Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
We know that fermenting was practiced in Mexico dating to several thousand years ago with the extraction of aguamiel (honey water) from certain species of the majestic agave succulent, which when left to ferment becomes pulque. And that agave itself otherwise has a history of being used as a source of nutrition going back roughly 10,000 years. But there’s a big difference between (1) allowing fruit, agave nectar or anything else to ferment, inhibiting its decomposition and enabling its imbibers to become inebriated, and (2) deliberate advance planning and the use certain tools, resulting in distillation (i.e. the production of mezcal).
Perhaps the story of distillation and the history of mezcal in Mexico begins with the arrival of the Spanish during The Conquest in the first quarter of the 1500s. Or with Filipino seamen in the Manila galleon trade who reached the country’s western shores that same century. Or with indigenous cultures some 2,500 years ago. Mezcal of course is Mexico’s iconic agave distillate, often thought of as a generic term, one subset of which is tequila, its more popular cousin.
We also know with a reasonable degree of certainty many specifics about the global history of distillation and styles of still manufacture, all of which aids us in our conjecture. But it must be kept in mind that most is scientific speculation often based on inference, regardless of how adamant our historians, geographers, chemists, biologists and anthropologists might be in their discourse (or me in mine).
The Moors invaded the Iberian Peninsula about 711 AD. We have them to thank for the introduction of many food products including rice and saffron, integral in the preparation of Spanish paella. Despite their Islamic beliefs together with a prohibition against imbibing spirits, Moorish influence in Spain is connected with the distillation of mezcal.
During or about the 9th century, the modern alembic, or still, made with a serpentine condenser alongside, arrived in what is now Spain as a consequence of the invention by Arab alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan. Non-Muslims who were already fermenting grapes quickly realized that distillation, for whatever purpose initially intended, could result in production of a high alcohol content spirit extremely agreeable to the palate. And so when The Conquest began, the Spanish armed with this knowledge came across indigenous populations which were already drinking pulque, and likely baked sweet agave piñas (pineapples, or rather the hearts of the carbohydrate-rich agaves) which had been fermented. The bridge had been gapped. It is this style of still, the two sided alembic, which is frequently used in mezcal production today. It has been suggested however, that the technology had its first application in the distillation of sugar cane which the Spanish imported for rum production.
But throughout various parts of Mexico there is a different type of still being employed to make agave spirits including mezcal. It is a single unit comprised of two or more pieces stacked on top of one another, made primarily of wood, metal and/or clay. It is frequently encountered in Oaxaca, Michoacán, and elsewhere throughout Mexico including tequila country (i.e. Jalisco and thereabouts).
It has been suggested that this type of still was introduced to what are now Colima, Guerrero and/or Jalisco, during the 16th century by immigrants from the Philippines and the Solomon Islands who established a community for the purpose of developing coconut plantations. Local materials used in their homelands for fashioning small yet effective equipment for making their coconut distillate, principally clay (and likely reed), were available in this new North American environment. In fact, to this day the term tuba, the fermented coconut liquid which was thereafter distilled, is used in some parts of Mexico to describe fermented agave, despite its origin.
Various sources confirm that the beginnings of and motivation for the prohibition era in Mexico (yes, we also had prohibition) were to protect the interests of Spanish brandy importers and rum producers, and to assure tax revenue. Banning production, sale and consumption of pulque, tuba and coconut distillate started the movement which eventually lead to full-scale prohibition. But it was the portability of these small single unit and easily fashioned predominantly clay stills which (together with below ground ovens and stone fermentation chambers) made detection of distillation, including the production of mezcal, all but impossible by the “revenuers.”
The 2016 publication of El mezcal, una bebida prehispánica at minimum makes us rethink our understanding of the origins of agave distillation in Mexico. Authors Mari Carmen Serra Puche and Jesús Carlos Lazcano Arce together with their associates from various disciplines spent in excess of a decade researching in Oaxaca and Tlaxcala. They have purportedly debunked all previous theories, having uncovered ovens containing burned stones with runoff stains they concluded after analysis had been created by baked agave piñas. But has literally hundreds of years of research and umpteen publications been thrown to the wind? Certainly not. The foregoing finding in and of itself is not determinative, since it suggests nothing more than converting carbohydrates to sugars, and a reasonable likelihood of fermentation thereafter. It’s the unearthing of pre-Hispanic pottery fragments they identified as parts of stills, which is most significant, suggesting pre-Hispanic distillation dating to perhaps 2,500 years ago. Others have previously proposed similar theories, but that of Serra Puche and Lazcano Arce is the most comprehensive and convincing to date.
Since the book’s publication there has been a considerable amount of chest beating, a renewed or additional sense of pride that the indigenous peoples of Mexico did not need the Spanish nor the Filipinos to distill mezcal. Of course there is academic significance to the most recent work. But regardless of origins, one can never take away from our Mexican brethren of predominantly pre-Hispanic heritage, that mezcal, the pre-eminent agave spirit, owes its recent and exponentially growing popularity to not foreign interests, but rather to its dedicated artisanal producers, beginning with subsistence lifestyle agave growers, and concluding with expert distillers.
Agave is Mexican. It has been of such importance over millennia that it warranted its own goddess, Mayahuel. Her husband, Patecatl, was the god of pulque. Yet curiously there is no pre-Hispanic deity for an agave distillate. Food for thought.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (http://www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).
Why do many in the mezcal business, the self-aggrandized experts, and others supposedly in the know, shun the thought of drinking mezcal con gusano and any type of aged product be it reposado or añejo? More troubling is that many counsel imbibers against even touching to their lips anything but a blanco or joven (unaged) mezcal. This issue is particularly incomprehensive given that corn whiskies, brandies, scotches and some wines are aged in oak barrels. And, both internationally renowned chefs and acclaimed traditional Oaxacan cooks use the gusano del maguey or agave worm to flavor some of their culinary delights.
In prehistoric times, that is prior to the mid 1990s, we were drinking relatively few types of mezcal. With nary an exception our options were essentially limited to unaged, reposado (aged in oak for at minimum a couple of months), añejo (aged in oak for no less than a year), “with the worm,” and if we were lucky we could put our hands on the occasional bottle of tobalá. Selection options are very different today, innumerable in fact. Many imbibers have either never known or forgotten that quality mezcal can come in several forms, including aged and infused.
Mezcal con Gusano
Mezcal con gusanso first appeared in the marketplace decades earlier than the modern era. It became popular on college campuses as a cheap way to get drunk fast because of its relatively high alcohol content, and of course the traditions and myths surrounding its imbibing carried its popularity forward. “The worm,” actually a moth larva which infests and attacks the root and heart of certain agave species [variously identified as Aegiale hesperiaris, Hypopta agavis and/or Comadia redtenbacheri] became a marketing tool for distillers, exporters, importers and distributors. But the infusion also changed the flavor of the mezcal into which it was inserted. Most gave short shrift to considering how the character of the mezcal was being altered, and would never consider this type of mezcal a fine sipping spirit. Perhaps back then it wasn’t.
But what if today you enjoy the nuance of mezcal which has been infused with a gusano? A couple of years ago I took a bottle of mezcal con gusano off one of the shelves housing my collection of agave spirits. I slowly sipped it. The flavor shockingly reminded me of a couple of my favorite whiskies, peaty single malt scotches from Islay!
Today there are good and bad mezcals with gusanos, with our assessments being based on subjective criteria, just as there are good and bad unaged mezcals. Quality may be impacted by, amongst other factors, the type of gusano (although it is typically one type used to flavor mezcal), how the larva has been prepared for infusion into the mezcal, the specie and sub specie of the agave used to make the base mezcal, and the skill of the artisanal distiller. The point is, that yes this type of mezcal was likely initially marketed with a view to increasing sales of the spirit because of its uniqueness, but we should give it a chance, just as we would sampling different joven mezcals. Not all mezcals produced with madrecuixe, tepeztate, jabalí, tobalá and espadín are the same. Some we like and some we don’t. You may find the same thing with mezcal con gusano. And if you find a couple of brands to your liking you may just stop spending $100 USD on a bottle of Lagavulin. So don’t write off mezcal con gusano just because at this moment in history it’s un-cool to like it, or your memory of it is clouded by what it meant to you years or decades ago.
Now the story of aged mezcal is entirely different, since long before the emergence of mezcal con gusano, añejos and to a lesser extent reposados were deemed quality sipping spirits. Thankfully in many circles they still are, and indeed many brands have been able to capitalize on the continuation of this perception. But since the early 2000s a movement has emerged, and seems to be gathering steam, dissing aged agave spirits, mezcal in particular. The rationale goes something like this: they are not “traditional” mezcals; aging masks the natural flavors of mezcals which are derived from an agave specie and impacted by means of production and tools of the trade, and microclimate; and the list goes on. Hence, we should avoid drinking reposados and añejos at all cost. The proponents of these lines of thought lecture about it, disseminate their position on their websites, and promote their “knowledge” in print, all purporting to promote the industry.
What can be more traditional than a custom dating back hundreds of years? Depending upon the version of history to which one subscribes, the aging of agave spirits in oak barrels dates back to somewhere between the 1500s and the 1700s, and certainly not more recently. The oral histories I have personally taken are based upon elderly palenqueros having recounting to me from their own experience dating back to the 1940s. The current crop of brand owners and representatives were not even born then.
The history of aging mezcal in wood actually begins with the Spanish arriving in The New World with brandy transported in oak casks. Many barrels remained in what is now Mexico. Even using the most recent dateline of the 1500s for the birth of distillation in Mexico, we find aging. Here’s why. At some point after distillers began producing agave spirits and storing and transporting them in clay pots, they realized that the capacity for transporting was restricted to about 70 – 80 liters because of the size of the receptacles. And since the pots were fragile they were prone to breakage. Oak barrels from initially Spain became available for the same purposes, that is, storing and transporting the spirit. They became preferred because they were larger and more break-resistant than the clay “cántaros.”So, if not by design then by default, palenqueros were aging their spirits in oak, long, long ago, and consumers were enjoying it. Aged mezcal is traditional. Query the purists who state that mezcal should only be stored in glass. Is glass traditional? No, clay is, dating earlier than oak. Clay too changes the notes of the agave spirit. Perhaps we should distinguish traditionalists from purists.
But some of these same “experts,” the purist class, drink, sell and promote mezcal de pechuga. Typically this type of mezcal has been distilled a third time, during which there is generally a meat protein (chicken or turkey breast, rabbit or deer meat, etc) dangling in the upper chamber of the copper alembic or clay pot, over which the steam passes thereby imparting a subtle change in the spirit’s nuance. Most contemporary distillers insert a range of fruit, herbs and spices into the bottom pot while continuing to use the protein in the process. There are umpteen variations on the theme. In any event, the totality of these added products dramatically alters, and yes to a certain extent masks the natural flavor imparted by the particular agave specie, means of production and tools of the trade. Where aged agave spirit is not acceptable, mezcal de pechuga is, and is sold at handsome prices. Is there a disconnect?
There are other rationale some use for urging spirits drinkers to not drink aged mezcal:
The recent promotion of mezcal based on specie and sub-specie of agave rather than the few categories noted at the outset, as well as on the particular village or district where the agave was grown and processed into mezcal, has helped the industry get to where it is today. But the downside has been that añejos have been left behind in the wake, and many who have become mezcal aficionados have not even had a chance to try aged product. And they wouldn’t even think of trying a mezcal con gusano. It just isn’t cool or acceptable in much of today’s world.
It’s time we begin to embrace diversity which includes gusanos, reposados and añejos, and either ignore the naysayers or better yet tell them that their opinions are no more valid than ours. If we, the imbibing public, try a mezcal with something in the bottle or a product that is not perfectly clear, and don’t like it, we may not try it again, or we may sample from a different brand or batch. But don’t even suggest that it isn’t traditional or of good quality. Let us be the arbiters. Retailers, mezcalerías and tasting rooms, should consider carrying initially at least a bit of those products so we can make our own decisions. Otherwise they are doing a disservice to those producers who are continually working hard to trying to create more pleasantly palatable and diverse mezcals, and just as importantly they are restricting the options of their own clientele, without valid reason.
Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D., of Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca
Maestra palenquera Leticia brings out what at first glance appears to be a block of concrete double wrapped in a pink then green plastic bag. She hands it to me, and I immediately know that my initial perception is dead wrong. It’s lighter, perhaps two or three pounds (i.e. a kilo and a bit), and as it reaches me the sweet aroma of fresh marijuana begins to fill the air. Though we are in the breezy outdoors, it pleasingly lingers, heavy. We’re making mezcal de mota (pot mezcal).
I’d had it before, of course only in American states where it’s legal. I’ve imbibed it as part of a mezcal de siete herbas (the agave spirit infused with seven herbs), and sampled from the small amounts from Doña Leticia which have reached Baltimore, MD. But this visit to the palenque (artisanal mezcal distillery in Oaxaca) of the newly anointed Goddess of Ganja, enabled me and my two clients to participate in its production, an experience vastly different from simply infusing a clear distillate with marijuana, or weed and other ingredients.
We’d already been in the car about four hours, having left Oaxaca mid-morning. The plan was to be back at roughly 5 pm. But I’ve learned over the past quarter century that in particular in this Mexican state when it comes to rural treks at all related to mezcal or agave, the best laid plans have to take a back seat to imbibing, engaging and inevitably learning something new and fascinating.
No matter that we’d visited other palenques en route, and traversed dirt roads for the better part of an hour. I had been charged with making several executive decisions as to for example which branch of the umpteen Ys in the road to take; though I’d travelled the route to Doña Leticia’s several times before, I still always feel a little like Dorothy … but without a scarecrow to assist.
A visit to Doña Leticia’s homestead never disappoints. She’s fun, and entertaining to the extreme. And while it often seems like there is no method to her outward madness, the day always takes shape, in some form or other. She is the consummate expert’s expert, though she makes her mezcal a little differently than others in and around the central valleys of Oaxaca.
“We’re just making it now, in a bit, so if you can wait two hours it’ll be ready,” was the exhortation of Doña Leticia upon our arrival. I knew and thankfully my clients sensed that we should just let the day unfold and forget about any fixed plans for that evening.
There’s perhaps only a handful of women in Oaxaca who are truly the makers of the iconic Mexican spirit, most of the rest being those who lend a female moniker to the brand name, yet have men to do all the hard labor. Others use their sex to best market mezcal, not to diminish their importance or qualifications. But Doña Leticia is the real deal. The men around her play only secondary or tertiary roles, with this physically and emotionally strong woman calling all the shots, and doing what has traditionally been men’s work in the industry: cutting and harvesting agave, carrying firewood, filling the oven, chopping and mashing the sweet baked agave with a wooden mallet, and much more. When she needs to enlist the assistance of male neighbors or cousins, she does so, just like other palenqueros.
But this essay is not about Doña Leticia per se, but rather how she makes her marijuana mezcal. And yes, upon our arrival a male cousin is already in attendance, visiting with her and her elderly mother. And within an hour or so four other men who live nearby have arrived. Perhaps a sixth sense was at play, or they’d heard what she had planned for the day and wanted a snort or two, or maybe gathering at her home was a Saturday tradition. More often than not there have been male guests at the home for this fifty-something hostess when I’ve come by, whatever day of the week.
She’s already begun cutting up a specific assortment of fruits into a large plastic bowl. We immediately chip in. She runs off and then in short order returns with a few pounds of small seasonal plums, and mixes them into the fray as she washes them off, more so as custom dictates than for safe practice.
She dismantles the copper still. A friend empties the remaining liquid from the last distillation. He places firewood under the alembic, and lights it.
We accompany Doña Leticia back to the house. She goes in, then returns seconds later with a large piece of cloth, a towel it seems, calling out to one of her helpers: “Here, take this to wipe and dry the [inside of the copper] pot; it has to be really clean.”
Someone else helps her fill three buckets of madrecuixe from a large container. She’s not using her double-distilled karwinskii, but rather the product of the first distillation. Into the still it goes. “You know what, let’s put some [double distilled] mezcal into the mix as well,” a last minute decision she makes; eight or so liters of “the good stuff” gets poured in. But for this step I’m the designated dipper. The top comes off of an 1,100 liter tank (tinaco) of her classic madrecuixe. I have to stick my head well into it to reach down to fill a plastic bucket. The fumes are almost overwhelming, but in a highly agreeable sense. But twice I have to come back up for air, literally, before getting the job done. Then we each take turns sampling from the 10 liter receptacle.
Liquid gold in the making is now heating up in the still, so there’s time to spare. We begin breaking up the marijuana brick. Doña Leticia says its dry, but to me it’s green and fresh with moisture still present, nothing like the dry bricks I’d been accustomed to seeing and watching friends break apart during the 1960s. We spend about 20 minutes pulling apart about two thirds of the brick to fill a large shallow round wicker basket. It’s much like shredding chicken breast. I obsessively keep smelling my finger tips. Once we’ve finished, I re-wrap the remaining solid chunk of weed.
“You know,” explains Doña Leticia, “this is better than mezcal de pechuga; with classic pechuga with fruit and herbs put into the still, the grease and whatever else from the dangling raw chicken or turkey breast stays with the mezcal, and eventually that causes the mezcal to become a little off or putrid; but with no meat, it’s pure fruit and herb and you don’t have to worry about it.” I’d been told this before by a palenquero friend who makes a vegan pechuga with just fruit and sugarcane. On the other hand I haven’t detected such a diminution of quality in my collection of mezcales de pechuga distilled the traditional way, with a meat protein.
We carry the fruit and marijuana over to the still. Doña Leticia drops in the fruit, and I follow suit with the ganja, notwithstanding a little trepidation. She then says, perhaps more thinking to herself than asking an opinion, “maybe we should put in the rest of the mota.” I pipe in “I think it’s fine the way it is,” of course as someone merely a novice at this type of preparation. She seems to agree with my ignorance since we’re immediately on to something else.
“Let’s go back to the house to sample some mezcal; I have a little jabalí left, some tobalá, of course that madrecuixe we can try again, that tepeztate I know you really like, but I’m not sure if I have any espadín right now.”
I figured that we’d be waiting the better part of another two hours until the marijuana mezcal was ready, but after only a brief period of time shooting the breeze about the price of agave, to certify or not, and where the industry may be heading, we hear someone shout out “it’s beginning.” We’re back to the alembic. The mezcal has begun to drip from the spigot; the periodic drops rapidly transform into a narrow flow into a vintage copper receptacle.
We continuously sample, determined to arrive at the alcohol content we want. When Doña Leticia and I figure that it’s coming out at about 52 – 53%, we decide that perhaps it’s ready, at least for sale to me and my clients. “Want to bring it down a bit further,” she asks. Almost in unison we reply “I think it’s fine just like it is,” since at least for my part I know full well that the mix in the container is clearly significantly higher.
My clients buy a couple of liters of the marijuana mezcal and one liter each of an assortment of other products. They’re already talking about having their friends over for a mezcal tasting while recounting this and our previous day together.
I opt for five liters, and is my custom I ponder if I’m buying enough, knowing full well that friends will be salivating as they sample and then try to convince me to part with more than I know I should. But who knows, perhaps the next batch will be even better than this one.
Aroma of freshly picked and compressed marijuana with a hint of honey-sweetened green tea, followed by notes of citrus leaf and ripe pineapple, with a long smooth finish reminiscent of asparagus and herb.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com), and has been a mezcal aficionado for more than 25 years, with a collection of 400 different mezcales and umpteen palenquero friends. Alvin is a permanent resident of the city of Oaxaca. Despite his expertise, he considers himself nothing more than an authority-in-training.
Not to scare the bejesus out of mezcal aficionados, but the industry must be careful as the popularity of the spirit skyrockets, so as not to lose one of its hallmarks, that is the uniqueness of every lot distilled. We still hear and read that no two batches of (artisanal) mezcal are the same, and I for one continue to tout this aspect of Mexico’s iconic alcoholic beverage. But with each passing year of the spirit’s skyrocketing popularity, with each new entrant into the export market, and with maintaining healthy profits a major motivator for most in the business, the industry runs a risk of no longer being able to promote the spirit by using the adage. Here’s why.
We must begin with four premises:
Over the last few years small traditionally artisanal mezcal brands have been under pressure to increase production beyond the capabilities of their associate palenqueros and their families. They have two choices: increase efficiency through altering means of production and tools of the trade through at least a modicum of industrialization; or, find additional palenqueros with whom to associate, and keep all working at maximum capacity without yielding to the alternative. A few entrants into this new burgeoning marketplace have opted for the latter, but many use the former approach. Best to not name names, especially regarding those brands which have moved towards industrialization over the past decade or so; it’s enough to comment on the issue with my clients within the context of discussion about the diminution of quality.
The foregoing is not to suggest that there is anything wrong with ardent entrepreneurs making or distributing mezcal, or those of more modest ilk attempting to maintain or increase market share and profit. The examples are merely a precursor to explaining the movement towards greater standardization of product from batch to batch and contextualize it. And the following constitutes only a few of the plethora of factors threatening our perception that “no two batches are the same.” Let’s look at a couple of these explanations relating to each of agave growing, cooking, crushing, fermenting and distilling.
Agave angusifolia Haw, usually referred to as espadín, is the most common specie of the succulent used in Oaxaca to make mezcal. It grows in a wide diversity of climatic regions, relatively large and relatively fast, taking an average of eight years to mature. Many subsistence farmers grow it and then sell it to palenqueros. Since many such campesinos simply cannot afford to wait close to a decade to turn their land into money, in between the rows of maguey (agave) they plant cash crops such as corn, beans, squash, alfalfa and garbanzo. Each crop affects the soil in a different way, thereby impacting the growth of the plant, ultimately influencing the flavor of the end result, mezcal. Some farmers grow different crops from year to year, distinct from what their neighbors do. The point is that the flavor of the mezcal made from one field of agave is necessarily different from that which comes from another.
With the growth of the industry, more large plots of land are being put under cultivation by palenqueros and their brand owners who want to grow only agave, and grow it fast. They don’t need the money cash crops bring in, and don’t need that land to grow the vegetables for their own survival. Accordingly, they do not plant in between the rows of agave for fear of taking away nutrients from the maguey; and they continually weed. This results in greater standardization of the agave, and ultimately leads to less variation in their mezcal from batch to batch.
Two additional factors relating to agave growth viz. flavor consistency are: (1) with more cash infused into mezcal production, the greater the likelihood that the producer will strive to invest in land closer to his palenque with soil of similar quality since it is in the same region and easier to access, and; (2) rather than use natural mulch and fertilizer each of which varies in character from truckload to truckload, he will use a single, specified chemical product which will result in consistency of growth, and, ultimately flavor of his mezcal.
Some palenqureos are now moving away from using typical in-ground airtight ovens in which they had traditionally baked their piñas over firewood and rocks. Steaming in a sealed brick room or iron chamber provides greater efficiency, and, consistency of flavor at the end of the day. These new “industrialists” crank up the fuel to a set temperature for a pre-determined period of time. In their younger years, as they had learned from their fathers, grandfathers and great grandfathers, they would put the firewood in the oven, then the rocks, then the bagazo, then the piñas, then cover it all up, ultimately with earth. Of course there are broad variations on the theme from producer to producer, but the point remains; no two batches of mezcal produced in this way were the same because they never used the same exact amount of firewood and often the specie of log differed from bake to bake, the temperature at which they baked was essentially unknown and of course varied, and some piñas would always get charred more than others despite best efforts for consistent baking of the raw material in the oven. Type of firewood employed, baking temperature, degree of doneness, all ultimately impact flavor, and it’s never the same from batch to batch. Diesel and steam help create consistency.
Be it using a beast of burden pulling a tahona, or a palenquero hand crushing using a mazo y canoa (wooden mallet and shallow long pit of wood or concrete/stone), to mash the baked, sweet agave in either of these two methods results in variability in the time and extent to which environmental yeasts cause fermentation. The recent federal government subsidy program has provided artisanal producers with a fossil fuel powered wood chipper of sorts, which provides consistency of mash. At least one previously artisanal producer is now using a conveyer belt with metal blades for crushing, which again provides consistency.
The aforementioned subsidy program also discounts the cost of purchasing wooden fermentation vats (tinas), the size and composition of which is selected by government or its agents. Again, this leads to standardization. Artisanal producers have traditionally purchased their vats based on price, not necessarily the type of wood used in their fabrication. What you ferment in impacts flavor. The character of the wooden slats joined to make the tinas changes over time.
The program also provides a 1,000 liter stainless steel container, which while presumably intended for storing mezcal, can also be adapted into a fermentation tank. If it’s wood, natural yeasts relied upon for airborne fermentation live in the wood, and they continuously change. Not so with stainless steel, at least not to the same extent especially if stationed in a controlled environment.
Traditional wooden tinas are seldom more than 1,000 liter capacity. As business dictates greater production, much larger vats of stainless steel become normative, and flavor is more controlled, either by design or default.
Well water and mountain spring water are frequently used in fermentation. The character of the water is never the same. There is a worsening water crisis in Oaxaca, with some villagers in mezcal producing regions having been without water in their wells for a year or more. Much more so than a decade ago, we now find mezcal production facilities with water filtration systems whereupon a certain quality of water is trucked in, then further standardized through filtration prior to being added to the sweet, baked, crushed agave.
Temperature at which distillation occurs impacts mezcal quality. With both traditional copper alembic and clay pot distillation, firewood is employed as the fuel, and as such temperature is determined by skill, that is an art form. If it’s burning too hot, water is doused on the flame, and if not hot enough more firewood is added. And batches are small, as little as 70 liters at a time using clay pots, and perhaps an average of 300 liters for copper alambics.
Our previously artisanal palenquero now employs a relatively sophisticated multi-chamber still, and a column still, fueled by either firewood or fossil fuel, at his option. Another nearby palenquero has outright switched to fossil fuel. The movement away from firewood on the one hand ensures an arguably environmentally cleaner burn, and there is no concern with deforestation, yet on the other it provides a less variable end result; just crank it up to the desired temperature where it stays if you are so inclined throughout the entire distillation.
Ancestral and traditional palenqueros usually rely on knowledge and experience gained through generations of family mezcal distillers to determine the “cuts,” that is for example how to adjust and reduce the ABV of the “head and body” by adding back the “tail” of the distillation. And the end result is always a little different. Big business, or little business wanting to ensure a brand following, now more than before is reluctant to leave the cuts to their palenquero associates. Hence, while taking off the tail may be left to the distiller, they are achieving greater predictability by using distilled or filtered water.
And so, even if there is still variability in the face of all of the foregoing “advancements” and more, simply by virtue of the fact of wanting to fill even as little as a container (let’s say 9,000 bottles at 750 ml) for export, thus producing a batch of 6,750 liters of the same quality is a change from artisanal mezcal production and export a decade ago. Just keeping up with volume strongly suggests greater standardization. And this is without even considering the use of autoclaves and diffusors in the industry.
Furthermore, regretfully many producers and brand owners are concerned with public perception, leading to attempting to outwardly produce a sterile production environment. Take for example the use of a wire mesh dome over even traditional wooden fermentation vats, indeed keeping out bees and other insects during susceptible times of year. All that enters into the vat impacts ultimate flavor, of course once again stressing the minutiae of variability.
It all adds up! There’s nothing wrong with improved efficiency nor sterility nor profit driving mezcal production, all of which of course more broadly paints mezcal’s popularity, and yes, often improves the economic lot of artisanal mezcal distillers. But there’s a cost which should not be overlooked or underestimated.
Permanent Oaxaca resident Alvin Starkman owns and operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (http://www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).
Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Though his eyesight and hearing were failing, Isaac Jiménez’s memory was still sharp. One afternoon in 2012, at his homestead in Santiago Matatlán, the self-proclaimed world capital of mezcal, ninety-two year old Don Isaac reminisced while rocking back and forth in his favorite rickety old wooden chair: “When you ask me about the origins of mezcal de pechuga, I can’t take you back any further than about 1930,” he apologetically confesses, then continues; “that’s when Ramón Sánchez arrived with his family in Matatlán.”
Mezcal, of course, is Mexico’s iconic agave-based spirit, distilled in many regions throughout the country. The southern state of Oaxaca is where most is produced. Traditionally, a ton or more carbohydrate rich hearts or piñas of the plant are baked in a sealed, in-ground oven over firewood and rocks, following which, now hopefully sweet as sugar, they are crushed using a beast of burden or by hand using a wooden mallet, then naturally fermented using environmental years and the addition of only water, before being distilled in copper pot stills or alembics, or clay pot arrangements. There are innumerable means of production and tools of the trade, but the foregoing summarizes the basics.
My effort to learn about the history of mezcal de pechuga, and to a lesser extent catalogue variations of its recipe, lead me to Don Isaac, whose grandfather arrived in Matatlán in 1870. Doubtless, there are several myths and legends regarding its origin, at least as many as exist regarding the first time a Oaxacan infused mezcal with “the worm;” a larva known as gusano.
Those under the impression that mezcal de pechuga contains only the essence of chicken breast, which when raw has been suspended inside a still over which steam produced from fermented baked agave has passed, know only part of the story. Formulations, more in the nature of recipes, may call for wild turkey (guajolote) breast or whole cleaned fowl, rabbit leg, deer or iguana meat, or no protein at all, in either case with or without fruit and / or herbs and spices integrated into the distillation process.
Pechuga’s First Appearance in Santiago Matatlán
“I was about 10 years old, so it must have been around 1930 when a palenquero named Ramón Sánchez put down roots in town, apparently coming from Río Seco, or at least that’s what he told everyone,” recalled Don Isaac. At that time Río Seco would have been days away from Matalán by foot or riding a mule or horse. It’s near the junction of what are now the districts of Tlacolula, Ejutla and Miahuatlán. Each of the three is known as agave growing country. And so residents of Río Seco made mezcal.
“Then in 1938, a fellow by the name of Chuy Rasgado came to Matatlán,” Don Isaac continued. “One day he showed up at a local hacienda where I was playing with my band-mates.” In Oaxaca, as in other parts of Mexico, there has been a longstanding tradition of playing band, woodwind and percussion instruments, proficiency beginning at a young age. The youthful Isaac learned to play alto saxophone, eventually becoming a member of a band. He and his fellow musicians occasionally played at a well-known hacienda which was owned by a family of Spanish aristocrats.
The day that Rasgado attended at the hacienda he had no instrument in hand. But he asked if he could hang out with Isaac and his fellow musicians and somehow contribute. The band rejected the overture since at that time there was no indication as to how he could help. Eventually, after subsequent failed attempts to integrate into broader Matatlán, Rasgado disappeared.
One morning Isaac and his mother, Felipa Arrazola, travelled to San Pablo Mitla to buy provisions. They came across Rasgado. Since Isaac had now become an accepted part of the region’s music scene, and the two had to stay in Mitla for at least an overnight because of the distance they had to travel to get there, it was easy for him and his mother to find lodging. That first evening Isaac and his mother by chance encountered Rasgado drinking in a cantina and playing music; but not just any music. He was playing bottles; glass bottles of different sizes, shapes and neck openings, thus yielding different tones. He used both his breath and a makeshift drumstick to create different sounds. He was playing melodies reminiscent of the music of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, near Oaxaca’s Pacific coast.
At the end of the set Isaac and his mother seized the opportunity to speak to Rasgado, Isaac now clearly humbled by someone it had become clear to him was a true, multi-facet talent whom he and the other band members had rejected weeks earlier. At the time Isaac was learning how to read music. In the course of discussion with Rasgado Isaac realized that he was in the company of a true maestro, a musician who played more than just bottles. Isaac recognized that an opportunity existed for him to further his own musical skills while at the same time have someone in town, Matatlán that is, who could tutor others. Rasgado accepted the invitation to return to Matatlán, and there began to teach and to play, not only bottles, but also guitar, trumpet, sax and a couple of other traditional instruments.
Ramón Sánchez, that palenquero purportedly from Río Seco, quickly learned about Chuy Rasgado and the work he was doing within the Matatlán community of musicians. He decided to throw a special reception in his honor. During the festivities Sánchez presented Rasgado with a large bottle of mezcal de pechuga. Others at the event also imbibed the pechuga, many for the first time. Prior to this occasion, while Sánchez had shared his pechuga with some, no one really took notice of the unique flavor nuance, and if they did they didn’t ask about it. The cat was out of the bag, and mezcal de pechuga was born, at least for broad public consumption and in this region. Perhaps more importantly, it had become elevated to the status of a spirit for special occasions.
No one knows for sure if villagers in Río Seco had been making mezcal de pechuga, if Sánchez was the only palenquero with such a recipe, or if it was first prepared by him in fact after his arrival in Matatlán. We do know two things: since that day when the honor of receiving mezcal de pechuga was first bestowed upon Rasgado, pechuga has been served in many Oaxacan towns and villages at special fiestas; and, there are several formulations of the drink.
Epilogue to Chuy Rasgado & Ramón Sánchez
In 1940 General Lázaro Cárdenas travelled to Mitla. While there were still no paved roads in or leading to the village, General Cárdenas nevertheless rode there, to inaugurate the arrival of electricity. It would take another 19 years for electric lines to get to Santiago Matatlán. By then Rasgado had become well-known and a highly respected musician in both Matatlán and Mitla (and eventually statewide and beyond). The mayor of Mitla invited him to play for General Cárdenas during one of the celebratory dinners. Rasgado did not dress up to perform. He played a brief first set. No one applauded. For the second set he was part of a trio, and at its conclusion a bit of praise was bestowed upon the group. For the third and final set Rasgado lead the local philharmonic orchestra in four songs, decked out in formalwear, a suit traditionally worn by band leaders. General Cárdenas called him to the box where he and the other dignitaries were seated, to congratulate him. Perhaps the clothes provided the inspiration for an exceptional concluding performance. Rasgado was known to throw back a few, so perhaps by evening’s end mild inebriation had contributed to his excellence.
Three or four months later Chuy Rasgado once again disappeared, this time never to return to the region. Word has it that he died in the Mixe district of Oaxaca. Ramón Sánchez continued to make small batches of mezcal, including pechuga, for his own use and to provide to others who had become aficionados and / or wanted it for fiestas. None of his progeny became palenqueros. During that era there was a pervading perception that making mezcal was not a dignified trade, much the same as leading the life of a musician. In the case of Don Isaac, he paid little if any attention to public sentiment, and continued to excel at both vocations.
Oaxacan Mezcal de Pechuga Today
According to Don Isaac’s son Enrique Jiménez, a chemical engineer and palenquero in his own right, authentic mezcal de pechuga is produced by placing a specified amount of chopped seasonal fruit in a copper alembic (the only type of still the younger Jiménez knows how to use) along with previously distilled mezcal (thus in preparation for a third distillation), with a full chicken or turkey breast hanging inside the apparatus. If breast is used, without fruit or other additions, it is naturally rightfully considered mezcal de pechuga; and if herbs and / or spices are added, with or without fruit it is still considered the real deal. If no protein is used, the spirit is more properly considered mezcal afrutado. That’s the term used by Manuel Méndez, a palenquero in nearby San Dionsio Ocotepec who inserts five fruits plus sugar cane. On the other hand, in San Baltazar Chichicapam, down the highway from San Dionisio, Fortunato Hernández terms his pineapple mezcal formulation mezcal de piña. Rodolfo López Sosa in San Juan del Río employs just turkey breast, and calls it pechuga de guajolote.
At least one Oaxacan mezcal brand owner and exporter instructs his producer(s) to use rabbit leg rather than breast of fowl. A palenquero from the state of Michoacán uses breast of chicken, deer meat, and a selection spices, the recipe closely guarded by his wife. One incarnation calls for placing 200 liters of mezcal into a traditional 300 liter copper receptacle, part of the alembic, along with 100 liters of diced fruit, with the chicken or turkey breast dangling inside the top bell portion of the still. This yields about 120 liters of mezcal de pechuga. If protein is omitted from the formulation, while the spice and / or fruitiness of the flavor will surely prevail, the spirit tends to lack a certain nose created by the meat, fowl or otherwise.
A second broad category of mezcal de pechuga calls for adding the fruit and / or spice to the still during the first or second distillation, along with mezcal and / or tepache (the fermented liquid) and / or bagazo (crushed, fermented fiber).
In both of these two cases, the mezcal de pechuga is clear, since regardless of the ingredients inserted into the bottom pot of the still, whether copper or clay, a final distillation occurs, resulting in a colorless spirit. These are the two variations of pechuga which are often highly coveted, and in fact served at many rite of passage celebrations in typically rural Oaxaca, such as weddings, quince años, baptisms, and so on – a tradition enduring since about 1940, if not earlier.
Since many readers are likely tourists who may consider buying “pechuga” which is an amber color, appearing as reposado or añejo, a word of caution is in order. A third classification of mezcal de pechuga is being marketed, at minimum in the city of Oaxaca and central valleys. It is simply mezcal blanco (clear, un-aged) with a piece of either sugar cane or baked agave having been inserted into the bottle before sealing in short order altering the color to amber. Another consists of mezcal blanco which has been infused with fruit and / or herbs and spices, then filtered before bottling. Whether chicken, turkey or any other meat has been used in the distillation process is doubtful, regardless of representation, and so caution should be exercised when considering purchasing this type of mezcal de pechuga.
Unanswered Historical Questions about Mezcal de Pechuga
The foregoing is meant to provide merely an introduction to mezcal de pechuga. There is an endless variety of recipes. Both palenqueros and their exporter entrepreneurs will likely continue to experiment, a goal being to create a more taste-worthy and marketable product than the competition. To be fair, there’s also more altruistic motivation, spirit as artful formulation.
The questions which remain unanswered, at least to the fullest extent, are precisely why, where and when that first palenquero decided that using something in addition to baked agave, that is in particular breast of chicken or turkey, would make for a palate pleasing mezcal.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (http://www.mezcaleducationaltours.com) and has been drinking various formulations of mezcal de pechuga for more than 25 years. He is an aficionado of both mezcal and pulque, and endeavors to enlighten his clients about the state´s iconic spirit and beverages produced since pre-Hispanic times.
Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Lidia Hernández and Baneza García are representative of a sweeping new trend in Oaxacan artisanal mezcal production, not because they are young women (in their early twenties), but because of education. That is, small, family owned and operated distilleries are using their new-found disposable income to educate their children, with a view to increasing manufacture in a sustainable fashion while at the same time improving sales through tapping new markets.
Oaxaca is where most of Mexico’s mezcal, the typically high alcohol content agave-based spirit, is distilled. In the early years of this decade the state began to witness a dramatic increase in sales of mezcal, both in the domestic market and for export to the US and further abroad. Mezcal tourism was born. Visitors began to make a pilgrimage to primarily the state capital and its central valley production regions, coming to learn about artisanal production, to sample and buy for home consumption, to teach themselves and their staff with a view to attracting sales at bars and mezcalerías, and to consider a business plan for export to foreign and to non-Oaxacan Mexican markets.
Educating their children is enabling the Hernández and García families to take advantage of this different era in mezcal production and consumption. The parents of both Ms. Hernández and Ms. García, integrally involved in family artisanal distillation dating back generations, did not progress beyond primary school. But these two children are different; Ms. Hernández recently completed law school at the state run university and Ms. García is in third year industrial engineering at a private college. Both, however, work in the mezcal business and are using their education to advance the economic wellbeing of their respective families, and to preserve and improve the industry. And of course as is typical in virtually all families which produce artisanal mezcal, both began learning how to make the spirit at a very early age, literally upon taking their first steps.
The impetus for the meteoric growth in the industry occurred in the mid-1990s with the introduction of Mezcal de Maguey’s brilliant “single village mezcal” marketing, with other brands following suit (i.e. Pierde Almas, Alipus, Vago). Virtually all artisanal producers began experiencing a dramatic increase in sales. Initially the new-found wealth meant the ability to buy toys such as flat screen TVs, new pick-up trucks and the latest in computer technology. But then a curious phenomenon began to emerge in families, not only those with ready access to the export market, but those in which domestic sales had begun to skyrocket. More families began perceiving the value in higher education, creating opportunities both for their children and for their own advancement. Therefore they began to divert funds in this new direction.
To best understand the part these two women have already begun to play in the mezcal trade, we must step back several years to industry changes which began to impact the Hernández and García families, and of course many others. But before doing so we should note that lawyers don’t just learn the law, and industrial engineers don’t just learn how to design buildings and factories. Higher education impacts the ways in which we think more generally, how we process information, our spatial perception of the world, as well as about options for dealing with change and adaptation. But still the pedagogic strategies these women have been learning are rooted in their particular disciplines. And while palenqueros (Oaxacan artisanal distillers) with a lack of formal education do not necessarily understand the intricacies, niceties and full impact of the foregoing, at least today in Oaxaca they do get it; that is, the broad though not fully digestible positive implications for the family of supporting higher education of their progeny.
If we accept that it takes an average of eight years to mature an Agave angustifolia Haw (espadín, the most common type of agave used to make mezcal) to the point at which it is best harvested to be transformed into mezcal, and that it was only about 2012 that producers, farmers and brand owners began to in earnest take notice of the “agave shortage” (more appropriately put as the dramatic increase in price of the succulent), then we are still a couple of years away from being inundated with an abundance of the agave sub specie ready to be harvested, baked, fermented and distilled. The phenomenon has been created by both businesses from the state of Jalisco sending tractor trailers to Oaxaca to buy up fields of espadín, and the mezcal boom. The latter has resulted in many palenqueros of modest means all of a sudden experiencing a dramatic increase in sales and corresponding extra income for the family, albeit now having to pay much more for raw material.
Communities are struggling with waterways above and below ground being chemically altered by distillation practices and wastewater, wild agave being stripped forever from landscapes, and several aspects of sustainability. At the same time regulatory stresses abound; from discussions with palenqueros and others in the industry, it is clear that the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (the mezcal regulatory board, or CRM) is exerting pressure by “encouraging” palenqueros to become certified, and whether by design or not then adversely impacting those who do not comply by making it more difficult for them to eke out a living selling the distillate. The movement has been spearheaded by those who believe that uncertified agave spirit should not be termed “mezcal” nor sold and certainly not exported as such. It is of course trite to suggest that there are implications regarding taxation.
Lidia Hernández’s parents are in their early 50s. They have three children aside from Lidia, and all help in the family business; 30-year-old Valente lived in the US for a few years then returned home at the request of his mother and is now a full-time palenquero, 27-year-old Bety is a nurse who helps out with mezcal on her day off, and 16-year-old Nayeli is in high school in an education system known as COBAO, a hybrid between public and private to which many bright students in rural communities have access. While Lidia is writing her law school thesis she is working in the family palenque (artisanal mezcal factory or distillery) in Santiago Matatlán full time. After completing her dissertation she intends to continue on with mezcal until she believes that her expertise is no longer required on a continual basis. Even then, she will use her skills to advance the economic lot of the family.
Lidia attended public school. While initially she was interested in history and anthropology, because Oaxaca did not offer that program at the university level she opted for law. “I wanted to help people, to defend them because regular Oaxacans are really not very good problem solvers, at least when it comes to dealing with the law, police, family issues, business plans, and so on,” she explains. By age eight she had learned about and participated in virtually all steps in mezcal production. Early on she realized she could help grow the family business, using her new skills to help navigate through the rules and regulations in a changing mezcal industry. For in excess of the past year she has been:
Lidia sums it up:
“Of course down the road once all is in order and the family business is certified and is running more efficiently and productively, and profitability is where we think it can be, I’ll get a job working as a lawyer, perhaps for government; but I’ll always be there for my family and continually strive to help produce high quality mezcals at market driven prices.”
Baneza García’s mother is 43. Her father died of alcohol related ailments three years ago at age 40. There are six children in the family ranging in age from 9 – 25. The two youngest are in primary and junior high and the next oldest attends high school at a COBAO. The eldest completed junior high and now works in the family tomato growing business. Baneza and a younger brother attend a private university just outside of the city, both studying industrial engineering. Baneza is in third year of a five year program. She and her brother rent an apartment close to school, but return home to the family homestead in San Pablo Güilá on weekends and for holidays. The extended family all helps out in the mezcal business which was started in 1914 by Baneza’s great grandfather. The family includes her aunt and uncle who are slowly assuming more responsibility, yet are still learning from Baneza’s grandfather Don Lencho.
The García family’s palenque became certified a few years ago, when an opportunity arose to sell mezcal which now reaches, of all places, China. More recently Baneza and family have been working with a different brand owner to produce mezcal which they are on the cusp of bottling and shipping to the US.
The Hernández and García families are in very different circumstances. Nevertheless, there is a common thread in the education of both Lidia and Baneza; utilizing the skills and opportunities to ultimately advance their respective family businesses.
Baneza is interested in both improving efficiency in her family’s mezcal production, and reducing adverse environmental impact of traditional practices. With regard to the former, although her family is still resistant to the idea, she is interested in giving more thought to replacing horsepower currently used to crush the baked sweet agave, with a motor on a track directly above the tahona, similar to that employed in other types of Mexican agave distillate production. The heavy limestone wheel and shallow stone/cement pit would remain thereby not altering flavor profiles, often the result when for example metal blades in an adapted wood chipper or on a conveyer belt are employed.
Regarding environmental impact, Baneza is working on ideas to transform otherwise waste product such as discarded agave leaves and the spent fiber produced at the conclusion of distillation, into commodities of utility. Both materials have traditionally found secondary and tertiary uses (i.e. the latter, that is the bagazo, being used as compost, as mulch, as a principal ingredient in fabricating adobe bricks, for making paper, and as the substratum for commercial mushroom production); but the bounds of ingenuity are endless, especially as learned in the course of a five year program in industrial engineering. The family has already adopted Baneza’s suggestion for recirculating water in the distillation process, rather than the more costly and typical (at least when water was not as scarce a commodity) practice of simply discarding it.
The application of Baneza’s classes in industrial psychology will have a long-term effect on how her family views its place in Oaxacan society:
“It’s a matter of convincing my family, through discussion, illustration and perhaps trial and error, that there are many ways to improve production which will ultimately lead to an easier and more self-fulfilling life for me and my relatives, and better sustain our industry.”
Lidia Hernández and Baneza García are representative of a much broader trend. Young men and women who are children of palenqueros without higher education, exemplify change in the Oaxacan artisanal mezcal industry. I have spoken with students and graduates in business administration, tourism, linguistics, amongst other university programs, and their stories are similar: help the family artisanal mezcal business in Oaxaca. Then, down the road embark upon an independent career while maintaining an integral connection with the family’s spirit distillation.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (http://www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).
Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
It’s hard to separate fact from fiction from fear-mongering, when trying to understand the relationship between the Mexican agave-based spirit mezcal, and methanol poisoning resulting in blindness or death as the worst case scenarios. The purely physical science treatises are in large part beyond my level of comprehension. At the other end of the spectrum one finds lay literature without references backing up claims and allegations regarding the likelihood of hangovers, headaches and the much more serious harmful effects; it’s all cloaked in words and phrases like “as little as,” “likely” and “probably.” And it ignores aspartame.
Is it appropriate to equate mezcal which has been produced essentially safely and without incident by families in the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca for generations, with American moonshine, with deaths due to deliberately adulterating a spirit for purely profit motive, with concoctions created by naive youth, or with reports from third world countries in which ignorance of safe spirit production results in imprudent means of production or the use of equipment which contaminates? It is suggested that the alarmists draw their data from such sources.
For the past 25 years I’ve been drinking mezcal sold at small, family owned and operated artisanal distilleries (palenques as they’re known in Oaxaca), without incident. And so have my Oaxacan friends and compadres, hundreds of thousands of villagers who have been patronizing their neighborhood producers (or palenqueros), and more recently visitors to Oaxaca anxious to sample and take home what they cannot find at their local bars or source from retail liquor outlets.
Otherwise all I have to rely on is my cursory review of online literature (sources are cited at the conclusion of this article, including but not restricted to International Center for Alcohol Policies, UPI, Methanol Institute, National Institute of Health / U.S. National Library of Medicine, World Health Organization), and my background in social anthropology. It was my Darwinian academic training which lead me to an internet search so that I might be able to prove what I considered to be a reasonable hypothesis, and put into perspective the tall tales I’d been reading. Regarding the latter, I have read that mezcal not certified by a regulatory agency is fake, illegitimate, results in hangovers, and may even lead to blindness or death from methanol poisoning. Have imbibers of agave-based spirits been extremely lucky all these years, decades and perhaps even millennia?
The two lines of thought regarding the origins of distillation in Mexico are that indigenous groups learned to distill long before the arrival of the Spanish, or, that the Spanish learned distillation from the Moors and so brought that knowledge with them in the first half of the 16th century. The former theory gives more credence to my thought process, although 450 years of trial and error and perfecting safe distillation is nothing to sneeze at.
Just like the early Zapoteco natives of Oaxaca learned to dye with the cochineal insect, and in due course presumably through trial and error that the mineral alum served as the best available mordent or fixer, it is suggested that so too did the invaders and the indigenous peoples of Mexico learn how to distill safely. Following the same analogy, it is likely that long ago wool dyed red with cochineal dramatically faded from the sun or through washing, until the best available mordent was found; and so perhaps dating back hundreds of years indeed native Mexicans (and Spanish) succumbed to unwise distillation practices. They have learned the benefit of using alum; and of taking off the methanol, and using predominantly clay or copper or other “safe” metal compounds during and for distillation respectively.
Even the healthiest among us, and that includes those who do not imbibe alcohol, have methanol in their bodies. Humans get it in small amount from eating fruits and vegetables. It is not only absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract, but also through the skin and by inhalation. Methanol is metabolized in the liver, converted first to formaldehyde, and then to formate (formic acid). As a building block for many biological molecules, formate is essential for our survival. On the other hand, high levels of formate buildup after excessive methanol intake can cause severe toxicity. An EPA assessment reported that methanol is considered a cumulative poison due to the low rate of excretion once it is absorbed.
The primary uses of methanol are for industrial and automotive purposes. It is found in antifreeze, canned heating sources, copy machine fluids, de-icing fluids, fuel additives, paint remover or thinner, shellac, varnish, windshield wiper fluid, and more. This is known as denatured alcohol. Government regulations in fact dictate the inclusion of high levels of methanol as a compound in such products, knowing its toxicity and wanting to ensure that the public buys its liquor (in which levels of methanol are controlled, as opposed to other alcohols), in order to maintain healthy tax revenue.
But Government dictates do not prevent the drinking of denatured alcohol or it being used to fortify other beverages. In fact the literature on non-commercial alcohol, which is sometimes referred to as unrecorded alcohol, cites these “surrogates” or non-beverage alcohols, as one of three categories of drinks which potentially create health risks. They are drunk alone (i.e. the classic skid row cases), and used as “cocktails” when they are added for example to fruit juices. The other two are “counterfeit” products and illicit mass-produced drinks, and traditional drinks produced for home consumption or limited local trade (licit or illicit). It is suggested that artisanal mezcal falls into the second part of this third category. So yes, there is the possibility of health problems arising as a consequence of consumers imbibing Mexican mezcal with higher than “safe” levels of methanol.
Spirits Health Risks in Mexico and Internationally
In central Mexico, as born out in the literature, much more than anything else the singular health problem related to mezcal and other traditional alcohol consumption is alcoholism resulting in liver cirrhosis.
In an article centering upon global methanol poisoning outbreaks, the World Health Organization cited examples of adulterated, counterfeit and informally produced spirits in Cambodia, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Estonia, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Libya, Nicaragua, Norway, Pakistan, Turkey and Uganda. Mexico is conspicuously absent from the list.
In an article centering upon the quantification of selected volatile constituents in the Mexican spirits sotol, bacanora, tequila and mezcal, while methanol was the most problematic compound and at times the samples taken were far above the levels recommended by international as well as national standards, two points are particularly noteworthy: methanol levels were not of toxicological relevance; and, other legally obtained drinks such as German fruit spirits were found to have significantly higher methanol levels.
In an article entitled “Noncommercial Alcohol: Understanding the Informal Market,” the International Center for Alcohol Policies reported that much of the perceived health risk stems from patterns of drinking such as chronic consumption and binging, use of low quality ingredients, adulteration, and lack of control during production or storage. In Russia and other republics in the former Soviet Union samagon is cheap and easy to make using household equipment. Kenya’s poor fortifies its grain spirit, chang’aa, with surrogates. Brazil’s national drink cachaca or pinga is sometimes fortified using industrial alcohols, some of which have been noted above.
And what about the United States’ renowned moonshine, the usually high alcohol content spirit typically made using corn mash as the main ingredient? Poorly produced moonshine is contaminated mainly from materials used in still construction, such as employing car radiators as condensers (glycol from the antifreeze or lead from the connections). In addition, methanol can be added to the spirits to increase strength and improve profits.
The 1994 reported poisoning from ingesting mezcal produced in the Mexican state of Morelos cite the spirit having been spiked with methanol. It is suggested that this was an aberration, though of course is noteworthy. Somewhat surprisingly, there was relatively little reported about the incidents, and they have not to my knowledge received attention in the broader English literature centering upon methanol poisoning.
As suggested, methanol is not the only potentially harmful constituent. Lead as well as other toxic metals can poison not only as a consequence of employing unsuitable distillation equipment but also through the use of a contaminated water source. Volatile compounds such as acetaldehyde or higher alcohols can be produced in significant amounts due to fault in production technology or microbiological spoilage. There have been occurrences of certain fruit and sugarcane spirits containing the carcinogen urethane.
When is Methanol Safe?
Returning to methanol, one must now ask what is the safe maximum level of its ingestion. It was only in 1981 that the sugar substitute aspartame was approved for dry goods, and two years later for carbonated beverages. It is made up of three chemicals: aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol which makes up a whopping 10% of its composition. The absorption of methanol into the body is sped up when “free methanol” is ingested, and this form of the chemical is created from aspartame when it is heated to above 86 degrees Fahrenheit (i.e. when making sugar-free Jello). In 1993 the FDA approved aspartame as an ingredient in numerous food items that would normally be heated to above that temperature.
The EPA recommends consumption of no more than 7.8 grams of methanol daily. While the amount of aspartame in a diet soda can vary, it has been reported that a single can produces 20 mg of methanol in the body. It is no wonder that aspartame accounts for over 75% of the adverse reactions to food additives reported to the FDA. Chronic illnesses can be triggered or worsened by ingesting aspartame. The range of afflictions reported is alarming.
The current regulation for the maximum amount of methanol in mezcal is .3 of a gram per 100 ml. It is an arbitrary standard. Query how much mezcal one must ingest to reach the EPA maximum limit of methanol of 7.8 grams daily. The FDA states that as much as .5 of a gram per day of methanol is safe in an adult’s diet. Should the Mexican standard be higher, or lower?
It is no wonder that the study referenced earlier identifying volatile constituents in Mexican spirits, did not find toxicological relevance in the face of analyzing samples far above recommended levels. Furthermore, as distinct from household foodstuffs and drink containing aspartame, ethanol (i.e. mezcal) serves as an antidote for methanol toxicity in humans.
There is indeed confusion in the literature regarding recommended maximum levels of methanol and at what level health risks kick in, both dealing specifically with Mexican spirits, and where they are noted merely tangentially or not at all. However there is also considerable consistency:
Aside from my Darwinian suggestion that the days of dangerous mezcal production have long passed, and acknowledging the issue of still construction, it is noteworthy that almost all artisanal distilleries in Oaxaca consist of either copper alembics or similar production equipment made in equally standardized and carefully monitored workshops and factories; or in clay pots. In both cases they are essentially free of harmful levels of chemical compounds.
If there is a lesson to be learned, it is perhaps that one should never drink artisanal mezcal, commercial or otherwise, while consuming government authorized products containing aspartame.
References used in researching for this article are available upon request.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca.
Not a week goes by without a visitor to Oaxaca wanting to learn about Mexico’s iconic agave based spirit, and asking a very pointed question: why are some of these industry experts in the city steadfastly against common practices relating to imbibing mezcal, such as drinking reposados and añejos, using mezcal to make cocktails, and consuming one's product choice based on ABV (alcohol by volume) personal preference. I hear about the promulgation of rules about the shape and composition of drinking vessels, and of the dissemination of misinformation regarding how long it takes different species of agave to mature, and which mezcals are made with wild as opposed to cultivated maguey. Usually such points of view are not expressed as opinion subject to discussion, but rather fact, or in some cases gospel.
To be clear, while I have been around mezcal in Oaxaca for a quarter century, and am currently involved in the industry leading mezcal educational tours on a part-time basis, I am far from an expert. There is a long learning curve associated with mezcal, with so much to absorb in its now modern era. In fact many authorities (as distinct from "experts"), both relative newcomers to the industry involved in production and/or export, and veterans whose families have been steeped in distillation for generations, approach production with open minds, and are anxious to continue learning through the exchange of information.
Reposados & Anejos
Some say you should never drink reposado or añejo. When pressed for a reason they often state that it alters the natural flavors and aromas of the agave. True enough, but so what. Could one not equally use the word "enhances?" The same industry people, often owners and employees of mezcalerías, however, don't think twice about encouraging patrons to try a product where the baked crushed maguey has been fermented in a bull hide, yielding a unique profile; or a mezcal made where the agave has been baked over mesquite (as opposed to pine, oak, etc.), again creating a different nuance. So why dismiss aging? One mezcalería owner has told me that she has not been able to find good aged mezcals. Oh come on!
This leads me to one rationalization for the position, that aged mezcal is not traditional mezcal. Perhaps the spirit was not being stored or transported in oak during the earliest years of distillation in Mexico. But certainly towards the end of the 16th century, when the Spanish began emptying their imported Old World sherry barrels, and then later their rum barrels, oak receptacles were likely (if not certainly) being used for mezcal. Aging was taking place if not by design, then by default.
It was often more expedient for producers to store and transport product in a 200 liter barrel, than use several 70 liter clay cántaros (pots). And so with a good supply of used barrels emerging in the marketplace, aged mezcals became commonplace (i.e. traditional), dating back a couple of hundred years I would suggest, with some producers eventually making a science (or art) out of resting their spirits; in French sherry barrels, Kentucky bourbon or Tennessee whisky barrels, and in due course employing new barrels fashioned from Canadian white oak. For generations some palenquero families have prided themselves in the quality of their rested spirits, using various aging styles and different barrels for different lengths of time to achieve specific flavor profiles. So to suggest it is difficult to find aged mezcals of high quality in the state of Oaxaca, is in my estimation a weak excuse.
For my excursions I usually bring along an añejo in my nine-mezcal sample box. If a client enjoys it, this signals that we should visit one or two distilleries which produce reposados and añejos, and carry on discussing the topic of aging. If not, then its joven (or blanco, that is unaged) all the way. But here's the point: most of us are in the business of promoting the spirit (with of course varying degrees of profit motivation, altruism, passion, etc.) with a view to lauding its attributes so that more people will try, and subsequently become fans and regular purchasers of mezcal. The more mezcal that is consumed, the better it is for the industry, and most importantly for growers who live a subsistence existence, as well as for small-scale palenqueros and their families. We should not close off any market segment capable of becoming established and growing.
There's room for mezcal on the bar of any single malt scotch, tequila, brandy or whisky aficionado's home. If someone is a fan of a 16 year old Lagavulin or a Burgundy wood finish Glenmorangie, what positive result can there be by telling her to never drink an aged mezcal? Yes, over 90% of the mezcals in my collection are blancos, and that's what I usually drink. But sometimes I get a hankering for a mild reposado, or a rich five year añejo with tones of butterscotch, or a peaty single malt.
I believe that the more appropriate and educational modality is to encourage novices to begin by sampling blancos, from whatever region, type of agave, means of production, tools of the trade, and so on. Teach about the innumerable nuances and unrivalled complexity of unaged mezcal. But then encourage the client to try one or two aged products, especially if dealing with a client who is a fan of barrel aged spirits. If you dissuade someone from trying something aged, you risk losing a prospective convertee; you are also doing a disservice to the client.
The Cocktail Craze
I've read that the worst way to bastardize mezcal is to use it in a cocktail. Since publication that author has graciously tempered his dogmatism, likely after having realized that promoting mezcal as an ingredient in cocktails helps everyone in the broader alcohol consumption industry. Some bartenders still believe that it is not worth it to use a high quality expensive mezcal when making a cocktail. With all due respect, the better view as promulgated by mixologists and bartenders renowned for their cocktail prowess, is that mezcal should be considered as any other ingredient, with different qualities, varieties, etc. There's a difference between red and green pepper flavors, cilantro, cucumber, etc. If you have 50 different mezcals on the shelf, consider which one would pair best with the other ingredients. Is the predominant note of the spirit fruity, floral, herbaceous, earthy, caramelized, woody, and so on? How will a particular spirit character complement the other ingredients and enhance the ultimate cocktail? When it comes to pairing mezcal for mixing cocktails and for cooking, I'm a novice at best, though I continue to take classes with a view to honing my palate.
Alcohol by Volume
Telling consumers that they should only drink mezcal between 45% and 55% ABV (as distinct from proof) has become somewhat acceptable practice in Oaxaca mezcalerías. While most artisanal mezcals are within that range, there are excellent products both below and above the "norm." Spirits consumers who are accustomed to drinking quality yet commercial tequilas or scotches at 40%, may never come around to appreciating 53% mezcals. So why tell them what ABV they should and should not drink? If a patron has in mind an evening of imbibing, perhaps three 3-pour flights, consider sneaking in a couple of products outside of your preferred ABV range and gauge interest, welcome commentaries, and discuss.
The rationale for the rule simply does not hold water. The owners of one particular brand of artisanal mezcal conducted close to 100 blind tastings throughout Mexico before settling upon a 37% spirit for its flagship product. During the first year of operation the brand shipped 16,000 liters from its distillery in Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca, for the national market alone. The brand continues to thrive, opening new markets.
It is indeed true that some mezcals less than or greater than the stated ABV range do not enable the consumer to fully appreciate the particular spirit's flavor potential, but this is not always the case. Some mezcals well into the 60%+ category, in the realm of puntas or heads, go down more smoothly than a 45%, and retain exquisite notes.
It is suggested that with the current agave scarcity and concomitant dramatic increase in price per kilo of raw piña, producers and exporters will opt for one of two ways to address the "crisis" if they wish to maintain or enhance existing profit levels: significantly increase the price per liter or bottle - but the spirits market will determine the viability of doing so; or reduce the ABV with a view to remaining competitive in the marketplace. If the latter, the blowhards will have little choice but to temper their dogmatism.
"Tobalá [Agave potatorum] is a wild agave; tepeztate [Agave marmorata] takes 35 years to grow." Yes some, but certainly not all of the mezcal made with the former uses wild tobalá, and some tepeztate no doubt takes 35 years to mature. But such statements, made as hard-fast truths not subject to discussion, bandied about by staff in some Oaxacan watering holes, lack absolute veracity. I now rarely speak or write about mezcal or agave with a tone of certainty, and prefer including in my own bluster qualifying words such as “usually,” “on average,” “it is suggested,” or “in my opinion.” Tobalá is being cultivated from seed and thereafter transformed into mezcal. Some producers are apparently dropping seeds or small plants from airplanes, and letting them grow and mature in the wild prior to harvesting. Others are germinating seeds, growing small tobalás close to their homes or palenques, and then transplanting them in the wild. I confess that I don’t know whether such projects result in mezcal made with wild, domesticated or cultivated maguey. Regarding tepeztate, my palenquero friends tell me that it usually matures after 12 – 15 years of growth, but that yes, it can take much longer. They do not speak in absolutes.
I suppose that this promulgation as fact of matters relating to agave species, does help the proponent of half-truths, and to some extent initially the industry in a couple of ways. It advances the sense of romanticism and uniqueness regarding mezcal. But it could also be a means of rationalizing a highly inflated price for mezcal made with tobalá, tepeztate and other “designer” agave species (without of course denying the often dramatic increased cost of producing mezcal with them; although with the current stratospheric cost of buying espadín piñas on the open market, who knows?). The ultimate disservice to the client, and it is suggested adverse impact for the retailer and broader business interest, is occasioned when the novice begins hearing and reading alternate viewpoints reasonably not stated as dogma; he then may become confused and frustrated.
Glasses, Cups, Jícaras & Clay
It’s hard to dispute that a vessel made of glass is the best medium for drinking mezcal, or any liquid for that matter, because it is neutral. Similarly I would suggest, at least for mezcal, a small half gourd or jicarita arguably provides imbibers with a shape which optimally enables their spirit to open prior to drinking. Some suggest, however, that the “wood” of the jícara impacts the flavor of the mezcal. A standard shot glass for mezcal, or caballito tequilero, is neutral, but because of its shape the spirit cannot open as is the case if poured into a jicarita. Does this throw a wrench into the proposition that you should only drink mezcal from glass? Yes, a solution to the conundrum is that the positive reply to the question holds if the glass is in the shape of a small half gourd. What if it’s a small clay cup in the shape of a jicarita? Worse than a jícara? Better or worse than a glass caballito?
The point, once again, is dogmatism. If it’s tradition that we want, then we should be drinking our mezcal out of half gourds like Mexicans have been doing for hundreds of years, or out of small pieces of the invasive bamboo specie known as carrizo (river reed). Query if it is the same people who advocate only drinking “traditional” mezcal (unaged), who would also shun the idea of being too traditional by drinking from a jícara or piece of carrizo, and not sipping out of glass.
The solution is, I suppose, to try drinking your mezcal out of a variety of vessels of different shapes and compositions. I’ve noticed when experimenting with industry friends, that some mezcals open differently depending on the shape. For me, anything but a caballito, made of glass or carrizo, is fine, suggesting that perhaps form is more important than composition (leaving aside the issue of clay jicaritas).
Experiment if you can. Perhaps the small ribbed glass votive candle holders with the cross on the bottom, or a brandy, is the appropriate compromise. At the end of the day it’s akin to what I’ve read from the critics of new vehicle reviewers; when it comes to handling, cornering, shocks and comfort, forget what the experts write, and test drive to form your own opinion and decide based on how the car, truck or SUV handles when behind the wheel. Perhaps for one particular mezcal anything serves, for another one vessel enhances optimally, and yet for a third a different form and medium provides that exquisite aroma and flavor profile which has otherwise escaped.
Dogmatism and Mezcal: Harmful for the Industry, or Just the Blowhards
Dogmatism sometimes gets the better of us. When we’re teaching about the culture of mezcal, it is sometimes very easy to exaggerate and mis-state, by finding fact where there is none. And when we’re preaching to the uninformed, we sometimes forget that there is always fact-checking. The uninitiated will not always take what is stated as gospel; especially when their interest in visiting Oaxaca is to learn about our spirit from a variety of sources.
We must check our dogmatism at the door. The braggarts may be building up their own reputations, but only for that fleeting moment, hour or day, until more tempered discourse in a different drinking or learning environment takes over. Afterwards, it’s the reputation of the mezcalería which potentially suffers.
The foregoing are only a few of the instances in which blowhards in their dogmatic approach to the industry in the end do more harm than good: “X agave makes the best agave distillate; mezcal that is reduced to its ultimate consumption ABV by adding distilled or spring water rather than just the tail of the distillation (cola), is not real mezcal.” Again here, the same problem.
The dramatic rise in the number of mezcalerías in Oaxaca since about 2013, is remarkable. But without proper training of staff and taking greater care in promoting the spirit, it may all go for naught. Encourage both novices and the initiated, to experiment, read, imbibe and otherwise learn. Don’t speak or write in absolutes, save for when there is certainty. Opine, but at the same time acknowledge other points of view. The mezcal industry in Oaxaca, and for the world, will benefit and continue its surge.
Alvin Starkman is a permanent resident of the city of Oaxaca, from where he operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Pioneer and innovator Douglas French is best known for his internationally distributed Scorpion Mezcal, launched two decades ago when artisanal mezcal was almost absent in the American marketplace. But a crazy-quilt of both fortuitous circumstance and unproductive conduct by some in the administration of the Mexican agave spirits industry, has resulted in what has long been overdue – corn whiskey distilled in Oaxaca.
No, Oaxacan whiskey will likely never displace mezcal, Mexico’s iconic spirit, either in the southern state of Oaxaca where most is distilled, or elsewhere in the country. But if French has his way, the recent launch of his Sierra Norte Single Barrel Whiskey will at minimum have some impact on the retail spirits market both in the US and further abroad.
About two years ago, while attending a meeting of the American Craft Spirits Association and then a conference of the American Distilling Institute, French pondered why whiskey was not being produced anywhere in Oaxaca. After all, the state is the birthplace of corn, its domestication dating back somewhere between 11,000 and 14,000 years (depending on to which research one subscribes), with native strains still being cultivated today.
French’s mezcal distillery had the space to augment output and to diversify production as his American counterparts had been doing; he had been buying used equipment at auction and in the open marketplace at a furious pace yet uncertain as to its use in his mezcal production; and he became concerned about the skyrocketing price of agave as a consequence of both mezcal’s increasing global popularity and tequila producers buying Oaxacan raw material and earmarking it for the state of Jalisco’s tequila country. While French had hectare upon hectare of agave under cultivation, he was worried about being able to maintain competitive retail pricing if he was required to buy agave in the open market at inflated prices.
Finally, with aged mezcal being both out of vogue and unfashionable having not yet been “discovered” by neophyte mezcal aficionados jumping on the bandwagon, what to do with some 400 oak barrels.
So French began learning about whiskey, and experimenting with its production. While some of his existing equipment could be used in his new operation, and part of his aging stockpile of scrap metal could be adapted, he did have to invest in milling, mashing and filtering equipment not employed in mezcal production.
All was proceeding fairly well. But then beginning in August, 2015, and continuing for seven months, Scorpion was unable to supply its mezcal to its global retailers. French is resilient. He retooled, cutting hours of employment and salaries in half. He had to. But his employees had been being paid enough during regular times so as to enable them to survive and remain loyal to him. His unwavering commitment to the employment of women, predominantly single mothers, has been chronicled elsewhere.
Not able to ship mezcal, together with his faithful team he spent his time working on whiskey recipes, fabricating optimum equipment, branding Sierra Norte, sourcing native strains of corn in the villages, and planting it with the assistance of a team of ten male workers.
French’s Sierra Norte Single Barrel Whiskey is currently entering the US in three formulations, each matured in French oak casks so as to showcase its individual character and nuance; yellow corn, white corn and black corn, with red corn on the horizon. He continues to work on recipes for additional whiskies, as well as for other spirits, but out of respect and journalistic integrity I have decided to keep details of these new projects under wraps. He expects that within two years his gross revenue will have doubled its previous high, meaning more work for more women, perhaps even some of the progeny of his devoted female staff.
French currently employs in his distillery on a full-time basis two men, and ten women, one of whom has been working continuously for 34 years, for French and before him for his late mother Roberta in the textile industry. Another has been with him for 24 years including four years prior to when French began distilling on his own and while he also was producing textiles for export.
Douglas French is likely the only American – born mezcal distiller in the state of Oaxaca; and now his exquisite whiskies, shockingly unheard of until now. His dedication to his trade as a distiller and as an employer of women in an industry dominated by male workers, is steadfast.
Perhaps history is repeating itself. It has been suggested that the promulgation of the North American Free Trade Agreement had an adverse impact on many small producers in the Mexican textile industry and that more generally 70% of Mexican industry was required to close because of it. In the wake of NAFTA, while struggling in the textile manufacturing business French found a way to keep himself and his staff above water, and in fact grew Scorpion Mezcal into a force to be reckoned with in the spirits market. And now, decades later, Scorpion has survived, and indeed thrived despite a dramatic increase in brands resulting from the recent mezcal boom and despite not being able to ship mezcal for more than half a year. What Scorpion did for French and staff previously in the textile business, Sierra Norte Single Barrel Whiskey is doing for them now. Growth and prosperity is returning.
Tasting Notes Compiled by Thom Bullock, Chef Pilar Cabrera and Alvin Starkman
Sierra Norte Yellow Corn Whiskey:
Nose – notes of toasted corn, buttery popcorn with a hint of caramel
Palate – relaxed pleasing and extremely smooth with mellow grilled pineapple and subtle red chili spice
Finish – long and warm with honey, allspice and ash
Sierra Norte White Corn Whiskey:
Nose – vanilla, almond and black squid ink with a subtle undercurrent of gym shoes
Palate – tones of green apple accented with metallic / lead
Finish – smooth with cinnamon spice
Sierra Norte Black Corn Whiskey:
Nose – penetrating maraschino cherry and banana peel
Palate – deep ripe plantain
Finish – wedding cake with almond vanilla icing
Alvin Starkman has been both a scotch and a mezcal aficionado for about 25 years. He resides in Oaxaca where he operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (http://www.mezcaleducationaltours.com), teaching both Mexican nationals and visitors to Oaxaca about mezcal by taking them into the furthest reaches of the state to learn about artisanal production. Starkman first met French before he started distilling Scorpion Mezcal.