Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Of course buying mezcal while in Oaxaca for a short visit has its obvious advantage over purchasing at home. Whether hailing from the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, or even Mexico City, cost will be significantly less. But there are other, arguably more compelling rationale aside from price, to pick up a year’s consumption of agave spirit when in southern Mexico. And truth be told, the reasons alone are good enough to warrant a trip to Oaxaca. Forget about the money you’re saving, and consider the rest.
But first about price. If you come to Oaxaca, and just stay in the city, your savings might not be that great. If you are buying familiar brands, they are “certified,” meaning that for the Mexican market the tax department gets a whopping 69% which is passed on to you. And, I think it’s a pretty sound assumption that the closer you remain to the state capital, the more you will pay. Put another way, the further you go out from the city to source your mezcal, and the more remote the areas you explore, the less you will pay. So for example, the cost of tobalá distilled in clay will be significantly more costly in Santa Catarina Minas which is less than an hour’s drive from the city, than about the same quality product if purchased way out in the hinterland in Santa Catarina Albarradas, hours away.
Now for the rationale which I would suggest is more important than money saved.
Tasting Mezcal Prior to Purchasing
Whether buying your mezcal in the city at a local mezcalería, or out in the villages where it is made while in the course of a mezcal tour, you should be able to sample before you buy; if it’s not your cup of tea you should not feel any obligation to purchase just because you have sampled a few. Yes, in a downtown mezcalería you will likely pay to taste and appraise, however on a mezcal excursion to a few palenques in and around the central valleys of Oaxaca, there should be no cost to sample. When was the last time you were in a retail outlet back home and were welcomed to have a complimentary snort before you bought? Likely never.
Granted, if you know the reputation of the brand, or of the palenquero through online gossip networks or otherwise, or have previously sampled the distiller’s products, you may have a pretty good idea of what’s in the bottle. And many aficionados know roughly the mezcal flavor profiles of different species of agave. But since no two batches of artisanal (or ancestral) mezcal are the same, you are nevertheless at least to some extent flying blind when buying without sampling. It’s even more precarious if considering purchasing an ensamble (mezcla) at your local spirits outlet. If the label states the percentage of each agave specie or sub-specie it’s certainly some help, but if not, then you really cannot be certain of what you’ll be getting.
Buying in the city of Oaxaca after sampling isn’t always the best way to do it since you sample from one container, then buy a sealed, labelled bottle, having to assume that what you sampled and what you are buying are both from the same batch, unless of course you can read the same lot number on each of the two receptacles. It is not necessarily the case that the two are from the same batch, though I would suggest that it should be. On the other hand, sampling a palenquero’s product at his distillation facility is often different, depending on the mezcal excursion upon which you embark. Frequently the palenquero gives you a sample from a 20 or 50 liter tub, then if you like and want to buy it he fills a bottle from that very same tub. You can’t get any more consistent.
Vendor Mezcal Knowledge
There are extremely knowledgeable retail outlet owners and staff around the globe. Many have read extensively and have spent an inordinate amount of time online, been trained by brand reps, and some have been to Oaxaca to hone their expertise. But those who live in the state and have a mezcal pedigree should be a notch above the rest. On a cautionary note however, some folks working in Oaxaca mezcalerías (and even some of those who take visitors to the region around to the distilleries), bars and restaurants might be relatively new to agave spirits, and accordingly care should be taken by both mezcal aficionados and novices wanting to learn the basics.
But a healthy complement of us here in Oaxaca have been around mezcal for years if not decades, steeped in the industry through learning from our palenquero friends and/or family, having participated in all stages of production, and as regular imbibers. We know mezcal inside and out. However in my humble opinion no matter what our level of knowledge we remain students of the spirit. Still we are a cut above the rest, whether shopkeepers, restaurant and bar workers, or teachers and academics eager to impart our mezcal knowledge by taking visitors to Oaxaca into the hinterland to see, smell, taste and above all learn.
Appreciating the Culture of Palenqueros and the Hard Work Required to Produce Arisanal and Ancestral Agave Spirits
And finally, getting out of the city of Oaxaca and visiting palenqueros and their families in their villages, in their small rudimentary distilleries, and sometimes even in their modest homes, provides a new appreciation for the spirit, a passion which one cannot possibly obtain buying mezcal in a store or even urban mezcalería.
There’s nothing like walking up to a palenque and immediately smelling that unmistakable aroma of caramel and butterscotch emanating from agave which has been removed from the chamber of hardwood, rocks and earth. Or wincing from the billowing smoke produced while workers seal the oven, or from a palenquero stoking the flames under one of his clay pot stills. Books and youtube videos cannot replicate the feeling, the understanding, or the appreciation you gain. The romanticism is real.
You come to understand as never before the hard work which goes into producing that 750 ml bottle of mezcal with a polished multi-colored label designed by a New York marketing firm. What you buy in a store will seem so far removed from the reality of how mezcal is produced, in some cases means of production and (most) tools of the trade arguably dating back millennia. And you may even be welcomed to participate in the process, of course only to the extent considering doing so piques your interest: filling a still, gingerly tossing agave into the oven, working the horse, trekking out into the field for harvesting of the maguey, and every other phase of production of a handcrafted 100% agave spirit.
For me personally, having been trained as a social anthropologist, culture is the key. And that can only be understood and appreciated through visiting the men, women and children who produce mezcal, in their day-to-day settings. Yes, the young progeny of palenqueros and palenqueras; distillers typically don’t learn how to make the spirit through reading books or going online. Literally beginning before they have learned to walk, they are being steeped in a family tradition dating back generations.
There is sometimes an opportunity to step into their homes which double as tasting rooms. Often depending upon whether or not they have access to the export market, they may live extremely modest existences, or their lifestyles may approximate yours. In both cases across the board their mezcal should be of excellent quality. And whether in their abodes or at their palenques, you will have an opportunity to interact with the families which helps you to understand their motivation, their worldview, and their pride.
You’ll return home with an appreciation of the skill and hard work which goes into making mezcal. The experience will in most cases be the polar opposite of touring a Sonoma or Niagara winery, a craft distillery or even a nano-brewery. Of course each is enjoyable and provides a valuable learning experience. However none compares to visiting Oaxaca and making a priority of gaining a true understanding of handcrafted mezcal.
Alvin Starkman owns Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).
Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
So you want to import mezcal from Oaxaca to the US, Canada, the UK, Europe, and/or elsewhere in the world, by starting your own brand. Regardless of the country into which you plan to import the iconic agave based Mexican spirit, it is important to understand that the rules and regulations for importing alcohol are typically complex and onerous. They are much simpler for blouses, blenders, jewelry and most other marketable items. Learn at least a bit about the steps which must be taken and the effort and cost involved, before making a definitive decision and visiting Oaxaca with your mezcal export/import project in mind.
Some jurisdictions have a three tier system, wherein an importer is not permitted to distribute, and a distributor is not permitted to retail. There are permutations of this, depending on the country. Just as importantly there are states and provinces which control virtually all aspects of import and distribution; but presumably you are aware of at least the broad regulatory framework for your own jurisdiction.
Remember that the name you select for your mezcal must be registered not only in the country into which you want to import the spirit, but also in Mexico. This is regardless of whether or not you are interested in the Mexican domestic market for sales. By all means register your name, but prior to spending much effort or resources in brand development, ensure that your name is available in Mexico. You or your lawyer can do a simple search. However, a Mexican lawyer, and better yet a Oaxacan attorney with expertise not only in intellectual property but also in spirits, is best consulted. Such a lawyer can also explain the likelihood of a dispute arising if your preferred name is close to another already registered and the likely outcome, whether or not it is worth fighting for depending on the financial resources of the individual or company which has registered ahead of you, etc. Over a decade ago many entrepreneurs, both Mexicans and foreigners, began registering names for agave spirits; even tequila brand owners with concerns about losing their market share if they did not jump on the mezcal bandwagon.
Have contingency plans in place for your preferred name and marketing plan. Many who visit Oaxaca for the first time with an export project in mind wait until they have a particular palenquero in mind with an artisanal mezcal factory in a specific region of the state. They do this with the hope of gaining some inspiration as to naming their brand from what they learn while here in Oaxaca, or even from taking a history of the family. Sometimes those visiting with only a rough business plan in mind find that an effective name for a brand, or a marketing “hook” as I call it, jumps out at them almost immediately upon getting into a mezcal producing region of the state.
Prospective brand owners come in all shapes and sizes, but I envisage three broad categories along a continuum:
If you’re considering a mezcal export/import project you’re probably somewhere in the middle of two of the categories along the continuum, but not necessarily so. There are indeed those at either end. In both cases they might as well just “go for it.” The altruist will thoroughly enjoy the experience and reap positive benefits, whether the business takes off or fizzles. The no-holds-barred capitalist can’t lose because of his unlimited capital and/or ability to drum up investors. He knows how to pull a rabbit out of the hat. But if that doesn’t work and the rabbit fails to appear, in any event he’ll l write off all losses. That’s what he’s been doing from the outset. It’s the person somewhere in the middle who must be cautious. He cannot afford too much of a financial setback. The only way to realistically rationalize the venture is to figure that worst case scenario he’ll be stuck with inventory he can give away at Christmas, and drink for the rest of his life. After all, he loves the particular mezcal he’s been trying to market, and he knows it won’t go bad over the ensuring years.
Where do you want to position your agave spirit in the marketplace: high end, middle of the road, or inexpensive; sipping, mixing for cocktails, or both; an ABV of 37%, 44%, or 54% (remember that this impacts the price paid for the mezcal, both by you and the end consumer); blanco, and/or añejo; more obscure species of agave, or espadín, madrecuixe and the like; initially entering the market with a single specie, or a more comprehensive line of products; marketing the mezcal of only one palequero or multiple producers, and; artisanal (and/or ancestral) as opposed to more mainstream.
You might discern dichotomies between the tree-huggers (organic/100% natural Birkenstock crowd), the true spirits aficionados, and those always looking for the latest fad. There’s nothing wrong with seeking to attract one camp versus the other. Del Maguey’s Ron Cooper and Scorpion Mezcal’s Douglas French both began their businesses in the mid-90s, the former with “single village mezcal” and the latter with “worms are for wimps.” Both were motivated by, at least to my knowledge, a love of the spirit, wanting to earn from its marketing, and helping Oaxacans through promoting quality mezcal outside Mexico.
Exclusivity over the palenquero’s production is a consideration which virtually always arises for those wanting to get into the industry. If you intend to build or dramatically expand the palenque for your distiller and/or pay all costs for certification and obtaining the permit and equipment for bottling, you will be in a better position to request exclusivity. What kind of arrangement do you envision given that you will in theory be helping out your palenquero business associate for the long haul whether your project succeeds or not? Is it reasonable to expect him to agree to exclusivity if in your first year of production you are buying only 3,000 bottles at 750 ml? Perhaps consider exclusivity over a particular recipe, for importing into a particular country or state, over only the certified spirit, or after your reach certain production and export goals. Think about what’s fair to both sides.
And what about capitalization? During the latter part of the first decade of this century, one now popular (at least in the US) semi-industrialized brand began with a $150,000 loan. On the other hand, what is today considered a superior, quality artisanal mezcal brand began with less than $20,000. Its owners started out relatively recently, during or about the latter part of 2012, doing virtually all of the legwork on their own. This harkens back to where you are along the continuum noted earlier. The brand with the more significant capitalization is owned by people with profit motive and little more in mind, while the owners of the better brand, not surprisingly I suppose, were driven by passion; and yes of course wanting to earn a modest if not decent living. Does reputation within the community of agave spirit commentators matter to you?
The foregoing are but a few of the considerations for thought, best pondered early on in your voyage into the world of the business of mezcal. The enumeration is certainly far from exhaustive, and is meant to be a starting point and no more. And remember, at least into the third decade of this century the price of agave will likely continue to rise exponentially.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). He has assisted brand owners on four continents.
Mezcal Real Minero Bats 1000
No, to my knowledge mezcal Real Minero does not have a crack baseball team. But the Oaxacan brand of artisanal (and ancestral) mezcal does excel at different games. That is, it is at the forefront of both clay pot mezcal distillation, and of research and development regarding agave. And concomitant with the latter has been Real Minero’s recent promotion of cross – pollination of agave (locally known as maguey) through bats, or murciélagos. You see, without bats our traditional mezcal industry may falter for lack optimum sustainability through genetic diversity.
The night of June 30, 2018, Dra. Graciela Ángeles Carreño of Real Minero convened a diverse group of about 20 individuals, each involved in one way or another with the Mexican cuisine or spirits industry. They were predominantly Mexicans, but included a couple of Americans and Canadians; academics, chefs, food or agave spirit authorities/promoters, and writers. The primary objective was to explain and illustrate the importance of bats for the propagation of agave and hence the viability of mezcal as a growth industry.
The evening began as an educational and promotional tool for Real Minero to explain two key aspects of its operation: its propagation and sustainability research programs and their application; and how it produces mezcal utilizing traditional in-ground ovens for baking, both rudimentary and more sophisticated custom designed machinery for crushing, wooden slat vats for fermenting, and clay pots (ollas de barro) for distilling.
Real Minero is for all intents and purposes the most well-known export brand of mezcal distilled in clay pots. On balance it produces olla de barro distilled agave spirits utilizing a greater diversity of maguey species and sub-species than any other small scale family distillery (palenque) in the state of Oaxaca, if not all of Mexico.
After a scrumptious outdoor candlelight dinner of tlayudas con cecina and café de olla, accompanied by a couple of Real Minero’s signature mezcal ensambles, the two main events began. Biologist and bat expert Dr. Matías Domínguez Laso and his team took charge of the balance of the night’s activities.
Now many have read of the importance of murciélagos in the reproduction cycle of Agave tequilana Weber (blue agave) used to make tequila. But the literature is relatively scant regarding the key role which bats play for cross – pollinating agave used in distilling mezcal. Not all bats feed off of the pollen of the flowers which develop on the stalk (quiote) of the agave as it reaches maturity. And by corollary not all species of agave are cross – pollinated by bats. A slide show of about an hour in length with explanations by Dr. Domínguez Laso was the medium employed to provide us with a comprehensive bat education.
The murciélago is a mammal. Mexico boasts 564 species of mammal, third largest number in the world, 138 of which are bats representing eight families. Their size, depending on the region of the globe, ranges from less than an ounce, to heavyweights with a wing span of about three feet. While perhaps surprisingly there is a great deal that science still does not know about bats, we learned a tremendous amount about these fascinating animals, aside from the crucial role they play in agave reproduction. For example we received detailed explanations with the aid of photographs, drawings and charts, regarding bats’ anatomy. We also learned about similarities and characteristics in common with all vertebrates including other mammals (even human beings), as well as insects, reptiles, birds and fish. Then particular facts about bats were shared: means of flight and communication; diversity of habitats and diets; migratory patterns; geographical distribution; susceptibility to disease, as well as both carrying and transmitting of infection, fungus, etc.; threats to the continued existence of certain species (i.e. endangered species) due to primarily human intervention; and of course distinguishing bat facts from fiction and myth.
The specie of bat which pollinates Agave americana, which we observed later in the night at work on the quiotes of a few magueyes, is typically Leptonycteris yerbabuenae (commonly known as murciélago magueyero). It flits from flower to flower, extending its long tongue into the center of each, thereby extracting the agave nectar (which can be up to 22% sugar) that provides sustenance enabling it to remain in flight. It gets covered with pollen (about 50% of which is protein) which it transfers to a new flower on a different quiote, resulting in cross – pollination. This ensures genetic diversity of the specie of agave reproduced in this way.
A significant problem is that with the increase in demand for mezcal, many growers are reluctant to wait until the quiote (and therefore flowers) appears, preferring to harvest after cutting the quiote prior to flowering, thereby inducing the succulent to preserve its nutrients (carbohydrates) in its heart (piña). A higher yield of a “better” mezcal results, but there is no cross – pollination. This reduces the food available for the murciélago population which prefers nectar from the flowering quiote. There are other sources of nutrition for bats; just as there are hummingbirds, bees and other insects capable of doing the cross-pollination job of murciélagos. But bats do an extremely efficient job, maximizing agave genetic diversity, size and strength.
Mono – cropping is the alternative, with reproduction achieved by harvesting clones of the mother plant, that is, pups or hijuelos produced by the agave sending a number of runners out under the ground with babies then popping up. Alternatively clones can be produced from unfertilized flowers. In both cases, however, genetic diversity is lost. The agave is weaker, smaller, and more susceptible to disease from there being genetically identical plants. And, in the end there is less nutrition for the bat population.
Perhaps the problem is more serious in tequila producing regions of Mexico. Even if cross – pollination is promoted, because there is almost exclusively blue agave being cultivated as opposed to the much broader diversity of agave species grown for mezcal distillation in Oaxaca, a blue agave plague can spell disaster for much of an entire industry. And, this may result in danger of extinction of certain bat species which rely on agave nectar for their sustenance. One study found that a particular specie of bat in and around Jalisco was reduced to 1,000 in number in 1988. Fortunately, as a result of a concerted effort by a diversity of scientists, government agencies and interest groups in both the US and Mexico, by around 2015 the population had rebounded to roughly 200,000.
Real Minero is cognizant of all this, and ensures that a satisfactory percentage of its maguey under cultivation is reserved for the murciélagos. Other brand owners and growers are also setting aside enough agaves for the bats and so as to ensure genetic diversity of their crops.
Later that night after the lecture and slide show had been completed, we walked a short distance to where, with the aid of lamps, we were able to observe perhaps 200 or more bats. The flowers open at night, prime time for feeding. The bats were flying from quiote to quiote, extending their tongues into and then out of the flowers. But the rapid succession of their feeding frenzy made it impossible to trace the tracks of any one murciélago. However all that we had come to learn had finally come to life, literally, our necks stretched upward, our thoughts in awe.
Alvin Starkman owns and operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). He takes predominantly visitors to the region, including Mexican nationals, into the central valleys of Oaxaca and beyond to teach about mezcal and pulque and the cultures of their makers; spirits aficionados, novices, photographers, documentary film makers, and those entrepreneurs interested in exporting Oaxacan mezcal to countries throughout the globe.
Alvin Starkman & Yvette Astorga
Mezcal, the iconic Mexican agave based spirit, has taken the world by storm over the past decade. Exports to the US, the UK, Europe, Australia and elsewhere around the globe continue to increase exponentially. However mezcal has been slow to arrive in LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) outlets in Toronto, Ottawa, and elsewhere in Canada’s most populous province. But now it’s here, and its recognition and esteem are finally growing, albeit nowhere near with the gusto encountered south of the border. But why is it so expensive, especially given the low wages and subsistence economic status of many in the state of Oaxaca, the southern Mexico state where most is distilled?
It takes an average of about eight years to bring one of these often majestic looking succulents to maturity, the best time to then harvest and process the plant into mezcal. One need not wait that long, however. And, in any event the length of time to maturity varies a great deal depending on the specie and sub-specie, microclimate where the agave (also locally known as maguey) is grown, whether it is wild or cultivated, if other crops have been under cultivation in between the rows, plus other factors. But assuming the maguey will be in the field for the better part of a decade, and that only recently have brand owners, distillers (locally known as palenqeros), and growers begun to plant much more than previously, we are still a couple of years away until there is enough agave ready to harvest to meet the growing demand. This translates to a “shortage” of raw material. Less than a decade ago a three ton truckload of piñas (the heart of the plant used to make mezcal) of Agave angustifolia Haw (known as espadín, the most common sub-specie used to make mezcal in Oaxaca), sold for 1,200 pesos (about $80 CDN using today’s rate of exchange). Today that same three ton truckload costs over 30,000 pesos! It takes about 10 – 12 kg to produce a litre of the spirit made with espadín at 48% ABV (alcohol by volume). While the cost of raw material has been increasing rapidly, that’s not the main reason for the lofty prices in Ontario today.
In any event one ought not begrudge subsistence farmers who grow maguey. Their agave only 15 years ago was left to die in the fields because no one was buying it. Now they have the opportunity to hop on the gravy train while it is in the station. Regardless, they have by now sold off all of their mature plants, and must wait until their recently sown succulents are again reaching maturity. No one knows what the pricing will be like in the next decade. It is grueling work, that is planting, weeding, checking the fields to ensure there are no infestations, harvesting and preparing the land to once again sow. When co-author Starkman, more of a hobbyist grower has been out in the fields, invariably he returns home tired, sunburned, bloodied from the sharp tips of the agave leaves, and even literally burned from setting the brush and roots ablaze to prepare his field for re-planting.
Palenqueros ought to be given a chance to charge their 150 – 250 pesos per litre (of espadín) while opportunity knocks. They too put in long hours of arduous work, at times in their palenques for 24 hours straight depending on where in the production cycle they find themselves. For generations their families have been producing mezcal while eking out a hard, lower working class existence. The yield of species other than espadín (i.e. tobalá, tepeztate, jabalí) is much less. The palenquero often doesn’t know the yield he will derive from an oven-full of agave, regardless of specie. There are processes of caramelizing through baking, crushing, and finally pitching into the vat. When the mash has begun to bubble after the addition of water, the first sign that the environmental yeasts have begun to do their work, fermentation has begun in earnest.
Yes, there are those entrepreneurs, wannabe export brand owners, who try to squeeze prospective business associate palenqueros as much as possible with a view to obtaining as cheap a price per litre as possible. But are those the mezcal brands you really want to drink? In the course of Starkman’s work matching brand owners with distillers, he will not even work with anyone working towards buying for the cheapest price at the expense of palenqueros.
The average Oaxacan wage is about 80,000 pesos ($5,300 CDN) per year. All mezcal legally and commercially reaching Ontario must be certified by a board known as CRM (Consejo Regulador del Mezcal). The cost of obtaining certification for a palenque is about 35,000 pesos. Think of the belt tightening required to come up with that amount of money. Then, every batch produced must be individually certified. Samples of the raw agave, and of the distilled mezcal, must be sent to a laboratory. The double distilled product is tested for ABV so the consumer is assured that what the label states is what is in the bottle, and to ensure that there is not above the legal limit of methanol and other chemicals in the sample. A CRM employee must attend at the palenque. Each attendance and each submission to the lab, costs the palenquero.
All artisanal mezcal is made with 100% maguey. By contrast, tequila can legally be made with only 51% sugars derived from blue agave; with 49% corn, fruit, sugar cane, or whatever, each of these non-succulent raw materials being much less expensive to grow and able to produce a high yield. As compared to about eight years to grow an agave, corn and the rest can often be harvested twice a year. Look at the proof of a bottle of middle-of-the-road tequila, and it will likely be 76 – 80%, as compared to quality artisanal mezcal which costs much more to produce and is around 90 - 100%.
The labour costs of making artisanal mezcal are much higher than distilling an industrial tequila (or mezcal) product. Typically the former is distilled in either 70 – 80 litre clay pots or 300 liter copper alembic stills in both cases the agave having been baked over firewood and rocks then crushed by hand or with a horse pulling a one ton tahona (stone or stone compound wheel). Industrial tequila by contrast is mass produced in multi-thousand litre diesel fueled iron autoclaves or diffusers, stainless steel fermentation vats and sophisticated continuously running column stills. What type of agave spirit would you prefer imbibing?
Certified bulk mezcal produced in an artisanal fashion must be bottled, sealed and labelled, placed on a pallet with the boxes of six or 12 well protected bottles of usually 750 ml. Then it is trucked from southern Mexico to the Mexico-US border, Mexico City, or a Mexican port town. In each instance it is processing by a customs agent and sometimes warehoused before shipping to Ontario.
Let’s begin using CDN dollars to do our rough costing of a bottle, and say the spirit, an espadín, is at 45% ABV. The price of the liquid is $9, the bottle, cap, label including labour readying it for shipping is another $2.50, and getting it to the city from which it will be transported to Ontario, including clearing Mexican customs, another $1, assuming the shipping is for a full pallet of 800 – 900 bottles. There may be additional charges, such as if the pallet must be warehoused before the next leg of shipping, so let’s up our total out of an abundance of caution to $14. Now obviously the cost per bottle of artisanal mezcal FOB Oaxaca, or even from Mexico City, the border, or one of the ocean ports (for example Salina Cruz or Veracruz), is not what causes the cost at your local LCBO outlet to be so high.
Both the Canadian entrepreneur/brand owner and his agent (though the latter is not required) must make money, so let’s say between them there is an additional $15 which must figure into the equation (entrepreneur/brand owner $12 and agent $3), bringing our total to $29. Assuming the LCBO is entrusted with getting the mezcal to the LCBO warehouse, there is about a further $5 for shipping to Ontario which is tacked on, bringing our total to $34. The LCBO then marks up the cost by about 140%, elevating the total per bottle to $85. Add a further roughly 15% to cover the Ontario HST (health services tax) and what’s known as the enviro fee, and our total at the counter ready for checkout is $97.75.
In co-author Astorga’s work she advises clients about such matters, in a more precise fashion. For our purposes for this article, the foregoing ballpark figures serve to illustrate the point. We must also consider that the brand owner has legal, accounting and office expenses and must spend time in meetings, selling, sourcing the agent and being an employer, etc. And, we started with a very modest bottling amount. If we examine artisanal espadín on the LCBO shelves today (July, 2018), we find YUU BAAL at $96 and Marca Negra at $98.75, consistent with our sample itemization and calculation of figures.
In the back of your mind it might be helpful to understand that the LCBO is the second largest single purchaser of wines and spirits in the world (next to Tesco, the UK retail chain). This means that those in the alcohol business are anxious to get their products into Ontario, which means that the LCBO is in the driver’s seat.
Now consider a mezcal made with an agave other than espadín, perhaps a tepeztate (Agave marmorata), sometimes referred to as a wild specie. It often takes three times longer than an espadín to grow, and has a smaller piña. One of the main determinants of the cost of mezcal in Oaxaca which is sourced for export is the carbohydrate content of the raw agave. The starches will be converted to sugars, and the more sugars in the piña the higher the yield. Generally, the carbohydrates in a tepeztate, or a tobalá (Agave potatorum), are much less than in an espadín, so the exporter’s cost of buying mezcal made with either of these two species (and others) can increase perhaps fourfold. So if we now begin with a liquid cost of $36 (4 X the $9 for espadín), even leaving the other expenses the same upon arrival at the LCBO warehouse, the retail price still reaches upwards of $180. In fact today YUU BAAL tepeztate retails at the LCBO for $222.10.
Other determinants of price enabling the palenquero and/or the brand owner to ask for a higher price include: the reputation of the distiller and the brand, the district in Oaxaca where the palenque is located (i.e. some of the towns in Tlacolula such as Santiago Matatlán and San Juan del Río), the batch size (which can be as little as 100 bottles in some instances although likely nothing that limited would ever reach the LCBO), whether distilled in copper or clay (i.e. regarding the latter, many of the palenques in Santa Catarina Minas), sustainability of production (based on the reputation of the palenquero), and the effectiveness and cost of marketing including the desirability of the product based on the shape, style and quality of the bottle, cap and label. Both YUU BAAL and Marca Negra appear to be making a run at the Ontario market, and have seemingly spend a considerable amount of capital in marketing, be it promotion or bottle design.
Mezcal prices will continue to rise exponentially, globally, at least until production catches up with demand. The LCBO will likely not change how it conducts business, nor will the entrepreneurs bringing the spirit into Ontario. However at least from the perspective of the authors, a bigger piece of the pie (or simply more income) ought to stay with the dedicated, hardworking palenqeros and their families who have been producing this fine spirit all their lives, just as their forebears over the course of hundreds if not thousands of years, generation after generation. Support palenqueros through purchasing mezcal whether retail at the LCBO, in local bars and mezcalerías, or by visiting Oaxaca.
LCBO will continue to call the shots. But the greater the demand for artisanal mezcal in Ontario, the greater the likelihood that the regulatory board will moderate its pricing structure since cases will spend less time in the warehouse and the province will increase net profit by virtual of increased demand. Remember that higher price does not necessarily mean better quality; buy what tastes good to you. Drink responsibly, and enjoy your mezcal!
Yvette Astorga lives in Toronto. She owns and operates www.mezcalpeople.com, assisting Mexican wine and spirits importers to promote and market their products in Ontario. Alvin Stakman lives in Oaxaca. He owns and operates www.mezcaleducationaltours.com, assisting those wanting to export mezcal from Oaxaca, photographers and documentary film makers, as well as both spirits aficionados and novices alike wanting to learn about mezcal through visiting small, rural, family owned palenques.
How To Select Mezcal from Oaxaca: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly(Brand Owners, Reps, Guides, Retailers, Distillers and More)
The mezcal industry, in the state of Oaxaca in particular, has had its recent issues, most of which have been noted in print and through gossip networks. They’ve come to the fore primarily in Mexico and in those American states where there is now a plethora of mezcalerías and bars carrying a significant complement of the agave based spirit. They include: the pros and cons of the regulatory board’s current dictates, and enforcement; the maguey shortage, and the disappearance of wild species; the production, consumption and distribution of “agave distillate;” the adverse environmental impact; the intrusion of multi-nationals into the mezcal business and the future of artisanal production.
But there is a disturbing underside to mezcal, different from the foregoing, at least here in Oaxaca, of which few are aware unless they are industry insiders. And even then, blinders and wilful ignorance maintains the hush: misinformation, greed, broken promises, little if any concern for palenqueros and growers, and more generalized sleaze. However there are ways to keep the perpetrators honest.
Consider the brand owners in their 30s, 40s and 50s who drive Mercedes and BMWs and live in Manhattan or Chicago’s Lakeshore Drive condos. In a capitalist society one cannot begrudge them the lifestyle, except when they squeeze their palenquero suppliers in their 60s and 70s who still have to wake up at 5 am to head into the fields to work. They are intent upon buying mezcal for export from hard working distillers for as cheap as possible a price per liter. And yes, distillers do succumb, reckoning that there is a competitor around the corner who will sell it to the exporter for five pesos less; so they’d better leave the status quo alone despite their rising cost of living, labor and especially now, agave.
Fair trade in mezcal as a movement is in its infancy, if it exists at all. I know some of the exporters who do ensure that their producers are treated “appropriately.” On the other hand, the individual who has told me that he pays twice as much for his mezcal than a major competitor, well, perhaps one should take that with a grain of salt without some corroboration. Counterbalancing, there are for example the people from Aventureros who are trying to help palenqueros understand how much it actually costs them to produce a liter of mezcal, be it espadín, tepeztate or tobalá.
At least for now, small scale growers (i.e. campesinos) are not the issue in terms of getting a fair price for their agave, although I am certain there are those in the mezcal industry who believe that they are being paid too much. But they should remember how long it takes to grow an agave to maturity, the current problem with agave theft, and that it wasn’t that long ago that their maguey was dying in the fields because no one was buying.
It’s that same group of avaricious entrepreneurs who at the outset promise to start a charitable foundation to help needy Oaxacans with education or access to quality healthcare, yet once they get a taste for the potential for profit, the idea is forgotten. Some boast how they’ve built schools and roads in the villages, but braggadocio is cheap. Again on the other hand, there are those in the industry who can, and actually will for the asking, illustrate how they have done good for Oaxacan folk who otherwise would be struggling to eke out even a subsistence lifestyle.
Labelling and oral representations are other issues which don’t seem to receive the critical eye of the consuming public they deserve. CRM (the regulatory board) had been working on the former when it promulgated its 2017 designations of ancestral, artisanal and just plain mezcal. But there are still shortcomings and abuses, ranging from questionable representations to outright fabrications. A year or so ago a client showed me a photo of a mezcal label he has seen on a bottle in a Mexico City establishment, which read “90 years old.” Neither of us could discern if the suggestion was that the succulent had been growing for 90 years, or if the mezcal had been stored for almost a century. And there are those in the industry, in fact shockingly for this day and age in Oaxaca, who state as a matter of fact, “tobalá is a wild agave” or “tepezate takes 35 years to grow.” Who could possibly know that the agave, certainly if it was wild, had been growing for any extended period of time? Was the brand or mezcalería owner there when the palenqero or campesino harvested it? Now if the farmer had been walking that field or mountain slope for 30+ years, and made mental or written notes, then sure. But really; think about it. Wild v. cultivated; should we take such representations at face value just because it’s on a label, or some “expert,” brand rep or other, tells us? Even if cultivated, there can be doubt as to age, especially during this decade leading up to 2020, when growers are harvesting well before maturity in order to meet demand. Dogmatism, in any form, harms the industry.
Then there are those a step removed from the brand owners and their reps, the palenqueros, and their growers. That is, those who receive an income from the industry more indirectly; the tour guides, the teachers and instructors, the website owners, and the bars. They also profess that they want to help the industry, the producers and the people of Oaxaca.
Consider the specialized mezcal guide who keeps the names of far off villages he visits with his customers secret from others who might be interested in visiting and buying from the distillers. Many of these producers are in dire need of additional sales given their remoteness. He purports to want to help the palenqueros, yet he is afraid someone else, in his mind competitors, might take aficionados there. He purports his unwavering and fervent desire to help small producers, yet won’t help them move product, except for when his owner buyers attend to purchase a mere liter or two, if anything. He relishes building himself up, and putting others down. He knows it all; just like those who know how long it takes to grow an agave and state with certainty that it’s wild.
He might even be the same person, but certainly not necessarily so, who comes and goes with prospective purchasers, palenque to palenque, encourages his people to sample, but when they fail to buy, he leaves nothing behind for the distiller or his family members who have taken time out of their day to welcome guests. He’s making money, but does not even think that if it were not for his distillers, he would be without work. And he might even demand commission for every sale made. I suppose to really appreciate this part of the thesis, you must first have seen the lifestyles of some of the families of palenqueros who make quality artisanal mezcal.
Now not all palenqeros, both those with access to the export market and those without, are struggling, certainly not from their own perspective and often not from ours. Some have benefited to a considerable extent from “the boom,” having dramatically improved their living conditions (and I know many in this category), some using the new disposable income to educate their children who may in turn further assist their families, and so on. Accordingly, of course we should not begin to shed tears without delving further and doing our own due diligence whenever possible.
There are many who make a living though the industry who treat their producers well, acknowledge that there are very few absolutes when it comes to agave and mezcal, believe in transparency, and who regularly give back to the community and/or industry in one way or another. Mezcal aficionados and industry professionals, and in fact novices, must do more to ensure that the people who are benefiting from their love of mezcal are those who should be. Or at minimum they should satisfy themselves that their pattern of mezcal purchasing is working towards aiding solutions rather than perpetuating problems.
None of this is to suggest that retail prices in Mexico or further abroad are not appropriate, because many hands (in particular outside of the country) touch mezcal before it reaches store shelves; tax must be paid; the cost of transportation, warehousing, packaging and marketing must fit into the equation; and there are other considerations.
The abuses are seemingly nowhere close to as extreme as those many of us have read regarding the cacao (and perhaps to a lesser extent the coffee) industry. Yes of course there are those who are pushing the fair trade envelope in such cases, and the public has indeed been informed. But except in very limited circumstances such advances are more or less lacking in mezcal.
Indeed each topic covered here is worthy of its own essay, article or book, so this is but a cursory statement designed to raise awareness in the broadest sense.
We have an obligation to at least try to keep them honest, and ask the hard questions, perhaps of everyone in the supply chain. Some aspects of sharp business practices are hard to uncover, but not all. Hopefully you won’t find any and can then sleep easy. And if you do, perhaps your inquisitiveness and probing will change business practices; failing which I suggest that you have an obligation to move on to support others who are already doing the right thing.
“I give back to the community big time.” Ask how, and for an opportunity to witness it. Just because someone is buying a considerable amount of agave or mezcal, does not mean he is giving back in a meaningful way.
“This agave took 35 years to grow.” Ask how he knows that for sure. Press him.
“This batch is made with wild agave.” Ask how he is so certain, then what he is doing to ensure there is a supply of wild agave in 30 years, and to accompany him to the slopes where he has participated in the reforestation.
“We run a not-for-profit.” Ask what he means by that, how many are drawing an income in the operation, and to see the registration papers. Now this might be a delicate balance, but if someone is publicizing such altruism, you have a right to understand a little better. Is it any different than having the right to know how much of every dollar you donate to The United Way goes to actually paying for the mosquito nets distributed in Uganda or the labor and materials spent for building classrooms in the Phillipines?
“I donate to charity.” How often? To which charities? Can I visit them?
“I pay my producers well.” Now I am not suggesting you have to right to know numbers, but you should have an opportunity to visit the palenque and have a talk with the master distiller so you can understand his perspective, his lifestyle, his health and about how his family members live.
If you are visiting a palenque with a driver or guide, and do not purchase anything, note if your facilitator gives a token of thanks to the producer or his family, and if not, ask about the arrangement.
Support artisanal mezcal. Come to Oaxaca and visit palenques. But do have a critical eye, and do your part to right any perceived wrongs by asking questions and perhaps demanding answers. You may not succeed in changing anything, but at least you will have a better understanding of the industry, and can proceed with supporting a particular segment of it through buying based on having been better informed.
The potential exists for making a good industry much better, for the benefit of all. The current era of artisanal mezcal is new, bold and with unbridled potential, but we must not let it slip away into an abyss.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).
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.