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Mezcal boot camp

In Situ's Ulises Torrentera and Wahaka's Raza Zaidi discuss the finer points of mezcal.

In Situ’s Ulises Torrentera and Wahaka’s Raza Zaidi discuss the finer points of mezcal.

Yesterday was a good day. I had a nice lunch at Calavera with Susan and then spent a little over two hours in Ulises Torrentera’s “Arte del Mezcal West Coast Tour” sponsored by Wahaka and organized by the same brand’s Raza Zaidi. Suffice to say that it was a cozy and mind expanding gathering on Calavera’s deck what with that late fall sunshine providing the perfect mood lighting as Ulises guided us through his thoughts on mezcal while Raza translated.

Today the tour heads to San Diego and Thursday Los Angeles before it heads to the North West. Full dates are on the Facebook page here. If you have a chance, go. It’s a casual and really fun encounter for anyone whether they’re a hard core aficionado or a complete newbie.

Kudos to Ulises and Sandra for making the voyage, we can’t say enough about Raza and Wahaka for setting this up. The altruistic spirit that animates events like this is what Susan and I are all about. But enough about us, here’s a quick clip of Ulises discussing the origin and importance of ensembles, apologies for the breaks which were for translation. He went on to talk about how they may just model the future of sustainable mezcal. For more on that and other topics you’ll need to attend one of his talks.

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.



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.

There’s now an app for your mezcal

A screenshot from Ulises Torrentera's Mezcaleria app.

A screenshot from Ulises Torrentera’s Mezcaleria app.

That sneaky Ulises Torrentera popped an iOS app on mezcal into the App Store last week with nary a notice. Actually he did flag it on Twitter but it feels like this will just spread by word of mouth so take a look and tell him what you think. Maybe it won’t rock your world but it’s exactly the sort of thing that mezcal has been missing.

Ulises is the owner of the In Situ Mezcaleria in Oaxaca as well as the Farolito mezcal brand and author of three books on mezcal. I guess, an app was the rational next step. The real question is why no one else did it before. Susan and I have talked about it but never managed to achieve the momentum and time to do it. Fortune to the bold and all of that. Ulises did it.

The app is really quite simple, an introduction, shots and descriptions of the most common maguey, and a guide to how its made. The photos and layout of the steps to make mezcal make this a great A/V tool for tastings and conversations so I’ll be definitely be using it in that capacity. There’s lots of room for additional information including agave types and details about history. Hopefully Ulises is thinking of this as a first version and will develop it further.

A screenshot from Ulises Torrentera's Mezcaleria app.

A screenshot from Ulises Torrentera’s Mezcaleria app.

The app is also something of a living advertisement for El Farolito and In Situ in that those are the only items listed under the Mezcales and Mezcaleria menus but, again, that’s what you get to do if you create the app. It’s all in Spanish but the translation shouldn’t be that hard for anyone who has a decent understanding of the language. I’ll be asking Ulises about the possibility of a translation when I’m in Oaxaca later this week so stay tuned.

Become a Mezcanaut, a true mezcal explorer

Mezcanautica logoNeed help navigating the rapidly changing and dangerous shoals of the mezcal world? Well, we have the event for you. Coming March 13th-14th in Oaxaca City Mezcanautica is set up to be a deep dive into the issues and questions driving the mezcal world today. Punning aside this looks like it’s going to be incredibly exciting and my Skype call with the organizers over the weekend only confirmed that expectation. And what an intriguing team it is: Graciela Angeles Carreño from Real Minero, Ulises Torrentera from In Situ, and Marco Ochoa from Mezcaloteca with an assist from William Scanlan who has been working with that group for some time. William also graciously helped translate.

The event in brief

Mezcanautica is envisioned as an annual event and since this is the first edition the theme is appropriately “The Origins of Mezcal.” It will encompass workshops, lectures, tastings, and a mezcaleria tour. The full price of the event includes all of the above except the mezcaleria tour because no one really knows how much you’ll end up drinking; best to leave that to your budget, if you know what I mean. You can find the full schedule here.

Saturday will have workshops presented by Marco, Graciela, Ulises, and others on a variety of fascinating topics ranging from Marco on the history of mezcal to Erick Baron on how to classify the scents in mezcals. The Sunday workshops will take you into the field with Graciela guiding you through the Real Minero palenque or you can visit palenques that work with Mezcaloteca. There will, of course, be structured tastings.

The lectures sound really interesting. Remember that great map of the diversity of agave across Mexico? That was created by Jorge Larson who will be giving a talk on the Denominacion de Origen. Others will address the aromas in mezcal and a dive into the evolution of agave in Mexico.

Agaves de Mexico map

And then there are the mezcaleria visits. You could do it all by your lonesome but the sort of company that this sort of event attracts will simultaneously deepen your understanding and appreciation for the culture that creates mezcal while allowing you to taste truly rare distillations.

The origin

I was really curious why such an event hasn’t happened before. Oaxaca has it’s annual Feria de Mezcal timed with La Guelaguetza in the summer and is quite a drinking scene. Graciela told me that a loose group of mezcal promotors, creators, and purveyors had long been interested in creating a more academically focused event that pulled together the people who would speak to the big questions and ideas in the mezcal world. It’s just that they’d never been able to get the organization right.

Everyone involved agreed that their goal is consumer education. Marco noted that the primary focus of “other mezcal fairs is try to sell product rather than educate consumers.” Ulises articulated the goal of Mezcalnautica as giving “the consumer credible information based on academic research and findings.”

While this conference is obviously focused on Oaxaca, everyone involved is thinking about the larger global market, especially in North American. Mezcanautica was created to really dig into the question of what tradition means and build a branding message for the North American market that is clear and resonates. As William Scanlan put it, “the US market hasn’t been pumped full of misinformation yet. This is our opportunity to give them something that’s lacking, an academic perspective, and define mezcal as a traditional, cultural, and spiritual beverage.” It’s a tough road but it is early days in mezcal’s international reputation so it’s still very possible to own that message.

Not your everyday mezcal topics

They aim to address the messaging issue by really digging into the traditional culture invested in the creation of a mezcal and the cultivation of agave. Jorge Larson is going to focus his speech on the idea of defining the Denominación de Origen (DO) by the community that produces the mezcal rather than the geographic distribution of the agave. That may sound esoteric but consider that most European wines are defined by their community names and standards rather than what vines grow wild within a certain geographic area. Sure, it’s much more complex than that but the point is fascinating. Put another way, should we be defining mezcal by the taste of the community that created it rather than by the agave that goes into it?

If you’ve been to Mexico in a Bottle or one of his earlier tastings then Iván Saldaña’s topic at Mezcanautica needs no introduction: He will be presenting on terroir and the implications for flavors in mezcal. Despite a Mexico in a Bottle audience member’s argument that we should abandon the use of the term terroir and embrace instead the Spanish word terruño, Ivan and everyone else in the world has stuck with terroir as the common description of the land and local process that gives a mezcal a distinct flavor. This is obviously one area where, despite anyone’s effort, the French have won. Aside apart, Ivan contributes enormous intelligence to this topic and is an incredibly engaging speaker so I really look forward to hearing his latest thoughts on the question; especially because the mezcal world is expanding so quickly that classic community oriented terroirs are appearing on the more global market so frequently. 

There are obviously many more speeches to attend which fill out pretty much any interest in the world of mezcal. Dr. Abisaí García will be talking about the history of agave in Mexico while Xitlalli Aguirre who also contributed to that famous Artes de Mexico map of agave distribution across Mexico will be returning to that topic for her presentation.

Jules Verne loved mezcal

20,000 Leagues Under the SeaAnd now for the fun stuff. The phrase Mezcanautica comes from Ulisses’ term Mezcanaut in his book Mezcalaria to mean ‘an explorer in the universe of mezcal.’ While we can guarantee that you won’t meet Laika on this journey, you will encounter the awesome aquatic branding courtesy of Mariana Garnica, Marco Ochoa, and Belem Romero. They took the Mezcanaut idea into a parallel and opposite direction by embracing the iconography of the 19th Century Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and diving down under the waves to discover rarefied mezcals and agaves. It’s fun stuff, check out more of Belen’s art.

Up up and mezcal to the future!

Everyone involved with Mezcanautica would love to see it flourish not only as an annual event in Oaxaca but as a roadshow across the United States. It’s early days for that latter concept but things like this have been known to come together quickly so stay tuned, you may be able to receive your official Mezcalnaut Badge of Courage in a nearby town soon.

The details

Cost for a ticket is just shy of $300 US or $4,500 Mexican pesos for all events in the three day conference except for those evening mezcaleria jaunts. You can register here. Just be warned that the proceedings will all be in Spanish so start that language refresher course today. Email William Scanlan for more details including how to take advantage of group rates at local hotels.

La Urbana is coming…

There’s been a lot of buzz around the plans for La Urbana, a full-scale mezcaleria and restaurant opening in San Francisco’s Western Addition, or NOPA, neighborhood. The owners have completely gutted an old hydroponics store and surrounded it with plywood painted with a stunning black and white piece of street art by Zio Zeigler. It’s an ambitious project and Max and I had an opportunity to see the progress the other night.

We met with bar manager and mezcal project lead Lucas Ranzuglia, an Argentinean who has spent the past several years living in Mexico City. A long time spirit industry person, he is overseeing the bar program, and working with project lead/architect/designer Juan Garduno. The Mexican artists Hector Falcon and Fernando Llanos are working away on stencils that are working their way across furniture and mounted work.

The scope of the project is huge and will open in waves. Lucas is aiming to open the main corner restaurant space first sometime in August. It’s a huge space embracing a full restaurant, bar, and a private tasting room lit by skylights and walls of windows. The entrance is grand – two leaded, glass doors imported from Mexico; a Yucatecan tiled floor is taking shape and there’s a hole in the floor that awaits a tree. The centeral focus is the long bar backed by suspended wood cabinets and dressers all imported from Mexico. It would be fair to say just about everything – chairs, tables, plant holders – is coming from Mexico.

When done, Lucas says they are hoping to have almost 30 mezcals (be still my beating heart!) and 20 tequilas at the bar. He’s promising an extensive training regimen for the staff with hopes to bring mezcaleros and experts (Ulises Torrentera!) from Mexico for special events and tastings. I did mention huge in scope, right?

Initially the dining room will be open for dinner, and then ultimately brunch. They’re trying to inject the high end approach El Pujol from Mexico City into  the more traditional Mexican food most Estado Unidenses are used to finding in the Bay Area (Lolo aside) so expect surprises. The second phase will be the opening of a casual dining space – think a typical mercado fondo feel – in the space next door. Down the road they play to open their second story space to private parties, tastings, and special events. When completed it will be the largest Mexican restaurant in San Francisco.

Cocktails will of course be a focus, with unique recipes developed by Lucas. Since he knows his mezcals we are most interested to see what the final list will be – especially given that San Francisco is a third tier market for mezcal brands introduced to the US market (New York and Texas remain first and second). After an extensive conversation with Lucas it’s clear that there’s a keen dedication to quality and education. Perhaps San Francisco’s mezcal moment has finally arrived. We’re certainly looking forward to it, we’ll see you there opening night.

Here’s to a smooth final inspection process and an opening in August!

Leaded glass doors

Leaded glass doors

Yucatecan tile floors

Yucatecan tile floors

Cabinets behind the bar

Cabinets behind the bar


Back of chairs

Back of chairs

Journey to the Sierra Norte and Mezcal Tosba

One of the best things about going to palenques in Oaxaca is it usually means traveling to some of the most beautiful parts of the state. It also means traveling on some pretty rough roads, but more on that later.

I first met Elisandro Gonzalez-Molina in San Francisco at a mezcal tasting. He is one of the forces behind Mezcal Tosba, the other is his cousin Edgar Gonzalez-Ramirez. They are from the small pueblo of San Cristóbal Lachirioag in the Sierra Norte, a gorgeous and mountainous region northeast of the city of Oaxaca, and also one of the poorer regions in the state. Primarily Zapotec, with Mixe pueblos mixed within, it is primarily alpine dotted by of tropical microclimates, not unlike what is found on the western side of the coastal mountains of Oaxaca.

Elisandro and Edgar came to the United States, like many of their pueblo neighbors, in order make a better life for themselves and also to send precious dollars back to San Cristóbal Lachirioag, a lasting legacy of NAFTA, that decimated these small agrarian pueblos in many parts of Oaxaca (and of course all over Mexico.) While in the US, they spent time talking about what they could do to bring economic opportunity to their pueblo, and staunch the flow of young people north. The idea of Mezcal Tosba was born; magueys were planted on Edgar’s family milpa beginning in 1999. In 2006 Edgar returned to Oaxaca to learn how to make mezcal.

The Sierra Norte is not a region currently known for mezcal production. Palenques had existed, but with so many people leaving the land for better opportunities, many of them were abandoned and the tradition began dying out. Far more common in the region was aguariente (a distilled beverage made from sugar cane), coffee and pulque.

Visiting Tosba soon became a obsession for me – not only for the opportunity to meet Edgar and see the Palenque, but also to have an excuse to travel to the Sierra Norte, where I had never been. Arranging it was another story – back and forth with Elisandro, coordinating with Edgar during one of his weekly trips to Oaxaca (there is no cell phone service in most of the Sierra Norte) and finally a meeting at In Situ to coordinate the details, including a map of how to get there.

There would be four of us on the journey – me, my partner in mezcal crime Ana JB and In Situ owners Ulises Torrentera and Sandra Ortiz Brena. We rented a more or less sturdy car (why car rental agencies in Oaxaca insist on using white cars is beyond me) and left the city at the crack of dawn on a Sunday morning.

I took the first leg of driving, mostly to ensure I’d be driving the “best” roads. Our plan was to hit the market in Ayutla, a Mixe pueblo high in the mountains. We found a bustling commercial center where colectivo trucks unloaded people and their goods, and crisp in the clear, and quite cold, air. Luckily there was delicious coffee to be had and a filling breakfast of chilaquiles, enfrijolades and the best damn tortillas I have ever had (their rich corny flavor haunts my dreams to this day – think of the tortilla equivalent of the bread from Tartine.) We walked the market, taking in the sights and sounds of Mixe and Zapoteca being spoken. We bought green coffee beans, flor del maguey, chilies and carne; the last to cook later that day at the Palenque. And then we found the pulque and tasted the seemingly infinite varieties and flavors to be found. Side note – I would travel for pulque and could become as obsessed with it as I am with mezcal.

We piled back in the car, though not before a couple of palenqueros called out to Ulises – we were after all traveling with a mezcal rock star – who were anxious to have him try their mezcals. It was not quite 9:30am.

I let Sandra take over the driving, a good thing because from Ayutla on it was dirt road – washed out, rutted, impassable during the rainy season, cliff hugging, you name it. The views were stunning and a constant reminder of just how high we were and just how far a drop it was off the edge of the road. I will never ever ever again complain about the pinche suburban trip to and from the coast in Oaxaca.

We met Edgar in the center of San Cristóbal, and from there, drove to the palenque – another 25 minutes on a rutted road, down the mountain. We parked our car at the top of the entry to the palenque because, while our car would have made it down, it never would have made it back up – it seems only Nissan Sentras can make that trip.

The palenque is nestled in one of the tropical microclimates. It is completely self-sustaining, growing everything needed for mezcal production – maguey, wood, fruits and vegetables – you name it, it grows. Currently there is one roasting pit, with plans for another. There is a large adobe building that will eventually house the bottling and labeling facility. Currently mezcal is transported to Oaxaca where it is bottled. There is a large tin roof covering the crushing area, the three fermentation barrels and three stills. There is no electricity, though Edgar is making plans for either solar or river generated power.

We ate papayas and lemons as Edgar showed us the lay of the land. He is utterly engaging and wickedly smart. In addition to the savings of the two cousins, they also secured a loan from FAO PESA, a UN funded program that provides capital for projects like these. Tosba makes three mezcals – an espadin, a tobala and a pechuga. Water for the mezcal comes from the river that flows down the mountain to the valley.

It was impossible to imagine how they could bottle mezcal here, or more to the point, it was impossible to imagine how the bottles would get to and from the palenque if my rattled bones were any indication. But the idea is that bottling there will provide more jobs for the pueblo.

It is stunningly beautiful at the palenque – it is surrounded by mountains and the play of light. So gorgeous and peaceful, we spent the afternoon talking mezcal and life. Edgar’s parents and sister arrived and we ate tlayudas and sopa de guias (a squash vine soup that is divine) and grilled meat and guacamole. And again I was struck by how delicious the tortillas were. I was even convinced to drink the water that came straight from the river (oh I put up a fight because it went against everything my traveler instinct told me.) It was delicious and I have to say, this is what makes the flavor of Mezcal Tosba so delicious – it really does taste like the water – fresh and slightly sweet.

After the meal, we set-off to hike to the waterfall and to see the maguey and the rest of the milpa. Edgar grabbed his rifle (jaguar country) and we set off. We walked the paths through the magueys that hugged the mountainside and eventually found ourselves walking under a canopy of trees as we neared the waterfall.  We stood in silence as we listened to the water moving over the rocks and looked upward as the fading light sprinkled through the leaves. We walked back through a grove of mango, looked over at the sugar cane, stared in wonder at the pineapple bushes and then finally returned to the palenque to watch the sunset across the valley. As it turned pitch black, we lit candles and stared at the stars as Edgar regaled us with tales of the jaguars, how he lost his eye while cutting maguey and hitting a stone (now all of his employees wear eye goggles) and other nights spent under the stars. We may also have engaged in ghost stories, but I will neither confirm nor deny that.

We finally decided it was time to head back to town – the trusty Sentra taking us back up to the car, which eventually took us back to town. We arrived in time for the posada celebration complete with Banda music and dancing and pan dulce. After, we went to Edgar’s parents, where we were spending the night. Somehow there was more food to be consumed, more mezcal to be had and more talking to be done. We tried the new espadin, which prompted an intense back and forth between Ulises and Edgar about why it tasted different than the last batch. Were the maguey from a different altitude – with the answer yes. It seemed impossible for me to believe that a 50-meter difference could change the flavor, but it did – though I only noticed after Ulises had said something. Oh to have his palette!

And then it was time for bed. It felt like the middle of the night but in fact it was only 10pm.

But sleep would elude us that night. We were awoken by the jarring sound of Banda music over the municipal loud speaker at about 4am. If you haven’t heard it before, think John Philip Sousa on crack. Oddly, it was followed by Strauss and kept going till about 6am when we finally gave up on getting any more sleep. Sadly, a local musician had passed away during the night, and this was his tribute.

We filled our mugs with coffee and headed up to the terrace to watch the sunrise. As the light came over the top of the mountain, the strains of Ave Maria wafted from the loudspeaker. We sat in silence as tears rolled down my cheek as I thought at that moment I was as close to my sister who had recently passed away as I could hope to be. It was majestic.

We then headed to Villa Alta for the Monday market, loaded up on baskets and chiles, dropped off Edgar and said our farewells, and then began the long trip back to Oaxaca.

Chilies at the Ayutla Market

Chilies at the Ayutla Market

Beans at the Ayutla market

Beans at the Ayutla market

fresh pulque, ayutla

fresh pulque, ayutla

pulque bottles

pulque bottles

Ayutla market

Ayutla market

The view in the Sierra Norte

The view in the Sierra Norte

Roasted maguey, Mezcal Tosba

Roasted maguey, Mezcal Tosba

Cutting maguey, Mezcal Tosba

Cutting maguey, Mezcal Tosba

Mezcal Tosba Palenque

Mezcal Tosba Palenque



Sopa de guias

Sopa de guias

Edgar Gonzalez-Ramirez

Edgar Gonzalez-Rodriguez

The water source, Mezcal Tosba

The water source, Mezcal Tosba

Tree canopy, Mezcal Tosba

Tree canopy, Mezcal Tosba

Sunset at Mezcal Tosba

Sunset at Mezcal Tosba

Dancing in the square in San Cristóbal Lachirioag

Dancing in the square in San Cristóbal Lachirioag

Sunrise in San Cristóbal Lachirioag

Sunrise in San Cristóbal Lachirioag

If there were a mezcal heaven, it would be In Situ

It was a dramatic arrival in Oaxaca – two Dramamines and the never-ending seven hour pinche viaje through the mountains, the hustle of the just closing Abastos market and the insanity on the Periferico (the “boulevard” that runs around the southern edge of the centro) – there were no taxis so I dragged my bag through the puesto-laden streets on uneven sidewalk amid a stream of people. I couldn’t have been happier, no really, as the smells and chaos made it clear that I was home in my querida Oaxaca.

I took a few days to settle in – to see friends, unpack, buy groceries – before I went to In Situ for the first time. Owned by Ulises Torrentera and Sandra Ortiz Brenna, it is a mezcal lovers dream. The original mezcaleria was located inside Txalaparta Bar. About three or so weeks ago, it opened in its very own location at Morelos 511 in the Centro.

Some of the snack selection

This is what you see when you walk in – an entire wall filled with mezcal bottles. About 61, give or take. You also see bowls of mandarin oranges, jars filled with pepitas, and of course the beautiful faces of Sandra and Ulises, perhaps the two foremost experts on mezcal.

The flor de maguey escabeche

On this particular night, there was also flor de maguey escabeche and an amazing queso from Etla. As I caught up on the news with Sandra, a group of about 10 people led by Ron Cooper of Del Maguey walked in, reinforcing that In Situ just might be ground zero for all things mezcal.

I calculated that to try all of the mezcals, I would have to drink 2-3 mezcals each day.  The mezcals are from all over Mexico and are un-branded for the most part (which is of course traditional.) The breadth not only of espadins, but also the silvestres is stunning, and I can only imagine the time spent meeting and procuring all of the different bottles.

This particular evening, I tried a verde, coyote, madrecuish and an ensemble that had barril, madrecuish, espadin and a little coyote. I have to say that I am really liking the verdes – the flavor is pungent and fresh and runs a little sweeter than most of the other magueys in the Karwinsky family (cuishes, etc).

More adventures on the horizon…

Bebidas of Mexico video

Finally had a chance to watch the Bebidas de Mexico show that broadcast on Sept. 8th in Mexico. It’s a snazzy piece that does a nice job of explaining the cultural impact of mezcal through interviews with writers, historians, and producers from the artisanal and industrial worlds.  It is in Spanish without subtitles but don’t worry if you don’t speak Spanish – the images tell the story of mezcal in loving detail.

As a bonus it is narrated by one of my favorite Spanish speaking actors, Daniel Jiménez Cacho.  You may recognize his voice because he also narrated the oh so awesome film Y tu mamá también. Give it a watch – I can guarantee you’ll be making a beeline to grab a copita as soon as possible.



Experiencing Mezcal at Mezcalaria – Part 2

On July 21st and 28th, the quaint neighborhood of Jalatlaco in Oaxaca, Mexico played host to two nights of a mezcal extravaganza called Mezcalaria. Each night paired four different mezcals with four different dishes. Our on the ground Mezcalista Ana J.B. was there.The original Spanish was translated by Alice Groves.

It was a long eight days of waiting for the second Mecalaria event. I couldn’t wait to see what Invigorating and tasty dishes Chef Diaz would create to pair with different mezcals selected by Ulises Torrentera and Sandra Ortiz from Los Amantes, Mezcaloteca, In Situ and Cuish.

There was also the presence of new patrons, and seeing their wanting and expectant faces, anxious to know what this event was all about, made me even more excited. I was ready to truly capture these new aromas and flavours in my mouth.

In this second round of Mezcalaria, the organizers of the event clearly felt more confident, but I never lost sight of their ever present nervousness and preoccupation that everything go according to plan.

It was time to meet new people and hear more about what brought them to this pairing here in the garden of such a magnificent house in Jalatlaco, a cozy neighborhood adjacent to Oaxaca’s bustling centro.  Karina, a young lady from Guadalajara, sat across from me and was accompanied by her Taiwanese boyfriend Oriundo.  They had just returned from a road trip to mezcal country having taken some time to stop in with Don Alfonso Sanchez and his brothers at their palenque in Chichicapam (they are definitely some of the best mezcal producers in the region.)

Chef Jose Luis Diaz plates one of the courses

1st pairing

Mezcal:  Espadín

Agave: Espadín

Producer: Los Amantes

Selected by: Leon Langle

Produced in: San Luis del Rio

This special mezcal from Los Amantes, which has a tasting room just a few feet from Oaxaca’s standout cathedral Santo Domingo, was distilled with lemongrass.  This form of distillation, incorporating herbs, is reasonably common but rarely is distributed beyond Oaxaca or the palenques. Palenqueros can add nuts, fruits or herbs to add flavor and complexity.

Salad of verdolagas (leafy Oaxacan greens) with a ceviche made of mushrooms and tepejilote (much like heart of palm and very regional) soaked in passion fruit marinade, avocado ‘criollo’ (a local variety), pomegranate seeds, and a plantain and chili pepper vinaigrette.

The mezcal was young and while initially sweet had a full bodied, explosive middle and a very bitter lemongrass finish.

2nd pairing

Mezcal:  Bicuixhe

Agave: 50% Cuish (wild maguey) and 50% Madre Cuish (wild maguey)

Produced by: Mezcaloteca

Selected by: Mezcaloteca

Produced in: Miahuatlan de Porfirio Diaz

2nd plate:  Mole coloradito with diced shrimp, bean paste and cheese from the Istmo (or, the Isthmus region of Oaxaca, is about five hours south of the city and host to a very different cuisine.)

The dish was surprisingly sweet, with a subtle spiciness. The delicate seasoning was a little over powered by the strong and earthy flavors of the mezcal.

3rd pairing

Mezcal:  Papalomet

Agave: Papalomet

Produced by: Farolito

Selected by: Ulises Torrentera

The roasted agave was crushed in a tree trunk and then fermented in cowhide.  It was then distilled in a clay tank and has an extremely limited 50 liter production.

3rd plate:  Tasajo beef hamburgers with hierba santa (rootbeer leaf), a guajillo chili pepper sauce, marmalade and fried dandelion leaves

The mezcal was richly flavored with musky hint of meat and filled the mouth and throat with full flavors. It opened the taste buds up perfectly to match with the meaty hamburger.

4th pairing

Mezcal:  Espadín

Agave: Espadín

Produced by: Cuish

Selected by: Felix Hernandez

Produced in: Ixcatlan

Dessert:  Chocolate nut brownie with cuajinicuil (a sweet tropical fruit from the area) topped by a guajillo chili pepper drizzle, diced fresh ginger, and pitiona (a local herb).  It was accompanied by dollops of a ginger fig marmalade. A great combination.

I truly enjoy these types of events that have a very different concept of how to educate people about what they are eating and drinking, and the variety of ways in which local (and primarily organic) ingredients can be used to open the mouth to new experiences. And while I never doubted the success of the evening, I was completely satisfied in the end. I congratulate this great team on putting together such a unique and delicious event. As a good friend of mine says; by sharing the mezcal we all we all come out winners.

An afternoon with Ulises Torrentera

Ulises Torrentera

Ulises Torrentera at his mezcaleria Txalaparta in Oaxaca.

I was excited to learn that a little mezcaleria had opened inside of one of my favorite bars in Oaxaca – Txalaparta. The mezcaleria is only open during the day from 1 to 7pm but it’s an extraordinary addition to the world of mezcal because it is run by Ulises Torrentera, the writer and author of several books and essays about mezcal. He is also somewhat of a personal mezcal hero for me – his writing captures not only his incredible knowledge of mezcal, but also his extraordinary literary voice. He tells the stories of mezcal that so perfectly reflect the life, culture and love that is so much a part of the mezcal story.

So I was nervous to say the least, and it was hot, and I had a bit of a headache from the night before (beer/mezcal – never a good combination) and my Spanish was feeling pretty rough.

How do you even begin to capture an afternoon of meandering conversation? You can have a list of questions on you but sometimes you just end up going on more of a journey, letting the discussion flow how it will. Ulises was behind the bar with his partner, Sandra.

Tasting menu at the mezcaleria

Ulises’s menu lists a variety of mezcals and currently features a new brand that Ulises and Sandra have developed called Farolito. It is all small batch, artisanal (will get to that in a bit), and composed of magueys I have never had before. We started with the Chato de Suchiltepec – a full bodied, 47% bottle, that blew my socks off. The flavor exploded up front on my tongue and then melted down my throat carrying such complexity.

Mezcal Farolito

And this led to the question of how you describe the flavor and experience of mezcal? I have always been challenged by this and, to be honest, I have struggled with the perception of snobbery in the vocabulary of wine and tequila.

As Ulises put it: When the flavors change across mezcals of a specific maguey – when you can’t define the flavor profile of a Tobalá, for example, because even within a maguey the flavor is dependent on where it is from (interestingly, there is no word for terroir in Spanish), what altitude it’s grown at, the hand of the palenquero who made the mezcal and other intangibles. There are hundreds and hundreds of mezcals in Oaxaca and not one is like the other – how can you build a vocabulary for this? Creating a vocabulary may not be a completely Quixotic adventure, it’s just that no one has really done it yet.

And so we talked about how tasting mezcal can conjure a specific memory like a wedding, or remind you of the sun setting over the mountain or of a mole you tasted in a pueblo. That’s why the current trend of industrializing the process, to make the flavor consistent, is just so damn sad and an anathema to what mezcal is.

Next up on the taste – Cuesh from San Juan del Rio which again exploded in my mouth. It opened my nasal passage and brought the front of my face alive. And then it finished so smooth and reminded me of a drive I took with my grandfather one fall afternoon on a winding road through the hollows of western Maryland, and how the sun dappled through the leaf laden oak and maple trees.

Then I asked him what artisanal mezcal was to him and he came up with the clearest explanation I have yet heard. Artisanal mezcal is made by one palenquero at one Palenque utilizing the process of roast, crush, ferment and distill that has been used for more than 400 years. Traditional mezcal is made the artisanal way, but involves more than one Palenque and palenquero for the final product. Semi-industrial utilizes some aspect of traditional production, but then has modernized or mechanized part of the process. Industrial is well, completely industrial and does not use any traditional methods. I hope these are the guiding definitions going forward. For my own purposes, I fully embrace these descriptions and this is what I now mean when I use the words.

Another question came up regarding NOM-186’s impact in Mexico. Anyone who supports small-scale production and producers sees it as the death knell for the truly artisanal approach to mezcal and Ulises is no exception. There is a great deal of opposition to it here in Oaxaca, and in Mexico overal.   The discussion will be long and there will be no resolution anytime soon. In the interim there has been an explosion of brands of mezcals. This is driving huge changes in the market. In the past, people bought barrels directly from palenqueros.  Restaurants and bars have mezcals of the house, which are also bought in barrels directly from palenques.  The growth of brands started in 2000 when the official denomination for mezcal was born.

And again, this led to the talk about the wild magueys (silvestres) and the over harvesting and the demand – something that has been increasing for several years. A lot of it started during the tequila crisis in the early 2000’s when there was a shortage of blue agave and producers in Jalisco began buying espadin and wild magueys to create a Tequilera, a blended tequila, to help keep production going. And now with more brands, more awareness, more demand for the silvestres, there is a tragic and growing danger of eradicating many of these magueys to meet the market demand.

Wild maguey can be cultivated, and some people are doing exactly that here in Oaxaca. Espadin is the most widely used maguey in mezcal because it is so easy to grow, and can pretty much grow anywhere. Wild magueys often have their own environmental  preferences that vary by elevation and other factors.  They also take 12 or more years to mature making the cultivation process a pretty expensive initial investment. So there is a bit of a gap right now until the cultivated silvestres really start producing, and thus the threat of over harvest remains. I am curious to see how much cultivation alters the flavors, and what kind of cross breeding we’ll be seeing in the future.

The thing is, it is not just wild magueys that are a pending ecological problem – there is also the issue of deforestation. The increasing demand for wood for firing the distillation process is also having an impact. As Ulises pointed out, currently there is no association, or formal organization overseeing a reforestation or replanting project in Oaxaca. Hence there is interest in the gas fired distillation process, but a lingering question about how that changes a fundamental flavor component of mezcal (that roasted/smokey depth.)

Which of course meant tasting another mezcal – a Jabalí (another Silvestre variety) from Sola de Vega – a town on the highway to Puerto Escondido. This one was so green and fresh and reminded me of that long and windy road over the mountains, of going from the drier Oaxacan Valley to the very verdant and cool mountains that separate this area from the sea.

It is possible to fall in love with a beverage, to have it be a calling. This project by Ulises is certainly that and is a labor of love – to bring the immensely varying flavors of each maguey to people and tell the stories of the makers, to ensure the experience and culture of mezcal is not lost in the rush to market.

So how to reconcile this changing market for mezcal with support for the palenqueros and pueblos? How to make sure the market does not end up dominated by big brands like Zignum (owned by Coca Cola) and that the knowledge and know how of 500 years is not lost in a push for efficiency and continuity of flavor? How to protect the diversity of the magueys and protect the ecology in the face of increasing demand? And how to make sure that money and recognition do not stray too far from the system of palenques that exists? These are certainly the questions that should dominate the discussion of mezcal in the years to come.