Last night’s inaugural Spirited Conversation at Midtown’s Cantina Alley was fun and super interactive. Rion Toal of the Maestros del Mezcal cooperative tasted us through six mezcals from five different producers and led the talk that covered a broad range of topics from distinctive production styles, agaves used, background on the makers, cooperative programs, hot topics of sustainability, economic impact, and the need to know more about where your mezcal comes from. Read more
Posts tagged ‘maestros del mezcal’
We’re really looking forward to our upcoming tasting and talk in Sacramento with Rion Toal of Maestros del Mezcal. Mestros is a cooperative of small producers from several regions in Mexico. This is the kick off of our Spirited Conversations series where we focus on a specific topic while tasting mezcal. The event will be held April 3 at Sacramento’s newest agave spirits and Mexican craft beer focused restaurant and bar Cantina Alley. For tickets, check here. Read more
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
I am often asked – where is the best place to try mezcal in the Bay Area? And my usual reply is, well, my house. Logistics make it hard to actually have everyone over – kid with homework and a bedtime, people probably having to drive to my house, etc etc. I say my house because over the years I have amassed a collection of some pretty awesome mezcals that are not available in the US, and most likely never will be. So short of going to Mexico yourself, or having an inside connection, this has been the stop gap solution.
This year we have solved that problem by creating small producers room at the Grand Tasting at Mezcal: Mexico in a Bottle on November 15th. The idea is to bring out all those unique bottles that you’d only find on my bar and some things that I’ve never been able to find. This offering is part of the Mezcal Lover’s package, and in addition to fine mezcals, it will also be a chance to talk to a few of the people who make or find them.
In the line-up we have mezcals that I encountered on some recent mezcal adventures in Mexico. They have a way of finding you and I am so happy they are able to participate.
- Aguas del Corazon was founded by Andrea Sánchez López, who I had the pleasure of meeting at my very first Vela Istmeña as part of the Guelaguetza celebration in Oaxaca. She was dressed in a gorgeous, traditional Istmeña dress, and poured us some of the mezcal, a full bodied arroqueño that blew my socks off. Aguas works with several small producers around the state of Oaxaca – small as in less than 40 bottles in some production runs. Andrea has a culinary background and has curated a delicious collection of tobala, espadin, sierra negra, coyote, and barril.
- El Solteco is the new mezcal brand from Maestro Luis Mendez, who I recently wrote about as part of the sustainability series. Sr. Mendez has been cultivating wild agaves and these mezcals are the fruit of those labors.
- El Tigre Mezcal is a cooperative project from the state of Guerrero. They are producing mezcals from wild papalote and zcamexcal grown in the low mountains of Guerrero. These mezcals vary from 50-52% alcohol, and have a very different and earthy flavor.
- Mezcal Neta is a project from Max Rosenstock, who has been traveling the Oaxacan roads for the past several years to find mezcals for his burgeoning brand. We’ll have mezcals from San Luis Amatlan, a region known for its madrecuishe, verde, and increasingly, espadin.
- Mezcal Cuish has probably done than any other mezcal when it comes to capturing the attention of a younger generation and getting them to care about mezcal. Started by a couple of art students in Oaxaca who had family connections to mezcal, they created a mezcaleria and a huge following of other art students, inspiring Oaxacan pride around the spirit.
- Alma Mezcalera doesn’t need much of an introduction. A project by Erick Rodriguez, a tireless and intrepid promoter of mezcal as we’ve written about before here and most recently here, Erick will have his very special mezcals that he has sourced from all over Mexico.
- Mezcal Chaneque will also be on hand. I had a chance to taste this mezcal in June and loved its rounded flavors and depth. This is a mezcal that will soon be available in the US, but here is your chance to get an early jump on tasting it.
- Aguas Mansas is a mezcal that was shared with me by Leon Vazquez, a bartender at Lolo Restaurant. It’s an espadin from Matatlan and tastes so different from what I usually expect from mezcals from that region. This is a mezcal that may hit our shores in 2016.
- We also have some very rare mezcals from Maestros del Mezcal, a cooperative based in Oaxaca comprised of dozens of small producers. Max profiled their organization in June and I had a chance to go to their event in Oaxaca in July and tasted some very interesting mezcals, including some wild espadins that blew my mind.
And of course there will be some surprises as well, perhaps even a few from my private collection especially a madrecuishe made by Reyna Sanchez who was just profiled in this piece by Grace Rubenstein on NPR about female mezcal makers.
Be sure to check out the event website that has all of the details for not only for the Grand Tasting on November 15th but also for the other activities happening that week. But get your Mezcal Lover’s ticket today because they’re limited, we will sell out, and once they’re gone, they are literally gone.
I had a chance to check out the Maestros del Mezcal tasting in Oaxaca. It was completely focused on wild agaves (silvestres) and included a collection of live plants. There were some pretty amazing mezcals from small producers – from varieties we do not see, or rarely see, in the US. I had a Sierra Negra that blew my socks off, a Chato from the Siera Sur, and a truly sublime wild Espadin from the Sola de Vega region. None of these are CRM (COMERCAM) certified, and unless the producers work with someone who has money and is looking to develop a brand, it is unlikely most of them will be certified. There was also the chance to try maguey tortillas which had a lovely sweet flavor to them.
A little bit of a surprise was how many more women were present on the producer side, which is really exciting to see as this is a tough barrier to crack – more on this later as it is a focus of my trip here to Oaxaca.
I had a wedding to go to later in the day so I was trying to be as moderate in tasting as I could be – pretty damn near impossible when presented with so many different varieties of magueys and flavors. At some point someone will need to figure out the pricing issue – small bottles were selling for 50-100 pesos, larger bottles for 150-250 pesos. For rare silvestres, that just doesn’t seem like enough and certainly doesn’t include the hours of labor of the palenqueros.
It was a great kick off for the mezcal adventures to come over the next couple of weeks.
I recently chatted with Rion Toal about the Civil Association of Maestros del Mezcal. The organization was founded by Abel Alcántara to provide a platform for mezcaleros who are cut out of or estranged from the entire certification and branding process. They are moving a variety of directions, most recently in creating public platforms for the mezcaleros, but they are also working on reforestation efforts and investigating distribution platforms for mezcaleros.
Maestros del Mezcal sponsored its first even this past December in Oaxaca and things went well enough that they have another coming up July 12th in the Panuelito, right next to Santo Domingo in Oaxaca. They plan an exhibit of endangered magueys, discussions of reforestation strategies, a special dinner, sales of rare mezcals, and the opportunity to meet mezcaleros from very remote areas of Oaxaca. They are also planning a national meeting of mezcaleros in Acapulco later this summer. That meeting is still in the planning stages so we will update as we hear more.
In the interim Rion kindly translated a conversation with the organization’s founder and president Abel Alcántara that ranges from how, and why, he started the organization to where it’s going and the state of mezcaleros in today’s world
How did you start this organization and what was your impetus for launching it?
I studied sociology and I have always been interested in social problems, in particular regarding organizing people. I have helped create organizations for supply, production and consumption and my grandfather was a mezcal producer and marketer in my native Guanajuato.
I understand that you started it in Guerrero, can you tell me how that came about?
20 years ago I was a coordinator of Priority Zones for Sedesol in Guerrero. At that time I helped create an organization of traditional mezcal producers in the mountains of Guerrero. Timber, marijuana, opium poppies, and maguey and mezcal are the principle products of this region. Mezcal, for its tradition, history, uniqueness, and quality is a flagship product of the area, so I decided to focus my work on organizing mezcal producers.
What are the organization’s goals today? Do you have longer term goals that you’d like to start addressing soon?
Most outsiders simply look to market the distillate. Maestros del Mezcal is aimed at driving the organization of the producers. We focus on making a sustainable comercial project that includes the interests of all participants, the encouragement and recognition of the producers, recognition of their history, and protecting and managing wild maguey.
What are the biggest problems facing the mezcal industry today?
Shortage of cultivated maguey, disappearance of, and extreme pressure on, some wild magueyes, and combustibles [trees], lack of resources to improve palenques and certify producers.
What are the biggest opportunities?
Building confidence in the producers’ business and their product. Recognition of mezcal as a fine distillate by the middle and upper classes in Mexico and abroad.
What do you think of the current NOM 70 proposal?
It is an improvement on the former definitions, we have always pushed for a distinction between traditionally and industrially produced mezcal. I do believe that it can be improved upon, above all by clarifying that COMERCAM cannot define or regulate the quality of mezcal; it is only an instrument that promotes and insures compliance with the standard. COMERCAM can be reformed, change and improve.
What’s your approach to certifying small producers in COMERCAM so that they can export?
Convincing the producers as to the benefits of certification and the NOM, and that their product will be sold legally beyond their region and at a better price. Explaining to the producers that they will not be taxed until their product is being sold legally (i.e. until they are seeing revenue). Convincing the federal and state governments to support this emblematic distillate that creates jobs and resources for the indigenous and marginalized populations.
What are their biggest challenges in getting certified?
The lack of economic resources that the producers have and the lack of information that reaches their communities.
What are their biggest challenges in reaching the Mexican and North American markets?
Economic challenges: The producers cannot afford to dabble in the whole process from production to marketing. They need investors and partners and not just people who buy their mezcal. They need financial resources to improve the process and preserve the traditional and artisanal characteristics, and partners to market their product, with all that this implies.
Given the great interest in mezcal globally, are you seeing younger people working in distilleries?
It has slowed down migration out of the towns. Some young people are beginning to feel proud of their parents and the mezcal they produce more so than they have in the past. They engage more in the process and after studying or working abroad many have returned to make and market mezcal. Being a mezcal producer now has a greater status, especially among the new generations, than it has in the past.
All photos courtesy of Rion Toal.