The morning in Latuvi smelled like fire and smoke, and purple shadows draped over the curves of the Sierra Norte as I looked out from the balcony. At night the trumpet-shaped brugmansia flower was so fragrant it wandered down the stairs towards the cabin. It would be more romantic if the roosters crowed in the morning, but they crowed all the time.
Posts from the ‘Oaxaca’ Category
We are pleased to introduce our new correspondent on the ground Buzz Komil – this is his first piece for Mezcalistas…
So, there’s this amazing new spirit out of Mexico called mezcal. It’s kind of like tequila, but not really. It’s smoky, and mysterious, like that cousin you once heard of, you know, the one who lived out in the middle of nowhere and whose idea of a pimped ride was a donkey pulling a stone wheel.
We get asked all the time about how to go visit palenques in Oaxaca. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on who you ask, the tourist infrastructure isn’t fully built out so tours and routes aren’t that obvious. There just isn’t a Silverado Trail there even if there are tons of distillers and plenty of roadside stands of somewhat dubious quality. But with the explosion of interest in mezcal over the past few years some great options have emerged. Here are a few of the most prominent.
This is a cross post from one of our frequent collaborators, Ferron Salniker. You can read her excellent blog Ferronlandia here.
I’m pretty sure I learned the magic of eating garlic shrimp, down to the shells and heads, when I was six on our first family trip to Mexico, in Puerto Angel, which happens to be just a few towns down from where I stayed this trip. I’ve come full circle, because when stuck on what to order last week I remembered how difficult it is to fuck up garlic shrimp (camarones al ajo). It’s just butter, garlic, shrimp. I had it two days in a row.
After eating and drinking in Oaxaca city for five days, coming to the coast was a welcome relief from eating meat and cheese at almost every meal. But like in many beach towns across Mexico I didn’t find a lot of variety. Up and down the Oaxacan coast you’ll find restaurants catering to the western ex-pats and traveling flowy-pant wearers with hodgepodge menus of wraps and fried things, and a lot of tiny establishments offering much of the same staples: grilled fish and other simple seafood dishes or tlayudas (like Oaxacan pizzas).
This is a cross post from one of our frequent collaborators, Ferron Salniker. You can read her excellent blog Ferronlandia here.
Friday is a good day for the Mercado de Abastos, Oaxaca city’s wholesale market. On Fridays and Tuesdays the señoras come from different parts of Oaxaca to the market to sell their crops. They’re sitting on stacks of newspapers, shelling peas or peeling nopales. Pulling tightly wound plastic bags of roasted ground corn that smell like crispy tortillas. Hustling piles of coral snap dragon-like flor de frijol.
One of the super strange things that a mezcal obsessive notices while tramping around Oaxaca is that if you’re stuck in your North American head space you keep wandering into retail stores and not finding any mezcal. If this was, say, Napa or Sonoma, stores would be everywhere to put their native alcoholic beverage front in center so that you couldn’t leave town without buying at least a few bottles.
But Oaxaca, and Mexico in general, are different places with their own rules about how things are done. I know, it seems quaint but these are fundamentally different rules of the road and they even have something to tell places like California. What you do notice while strolling Oaxaca is that everyone seems to be opening a mezcaleria and offering their own white labeled selection of mezcals at restaurants. But given the city’s reputation as the center of mezcal (yes, we know great mezcal is produced everywhere else in Mexico, take a chill pill, we’re talking about reputation here) you’d expect little stores next to all the craft emporia selling all the great small bottlings produced by the most remote corners of the state.
But as you stroll the streets you’d be hard pressed to find one, nary a Bi Rite or Healthy Spirits of mezcal to be found. This last trip I poked my head around corners expecting something, anything, and finally found a few places. Mis Mezcales is next door to Mezcaloteca on Reforma, it’s unclear but feels like they’re drafting off Marco Ochoa’s success. No matter, they offer a limited if nice selection of artisanal mezcals; kind of proves my point. There’s also a little shop tucked into a revamped mini-mall off Alcalá called Plaza Santo Domingo. Many of the puestos in the Benito Juarez market (main market just off the Zócolo) now carry a decent selection of artisanal mezcals, though at a premium price. And one of the funniest, if most well stocked, is a supermarket off the west side of the Zócolo – funny because they stock El Jolgorio rip offs and a bunch of strange mass market brands among all the artisanal bottles.
But what this absence of speciality mezcal retail really reveals is a different way of doing things because, unlike the horribly restrictive laws about alcohol in the United States, you can buy bottles of mezcal from tasting rooms. So, if you want a fantastic artisanal bottle head to Mezcaloteca and go through their introduction to mezcal then buy bottles of your favorites. Ditto In Situ, Cuishe, and many others. And that’s not even mentioning the palenques where you can buy right from the garafone. You may not get the sommelier or specialty retail chatter but you will find earnestness, fantastic selections, and a real direct connection with the makers which puts the lie to the branding idea. Who needs one when you’re talking to the guy who distilled your mezcal?
Of course it would be nice to have a few more mezcal boutiques for all the palenques that you couldn’t visit, maybe we could just get a store in the airport staffed by someone that Ulises trains?
After all the great things that you experience in Oaxaca the airport is a decidedly Janus affair. Arrival is always a bit dreamy because you’re finally there, departure from the airport is a real downer. Not only are you leaving behind all the great flavors, people, and sights, you also come face to face with the industrial brands in all their tawdry sameness.
Beneva is there wrapped in green branding, Zignum as well. If not for the Guelaguetza craft stores it would be a complete visual loss. It’s a real rallying call for someone to put in a mezcal boutique to blow away all the mass market places staffed by women in high heels and skirts. Alas, like all airports everywhere, it feels like the Oaxaca airport is beholden to chains and big corporations. Still, I’ll put in a plug for mezcal and brand Oaxaca: Do you want to see great boutique mezcal, textiles, and ceramics that will astound everyone that sees or tastes them or do you want the desultory line up there today?
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.
Susan is just back from Oaxaca while my most recent trip was in April. After years of relative stasis the city and region are positively exploding with change. There are new roads, updated facades, and the feeling of change in the air. A few notes for future travelers.
A cultural revolution
It’s nice to see so many local people doing interesting things. While Oaxaca has always been driven by cultural highlights like the Guelaguetza, Dia de los Muertos, various and sundry religious festivities, and all the celebrations of the region’s crafts it also had a relatively underground house party feel to it. That meant fantastic street cred when only your friends knew about the great band playing that night because it was literally in their living room or a closed bar. But with the impact of social media and more galleries (an ironic result of the crackdown on street art – many of the artists now have collectives and galleries) and bars, there’s tons of stuff going on in town these days.
Music, movies, festivals, galore. It’s all there and it’s all out in the open. It’s breathtaking how many places are opening around town and where they’re fitting them in. There’s more and better coffee, mezcal, food, crafts, and everything in between. This of course all makes a very valid argument for the gentrification of Oaxaca– which Susan touched on here.
The coffee revolution hits Oaxaca
We haven’t found any white tiled, blond wood, espresso emporia in Oaxaca yet but the town is finally catching that third wave of caffeinated development that is busily leaving no point on the globe untouched. That’s a great thing given that such great green coffee is grown in the region. Cafes are appearing everywhere around town. It used to be that Oaxacan coffee culture started with Lobo Azul for good coffee, company, and bike maintenance and ended with the the completely oxymoronic Italian Coffee Company, neither Italian nor decent coffee.
Now local chain Brújula is ubiquitous in tourist areas while the Oaxacan Coffee Company has a cluster. Many independent places dot the landscape, but Fika at Reforma 406 is the place for your third wave fix. They will prepare a fantastic cup any way you want; Aeropress, chemex, espresso. The obsessive attention to detail shared by the tattooed and aproned classes is in evidence. And I even wandered into a cupping of local beans. More of that please!
The culinary evolution begins
It used to be that traditional food dominated. You went to Oaxaca to eat mole and tlayudas. Some places like La Biznaga or Los Danzantes added atmosphere, technique, and novelty even if it was still impossible to find some of the rich vegetal representatives of the local farms on menus. Today restaurants are opening at an astonishing clip. The amazing Zandunga, Zicanda, and Origen are just three of the more recent and most accomplished which polish regional cuisines while other innovations seep in. Chilhuacle Rojo and the sister Mexican tapas/mezcal bar Chimiscuis are mixing Adria technique with local ingredients from their ranch about an hour or so south of the city. We can only hope that these are signs of what’s to come.
Mezcal and how
You may think people have always gone to Oaxaca for mezcal but that’s a relatively new phenomenon. It’s only been in the past 5-7 years that mezcalerias have appeared and, even then, they have been relatively thin on the ground. Now they’re opening like some form of breeding program gone awry – in just the past year or so you have La Medida, Mezcalogia, and Piedra Lumbra to name a few. They are opening here and there, in clusters, in waves, everywhere in town. There is even a bona fide mezcal boutique, Mis Mezcales, just a few doors down from Mezcaloteca with a cluster of artisanal brands.
Speaking of Mezcaloteca, it’s still there, just as great as always. Ulises Torrentera’s In Situ is old by the new mezcaleria standards but still more than a benchmark. Los Amantes is still booming night after night. But Oaxaca has finally come into its own as far as mezcal is concerned. It’s even, gasp, starting to feel like too much of a good thing.
While we’re scandalizing you I’ll say this: Mexican craft brews are equally as interesting as mezcals. The country’s long history of German immigrants creating light pilsners and traditional low IBU beers has been picked up and developed. The heavy hop fixation north of the border is seeping through the cracks but it’s really nice to see Mexican brewers build on that German heritage and run off in different directions. They’re adding fascinating ingredients like flor de jamaica which really raise the game. Look out for brands like Saga from Puebla but Oaxaca is well represented with at least three breweries right now. And check out local brew spot La Santisima for some really interesting beers.
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.
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.
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.
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.