Late last year Susan and I had the pleasure of meeting Iván Saldaña, the primary force behind Montelobos mezcal for the label’s formal domestic launch. Susan got to catch up with him again this spring at a tasting in LA and just this week his book on mezcal, “Anatomy of mezcal,” was released in time for Tales of the Cocktail so it’s high time that we got this post out there for everyone.
Ivan is a fascinating character, an organic chemist by training who spent significant time in England working on that front. He says that he was “obsessed with balance and complexity” in creating this mezcal in collaboration with palenquero Don Abel. But his definition of terms is a bit different than what you’d normally expect. He describes balance as “capturing as many different notes that the plants can produce” and complexity as capturing nuance from fermentation including the traditional smoke notes, chemical flavors, and the group of herbal, vegetal, and floral elements that appear in many mezcals.
Since he’s a chemist Iván brings a novel vocabulary to the presentation of his mezcal. He described the prominent role that terpins and fats play in bringing out flavor, that is the chemical components of flavor. Generally conversations about mezcal are dominated by the subjective and slippery terminology of sensation; hot, smoky, fruity etc. Iván’s vocabulary and view of what’s going on in a mezcal brings out a whole different world.
Their NOM, O156X, is very prominently placed on the label. Hopefully this is a sign that the mezcal world is taking production more seriously. It’s not that we want to make mezcal in the model of tequila but let’s be realistic, for the foreseeable future most mezcal is going to be repackaged under brand names so the knowledgeable consumer is either going to have to know their shit or have a NOM to tell them who is producing their mezcal.
Iván likes the petrol and nail polish notes in Montelobos, we found similar notes without them being overwhelming. In our conversations with him he recognized that those chemical notes can be difficult if not overwhelming so he and Don Abel try to minimize them in order to deliver a thoroughly balanced bottle.
They aimed at a higher alcohol level because the higher the alcohol means less smoke and increased flavor. Of course, it’s difficult to sell a bottle that’s too alcoholic so they arrived at the current alcohol level 43.2% as a balance to get the flavors they were after. We had a wide ranging conversation about food pairings; Iván is partial to drinking Montelobos with seafood, sushi, Asian food in general, chocolate, but especially with passion fruit. The latter is one of Iván’s favorite pairings. Read on for one of his favorite pairing recipes.
Montelobos is the result of a 5 day underground cook. The fire is mostly fed by oak while the agave is sourced from different farms in the Tlocalula district. They get their organic certification by parcel but it’s not estate grown like most mezcal. Don Abel partners with others in the community to find the agave that works for their project.
They modeled their approach on tequila’s hacienda structure, the hacienda provides everything for the region. Mezcal has been primarily made for self consumption. Iván talked quite a bit about how the hacienda structure created classic economic efficiencies by owning the land, means of production and housing a stable labor force. With jimadores in full and constant employment, haciendas could afford to maintain their agave fields much more aggressively and define their crops’ outcome more precisely.
But mezcal has largely been a family run deal, a 15 year process analogous to the classic Mexican quinceñera where mezcal is traditionally consumed. We had a long discussion with Ivan about the diverse production methods used in mezcal in comparison with tequila. He told us that this “fosters a culture of diversity which mirrors the biological diversity of the land.”
When Ivan met him, Don Abel already planted agaves and had a long experience as a farmer. His horse is named Rambo and he pulls the tahona, the traditional agave milling method. Ivan condensed the attraction and importance of the tahona method in a joke, he told us that “Rambo is the second most important source of energy after the wood we use to cook the piñas.” The connections to pre-industrial traditions don’t stop there, Don Abel is a Zapotec speaker and was largely responsible for threading the eye of organic certification by working closely with the local collective to make sure that everything turned out well.
They use a small, 1,000 liter vat, for fermentation and a copper still. Iván said that he defers completely to Don Abel as a master artisan to constantly adjust the distillation process for all the varied factors like humidity and the type and quality wood.
We asked Iván whether he’s thinking about other products, perhaps a silvestre, reposado, añejo or a traditional flavored mezcal. In late 2012 he told us that, “It took a long time to make this. It was a materialization of a desire and we finally reached that goal.” He has just launched a new product – Ancho Reyes, a chile ancho liquor that Susan had a chance to try in May (and loved.) It is a sweet and spicy liquor inspired by a 1920’s recipe from Puebla de Zaragoza. Note that this is not a flavored mezcal, but a spirit distilled from sugar cane.
Politics of mezcal
Our conversation ranged far and wide but concluded with a long back and forth about the debate over NOM 186 and the definition of mezcal. For the uninitiated NOM 186 is the collection of laws that defines who can call a mezcal a mezcal and what has to go into it. It’s a very contentious set of regulations because it will create winners (at this stage the larger corporate entities) and losers (if current proposal holds, most of the smaller artisanal producers).
Our first question was whether mezcal should be one grand umbrella of a name or whether it should embrace a Denominacion de Origen concept that has worked well in the world of wine and in some European spirits. Iván thinks the size of the business must be larger in order to justify that and that it’s not the major issue right now. He pointed out that the bigger issues and the most basic like how to get a product to market, how to create an identity in the market, and then maintain it. We’ve heard the same concern from many a mezcal maker and consumer. There’s a limited market for mezcal fueled by brands and demand. Even scotch is highly limited and other spirits encounter the same issues at the more mass market end of the market. Witness the explosion of in sales of Maker’s Mark bourbon after it said it was going to water down its bourbon in order to meet demand earlier this year.
Iván’s big solution to the dynamics of the mezcal market is surprisingly grounded in the realities of Mexico and most markets. He thinks that to create a stable, productive, and equitable market you have to create a system that’s fairly distributed to the palenque, you have to build a path to the market that others can use. As an example he noted that “the joint venture with Don Abel is exclusive to mezcal. We won’t make it elsewhere. My main job is to help Don Abel manage and create a sustainable business with marketing, planting regularly.”
That’s not to say that Iván ignores the bigger picture. He really thinks that artisanal mezcal needs to be defined in order to save it. Iván’s business partner Moises Guindi joined us for part of this conversation and noted that “there’s no definition of location or type that a customer can identify and enjoy.” And that’s where the idea of a Denominacion de Origen could come into play. A DO could help consumers get a better read on what they’re tasting and that’s what Iván’s book is all about, it’s his attempt to dig deeper on this subject. That is, to help give mezcal a greater identity within a tiny market space. Iván told us that “you have to have education together and find new consciousness. Look at Scotch or Champagne. They have an education and production alliance while competing for shelf space. Tequila has a lack of unification as an industry.”
While at the tasting Iván told the assembled audience about his favorite recipe for cooking with mezcal, a whole fish poached in mezcal. He recommends using a whole salmon or firm white fleshed fish. The directions are simple:
Cover the fish with mezcal and cook a low temperature. Ivan notes that the boiling point of mezcal is lower than water so keep a very close eye on it. Once it’s fully poached serve warm.
We haven’t had an opportunity to try this one out yet because it’s rather expensive but we’re hunting for a summer dinner to share the results with friends. Lest you think this is too far fetched check out New York’s Empellon Cocina which serves an excellent salmon cured with mezcal. Yet, another showcase for mezcal’s versatility.