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Posts from the ‘Mezcals’ Category

Oaxaca notes: An encuentro of (many) Maestros del Mezcal

It was a fabulous three weeks in Oaxaca that now feels simultaneously like I was there for forever and that it was all a dream. I’ll just sum it up in five words– so much damn good mezcal.

Max did a great little write up about how the mezcaleria scene is changing, with differentiation coming in style and design and of course breadth of offerings. To my great dismay, I was not able to get to Cuish to see live and in person their newly revamped space. By all accounts, it is beautiful and is at the top of my list when I return. I have such high regard for what Felix Hernandez Monterrosa and Hilda Martinez Popoca have done for mezcal in Oaxaca. When they opened their doors in 2011, Read more

Moreno’s Liquors demonstrate mezcal’s deep roots in Chicago

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A post from our Chicago partner Lou Bank, who we first met in Oaxaca over mezcal, of course. Together we are bringing Mezcal: Mexico in a Bottle to Chicago for the first time this September 18th, 2016. Get your tickets today!

Chicagoans have seen a relative boom in mezcal recently, with agave-centric bars joining standard-bearers like Frontera, Masa Azul, and Dove’s. But the seeds for all of them were planted four decades ago, in the 1970s, when Mike Moreno had a vision for a store that brought Mexican and Latin American beers, wines, and spirits to the people of Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood. “I wanted to bring our culture to our community,” he explains.

La Preferida had $127,000 in Mexican beers that they could not sell,” said the soft-spoken entrepreneur. “When I told them I wanted some of it for a store that would cater to the people living in Little Village, they did not think it would work. But it wasn’t long before I had purchased all of that beer from them.” Read more

Welcome to a palenque christening

Amidst all the holiday and family activities I also had the opportunity to attend a palenque christening in Sola de Vega, Oaxaca – a new venture from Don Luis Mendez in addition to his cultivation of silvestres project previously discussed here. He and four other men from Sola de Vega have restored an old palenque – with careful attention to all the details and traditional roots.

Read more

Is there an “ancient” mezcal category?

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Erick Rodriguez, second from right, with the mezcaleros.

Erick Rodriguez is many things. He guides tours, advocates for mezcal, sources mezcal, has his own label, and travels tirelessly to see what’s out there in the vastness of Mexico’s agave growing and distilling regions. He truly is one of the most dynamic characters in the business. That’s why one of his latest ventures is just as crazy as you’d expect. He has been working with a mezcalero to make mezcal from a 55-year-old agave. He claims, and anyone I’ve asked agrees, that this is the oldest known agave to make it into a mezcal.

Like anything this rare there’s a great origin story. A guy approached Erick at a mezcalero meeting in Mexico City saying that he had some agave that he wanted to make into mezcal. They got to talking and a strange story emerged. This guy had some agave that he claimed was 40-45 years old, a claim based on his dad’s death. See, his dad was murdered but had planted the agave before his death. They did the math and that was 55 years ago. In the interim no one seems to have paid any attention to the agaves. In true noir fashion, the secret almost died with this poor guy’s dad. It’s Erick’s own little agave murder mystery in a bottle.

Erick being Erick this was his type of project, he jumped in and wanted to distill it. If this story isn’t strange enough already he says it took a turn for the worse when he started talking about it with friends in the industry. He’s been documenting the entire process on his Facebook page so you can see a lot of it there. Plenty of incredulous comments matched with plenty that are enthusiastic. But he wasn’t really prepared for the discomfort that he felt from other people in the mezcal industry who didn’t exactly believe his claim. “People told me ‘that’s nothing new, you’re lying to people.'” Even close friends in the business “got really uncomfortable.”

That discomfort and slagging only lit a fire. Erick and his contact started looking at maps of the area and tried to figure out other ways of verifying the agave’s age. According to Erick “I brought in an archeologist, engineer, and agronomist-engineer Ramiro Angelina-Baños because we don’t want to get the facts wrong and I don’t want people saying ‘you know you’re killing the last of agaves” because it’s already mature, it’s going to die anyway.” They made sure that they had pups from the plant they were going to harvest so that it could reproduce and they could try and grow it themselves. They were able to get ihuelos from each plant and have replanted them.

One of the ancient agave plants.

One of the ancient agave plants.

As for horticultural question of how an agave can live that long before it reproduces, that’s beyond me. I’ll need to follow up with a botanist. I know it’s a cliche but one of the colloquial names for agaves is “Century Plant.”

Erick and his contact also looked around to see if they could find more and identify it but even he’s not sure what it is. “It’s not Barril because that’s short and fat. This one is long, cut leaves, two meters and seven centimeters high, three meters and thirty centimeters across with the leaves. You have to really dig it out of the ground and they weigh 150 kilos for each piña.”

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He’s calling this one El Cuarantero or El Gordo for obvious reasons but the price supports the name as well, he’s charging between $700-$1,000 per liter depending on who’s buying. Frequent buyers and those who account for a lot of volume get a discount. That’s pretty hefty, definitely way above my pay grade. At least it’s not the most expensive bottle of mezcal ever which clocked in at a purported $74,000.

I’ll let Erick describe the process and argue for that price point. He says that they did everything by hand, harvested the agave in steep mountain terrain but then had to reinvent the manual process of actually making the mezcal because the mezcalero and his crew had fallen away from tradition. “I paid them to go back to tradition, they already have a tahona but doing it by hand is better so I paid them, the assistants didn’t know how to use a canoe so I paid them to make one, showed them how to use it, and paid them for the extra time and effort it took to pound out the roasted agave.”

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Hand crushing the agave.

Befitting the special nature of this batch Erick wanted a unique bottle so he went to a local ceramics expert who took impressions from the agave leaves to make ceramic bottles. Erick, “wants to immortalize the agave on the bottle” and even this part of the process is connected to a deeper cultural root because his ceramicist is using rare production techniques that, he claims, he rescued from obscurity.  He’s got his finger print on every bottle so he stands behind his work.

The hand crafted ceramic bottles.

The hand crafted ceramic bottles.

It sort of feels like a stunt but he’s pouring his heart and energy into it and swears up and down about how great it is so I believe him. I’m now morbidly curious to taste it. If you want a bottle contact him through his Facebook page. He will be at Mezcal: Mexico in a Bottle in November and may be able to bring some bottles.

All photos courtesy of Erick Rodriguez. Here’s a full gallery that documents the process:

You wanted mezcal – We’re bringing you mezcal

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As anyone who attended last year’s Mezcal: Mexico in a Bottle knows this event is not to be missed. It’s an opportunity to taste an incredible variety of mezcals and meet their makers while also sampling snacks from some of the best local restaurants and mezcal cocktails from all those creative bartenders who are getting written up in flashy magazines.

But this year we just had to go and make it bigger, badder, and better. First, why mess with success, the Grand Tasting is on November 15th at Public Works and will be very similar to last year’s event except that we’ll be adding mezcals and we’re going to have some very special tastings led by some of the most interesting people in the business. But keep in mind, only Mezcal Lovers tickets get access to those special tastings so choose wisely.

The preceding week will see a variety of special mezcal themed events throughout the San Francisco Bay Area including a US Bartender Guild juried competition for the best mezcal cocktail at Devil’s Acre on November 9th, special cocktail parties, dinners, a meeting with key figures in the industry, and more. As we say, check the schedule and get your tickets today.

But why stop there? November 8 – 15 is now officially Mezcal Week with special mezcal cocktails, flights, and snacks available at finer dining establishments and bars across the region. All participants are donating a portion of their proceeds to this year’s non-profit partner, the Mexican Museum. This is your opportunity to taste just how incredible and varied this transformative spirit is. If you can’t find something great on our list of participating venues then you don’t have a pulse.

So, join us and get your tickets today. Last year we sold out, don’t be left out in the cold!

Mezcal Heavy Métl

William Scanlan highlighting his wares

William Scanlan highlighting his wares

William Scanlan has been a man on a mission for quite some time. You may have seen him toting bottles of Real Minero, Rey Campero, and Mezcaloteca to tastings across the United States. Now you will see those bottles independent of the bespectacled man at bars, restaurants, and on the shelves of better liquor stores across the country because William’s quest to bring them to North America is finally certified and legal.

His story has many of the elements common to mezcal and opera: He met mezcal, fell into a torrid romance, and spent the rest of the dramatic acts resolving all the problems. In his case it was the work of importing and distribution which, as many others similary bewitched by mezcal can attest, is more than a simple chore. But the time and effort involved probably made him better prepared for the road ahead. It’s not easy out there for a mezcal importer.

A few of the Heavy Métl portfolio

A few of the Heavy Métl portfolio

First, the mezcal

Before we do anything else let’s get to the serious stuff. The mezcals. Here’s what’s being imported to Texas by Virtuoso Selections, Washington by Agave Oaxaca, and fresh this week, California courtesy of JVS Imports. As William’s import company, the aptly named Heavy Métl, gets its tentacled arms across the country he will open more states with strategic partner Skurnik Wines starting with New York in October.

Real Minero

DOM Santa Catarina Minas

NOM O37X

Maestro Mezcalero: Don Lorenzo Angeles

– Barril (Agave Karwinskii)

– Largo (Agave Karwinskii)

– Field Blend of 4 agaves (barril, largo, and tripon from the Karwinskii team and espadin, Agave Angustifolia haw.) This is the sort of blend that probably comes closest to recreating the original mezcals. Traditionally mezcals were made from whichever mezcals were ripe at the time of distillation and less emphasis was placed on type. 

– Pechuga: Triple distilled espadin (Agave Angustifolia haw.) with the addition of creole/wild apples, pineapples. platano de castilla, orange, almonds, white rice, the skinless breast of a free range chicken that hasn’t laid eggs, and more. 

– Arroqueno: (Agave Americana var. Oaxacensis) Though this was an extraordinarily limited production run of 65 liters for Real Minero’s launch in the United States. It’s heavily allocated so don’t be disappointed if you can’t find any.

Rey Campero

DOM – Candelaria Yegole

NOM – O185X

Maestro Mezcalero: – Romulo Sanchez Parada

– Espadin (Agave Angustifolia haw.)

– Cuishe (Agave Karwinskii)

– Madreuishe (Agave Karwinskii)

– Tobala: (Agave Potatorum) This is the only Rey Campero mezcal made from wild agave harvested from a different village, San Pedro Martir at about 6000 feet above sea level. The high altitude and cooler climate favors tobala from San Pedro Martir but only during the dry seasons because these plants are especially sensitive to rain. 

– Mexicano (Agave Rhodacantha)

– Jabali (Agave Convallis) 

– Tepextate: (Agave Marmorata) This just arrived in the United States and is now available in California but it will take a little longer to get distributed everywhere else.

– Later this year William plans to import Rey Campero’s Arroqueno (Agave Americana var. Oaxacensis) and Sierra Negra (Agave Americana), ideally as something special for the holidays so start saving now!

Mezcalosfera by Mezcaloteca

William is working away on bringing Mezcaloteca’s various bottlings into the United States. The name is different because it reflects Marco Ochoa and Silvia Philion’s idea to distinguish between certified and non certified mezcals. William will only be importing certified mezcals. At least for now! With luck we’ll start seeing these bottles later in October just in time to snap them up for holiday gifts!

Who is William Scanlan?

Like many of us William fell in love with mezcal and immediately set to work figuring out how to make it part of his life. A native Texan and fluent Spanish speaker, he’s lived on both sides of the border for his work. He first encountered mezcal 12 or 13 years ago at his local Mexican restaurant in Austin where he’d hang out and sample the latest tequilas with the staff. One day the manager told him “‘come in tomorrow night for a mezcal tasting, you have to taste it, it’ll change your perspective and you’ll never like tequila again.’ I thought that was a bold statement so I showed up and the man leading the tasting happened to be Ron Cooper. Back then he was still driving mezcal up from Oaxaca himself. I hung out and talked to him for a while and that’s really when I first became enamored with mezcal. I had never tasted that level of quality before.” For anyone that doesn’t know, Ron Cooper is the founder of Del Maguey, the original artisanal mezcal in North America. 

The mezcal obsession really got going in 2006 when he moved to Oaxaca and later Mexico City. He’d been mulling the idea of his own mezcal brand and traveling to all the mezcal meetings at Agave Fest, Expo Mezcal, Dardo, and anywhere else that would help him learn about the spirit and the industry. Then two years ago his good friend and mentor, Erick Rodriguez of Alma Mezcalera, grabbed him at Agave Fest and told him that he really needed to taste this new mezcal called Rey Campero. “I went over and tasted them and it was right then and there that I broke the idea of doing my own brand. I decided that being an importer was what I wanted to do because it was much more than about the brand, it was about the culture, regions, biodiversity, and traditions of the families that produced these mezcals.”

What’s the Rey Campero story?

Rey Campero is the perfect example: The brand is really a family of brothers, cousins, and nephews – Romulo is their maestro mezcalero in the community of Candeleria Yegole about two hours south-west of Oaxaca City. The village may be familiar to you because Mezcal Vago hails from the same area as do many smaller producers. Romulo learned how to make mezcal from his dad and worked in the palenque until he was 20 but, like many people in his village and the whole country, when the economy went bad and mezcal wasn’t a viable business he emigrated north and worked in North Carolina.

When Romulo returned to Mexico in 2003 he moved to the City of Oaxaca and thought about returning to the mezcal business but it wasn’t until 2012 that he made the leap, moved back to Candeleria Yegole and got the business started. He pulled his brothers and nephews into the project and they have been working away at it ever since. The fact that they’ve really only been a formal company since 2012 tells you everything you need to know about the evolution of mezcal; it’s young and growing fast.

Romulo and his family still do everything on the production side even if many of them live in the city of Oaxaca. As William told me, “they prepare the ovens, roast and plant the agave. They may be in charge of sales and administration but they’re actively involved in the grunt work.” And that tradition shows through in the mezcals: Almost all of them are truly the fruit of wild agaves with their espadin being the only cultivated one of the bunch. 

As for the name, Rey Campero means “King of the Countryside” and was chosen to reflects the landscape, hard work, wild agaves, and “superior mezcals” that the brand produces. William told me that the connection to the countryside is critical to all concerned because “it’s a reference to the difficulty of harvesting maguey from the steep slopes and canyons in the countryside where you can not use trucks to remove the maguey.” In other words, Rey Campero runs on the backs of its farmers and burros.

Special guest Graciela Angeles Carreño walks guests through the many variations of Real Minero, her family's mezcal which will soon be on sale in the United States. Photo by Michael Skrzypek

Graciela Angeles Carreño at Mezcal: Mexico in a Bottle 2014. Photo by Michael Skrzypek

 

Becoming Real Minero’s conduit

Anyone who has tasted Real Minero knows how good they are. Graciela Angeles Carreño is the leader of the brand and an upholder of a family tradition. She fully understands the weight of that burden and has defined her family’s business and distilling tradition with a precision and discipline seldom seen in the mezcal business. William said that when he first visited her palenque, “it blew me away how clean and organized the palenque was. I told her ‘this is incredible, it’s the most organized and most clean palenque I’ve ever seen,’ and she told me “this is what happens when you have a woman in charge of running a business.””

Working with Real Minero took time and lots of intention exactly because it’s a family business with so much at stake. Like many of these things it’s all about the relationship. When William first met Graciela she was entertaining offers from a variety of importers. Whatever he offered her and represented must have resonated because he ended up with the contract. As he puts it “Ultimately, she decided to work with me, I’m very grateful for that.” Having met both William and Graciela my guess is that they have something like an extended familial relationship of fantastic respect and understanding which is the foundation of the business. 

Anyone who has met Graciela can testify to the precision and care she brings to the business. The same goes for her entire operation, Real Minero produces just 5,000 liters a year for the Mexican and European markets. The plan is to slowly ramp up with demand from the United States while maintaining high quality in their low production.

Mezcaloteca rising

If that wasn’t enough, Heavy Métl will soon bring select Mezcalosferea by Mezcaloteca bottles into the U.S. Mezcaloteca is the embodiment of cult status. Physically a tasting room in Oaxaca City just up the street from the botanical garden as well as a label which brings many small producers to the attention and delight of mezcal aficionados fortunate enough to make the trip. They represent much more, founding member Marco Ochoa is one of the intellectual guides for the mezcal world while his business partner Silvia Philion continues to run the show. Screaming Eagle eat your heart out because you can still go to Mezcaloteca and meet the people behind the brand with their products nightly. Bringing that vibe and product north is a trick – so much so that there won’t be many bottles and they will be few and far between; as in real collectors items. As William says, “The idea is to keep production low and maintain the true sense of Mezcaloteca, once it’s gone it’s gone.”

Mezcaloteca’s bottles are famous for their exact descriptions of who produced the contents and how. They adapted a traditional structure and have paved a path for the rest of the industry. Their focus has always been on the purely artisanal producers who, by necessity, only create small batches because other things like stable incomes derived from farming cash crops take priority. And, because they’re so small, most of Mezcaloteca’s producers aren’t certified by the CRM as makers of mezcals. William told me that only a single Mezcaloteca producer is currently certified so he’s working with Marco and Silvia to build a new collaborative palenque. “we’re creating opportunities for people in the community who would like to certify their production – like this 22 year old kid who is making amazing mezcales at his father’s palenque but since his dad is against certification he has no where else to go to certify his mezcal. So we want to give opportunities to people who want to be certified and are faced by certain obstacles.” Given that state it’s going to be a while before Mezcaloteca’s bottles start appearing in the United States; optimistically this fall, realistically the new year. Hope in the mezcal world springs eternal.

The future

I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the name because it’s just so awesome. No, William isn’t a lover of Danzig, Metallica, or sundry other bands that could have inspired him naming his business “Heavy Métl” which, in this new variant of Nahuatlish or Englitl, is the perfect combination of North American pop sensibility and the Nahuatl word for agave. Nahuatl being the language common to the peoples of what is now central Mexico like the Aztecs, when the Spaniards arrived. The “Heavy” part harks back to the colloquial meaning in the seventies, as in “deep” or “profound.” It refers back to that idea of “that’s heavy man.”  refers back to that. band reference. I’m at a loss, why didn’t we or anyone else think of it. But William has it sewn up, he gets the cred for that and gifting himself with the title “Chief Mezcalhead.”

Heavy Métl has been nearly a decade in the making and just started importing this summer so I’d expect things to ramp up slowly but it sounds like William has been overwhelmed with orders and is sitting on top of a successful operation. As he told me last week “my projections were way too conservative which is really exciting for these families and me.” He’s been so busy supporting the few states where Heavy Métl already imports that he’s only been able to go to Mexico for a few days in recent months. Sounds like it’s high time for a new hire,  but he isn’t resting on his laurels just yet. He told me that Oaxaca is just the beginning. “I’m starting with mezcal from Oaxaca because that’s where everyone thinks where mezcal comes from so I decided to bring the best of the best. I’m building my name as an importer, but the only reason I’m trying to draw attention to myself is so that when I plop another amazing mezcal down in front of a consumer from Guerrero, San Luis de Potosi, Durango, or somewhere else, there will be some consumer awareness that ‘this is the guy who brought Mezcaloteca, Real Minero, or Rey Campero, I’m going to trust him.’ I need to develop that confidence and trust before I can expand.” 

And expansion is clearly on his mind because one of the last things he said was Part of this project is rooted in me getting tired of drinking the same mezcales every time I came to the United States. It’s rooted in my experience and education. Not that stuff here is bad, there are some great mezcales, but I feel that mezcalophiles want new stuff.” The rumors of what that ‘new stuff’ might be are incredibly enticing, more as we can confirm it…

Wahaka adds more mezcal to the mix

Wahaka's 2015 lineup

Wahaka’s 2015 lineup

Don’t look now but Wahaka has added even more bottles to its line up. While the core of the portfolio is still solid they are building out limited edition bottles that expand on last year’s genius marketing idea of their “Vegan Pechugas,” the Espadín Manzanita and Espadín Botaniko which were fantastic and disappeared from shelves quickly. And by genius marketing idea we don’t mean to slight the contents of the bottles because people have been making vegan pechugas for quite a while. It’s just that someone in the C-Suite of Wahaka Enterprises was canny enough to make something of that label.

Now Wahaka is building on those releases with a new set of mezcals allocated to the six states of California, Oregon, Washington, Texas, Illinois, and New York which, I bet, represents a simple map of the most mezcal sold by volume in the United States. The labels are in the same style of last year’s vegan pechugas, black and white with sharp graphic definition. The NOM remains the same as the rest of their production – NOM O148X – and all were made by their master mezcalero Alberto ‘Berto’ Morales.

The bottles are:

  •  Jabali – From cultivated agave.
  • Tepeztate – From wild agave.
  • Nanche: The latest in the vegan pechuga series made from espadin and nanche, a small yellow fruit grown throughout southern Mexico and Central America.
  • Guajolote con Fruta: This is their maestro mezcalero Berto’s first commercial pechuga made from meat along with “a ton of fruit…tangerines, bananas, cantaloupe.” Guajolote is Nahuatl for turkey so it harks back to deep cultural roots.

A quick search shows the Nanche available at K&L and the Jabali on their waiting list.

Michoacan’s creeping mezcal infiltration begins… now

Here’s a quick update from Mezcalistas correspondents and fellow travelers Doug Wheeler and Peggy Stein from Michoacan. They traveled there this June and July sourcing crafts for Peggy’s business Mexico By Hand which guides tours through Michoacan and brings high quality artisanal crafts from the state into the United States. She regularly imports incredible finds which are sold at various museum stores and her web site. I cherish the pieces that I own, the only thing that’s keeping me from buying more is an aggressive budget.

Emilio among the mezcal

This last trip Doug and Peggy visited the Don Mateo vinata in Rancho Pino Bonito, municipio de Morelia, estado de Michoacán, Mexico where they sampled a flor mezcal made from a cupreata agave fermented 4-5 days resulting in an ABV well into the 60 percent range. Per Doug “Oh and it tasted smooth. Very smooth.” Here’s Peggy taking a sip. Note the slamming t-shirt.

The family boasts four generations of mezcal makers who have survived through the thick but mostly thin of life in the Michoacan countryside.

Emilio at the Don Mateo vinata

Emilio, his father and uncle run the vinata. Emilio is in charge of production and other business decisions. Emilio is actually American because he was born in Houston but has since lived his entire life in Mexico which adds yet more wrinkles to our cross border lives. Among the many fascinating things about this vinata and the world of mezcal in Michoacan is the level of cross brand collaboration. Doug was introduced to Don Mateo by Juan Mendez from Uasïsï Mezcal which you may have been lucky enough to sample at last year’s Mexico: Mezcal in a Bottle and will almost definitely find on shelves later this or early next year. That level of collaboration is really nice to see among competitors, they clearly understand that they’re stronger together when working to export to the American market. We don’t know when Don Mateo will reach the United States, keep your eyes peeled!
A fermentation barrel at Don Mateo

Women – the new face of mezcal?

Let’s get one thing clear, women have always been part of the mezcal industry. Historically mezcal production has been a family affair and women were intimately wound into most aspects from selling the mezcal at markets, to preparing the meals, to handling the finances, to actually making mezcal. What seems to be the new trend is women actually getting recognition for their part.

This has been an area of interest for me since, well, mezcal has been of interest to me. As a woman, navigating the very macho world of spirits in general, and then specifically mezcal in Mexico, I can’t help but be drawn to this.

Today, women who are running mezcal businesses are few in number, though perhaps growing. Graciela Angeles Carranza of Real Minero is perhaps the greatest example of a woman at the helm of a family business who has grown it exponentially and is now shipping product around the world. Then you have Reyna Sanchez who learned how to make mezcal from family and has been producing fantastic mezcals while she works her way through the labyrinth of certification. I first met her in November of 2012 when she was making mezcal out of her cousin’s palenque in San Luis Amatlan. Through a grant, she built her own palenque and is known in Oaxaca for her madrecuishe and tepestate. You also have women like Sosima Olivera Aguilar who works with a collective in the Sierra Sur of Oaxaca and sells to bars, restaurants, and mezcalerias in Oaxaca.  And of course you have others like Andrea Sánchez López of Aguas del Corazon mezcal, and Cecilia Murrieta of La Niña del Mezcal who have founded their own brands and work with mezcaleros in Oaxaca, and in the case of Cecilia, now Jalisco.

It makes for a great story: Women are beating the odds and finding economic opportunity in a male dominated industry! But I wonder just what the reality is. After all, Mexico really is a bastion of machismo in all its subtle and explicit varieties. So, this last trip I made a point of visiting the female mezcaleros I know and searching for any that I’d been missing.

I started by telling Ulises Torrentera – mezcal expert extraordinaire and co-proprietor of Oaxaca’s In Situ – that I was interested in meeting women who were making mezcal and he made it a point of introducing me to various women at the Maestros event I went to in Oaxaca.  I was fascinated by one in particular,Oliva Ramírez Laoreano, primarily because at 22 she is very young, and because she doesn’t fit the mold of the classic off the grid mezcalero that I frequently meet. I’m used to meeting men with hardened hands and little experience with contemporary life while Olivia was texting away on her phone and just like a 22-year-old anywhere. At the Maestros event Oliva was pouring tobala, espadin and some of her cremas. The latter lends itself to lots of confusion because the literal English translation is “cream” but no dairy products are present in a mezcal crema, they are actually fruit based mezcals, usually blends with jamaica or tamarind. We chatted briefly at the Maestros event and then made plans for a visit her in Sola de Vega, where she lives.

While at the Maestros event I also met anthropologist Ronda Brulotte, a professor at the University of New Mexico who is working on a huge research project about mezcal. We got together for breakfast a few days later in Oaxaca and talked through some of the issues and questions she has when discussing women and their role in the mezcal industry. While I tend to focus on the role of women as mezcaleras, Ronda digs deeper and has been asking whether the visibility of women in the mezcal world means that the deeper economics are changing. She wonders whether mezcal is actually bringing in more money to the families that make it and whether that’s changing the economics within the family income structure and whether women are getting more power or just sitting in traditional roles. After that breakfast it was quite clear that the story that we’d all love to believe, of  a trend of women making mezcal, just isn’t that simple. We are seeing more female faces in the business when it comes to marketing and pr but we don’t have any data to show there are more women making mezcal so it’s very possible that this whole idea is just wishful thinking. That really weighed on my mind as I got ready to meet up with Oliva.

The drive to Sola de Vega is beautiful – especially because it was the rainy season when everything is verdant. Coming from drought stricken California I felt like a broken record – it’s so green, oh my god look how green everything is, it’s just so, wow, green. Located in what is called the Sierra Sur, it is mountainous and reknown for tobala. Like all road trips, there is always a hitch, this one being we had no cell service and had to stop at a miscellenea to use a landline to figure out where were supposed to meet Oliva. I point this out to anyone wanting to do excursions outside of Oaxaca to more remote areas of Mexico – always have a communications back up plan, and consider making sure any cell plan is with Telcel as Carlos Slim seems to have negotiated contracts for the most coverage. We were supposed to head to a supply store and, after some initial confusion as to which exact supply store, we found one other and headed out to the palenque she was using.

In addition to Oaxaca’s own Mezcalista, Ana JB, and I there was Oliva, her brother, her uncle, and a cousin. Thankfully the drive to the palenque was only about 25 minutes and the road not so badly rutted. Located in a beautiful, narrow valley, the palenque was simple and, at this time, still inactive. There was one wood fermentation barrel, four clay distillation pots, and a chipper to crush the cooked maguey. I want to get back to the chipper question later, for now I have a clear appreciation for their utility given how labor intensive mezcal making is. Some people claim that doing all the shredding by hand or with the tahona creates a clear difference in flavor so I really want to set up a tasting to evaluate this question. There was also plenty of maguey in the surrounding fields. The palenque is apparently certified and I am sure that factored into the reason Oliva wanted to use space.

View inside palenque in Sola de Vega

View inside palenque in Sola de Vega

Clay pots in Sola de Vega

Clay pots in Sola de Vega

July is when people are usually planting corn so most mezcal production is on hiatus for these smaller guys. The palenque is owned by a great uncle who has been making mezcal his whole life. Oliva is learning from him and her grandfather. Her brother, who is younger, probably about 18 or 19, has been helping as well, providing the much needed muscle for this back breaking work. The two of them are without doubt, the most beautiful palenqueros I have ever met. Most of this was explained by Oliva’s uncle, who did most of the talking about the project. It is his hope to create a cooperative of female mezcal makers, a noble concept, which he was clearly passionate about.

I have to admit, I was skeptical of all of this. Was Oliva actually making mezcal, or was she reselling her great uncle’s mezcal? Was she a front for a great story or is this the beginning of what could be a great economic driver for women in the cooperative? And if it is a legitimate project, how many other female mezcal makers are actually out there to make up a cooperative? Then there were other questions – Oliva had studied psychology in school so why would she return home to make mezcal? As I spoke with her uncle, she was quiet and not engaged, and when I asked her why she wanted to do this she really couldn’t answer.

I ended up buying a couple of liters of espadin from her great uncle. A strong, what I call mezcal del campo, I paid 200 pesos to his wife before climbing back into the car to go to Oliva’s house near the center of town to taste her mezcal.

Maguey starts, Sola de Vega

Maguey starts, Sola de Vega

This was where everything changed and Oliva became completely engaged and animated- where she and her brother showed me the maguey starts they had going in the yard next to the house – a mix of tobala, tepestate, and sierra negra. We then sat down at the table, Oliva got glasses and began pouring – first cremas and then espadin and tobala. I am not a huge fan of the cremas, but I have to say, hers were pretty delicious and would make great cocktail mixers as well as playing key roles in the kitchen. I mentioned how they would be great reduced to syrups and poured over roasting meat or used on bread or tortillas with cheese. She immediately pulled out some queso and we began tasting the different combinations of the jamaica and tamarindo. And then there was the straight up mezcal which was quite tasty and showed skill and talent. Ironically, I would have bought the cremas, but she was down to very little until they started making mezcal again. We made do with the tobala, and I made her promise to get us the cremas as soon as possible.

Mole

Mole

We stopped for a quick meal before hitting the road home. We heard thunder in the distance and light rain danced on the tin roof as we chowed down on mole and tortillas and coffee. The sky was darkening as we climbed into the car and began the 2.5 hour journey home, chasing a storm the entire way back to Oaxaca.

Quick look: Calavera Restaurant and Agave Bar

I had the lucky opportunity to check out Calavera Restaurant in Oakland ahead of its official open. This is Chris Pastena’s latest creation after Chop Bar, Tribune Tavern and Lungomare. I’d heard about Calavera a while back and was especially excited by their plans to stock more than 80 mezcals. I mean, how could I not be excited?

Located on Broadway, in a restored Julia Morgan building, it is a large, open restaurant with simple yet beautiful design that shines through with the hanging lights (not Edison lights!). The orangish back wall has very lightly and subtly embossed skulls, and a gorgeous long bar with a wall of mezcal that resembles a library because of the wheeled ladder used to access all the protruding boxes which contain all that precious mezcal.

And what a collection of mezcals – this place is serious. Pastena knows his stuff and has put together quite a list with specific selections from Mezonte, In Situ, and 400 Rabbits, plus the full collections from Vago, Del Maguey, Pierde Almas, Alipus, Mezcalero and more. Mezcal is served in ceramic copitas crafted by Oaxacan artist Omar Hernandez. It is this attention to detail that really shows the loving care put into creating this restaurant. There’s also a great list of cocktails – I tried the Sandia, a watermelon base with mezcal, salt air (foam), a sprinkling of chile de arbol and a watermelon garnish. Perfect for the heat of the evening.

The Sandia cocktail at Calavera

The Sandia cocktail at Calavera

Then there is the food… Chef Christian Irabien, whose background includes Oyamel Cocina Mexicana (Jose Andrés’ restaurant in DC) has crafted a unique menu that salutes tradition and simultaneously turns it around. We were a four top of serious and adventurous eaters and therefore were not shy at ordering as much as we could. Everything was delicious, from the ceviches to the refried beans to the chile relleno and to the grilled huachinango (oh how I love huachinango and so rarely eat it outside of Mexico.)

Calavera is the latest addition to Oakland’s collection of upscale Mexican restaurants which makes it quite a place to eat out. Between this latest addition, Tamarindo, Nido, and Doña Tomas it’s far easier for those of us on the east side of the bay to stay local while indulging our love for all things Mexican. I am greatly looking forward to spending some time at the bar, sipping my way through that list.

What was left of dessert

What was left of dessert

Copita of In Situ arroqueño

Copita of In Situ arroqueño

Grilled huachinango

Grilled huachinango

Guacamole with a side of chapulines

Guacamole with a side of chapulines