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The sustainability series: cultivating wild maguey

Several years ago, when doing some background on Mezcal Vago, I heard about a grand, wild agave cultivation project happening somewhere in Sola de Vega, a region known for its tobala. I knew there had been success with cultivating tobala, and that there were projects underway to try and cultivate madrecuishe and a few others. What I didn’t know was that the guy doing this grand project in Sola de Vega was pretty much THE guy for agave cultivation projects – Luis Mendez. I decided that at the next opportunity, I would visit him and learn more.

Luis Mendez looks nothing like I had pictured. His reputation as maestro mezcal turned wild maguey savior had me imagining age which is the complete opposite of the vibrant and handsome man en vivo. I love these pleasant surprises.

His house sits just beyond and above the town of Sola de Vega, off the highway to Puerto Escondido. The yard is filled with wild agave starts in various stages of growth. According to Mendez, there are about 20 different wild maguey varieties native to the Sola de Vega region and he is experimenting with all of them.
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Upon arrival, he walked us through the garden, pointing out the sierra negras, coyotes, tepestates, mexicanos, arroqueños, and barrils, to name just a few. While he continued to talk about all the varieties and time necessary to grow them his voice passed into background noise because I couldn’t stop staring at a giant quiote whose weight was so great it had fallen over and was being held up by a ladder, the blue sky and clouds above and the mountains in the distant. It is so breathtaking.

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“If only more people would let just one plant bloom, we would go a long way toward solving the crisis,” I hear Mendez say.

 

As Max has written previously, there are three ways for maguey to reproduce– hijuelos, seed and bulbils. Seeds provide the greatest genetic diversity, but are the most difficult, inconsistent, and time consuming way to grow maguey. The quiote I have been staring at with its beautiful branches of flor de agave waving against the sky, has enough seeds to produce up to 1,000 agaves. This is what Mendez is talking about.

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Demand for silvestre mezcal has put a lot of pressure on natural resources; without strict rules and regulations for harvesting these wild magueys, it is a free for all. Add to that the continued monoculturing of espadin, and you have ripe conditions for a maguey crisis. In the rush to “supply the beast,” and to supply the tequila industry which uses green Oaxacan maguey as accelerants in tequila production, demand could soon outstrip the supply of available and mature maguey for mezcal production. But this is anecdotal at this point because no one is really tracking the total number of maguey currently being grown; yet another area where some form of regulation might help.

After walking through the garden, we headed to the covered terrace to escape the heat and talk some more about Mendez’s work. Originally from the Sierra Norte, Mendez settled in Sola de Vega after working on public works projects focused on water  into  the area. He fell in love with both mezcal and a woman and eventually switched over to the mezcal industry. His title as a Maestro Mezcalero (a term that was developed more for marketing purposes as the industry began to grow) is a bit misleading as Mendez himself does not make the mezcal, he oversees the process. He has worked with several brands over the years including Alto Cielo, Piquetezina, La Piquería, and the most well known, Siete Misterios. All along his true love has been cultivating maguey, especially the so-called wild varieties. He first began experimenting with tobala in 1996. The complexity and diversity of the maguey amazed him, soon thereafter one thing led to another and he began experimenting with other varieties. His project may be the largest in Oaxaca. He is planting about 3,000 maguey each year.

So what does he do with all this maguey? He sells starts to other farmer/producers, supplies mezcaleros with the magueys that mature on his property, and is working with government agencies to plant his starts along the highways. Not only do maguey make for good windbreaks, they also control erosion, are beautiful to look at, and maintain true biodiversity through wild pollinated quiotes.

And of course he is using the maguey to produce his own label La Solteca (a nickname for people from Sola de Vega). We try a couple of different types as we enjoy a leisurely lunch getting to know one another. The great question people have is whether this sort of cultivation of wild maguey will change the flavor. This remains to be seen as more mezcals are made from cultivated varieties. But it seems clear that these types of projects are necessary to preserve maguey. And frankly, his mezcal is delicious.

“You have so much government money going toward the end process. There are these mezcal “kits” that people can get that include fermentation tanks and stills, underwritten by the government. You have support for bottling and rudimentary marketing support to help attract buyers and distributors,” Mendez says. “But what you don’t have is money going into the actual production of maguey, most particularly of wild maguey. Where will the industry be without maguey?”

Other cultivation projects exist, but communication and sharing of information is difficult, particularly in rural Oaxaca. And with no central, organizing body, there is reinvention of the wheel.

Mendez eventually pulls out a logbook of visitors over the past few years. There are names I recognize, a who’s who of other brand owners, mixologists, and some brand ambassadors. In addition to all of his other traits, Mendez is a great storyteller with a marvelous sense of humor. He has one of those voices that simultaneously draws you in and completely relaxes your guard. He soon has us in stitches with completely inappropriate tales of too much mezcal, nudity, and the always present next day. He shows us how to properly smell a mezcal – dab a bit on that space between your thumb and forefinger, wave your hand over it to help dry it a bit and then smell. This leads to another story of Ulises Torrentera identifying specific mezcals and regions using this method, with a punchline that gives whole new meaning to the phrase “scent of a woman.” I will not repeat these stories because I hope one day he publishes them; plus, I cannot do them justice.

I of course have to ask Mendez what his dream is for his maguey project. He is a big thinker and a visionary.

“The maguey is so incredibly beautiful and symbolic of who we are as a culture. We can’t let it die. It is life and we have to save it and revive it and use to paint our landscapes and exploit its properties for pharmaceutical and food and nutritional purposes. And we have to drink it.”

Hijuelos, seeds, bulbils – Or how your agave is grown

Hijuelos

Agaves are really strange plants because they reproduce in three ways, none of them exclusive. They sprout little clones of themselves from their bases; these are most commonly called hijuelos and can be produced throughout an agave’s lifecycle. If you live in the southwest you’ll frequently see agave plants growing in gardens or medians that have all these little agave plants sprouting from the base of the plant, occasionally crowding out the original. Those are hijuelos.

A whole mess of hijuelos.

A whole mess of hijuelos.

In Spanish the literal translation of hijuelo is young or a plant shoot. Sometimes it’s used specifically to refer to one of the so-called “pups” which are genetic clones of a mother agave: They literally emerge from the root system of an agave and grow along side of it. More generally it’s used when discussing the propagation of baby agaves in nurseries across Mexico. This is all a tricky and contentious business that gets to the very heart of mezcal because it determines exactly what sort of fruit goes into your bottle.

Fresh from a seed pod dropped from a quiote.

Fresh from a seed pod dropped from a quiote.

But agaves also create seeds, it’s just that these are only created once in an agave’s life. At the end of their lives agave plants grow a huge flower out of the center of the plant known as quiotes. The quiotes are majestic sights which soar into the air, usually 20-some feet, and display amazing yellow flowers. Frequently people will dry them out and lean them against a wall as a fantastic decoration.

But back to how they function, the quiotes sprout seeds which are pollinated by birds and bats. Yes, bats are one of the great pollinators in the agave world! After they are pollinated the seeds fall to the ground and can produce genetically distinct agaves. In practice, this is nature’s crap shoot because agave seeds aren’t the most prolific producers. But it’s also critical because this is the way agaves obtain genetic diversity, making them disease resistant and, over enormous amounts of time, allowing for different varieties to evolve which is where you get all the wonderful agave varieties that make for such diverse mezcals.

A quiote towers over San Francisco.

A quiote towers over San Francisco.

But wait! The story of agave reproduction doesn’t stop there. Agaves are really strange plants for a variety of reasons but one of the best is their third method of reproduction. This is another clonal method but is really strange: Small, baby, agaves grow off the top of the mother agave, fall to the ground, and root themselves where they fall or are carried. This is rare and hard to see. And they have a great name “bulbils.”

So, why should this matter to you, my fine mezcal connoisseur? Well, how agave is grown has a huge impact on what you’re drinking. That’s why.

Note the diversity of types.

Note the diversity of types.

Right now the vast majority of mezcal is produced from a single species of agave called espadin, also known by its latin name Agave angustifolia, because it has been among the easiest agaves to cultivate in controlled circumstances. It has been easy because farmers could grow it from seed and hijuelos, it matures at a relatively well defined rate, and yields a reasonably consistent level of starch. Farmers love that sort of consistency because they know that if they plant an espadin hijuelo today, water it, and do the minimal field maintenance –  they’ll be able to harvest it in 6-8 years. Note that variation, 6-8 years – that means if you plant a field of espadin today you’ll be harvesting it somewhere between six and eight years down the road, potentially longer. That counts as consistent in the mezcal world. In comparison a vineyard manager in Napa or Sonoma measures consistency in an annual window of the months between August and October. Incidentally, espadin is the genetic parent of blue agave used to make tequila so they have lots in common, especially the ease with which they’re grown.

The level of consistency in planting espadin is critical for mezcal because farmers can set up a reasonably controlled, agricultural, production line and know that they’ll be able to make a certain amount of mezcal at a certain time in the future. They can scale this process up by using nurseries but that also takes more time, again, they have to be thinking in those long 6-8 year intervals. These green houses bear no resemblance to the metal framed glass enclosures of a nostalgic European past nor the sealed plastic enclosures of our acquaculture present. No, generally these are just plots of land devoted to getting young agave plants through their first years which may have a bit of burlap or woven plastic propped overhead to offer shade in particularly brutally sunny locations.

An agave nursery

An agave nursery

One of the more interesting developments in the world of mezcal in recent years is that agave growers have figured out how to cultivate many other types of agaves that everyone used to assume would only grown in the wild like tobala, madrecuixe, and cupreata. Luis Mendez in Sola de Vega was the first person we can find who started experimenting with cultivating tobala and other wild agaves (more on this as Susan visited him during her trip in July.)

Today more people are embarking on projects to cultivate silvestres, to mention just a few: The Fundación Agaves Silvestres is working in San Dionisio Ocotepec while Vago has been working in Candelaria Yegole and Tosba up in the Sierra Norte. This is of enormous importance because there’s only so many wild agaves to go around, in some areas of Oaxaca’s central valley where tobala used to grow in abundance you’d be hard pressed to find a single plant. Many other areas are getting stripped bare in the silvestres gold rush. Others are managing their stocks aggressively but it’s an incredibly tough proposition; if you could get a ton of money for the wild agaves on your property today wouldn’t you be tempted?

Cultivation also makes production more predictable which means that agave growers can also plan on income for important things like future investments in their business and crucial things like paying for their kids’ education and health care. The big picture here is really important exactly because so many people work in the cultivation industry: If they can earn a living wage and hew a path to development in the mezcal industry it makes everything better, literally. It develops the mezcal industry, which results in consistent revenue streams to farmers, distillers, and everyone else in the supply chain. That means they can all feed their families and invest in other, more sustainable or profitable, enterprises. It also has a huge impact on immigration and every other facet of Mexico’s relationship with the world, especially with the United States.

Of course there’s a downside to this development as well: Truly wild agaves are unique and can be used to produce mezcals of truly unique flavors. That’s another way of saying, you really might want to save the bottles of mezcal made from truly wild agaves sold today because they’re literally unique. In a few years many mezcals made from previously wild varieties of agave will be the product of cultivation with different flavors. That’s not to place a value judgement on them but they will be different.

Read more of our entries in the Mezcalistas Encyclopedia of Mezcal and email us questions or ideas for future entries.

Save the maguey by drinking its distillate

erickrodriguezLots of good information in this article about the plight of the maguey. While that does a good job of framing the issue which we’ve written about as well, you also have an opportunity to support the recovery of wild maguey (also known as agave) species in a more consumerist fashion. The Fundación Agaves Silvestres is working to replant wild maguey populations. It’s a tough effort but it’s one of the more interesting out there. You can support it directly and reward your taste buds by purchasing their Vino de Mezcal series. And wouldn’t you know that it’s your lucky day because Erick Almamezcalera who is intimately involved in that project  is on a swing up the West Coast offering tastings of the series. We’ll have more from him later this week but here are his tour dates:

Sacramento and silvestres

Mezcaleria at Mayahuel Sacramento

The mural behind the bar at Mayahuel.

I spent a recent weekend in Sacramento visiting friends and sampling the local mezcal scene. We couldn’t find a ton of action but there are promising developments on the horizon. There are some excellent places to drink tequila and where there’s tequila, mezcal isn’t far behind.

The taco bar at Mayahuel is a happening spot. It’s billed as a tequila museum and they definitely offer the full tequila experience but they also feature a rear bar devoted to mezcal and a variety of great snacks like blue corn tacos with rajas and a few others that aren’t standard fare. While they don’t offer an incredibly wide variety of mezcals they appear to be doing a bang up business in mezcal based cocktails; the night we were there a young crowd was sucking them down like no tomorrow. The main bar is completely devoted to tequila, it’s quite a pyramid of bottles, and you’ll feel the blue agave asserting its power throughout the restaurant including a really nice set of maps of the Jalisco NOMs in the bathroom. Seldom have I seen drinks better advertised in such a strange location. There’s also a huge event room fronted by tequila lockers, apparently it’s used frequently for politically events so that should give you an idea of the general scene.

The Mezcaleria at Mayahuel

Mayahuel’s mezcaleria.

But back to the mezcal bar in the rear of the restaurant. It has its own murals based on Mexican street art and it is run by a bartender named Oscar. He’s very enthusiastic about mezcal and happy to set you up with a selection. While his list isn’t tremendously deep he does stock the Fidencio line, a pair of Del Magueys, Sacaceunto and a few others. Sadly he didn’t have any silvestres. It’s one of those situations where the variety that is present, the crowd and enthusiasm behind the bar creates its own little scene. We sampled the Sacacuento anejo, the Fidencio pechuga and the Delirio joven

Mezcals at Mayahuel

Mezcals at Mayahuel

As noted above the stock in trade appears to be cocktails and that’s part of the larger mezcal trend in the U.S.. I bet the vast majority of mezcal consumed domestically is in cocktails so we’ll probably see more brands targeted at that space. Mezcal cocktails are popping up all over the place and seem like they’re the gateway for future mezcal lovers. Bartenders love using mezcal because it’s novel and offers a different flavor platform. Like tequila I bet most people never get beyond the margerita but that’s par for the course. Not everyone likes or gets to Fortalezza and that’s just the way things work.

They have a nice mural of all the NOMs in Jalisco spread across the male bathroom. We need a female informant to tell us about that bathroom.

Mayahuel’s mural of all the NOMs in Jalisco in the male bathroom. We need a female informant to tell us about that bathroom.

Later in the evening we popped over to Zocolo, another big tequila emporium set in an old car dealership with great floral arrangements. As far as I could tell, and my bartender knew, they only serve tequila so we had to content ourselves with that and a discussion of how Mexican food and tequila are the new sushi and sake.

One of the highlights of the trip and one of the major reasons for being there was to conduct a tasting for a local macher who described himself as someone taken with mezcal but not exposed to much of it. I brought up a diverse line up:

  • The La Niña Espadin
  • Wahaka’s Reposado con Gusano
  • Alipus San Andres
  • Del Maguey Minero
  • Pierde Almas Dobadaan
  • Cuish Cirial
  • Cuish Tobaziche
  • Cuish Papalometl

As we worked through the espadins our taster said, “yeah, these are more the ones that taste like gasoline, I have a few of these at home.” I can understand where he’s coming from because many high alcohol Espadins really overwhelm you with their alcoholic power. Plus, you have to be sensitized to the taste beyond the alcohol. This guy obviously saw something there and that became readily apparent as soon as we cracked the Cuish silvestres. It wasn’t love at first sight but he was obviously struck by them and gave us the  ‘this is what I’ve been looking for!’.

It’s fantastic to see that happen. I know he’ll be back for more. But it’s also deeply troubling because silvestres are an issue of deep complexity. They express the incredible nuance and variety of mezcal because they literally bring the diversity of the fruit at the root of this distillate to light. It’s where mezcal makes the wine metaphor sing the loudest and most astute. And, they’re the things that really grab neophytes.

The problem and complexity arise from their very being; since they’re wild they’re very rare. There’s a huge divergence between growing marketplace demand and what Mexico, let alone the defined denomination within Mexico, can supply. That demand creates pressure to harvest early and cut other corners which causes environmental issues and can harm the greater brand. So, prices are already high and will inevitably grow higher which is a good thing because the market really can take care of this side of things. If silvestres get marketed as exclusive that will help create a positive image for mezcal that might just leave that stereotype of gusano swill to memory. The down sides are that more consumers are priced out of this market and, I’m almost certain, that the workers and palenqueros aren’t seeing their share of the income.

We’ll continue writing on this and related topics and, as winter wanes here in sunny California, we are planning a new series of tastings and mezcal related events so stay tuned for a spring full of action. You can always find out the latest on this blog, our Twitter feed and Facebook so stay tuned and, should you have an idea for a tasting, just send it our way.

Silvestres and espadin tasting

We just finished our third tasting this time focused entirely on mezcals that we brought back from a recent trip to Oaxaca.  We paired off silvestres and espadins for comparison and contrast.  All are in the traditional Oaxacan style.

We tasted:

1) Pierde Almas Espadin

2) El Prometido Espadin (private collection)

3) Cuish Tobaziche

4) Farolito

Profiles:

This tasting was set up for traditional Oaxacan mezcals so it favors the heavier body, higher alcohol content and more fruit forward approach that most brands eschew when they approach the market in the United States.

1) Pierde Almas Espadin comes from the Chichicapam region of Oaxaca and is produced by Alfonso Sanchez and his brothers.

2) El Prometido Espadin is a palenquero’s special blend from San Dionisio that we brought back from a recent tasting outside of Oaxaca.  We’re sworn to secrecy on who produced it but it’s a very traditional 100% espadin.

3) The Cuish Tobaziche is a silvestres or fruit of a wild maguey called Tobaziche.  It’s from Miahuatlan and is made in the traditional style, a truly artisanal product and, at 53%, is incredibly powerful.

4) The Farolito is the fruit of mezcal author and critic Ulises Torentera’s first venture into actually creating a mezcal for his own tastes. This particular mezcal is from San del Rio. It’s also a silvestres but of the cuesh variety and also incredibly powerful at 43%.

Descriptions

1) At c50% Pierde Almas’ espadin is no shrinking violet but the alcohol doesn’t overpower the strong agave flavor and round body.  There’s a really focused balance between a spectrum of roasted and caramelized flavors, a slight residue of smokiness and alcoholic kick.  One of our super tasters detected notes of “wet cement” or  minerals while others mentioned hints of citrus, perhaps grapefruit, with slight pepper notes.

2) Our mystery participant is also 100% espadin, and is slightly less alcoholic at 48% but glories in demonstrating alcoholic heat at the front of the mouth.  It has a strong mid-palate agave flavor and a huge body.  It’s not viscous but incredibly round like the Del Maguey Vida.

3) The Cuish Tobaziche is an incredibly complex mezcal that doesn’t get overwhelmed by it’s 50%.  Flavor elaboration is varied and complex with notes of nut, citrus, agave and pepper.  It has a relatively middle of the road body, especially when compared to the El Prometido espadin.

4) The Farolito Cuesh has an incredibly sharp agave flavor with lots of variation.  Like the Cuish Tobaziche tasters noted flavors of nuts, citrus, a lighter agave and pepper but this one really displayed that “wet cement” flavor that our super taster noted in an earlier espadin.

As you can tell the silvestres had a very strong showing.  Their flavors were off the charts when compared to the 100% espadins that preceded them in this tasting and in quick sideline tastings with other espadins.  Being the fruit of wild plants they’re proportionately more expensive, these bottles are easily 200% the price of the espadins in Mexico and will probably retail for north of $100 in the U.S. market.   Nearly everyone in the tasting was surprised by the high alcohol content of all the mezcals in this round because no one thought that they tasted overly alcoholic.

The spellings of silvestres vary widely so we always follow the brand’s spelling.  When we have some additional background information we’ll offer it.  In this case Tobaziche is most likely Madrecuixe (Agave karwinskii) which has a rather distinct appearance.

Agave karwinskii

Agave karwinskii. Photo by Alex Huhn from http://www.mezcaleria.de

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

However the Cuesh in the Farolito could be a number of things.  We have a query into Ulises Torentera on the exact species.

Back to where it all began

The road to Teotitlan del Valle has changed a lot since I was first there in 2003. The pueblo sits off the main highway that heads south from Oaxaca toward the Istmo.  It’s only about 30 minutes from the city but my memory of the 2003 trip is that it took us much longer and it seemed like we were heading into the middle of nowhere.  Back then the road to the town was rutted and rough and, when we ended up going to taste the best mezcal our driver knew, the dirt road to the Del Maguey bodega seemed endless and long.

Not so today: Like so many excursions outside of Oaxaca there were wrong turns until finally we stopped and asked for directions from a very kind man in the centro of Teotitlan. Of course, you have to know that people will give you directions to a place even if they don’t know where it is – they just want to help. We finally arrived after more wrong turns and were greeted by the amazing team at Del Maguey, including Arturo and Francisco Martinez Martinez.

The operation has grown a lot since the last time I was there – the building that was once a small room now houses three rooms – an office, a storage area, and the bottling and waxing room (the tops of the Del Maguey bottles are dipped in a sealing wax, rather than the usual plastic wrap used by just about everyone else.) Given how successful Del Maguey has been in the US market, it is a surprisingly simple operation. And the road leading to the bodega, while still dirt and slightly rutted, is now dotted with buildings.

It is impossible to talk about artisanal mezcal in the US without mentioning Ron Cooper in the same sentence. His passion and perseverance in bringing his single village mezcals to the US has paved the way for everyone else, and certainly set the standard for quality. Del Maguey is one of the few brands in the market that is double organic certified, meaning that not only are the magueys that go into the process certified organic, but so is the mezcal making process itself. Given that the organic certification of the magueys often means certifying the entire community property of the pueblo where the maguey comes from, it is a huge task, and a huge point of pride for the brand. It also guarantees that the wild magueys known as silvestres growing in the zone are certified organic. For the actual mezcal making process, it means no air or chemicals or additives go into the process.

Del Maguey is distinct in many other ways, it’s part of the quirk  of the individuals that run these operations.  As another example, while some brands are re-planting silvestres, Del Maguey does not, and only harvests what grow wild on the pueblo properties, practicing responsible and sustainable techniques.  As Ron Cooper has said, “only God plants this.”

Francisco Martinez Martinez was full of information about Del Maguey’s process from field to bottle.  First, he reminded me that agave is a plant just like any other with seasons where the fruit is fully ripe and, since the process it truly artisanal, every step in mezcal production depends on a variety of factors.  During the rainy season (loosely June-August) it can be challenging. The colder weather impacts the mezcal making process – specifically related to attaining the desired alcohol level – the higher the grade, the harder it is to achieve it. The cold weather slows or stops natural airborne microbial fermentation. For Del Maguey and their mezcals, that means alcohol levels falling between 45-50%. Del Maguey and the Palenqueros they work with are  conscious about the flavors they strive for and lean toward a full bodied and bold flavor profile.  That’s not to say that they aren’t also wonderfully subtle in their flavors.

We also talked about some of the regional differences and challenges in growing maguey. The Valles Centrales (the pueblos surrounding Oaxaca on the valley floor) face challenges because of the cold mornings. While Del Maguey is headquartered in Teotitlan del Valle, the mezcal is not actually produced there, but instead comes from Santo Domingo Albarrados, San Juan del Rio, Chichicapam, and Santa Ana Taviche to name a few.  As Francisco said, “we make tapetes (truly beautiful hand crafted wool rugs) in Teo, not mezcal.”

But let’s get down to the nitty gritty of what we tasted…

We were very excited to taste one of their new products – their Santo Domingo Albarradas, aged for 60 days in barrels, enough to give it the flavor of a reposado, and a slight color change, but so very subtle. At 48%, it is quite the explosion of flavor in the mouth, and maintains its warmth as it slides down the back of the throat. I found it slightly less sweet than their non-aged Albarradas (which I think is a great dessert mezcal) and a little smoother.

As we were trying the mezcals, Don Francisco mentioned that several of the big mezcal companies are experimenting with making mezcal from the miel de agave – a less expensive and more industrial process, that gives the drink an essence of mezcal, but is very watered down. It also enables a factory to produce a lot more product – thousands of liters a month, vs the 2400 liters a year each of the palenques produce for Del Maguey. I also heard this from a few other people.  Chisme, “gossip,” about the industry is rampant here.

Next up were a few silvestres, including two new ones – a Papalome, which is similar to a Tobala, that I loved (talk about a flavor bomb in the mouth – wow! So complex, so strong and piquant, that finishes with a warm glow in the upper body), and a Tepestate, that was refreshing, smooth and sweet with a lovely almost watermelon flavor at the end. We also tried the Arroqueño (49%) that was so elegant and again smooth despite its alcohol punch, and the Tobala which was surprisingly light on the tongue and very herbal and green in its finish. Don Francisco had us try his personal favorite, the San Luis del Rio, and one I have had before. It’s a multi-layered mezcal, perfectly combining a sweet/sour flavor that stays with you for a while.

We finished with the granddaddy of them all – the Pechuga, produced only in the fall when the fruits used in the distillation are ripe in the mountains. I have come around to Pechugas in the past couple of years.  Initially I was resistant to embracing them fully because they are pretty cost prohibitive, both in Oaxaca and in other markets because of the time and complexity in their production process. But, when done well, as with the Del Maguey, have a deeply rich and complex flavor which has completely won me over.  That said I still drink relatively little Pechuga simply because it’s so expensive.

A side note about certifying the Pechuga mezcal organic: It took Del Maguey three years of work with the government and stacks of legal paperwork to get their Pechuga officially recognized and certified organic.  Not only that, a team of veterinarians were dispatched to the pueblo to draw blood from the chickens (pechuga can be made with either chicken or turkey) to ensure they were healthy and organic.

Once again, we found ourselves deliciously high on the mezcals we tried, and terribly hungry (how many times do I have to learn the lesson, eat first, then taste mezcal.) We stopped in Santa Maria Tule, home of the famous tule tree, and ate ourselves silly with grilled chorizo, onions, pork chops, lamb barbacoa, sopa de guias (the tender greens of the squash plant) memelas and quesadillas. It was quite simply, a perfect day.

Arroqueño, I think I love you

I’ve always been partial to the silvestres – madrecuixe, tobala, tobaziche. Their flavors are so complex and one is never like another. But I have to say, sr. arroqueño has stolen my heart. Across several different palenques, visits to mezcalerias, this has been the most consistently delicious of the wild magueys. How does it make me feel? Well this just might say it all…

Fireworks in Oaxaca