings from small monthly to events to our annual Mezcal: Mexico in a Bottle event, which is the largest mezcal event in the United States.
Susan Coss is a long time marketing and communications strategist in the world of sustainable food and beverages. She was most recently the Director of Marketing and PR for CUESA, the organization that runs the world famous Ferry Plaza Farmers market in San Francisco. She is also a co-founder and former director of the Eat Real Festival, that drew more than 250,000 people in its first three years. She has spent time in Oaxaca since 2003 and has established food and beverage relationships all over California, Mexico and Washington, DC. She has a degree in Agricultural Economics from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Max Garrone has been a journalist and editor who covered events as diverse as presidential elections and the meaning of David Lynch’s movies for publications like Salon.com and SFGate.com. He is currently a content strategist and digital media consultant.
To chat or find the answer to your niggling mezcal question just email us!