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The battle for authenticity is joined by the big boys

 

Roca Patron

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 perils of the mezcal boom”

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.

Mexico Cooks! guest blogs Michoacán Mezcal Uasïsï, Brought to You By Mayahuel–The Goddess of Maguey

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

Mezcal Camioncito
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.

Mezcal Cupreata 3
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.

Mezcal Don Nacho con Maira
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.

Mezcal con Flor
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.

Mezcal Maira Partiendo Piñas
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).

Mezcal Tamaño de la Piña
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.

Uasïsï Pino al Horno
Pine logs, stacked firmly into the fire pit.  Photo courtesy Uasïsï MMH.

Mezcal Horno
Don Nacho is tamping the volcanic rock evenly into the pit, on top of the pine logs.  Photo courtesy Uasïsï MMH.

Uasïsï Horno Incendido
The fire in the pit is red hot and smoking.  Photo courtesy Uasïsï MMH.

Uasïsï Piñas and Fire
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.

Uasïsï Horno Tapado
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.

Mezcal Piñas al Horno
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.

Mezcal Chopping Trough
The more than six foot long pine-lined trench where the baked piñas are hand-chopped and smashed with axes.

Mezcal Machacando Piñas 2
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.

Mezcal Tinacos
These are the tinacos (covered storage tanks) where the baked and smashed piñas are fermented.  The fermentation process takes a week.

Mezcal Alambique
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.

Mezcal Alambique 2
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.

Mezcal Fire Hole
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.

Uasïsï Ad
The finished product: Uasïsï Mezcal Joven.  Photo courtesy Uasïsï MMH.

Uasïsï Bottle with Labels
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.

Mexcal Uasïsï stand
Tamarind or pear flavored mezcal Uasïsï: made slightly sweet with real fruit, it’s perfect for dessert.  Photo courtesy Uasïsï MMH.

Cata Mezcal UNLA
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.

Mexcalli Mezcalería
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.

Cristina con Maira y Luis Robledo Morelia en Boca May 2014
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:

  • Itacate Morelia
    Blvd. Juan Pablo II #315
    Morelia, Michoacán
  • Agua y Sal Cebichería
    Campos Elíseos #199-A
    Col. Polanco, México D.F.
  • La Catrina Comedor & Mezcalería
    Av. 5 de Mayo #661
    Zamora, Michoacán

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 thevinataMexico Cooks! can make that dream come true.  The experience is magical.

Mexico Cooks! guest blogs A Mezcal Primer

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

Mezcal Soldaduría
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.

Agave atrovirens
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.

Mezcal Cupreata 1
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), tobalatobasiche, 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.

Mezcal Flor
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.

Mezcal Camioncito Mejor
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.

Mezcalheader-filtercrop2-notxt2
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.

Mexico Cooks! guest blogs starting with Pulque!

We’ve chatted with Cristina Potters from Mexico Cooks! for quite some time about collaborating on a mezcal related topic because she writes one of the best blogs on Mexican culture around. I’ve read it for years just to keep up on the local culinary scene so my interest and fandom pre-date this blog.

In true kismet fashion when we were in Mexico City a few years ago visiting our tequila obsessed friends Scarlet and Grover who run Taste Tequila we even connected Cristina to them and they ended up having a great meal. Sadly we’ve never met in person because our travel plans are always at odds. Mayahuel willing that will change soon but in the interim Cristina has invited us to re-publish her recent series on the alcohols derived from the maguey starting with today’s post on one of the most fascinating drinks imaginable, pulque. You can find the original post on her blog here, we’ll run two more pieces from her series over the next week so if you’re anxious head over to her blog to read them immediately.

Oh and should you want a very personalized tour of Mexico then definitely take a look at what Cristina can offer.

Pulque: Pre-Hispanic Drink, Gift of the Gods from the Maguey Cactus

This Mexico Cooks! article was originally published on April 24, 2010. Today, read it again to begin a series of occasional reports on the remarkable products given to us from the heart of the magueycactus. Aguamiel, pulque, and mezcal all come to us from the abundant hand of Mayahuel, goddess of themaguey.

Agave atrovirens
An agave atrovirens cactus.  This enormous blue-gray plant, native to the ancient land which became Mexico, continues to provide us with pulque (POOL-keh), a naturally fermented alcoholic beverage.  The maguey, with pencas (thick, succulent leaves) which can grow to a height of seven to eight feet, matures in ten to twelve years.  At maturity, the plant can begin to produce liquor.

Pulque, native to Mexico, is suddenly all the rage in countries far from its origin.  Folks who have most likely never seen a maguey cactus ‘on the hoof’ argue the relative merits of natural versus flavored pulques, canned versus straight from the barrel, and so forth.  Mayahuel, the goddess of the maguey, is laughing up her sleeve at this current rash of pulque acficionados; pulque has been well-loved in what is now Mexico for longer than humankind can remember.

Mezcal tlacuache
Legend has it that a thousand years ago and more, Sr. Tlacuache (Mr. Opossum, above) scraped his sharp claws through the heart of the maguey and slurped down the world’s first taste of pulque–and then another, and another, until he had a snoot full.  His meandering drunken ramble allegedly traced the path of the rivers that flow through Mexico. Photo courtesy Juan Palomino.

Codice Borbonico
A drawing from the Codice Borbónico (1530s Spanish calendar and outline of life in the New World) shows Mayahuel, goddess of the maguey, with a mature cactus and a pot of fermented pulque.  The first liquid that pours into the heart of the maguey is called aguamiel (literally, honey water); legend says that aguamiel is Mayahuel’s blood.

Aguamiel actually comes from the pencas (leaves) of the cactus.  In order to start the flow of liquid into the heart of the plant, the yema (yolk) of the plant is removed from the heart and the heart’s walls, connected to the leaves, are scraped until only a cavity remains.  Within a few days, the aguamiel begins to flow into the cavity in the heart of the plant.  The flow of aguamiel can last anywhere from three to six months.  Today, the men who work the maguey to produce pulque are still called tlaquicheros.  The word is derived from the same Nahuatl origin as the name for the original tlaquicheroSr. Tlacuache, Mr. Opossum.

Pulque y maguey
An early tlaquichero removes aguamiel from the heart of the maguey by sucking it out with a long gourd.  Today, workers use a steel scoop to remove up to six liters of aguamiel per day from a single plant.  Aguamiel is not an alcoholic beverage.  Rather, it is a soft drink, sweet, transparent, and refreshing.  Once it ferments, however, it becomes the alcoholic drink pulque, also known as octli.

The fermentation of pulque can start in the plant itself. Aguamiel, left in the plant’s heart to ‘ripen’ for a few days, begins to ferment.  For commercial production, which began in the 19th century, tlaquicheros removeaguamiel from the maguey and transfer it to huge steel tanks, where it ferments.

Pulque dentro de maguey con popote
The heart of the maguey, full of aguamiel.  The tool balanced in the liquid is the same type gourd that is pictured in the early drawing seen above.  Between extractions of aguamiel, the leaves of the maguey are folded over the cavity where the liquid collects to prevent insects and plant debris from falling into the heart.

Pulque Postcard
Mexican photographic postcard dating to the 1940s or 1950s.  The women and children pose in front of huge maguey plants.

By the end of the 19th century, pulque was enormously popular among Mexico’s very rich and very poor.  Weary travelers in the early 20th century could find stands selling pulque–just for a pickmeup–alongside rural byways.  Travelers riding Mexico’s railroads bought pulque at booths along the tracks.  Pulquerías (bars specializing in pulque) were in every town, however small or large.  In Puebla and Mexico City, legendary pulquerías abounded.

La Palanca Tina Modotti 1926 Gelatin Silver Print
Italian expatriate Tina Modotti, a member of the Diego Rivera/Frida Kahlo artists’ circle, photographed Mexico City’s pulquería La Palanca in 1926.

Medidas de Pulque
This common image hung in pulquerías all over Mexico.  Clients could order the amount of pulque they wanted according to the drawings–and be reminded of what they had ordered when the pulque had laid them low.  Image courtesy of La Voz de Michoacán.

PulqueGlasswareMAPDF
In the foreground are the actual pitchers and glasses used in Mexico’s pulquerías.  Compare them with the vessels in the drawing.  Image courtesy of Museo del Arte Popular (DF).

Pulque lovers spent long evenings in their favorite pulquerías in an alcoholic haze of music, dancing, laughter and delight.  Far less expensive than other hard liquors, pulque carries with it the romance of ancient legend, the tradition of a nation, and the approbation of the gods.

Pulquería Charrito Edward Weston 1926
Edward Weston, American photographer, immortalized Mexico City’s pulquería El Charrito, also in 1926.

Natural pulque is a pale white, semi-viscous, liquid with a slick, thick feel in the mouth; many people are put off by that feel, as well as by its slightly sour taste.  Even for those who dislike natural pulque, another kind of pulque–called curado (in this instance, flavored)–is delicious.  Natural pulque, combined with blended fresh fruit, vegetables, or ground nuts, becomes a completely different drink.   Bananas, guavas, strawberries, and the tuna (fruit of the nopal cactus) are particular favorites.

1.- Inicia la Expo-Feria del Pulque y la Salsa en La Magdalena Contreras
Feria de Pulque 
(Pulque Fair) in the State of Mexico.  Each of the jars holds pulque curado, each flavored with a different fresh fruit, vegetable, or type of nut.

Mexico Cooks!
 first tasted pulque about 30 years ago, in Huixquilucan, in the State of Mexico.  Huixquilucan, once known to its inhabitants as Huixqui (pronounced whiskey), used to be a small town, and Mexican friends took me to its small-town fair where home-made pulque was for sale in what seemed like every booth offering food and drink.  “Try it, you’ll like it a lot!” my friends giggled.  “Just a little taste!  C’mon!”  I was nervous: I’d heard about pulque and its slippery slimy-ness and its inebriating qualities.  Finally we stood in front of a booth offering pulque curado con fresas: pulque flavored with fresh strawberries.  “Okay, okay, I can try this.”  And I liked it!  The first small cupful was a delicious, refreshing, slightly bubbly surprise.  The second small cupful went down even more easily than the first.  And then–well, let it be said that I had to sit down on the sidewalk for a bit.  I truly understood about pulque.

Try it, you’ll like it a lot…c’mon, just a little taste!

Not your average use for mezcal

Per Dana Goodyear‘s new book “Anything That Moves” a New york bartender “uses a rapid-infusion technique to make a smoky marijuana-mescal, double charging a canister of mescal and marijuana with nitrous. The first charge dissolves the gas into the mescal; the second forces the mescal to permeate the bud. When the canister is opened, releasing the pressure, the enhanced alcohol seeps back out of the plant.”

Mezcal on film

Our friends over at Mescal Archivo have launched a Kickstarter campaign to support the creation of a digital documentary about our favorite spirit and the people who make it. Take a look at their campaign, it’s a worthy cause. Here’s their Kickstarter video:

 

Mezcal lists

Todomezcal.com just popped up on our radar because it has a nice list of mezcals.  It’s not anywhere complete, especially for mezcals available in the U.S., but its presents a great variety of mezcals along with biographical notes for each bottling.  The bigger point is that we haven’t been able to find a complete list of mezcals so if you have candidates send them along.  In an ideal world someone would launch a continually updated list of mezcals along with biographies like those presented on Todomezcal.com or Mezcaloteca.  The project is far too vast for us to contemplate right now but we’ll try to fill in the gaps in our own little way.

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.

 

 

Viva mezcal!

Here’s a nice clip from an upcoming documentary on traditional agaves in Mexico. It’s a good background on the topic and importance of agave diversity in Mexico. There’s a great presentation of the issues and debate over the Denominación de Origen for mezcal, what was left out, why it’s still an issue and the current debate over NOM 186. It’s subtitled with a nice translation.

Viva Mezcal ® (Fragmento) / Viva Mezcal ® (Fragment) from pedro jimenez gurria on Vimeo.