Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
The rug weavers in the town of Teotitlán del Valle have had their heyday. In the 1960s they began to develop a reputation for being the most successful of all the artisans in the villages within the central valleys of the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca. But since then their economic fortunes have been characterized by peaks and valleys. As a consequence of COVID-19, residents of Teotitlán del Valle have found themselves at the bottom of the deepest gorge ever. But one astute local weaver, Rocio Mendoza Bazán, through her own ingenuity is managing to parlay the global mezcal boom for the benefit of her sometimes struggling family.
Rocio Mendoza Bazán at work on a loom.
Mezcal of course is the high alcohol content agave distillate which has taken the world by storm, in particular since the second decade of this century. And Oaxaca is the state where over 85% of the nation’s iconic spirit is distilled. Throngs of mezcal enthusiasts were coming to Oaxaca to learn about the intoxicant and the agave succulent from which it is derived (locally referred to as maguey), as well as to imbibe, advance export projects, photograph, and document for print and online publications. But by the end of March, 2020, they had stopped coming. And so did every other traveler. Sales of virtually all Oaxacan crafts dried up, including Rocio’s handmade rugs and tapestries many of which had been dyed using traditional natural colors derived from insects (i.e. the famed cochineal), fruits, mosses, nuts, plants and leaves (i.e. añil, from which indigo is derived) and seed pods.
One of the family's tapetes exhibiting typical pre-Hispanic designs and natural dyes.
Agriculture and tourism generate the lion’s share of the state of Oaxaca’s revenue. While the former is still a decent industry for national and international markets, tourism has screeched to a halt, for mezcal aficionados as well as for those who had been drawn to Oaxaca’s pristine beaches, internationally acclaimed cuisine, quaint colonial architecture, archaeological sites, and craft villages boasting pottery, wood carvings, metallurgy, wool and cotton textiles.
Miniature complete 5 liter copper alembic (still) made in Ocotlán de Morelos, Oaxaca.
To be fair, a few years earlier Rocio and sister-in-law Malena began exporting handbags to the US with the assistance of a couple of California entrepreneurs. It has helped the family through hard times occasioned by those economic depressions: Oaxaca’s 2006 civil unrest, the (Mexican) swine flu scare, the US economic crisis, media’s incessant fear mongering in the face of warring Mexican drug cartels, and more recently ZIKA.
Rocio is one of three daughters-in-law living in the family compound of husband Omar’s parents, Don Porfirio and Doña Gloria. Omar and brothers Tomás and Hugo, with their spouses and children, all live in the homestead along with Porfirio and Gloria. They used to weave for the tourist trade, with a modest amount of export based on custom orders. Working pine looms has by and large been good to the family, which includes four additional progeny and their families, all residing relatively close to Porfirio and Gloria. To different extents each of the seven nuclear families, and their parents, rely on weaving, as did their forebears.
Until 2020, virtually seven days a week Porfirio would be at his loom weaving rugs with traditional designs from memory, with representations of indigenous Zapotec imagery such as rainfall, maize and mountains…just like his father Tomás, grandfather Ildefonso and great grandfather before him. Gloria also weaved on small looms requiring less physical strength, but her expertise now lies in carding raw wool, either dyed, or natural. Hanging over the black wrought iron banister overlooking the sunny open courtyard would be batches of spun wool drying, in muted tones of green, brown, red and blue, as well as more vibrant colors illustrative of the occasional use of synthetic dyes.
Hand woven and dyed bags for carrying mezcal, with suede trim and leather closure.
This ritual in Teotitlán del Valle, an ancient tribal town about a half hour’s drive from the city center of Oaxaca, has played out continually since the 16th century, when in 1535 Dominican bishop Juan López de Zárate arrived in the village and introduced sheep and the first “modern” loom, shipped from Spain. The use of natural dyes and weaving predate the conquest, but it was the 16th century which jump-started a cottage industry producing serapes, blankets and tapetes (rugs). Before the Spanish arrived, weaving would be done on the back strap loom, and yarn would be from rabbits and deer, as well as cotton as long as traders arrived from parts of the country conducive to its growth and cultivation.
In Oaxaca mezcal has strong ties to Catholicism as illustrated here, as party favors for confirmations and baptisms.
Rocio is part of Artesanías Casa Santiago. It’s comprised of that extended family of four households; Porfirio and Gloria, Omar, Tomás and Hugo and their spouses and children. Its main workshop, modest showroom and homestead have been on the town’s main street since 1966. Back then Porfirio occupied most of his working hours as a campesino in the fields, with rug production a sideline. Over the decades he began spending fewer days working the land and more producing tapetes. As the family grew, tapetes became its mainstay. But Don Porfirio still works the fields, and in fact now rents land to a mezcal producer. He and his family assist the mezcalero with planting agave, and periodic tending while awaiting maturity a decade or so down the road.
Portavasos, or coasters, of course with the agave theme.
Despite being one of the most personable families one could ever hope to happen upon in the entire state, the workshop never did get the large tour buses stopping by for exhibitions. Perhaps it’s the personalities of the family members which clearly doesn’t lend to the formality of onlookers seated in a gallery for a demonstration, followed by a hard sell. When tourism was booming, Casa Santiago’s share of the market for Oaxacan wool rugs and handbags would be individuals seeking out the workshop, often repeat business or referrals. Patrons were mainly those who wanted that southwest, Mexican, or Oaxacan flare in their home décor, or in the case of handbags for their fashion. But one must adapt with the times. Rocio joined the family through marriage to Omar. Seizing upon her acumen and resourcefulness she has quietly and without fanfare been able to exploit a new market, custom catering to all that is mezcal, agave and the bar industry.
Doña Gloria now enjoys weaving this type of scenery. It keeps her calm all day long.
However somewhat earlier this bright woman with a strong sense of her Zapotec ethnic heritage had begun to show her penchant for thinking just a little outside of the box. In 2008/9, while Oaxacan artisans were still recovering from the economic ravages of the earlier civil unrest, and the US economy was keeping many travelers close to home, Rocio decided to open up her home to tourists, cooking traditional Zapoteco dinners for a modest fee. And then when the opportunity to export handbags subsequently arose, of course she jumped at the idea. And now she makes tapestry designs for mezcal aficionados, including owners of mezcalerías, and bars and restaurants with a healthy complement of the agave distillate.
Don Porfirio enjoys replicating pre-Hispanic Zapotec imagery.
A few years ago management of King Bee Lounge, then a trendy bar / restaurant in Austin, Texas, known for live music in a vintage setting, visited Teotitlán del Valle. King Bee likely had the largest selection of Oaxacan mezcal of any bar in the city. Rocio was asked to make a tapestry of the King Bee logo. The result was more exquisite and exacting than anyone could have imagined, of course except for Rocio. That got Rocio thinking. She began making wool coasters with an agave motif, and then bags with similar imagery for holding a bottle of mezcal; suede trim, leather tie and all.
Custom tapestry woven by Rocio for the Austin, Texas, King Bee Lounge.
Then came large agave tapestries featuring the tall flowering stalk or quiote. She is currently weaving such a tapestry with the name and city of a Colorado mezcal tasting room woven into the fabric.
Custom agave tapestry made for Sarah.
Since textiles do not break as does pottery and those delicate carved wooden figures known as alebrijes, Rocio is able to ship her agave tapestries and related woven artistry economically and securely through the Mexican postal system. When visitors are precluded from coming to Oaxaca, they can nevertheless purchase and receive whatever they want, both stock and custom. This enables the family of Casa Santiago to weather the current and any subsequent storm which comes its way. It’s all thanks to the mezcal boom, and Rocio’s ability weave exquisite designs.
Thinking Outside of The Box: Modernity with a touch of tradition.
Artesanías Casa Santiago is located at Av. Juarez 70, Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca 70420 [tel: (951) 524-4154]. Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca [www.mezcaleducationaltours.com]
Oaxacan Woodcarver From San Martín Tilcajete Adapts with Mezcal and Agave Motifs Hewn Out of Walnut, Cedar and Other Hardwoods
In the wake of COVID-19's dramatic adverse impact on craftspeople of Oaxaca, this is one of a few photo essays based on how craftspeople of the state have been adapting by creating art featuring agave and mezcal motifs, so both read the article, and scroll down to see examples of the art of Efraín Fuentes Santiago, which can be custom ordered: https://ezinearticles.com/?Woodcarver-in-Oaxaca-Transitions-to-Mezcal-and-Agave&id=10297582
Carved from an irregular slab of walnut, about 36 X 10 X 2 inches thick, illustrating three stages of mezcal production: jimador cutting agave from the field, horse dragging the tahona to crush the sweet baked maguey, and classic copper distillation scene. Folk art at its best!
Hardwood box with sliding front with agave and its quiote carved into it, suitable for holding most bottles of 750 ml or 1 liter, with handle made of ixtle (agave fiber).
Home bar with back of stool carved from a single piece of walnut.
Final panel of three scene carving, here classic ancestral mezcal distillation using clay pots.
Napkin holder, with agave on both sides.
Content Rural Canadian, May 25, 2020, upon receiving his artwork in less than a week from FEDEX, Oaxaca to Brechin, Ontario.
Proud, talented artist Efraín Fuentes Santiago, photo taken the day after his 40th birthday. If interested in a custom order, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Every month I receive emails asking where to source small batch, traditionally made high quality mezcal in Huatulco or Puerto Escondido. It’s always surprised me that there could be any corner of Oaxaca in which it could be difficult to find unique, fine sipping agave spirits; after all, this state is Mexico’s ground zero for the production of the maguey distillate. Yes, of late mezcal watering holes have cropped up in both towns, featuring quality hooch. However they typically offer the same brands one can find in major centers throughout the US and to a lesser extent Canada, albeit somewhat less costly.
Enter Mezcalería Gota Gorda, located in the still-quaint beach town of Zipolite, between the two burgeoning Oaxacan tourist resorts of Huatulco and Puerto Escondido. It opened its doors in December, 2019, and has quickly found a following of locals, snowbirds and more short-term visitors seeking the real deal at accessible prices.
Gota Gorda owner Danielle (Dani) Tatarin has been in the cocktail and spirits business for 20 years. And for close to the past decade she has been honing her expertise in the area of mezcal, traveling dirt roads in search of rural makers whose families have been distilling for hundreds of years if not longer. Batch size of what she brings back to Zipolite, produced in both copper alembics and clay pots à la ancestral, ranges from 40 to 300 liters, and not a drop more. Some of the agave is harvested from small plots of land under cultivation, while she also offers mezcal made from species sourced from the wild.
But Dani’s pedigree is even more impressive. The transplanted Canadian has:
But most recently it’s been Dani’s vision which has brought her to the Oaxacan coast. She initially planned to bring small batch high quality agave distillates to parts of the country outside of Oaxaca and into the US and Canada. Hence, with that idea in mind she launched the brand Gota Gorda. Then while living in Baja California, a friend introduced her to Zipolite. When the opportunity arose to open up a mezcalería in a cool, tucked away little hidden spot, in a region surprisingly devoid of what she was interested in personally drinking, a light went off: why not bring fine ultra-premium mezcal to the area, while at the same time use the locale to inaugurate Gota Gorda? Dani was actually shocked at the lack of good small batch mezcal available on the Oaxacan coast.
Not to mislead, the type of mezcal offered at her Zipolite mezcalería is indeed available at several small bars and mezcalerías in the city of Oaxaca. But until now spirits aficionados visiting or living on the coast have had to drive about seven hours to the state capital to find this kind of agave distillate within the context of a curated experience; but no longer.
Mezcalería Gota Gorda currently offers eight different mezcal expressions at between 70 and 180 pesos per healthy pour, or a flight of six for 300 pesos, a mere pittance even by Mexican standards. Drawing upon her mixology expertise, she has also developed her own recipe for an additional agave distillate, prepared with a series of herbs and bitters. Clients have been raving about it. And there are apparently more unique offerings in the works. For those who are ready to depart Gota Gorda and lament never again being able to replicate the experience, Dani offers sealed, labeled bottles of your favorites, ready to take home on the plane.
Gota Gorda also gives patrons an opportunity to sample real pulque, the fermented sap or aguamiel (honey water) from certain agave species. In pre-Hispanic times it was reserved for gods and high priests. Pulque available in retail outlets throughout the country is typically adulterated with sweetener, fruit extract, thickener and even milk or cream, creating what’s known as a curado. By contrast, Gota Gorda’s pulque is pure, with several scientifically proven medicinal properties. It’s a product of the natural environment with nothing added. When visiting Dani’s mezcalería you also get a lesson about pulque, and of course about mezcal. Since the locale is small and intimate, you’re able to interact one-on-one with Doña Danielle Tatarin, a treat in and of itself.
Gota Gorda is about a 45 minute drive from Huatulco, and 75 minutes from Puerto Escondido. It’s open Tuesday through Sunday 5:30 pm to midnight; Calle Shambala s/n, Frente a Hotel El Noga, Col. Roca Blanca, Playa Zipolite, Pochutla 70904; cel 001 624 166 8730.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).
Alvin Starkman M.A., J.D.
Over the course of about a decade, from time to time a diversity of Oaxacan friends had been asking me for the opportunity to accompany a family of Zapotec tlachiqueros (aguamiel harvesters) into the fields to witness the extraction of aguamiel (honey water) from the majestic Agave americana americana. It’s the particular sub-specie of the succulent most commonly tapped for the production of pulque in this part of the state of Oaxaca. They all knew that I had become friendly with a few different families, and that I would periodically take visitors to Oaxaca, that is clients who were typically mezcal aficionados, into the countryside with a family to view and indeed participate in the aguamiel harvest. How can it be that virtually no urban or even rural Oaxacan folk have ever had the first-hand experience, and would readily and in fact anxiously rely on a Canadian to help them to learn about pulque and aguamiel?
Production of pulque begins with the extraction of aguamiel from the inner piña or heart of particular species of agave while still in the field, at maturity, roughly after twelve to twenty years of growth. The species are generically known as pulqueros. Once the aguamiel has been extracted from the plant, it immediately begins to interact with an environmental bacteria, causing fermentation, and so fermented aguamiel is known as pulque. There is no baking of the agave, no crushing, no leaving it to interact with environmental yeasts so as to cause fermentation, and certainly no distilling. Those steps are within the purview of creating an agave distillate.
Pulque, a pre-Hispanic relatively mild intoxicant, has been referred to as Mexican or indigenous beer, and likened to kombucha. It has been produced for literally thousands of years, some of the literature dating its origins to the 3rd century AD. And it has umpteen scientifically accepted medicinal properties known to its local imbibers. It also has ritualisitic, social and religious cultural significance for residents of the towns and villages in which it is produced. This is true in modern times, and naturally dating to the pre-Hispanic era.
On this early evening, an hour or so before dusk, a group of well-known and respected Oaxacans including artisans (i.e. internationally acclaimed ceramicist Angélica Vásquez), academics (i.e. Claudio and Prometeo Sánchez Islas), mezcal producers (i.e. Douglas French of Scorpion and Escorpion brands as well as Sierra Norte Whisky), chefs (i.e. Pilar Cabrera of Casa de los Sabores Cooking School), businesspeople (i.e. Fernando González Kauffman), and others, met at an agreed upon time and place in the town of Santiago Matatlán, purportedly “the world capital of mezcal.” It’s one of the oldest colonial settlements, founded in 1525, only four years after the Spanish made their way to what is now known as the state of Oaxaca. In 1980 the town boasted 360 small family owned and operated factories or palenques as they are locally known. Their numbers have greatly diminished since that time allegedly due to government incursion into the industry. But the number of tlachiqueros in pulque production, I would suggest, has either remained constant, or increased.
The excuse for embarking on this trek with my Zapotec family of friends, and the group, was a seed I had planted in the family’s mind some years earlier. They had never heard of nor eaten smoked turkey, so I had promised them that one day I would bring them a whole, smoked turkey that we would carve up to make tortas (sandwiches). Of course in Oaxaca no meal would ever consist of simply tortas, but rather the whole shebang; appetizers, accompaniments, soft drinks and beer, mezcal of course, along with dessert and hot chocolate.
Our caravan of assorted cars and SUVs converged on the Matatlán home of Juana and Andrés and their children. From there we headed out into the fields, some packed into either the covered rear box or the interior of their gas-guzzling pick-up, the rest following behind in whatever vehicles we thought would make it into the fields without getting stuck.
It was chilly out, certainly by Oaxacan standards, late autumn, with the sun quickly setting behind the mountains, yet still light. We filed out of the vehicles and trekked along a narrow pathway between rows of agave, predominantly americana, but also some angustifolia. While not common in the area, I spotted a couple of salmiana as well. Notebooks, cameras and video equipment were in abound.
As we accompanied the family into the fields to the pulqueros yet to be tapped that evening, Juana recalled that she and her brother Isaac learned all about agave and its derivatives from their father and grandfather, who learned from their abuelos y bisabuelos. But Isaac, also along for the event, lamented that it’s not like it used to be:
“I remember that years ago the pulqueros grew much bigger around and taller than they are now. We’ve been using the same fields for so long that the land just doesn’t have the nutrients in it like before. We fertilize at least once a year, using only abono de toro y chivo (composted feces from cows and goats). The problem is twofold: chemical fertilizer is very expensive, and besides we want a 100% natural fermented drink; and we don’t have enough abono to fertilize as often as we’d like to, as we should. This year we had a problem with ice during November and December; it affected those small espadín agave over there, but not the large pulqueros. Even though most of the espadín leaves are brown and dead, the plants will survive.”
On the land behind Juana’s house, back at the ranch, there are smaller plots with young agave, both espadín and pulquero. These plants must be watered regularly during the dry season. At between one and two years of growth, they’re transplanted into the fields outside of town, but only during the rainy season. From then on they need not be watered – but they should be fertilized, though not obligatory for their growth.
Juana’s homestead includes smaller enclosures where the family raises chickens, ducks and goats, strictly for family consumption; they have a large field of mature nopal cactus as well, available for the family to pick paddle by paddle to make soups and salads, and other dishes which traditionally may call for nopal. These nopal appears very similar to the variety used for growing cochinilla – the tiny insect used to create natural dyes of red, pink, orange and purple – thick and fleshy, essentially without espinas (thorns).
Along our trek over the pathways we passed by a roofed, three-sided hut made of dried carrizo (river reed) and laminated metal, used to provide shade and shelter from inclement weather, and to keep a bit of clothing and tools of the trade. There was a simple wooden bench inside, a few hooks for hanging things on the walls, and no more.
Continuing along, we reached 5 - 6 plants which Juana and Andrés had not harvested since the early morning collection. Juana was carrying a large clay pitcher. Daughter Luz Clarita was struggling with a big wicker basket containing a scraper (raspador) used for scraping out the plant’s well, a number of jícaras (half gourds) of different sizes, a plastic sieve, and two plastic jerricans of five and ten liters.
Upon a pulquero reaching maturity, it is readied for the harvest; some of the bottom leaves (pencas) are removed to more easily facilitate access to the middle of the plant, its heart; and others are bent over backwards with the needle-sharp point gingerly inserted into another penca to reduce the likelihood of the tlachiquero being stabbed. A simple prick which breaks the skin and draws even the smallest amount of blood can result in swelling and pain which lasts two or three days.
The initial phase of tapping consists of digging a well into the piña of the plant, optimally before the quiote has appeared. It’s roughly 8” in diameter and 12” deep. Then slowly but continuously aguamiel begins to seep into the well. The first few days only a couple of ounces are extracted twice daily, but at peak production after 3 – 4 weeks, a plant is capable of producing up to five liters twice daily, before slowing down production as the cycle ends. Subject to the particular terroir, microclimate, specie and other factors, as a general rule aguamiel is very sweet as long as it’s extracted at a time of year when there is no rainwater which manages to seep into the well. Juana confirms that business dictates harvesting year round, but that it’s more difficult and time consuming during rainy season, and the aguamiel is inevitably of a lesser quality and requires more work in order to produce pulque of an acceptable standard.
As Juana and Andrés approached a pulquero, they removed pieces of stone, penca and cloth from covering the well. They inhibits insects, possums, etc., from getting at the sweet coconut-water-like liquid which seeps into the orifice. Other tlachiqueros use a piece of wood or large flat river stone about the diameter of the well, with or without anything else.
The tools used to extract the aguamiel are varied, depending on family tradition. Sometimes a jícara is used to scoop it out, sometimes a rubber hose employed as a syphon, and sometimes a long gourd known as an acocote is used, with a small hole at each end for sucking the liquid into it. In modern times a two liter Coke bottle with a small hole at the bottom, the top opening affixed to a length of rubber hose, serves the same purpose. In all cases, the aguamiel is then poured from its initial receiving receptacle into a larger container.
On our excursion day the aguamiel was the sweetest and most flavorful honey water I’d ever tasted. It was dry season, almost winter. Juana had brought along five-day fermented pulque in case we wanted to compare, or to prepare a mixture of pulque and aguamiel for a moderately fermented beverage. I like my pulque relatively strong.
We then each sampled honey-rich aguamiel. I was in heaven drinking each, separately without “adulteration.” In due course Juana added a little pulque to the aguamiel to give us a taste of what regular pulque should be like. Later on she might add a little to the aguamiel as a starter to the fermentation. Alternatively, tradition dictates adding pieces of tree root known as timbre to the aguamiel which serves the same function.
“The doctors confirm that pulque is very healthy for you, especially if consumed every day, first thing in the morning,” Isaac stated convincingly.
Members of our group were given an opportunity to see the aguamiel while still in the well, extract it, then use the scraping tool. Rasping induces more seepage into the well so that at dawn there would be more, hopefully a lot. With each scraping the well becomes at bit deeper and wider, able to produce more and more aguamiel until the maximum amount can be extracted.
After removing the aguamiel from the next succulent, Juana strained it through the plastic sieve into another half gourd, and then poured it into the pitcher. We all smiled as we tasted the fruits of our labor, remarking about the quality of the harvest. Then, before moving on to the next plant, Andrés covered the well with a folded agave leaf on top of which he places a broken piece of concrete, to hopefully keep those pesky insects and rodents from gaining access to the honey water as it seeps into the well over the course of the subsequent 10 - 12 hours.
At the next plant, before extracting the aguamiel Isaac had to remove pieces of old cotton shirts from the top of the well: “It doesn’t matter if you use penca with a rock, or whatever kind of material is available, as long as no little creatures can get into the well and drink or contaminate the aguamiel.”
The sun set with tones of red, pink and orange stratus cloud hovering over and between the distant mountain tops. We walked by pulqueros which had seen better days; that is, plants which had already been fully harvested. All of their leaves had been cut off and lay strewn about nearby. “That’s it, there’s nothing else you can do with the plant, except chop it up and use it as mulch or compost, or let it dry and use it as firewood, the same as with the pencas on the ground,” states Andrés. I added that the leaves are often grilled and used to add flavor in the highly ritualized process of making barbacoa, most often sheep or goat baked in an in-ground oven.
“Well, you’re right about the use of the discarded pencas, but not entirely when it comes to the piña,” informed Isaac. “As long as it’s still green, you can use it to make mezcal.” When pressed in the course of ensuring discussion, they all admitted that using this already-spent part of the pulquero agave, while capable of producing mezcal, the process requires much more effort and yields much less mezcal per kilo of plant. The resulting mezcal is of a lesser quality than if starting from scratch with mature and untouched agave, unless you go through the effort of distilling a third and perhaps fourth time. It makes sense that there would be some nutrients remaining in the pulquero, after it’s no longer capable of yielding enough honey water to make it worthwhile to continue the harvest. Amongst families which struggle to eke out a subsistence existence, it’s often worth the effort. I use the shaved, spent cylindrical piña shell as a planter. Others have fashioned it into a bongo drum.
The few non-Mexicans in the group were shocked that the pulque they were sampling was nothing like what they had drank in pulquerías in Mexico City, Puebla, Guadalajara and in other major centers in the country. The aguamiel was sweet like honey, and more significantly the pulque was not thick and viscous nor mucous-like. Pulquerías tend to prepare and sell curados, that is, a pulque base with added sweetener, fruit extract or grain, and sometimes a thickener and/or milk or cream. Many of my clients have initially rejected the idea of sampling pulque with me because of their experiences trying what they have mistakenly believed is the real deal, at pulquerías. Some who go out with me still do not find it to their liking, but to a number they prefer it to what they have previously sampled. Most importantly, they have gained a knowledge of both the process, and of what the pure drink can taste like, both as aguamiel and as pulque, without adulteration. And as for aguamiel, it’s almost impossible to sample it if you do not do so in the village where it has been harvested. By the time it’s transported for example from Matatlán to Oaxaca, it´s begun to ferment, unless in a refrigerated vehicle or a cooler; and even then …
On our return to the home of Juana and Andrés, Chef Pilar, Juana and a couple of other invitees began to work feverishly carving the smoked turkey and preparing the rest of the food for our dinner. We sat around the table reflecting on the evening, drinking mezcal, beer and soft drinks. Claudio presented our gracious hosts with a book he had recently published. Douglas French pressed Juana and Andrés regarding attending at one of his fields of Agave americana with a view to investigating the possibility of extracting aguamiel, rather than using them to make mezcal. We sat, ate, imbibed and chatted for a couple of hours. Then came the hour-long ride back home, all the while reflecting on my guests’ learning experience, and just as importantly the total enjoyment of the evening.
As an adjuct to his Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com), Alvin leads groups of clients into the fields to harvest aguamiel with one of his families of friends such as Juana and Andrés.
Alvin Starkman, M.A. J.D.
Although its manifestation dates back to Roman times if not earlier, the concept of cultural appropriation began to receive press in the Western World no earlier than about the 1960s. It has more recently received attention in both media reports and in the academic literature. Regarding the former, take for example the recently-pulled Dior ad promoting its Sauvage fragrance, with actor Johnny Depp walking amidst the red rocks of Southwestern Utah, the more striking backdrop being a Sioux warrior performing a ritualistic dance. Or closer to home the criticism levied against French haute couturier Isabel Marant for designing a dress similar to blouses made by and used for generations by the Mixe indigenous peoples of the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca.
The explosion in the mezcal industry since the mid 1990s has also witnessed more than its fair share of commentary. It has come predominantly, thankfully, only from trolls who have been critical of Western incursion into several facets of the agave distillate boom emanating predominantly from Oaxaca. As most readers know, Oaxaca is where most of the country’s mezcal has traditionally been distilled and from where it has been distributed both nationally and now globally.
And so as a precursor to the academic article upon which I am currently working, I decided to pen some thoughts on the topic while continuing to research the anthropological and legal literature, in which my background lies. So here goes.
Cultural appropriation can be defined as the adoption or utilization of elements of one culture, nationality or ethnic group by one or more members of another, the former typically being relatively disadvantaged, the usurper doing so for profit or otherwise personal gain, and/or with a lack of appreciation, understanding and/or respect, and without permission.
My working definition is not without flaws, however. It is a starting point, open to discussion. Consider “without permission.” This might not be a valid pre-condition for finding cultural (mis)appropriation. For some, a blessing from one or more members of the culture might be irrelevant. In any event, one might reasonably ask how blanket permission is obtained from the membership, though I suppose a community council might be approached. And is it nevertheless cultural appropriation? Should permission factor into the equation at all, and if so in what context?
Take for example the carved painted wooden figures known as alebrijes. What happens when two Americans obtain the right, in writing, to reproduce specific designs in resin, in China. The family in Arrazola, Oaxaca, with its blessing sells the exclusivity to the buyers for a fee. Is that still cultural appropriation? Alebrijes are not a Zapotec invention or tradition (and Arrazola to my recollection is not a Zapotec village, its members having hailed from other parts of the country), and in fact their existence as a folkart form in Oaxaca back no further than to about the 1960s, perhaps later. I have personally not come across a figure dating to earlier than about 1980. Their actual beginnings, typically as brilliantly painted papier maché dragons and such, go back earlier than the Oaxacan wooden figures, to the Linares family of the State of Mexico. Have the Oaxacan families which produce them today, the members of which have varying degrees of indigeneity in their blood, appropriated something not their own? Does that lessen any inappropriateness of the two Americans?
What if the personal gain, rather than profit in the usual sense, is “only” obtaining a sense of self-satisfaction, a stroking of the ego, as in giving to charity? What if all the profits are returned to the host culture? Are there circumstances in which a member of the disadvantaged culture can be rightfully accused of cultural appropriation, or does he have an exclusive, inalienable right not subject to criticism, to run roughshod over his own culture for the purpose of profiting? If he has that right, is it dependent on the extent to which he has been an integral part of the culture or how much if any indigenous blood he has running through his veins?
Wood carvings, rugs, clothing, cuisine and perhaps additional indicia of current manifestations of culture in Oaxaca, have already received some attention in the academic literature dealing with the theme of appropriation. To my knowledge mezcal has not.
In the state of Oaxaca, my bailiwick, most of the allegations relative to the mezcal industry are subtly advanced, usually not in print and if so anonymously, and typically constituting merely a whisper; that is, an undercurrent. It emerges in this way presumably out of a fear of some sort of recrimination. Those accusers likely fear being called out for their blanket condemnation without a clear understanding of the complexity of the term cultural appropriation and/or not being acquainted with the alleged perpetrator. They may have no idea of his motivation, his impact on the host culture or one or more segments of it, etc. It’s easy to make an anonymous allegation; some have even harkened back to the destructive forces of colonialization without having considered that the Spanish have perhaps had a significant positive impact on palenqueros (with varying degrees of indigeneity) and their communities.
Of the three predominant theories of the history of distillation in Mexico, of which I am aware, only one traces the origin to indigenous groups. The other two date its genesis to the Spanish during the conquest, and to Filipinos in the galleon trade who with earlier knowledge of distilling, arrived on the west coast in the region near where Acapulco now stands. I am not suggesting that indigenous populations which distill agave can be deemed guilty of cultural appropriation from others. Rather, even within the context of mezcal, the issue can be more complicated than perhaps may appear at first glance, especially when as in this example the more disadvantaged are the apparent usurpers.
Today, the allegations of cultural appropriation are typically levied against non-Mexican-born “whites:” mezcal brand owners and in at least one case a distiller/brand owner; agave spirit websites and their principals; authors writing for print publications such as books and articles as well as online; and even those facilitators/instructors/guides living in Oaxaca who promote the spirit. Some who have felt the brunt of the accusations fall into more than one of the foregoing categories.
So within the context of membership in the foregoing groups which have most frequently been accused, let’s examine some of the aspects of cultural appropriation: motivation of the alleged usurper; permission; benefit to the host group; and, its identification as indigenous.
Outside of the mezcal frame of reference, motivation would appear to be clear; the French designer, the American purchasers of alebrije rights, and Dior, are all in it for money and little if anything more. You don’t have to be acquainted with them or their representatives, to reasonably understand why they are doing what they are doing.
But mezcal is different. Yes, the lion’s share of brand owners do flog their juice in order to make a living. However there is variation within that group. There are some with little or no interest in doing anything but maximizing profit. This might mean squeezing their palenquero distillate suppliers for every peso they can. Or selling for as high a price as posible without consideration given to trying to expand the mezcal-drinking market to those of relatively modest means as a way of more broadly benefiting the industry. But should we put them in the same class of cultural appropriator as the distiller/brand owner who makes it a priority to employ single mothers who otherwise would not have decent paying jobs? Or the American brand owner who sets up a trust fund for each of his palenqueros upon selling the brand to a multi-national alcohol conglomerate? Or brands which pay a mezcal instructor to teach its preferred buyers how those other than their own palenqueros make mezcal, with a view to expanding the knowledge of those who purchase and sell mezcal in their bars, restaurants and mezcalerías?
While I cannot confirm with any degree of certainty, I suspect that at least some of the agave spirit website owners who promote predominantly mezcal and/or tequila through posting articles and reviews and the like, have day jobs, and manage their online presence out of a love of and passion for the distillate(s). For certain there are those who reasonably do not rely on any income generated through selling ads or otherwise website space, since they earn much more from stocks, bonds, venture capital, and the rest. Any income earned would be a pittance by comparison. Hence at least in this category it is importance to have an intimate knowledge of the individual(s) before passing judgment. Are they using a mezcal website to earn money through promoting events? Are they giving back to the hardworking community members who distill mezcal traditionally? Is it enough that through their events and websites they are promoting tourism in Oaxaca? How much should we allow them to earn without making accusations of cultural appropriation? Motivation surely must lie along a continuum and we ought not pass judgment without first knowing precisely where along it the company/individual lies.
Many who write books and articles about mezcal are motivated by profit rather than anything else. Some sell articles to magazines and newspapers. Others, academics in particular, write books under the “publish or perish” system of maintaining their standing and/or job, some within the context of receiving money by way of grant or scholarship. And others receive advances from publishers. It’s important to consider if the writer simply swoops in to get his job done, then moves on to something else, never to return to Oaxaca, or has an ongoing intimate relationship with the state, returning regularly or living here. When it comes to documentary film makers, it tends to be the former and thus it becomes easier to be critical. But how many of the naysayers and critics even think about the swoopers-in? Perhaps they don’t because they have at least recognized that the end result is promotion for Oaxaca and mezcal, so it really doesn’t matter.
And then there are the instructors/facilitators/guides. It is suggested that most but not all in the category earn a living through this kind of work. We should similarly look at each individual on her merits, and examine the principal motivation. The concept of ethical mezcal tourism is relevant. Similar to the motivation of most in this category, are those in the distributor and retailer categories, which seem to not attract the ire of the critics for their motivation, perhaps because it is obvious. But within the latter two categories there is indeed some variation, such as the work if any that those in the sales industry do to promote agave distillates as a concomitant to sales. Naturally they enhance their bottom line by so doing.
Let’s now consider permission granted by the host society and/or members of the smaller subset, that being the ethnic group, community or family of distillers. As suggested near the outset it is perhaps imposible to obtain blanket permission, and even if it is granted it typically refers to only the palenquero who provides his blessing to the purchaser (brand owner), writer, guide or webmaster who comes calling. But often there is no quid pro quo. That is, there is no obvious benefit for the family of palenqueros or community, at least not which they perceive. When in 2019, the producers of a documentary about the future impact of the industrialization of mezcal interviewed two palenqueros, there was permission granted, but no direct consequential remuneration aside from purchasing a couple of liters of the maker’s mezcal.
However there are communities which do not welcome outsiders, even merely literally stepping into their worlds without first obtaining permission. Securing it often comes with a cost to the photographer, film maker, writer. On the other hand, it is suggested that there is inequality of bargaining power. Paying $50 USD to obtain such permission might seem like an appropriate sum for the village to extract, but for the intruder it is virtually nothing more than petty cash. Would building a library in the only school in the community make it okay, and keep the critics at bay? What about purchasing a computer for use in the village community center?
Is there ever enough benefit to the disadvantaged host culture to make cultural appropriation reasonably or somewhat aceptable? I would answer in the positive when it comes to mezcal. But even more so, and it could be argued indispensable for the benefit and amelioration of those relatively disadvantaged communities. The foregoing paragraphs provide examples. But more broadly, just look at the benefit for Mexico, the state of Oaxaca, the largely indigenous communities, and the families of palenqueros. A significant number of foreigners with not a drop of Zapotec or other indigenous blood in them have created and sustained the “mezcal boom.” If we took away Del Maguey, Pierde Almas, Scorpion, Vago and other brands which either currently or for most of their existence have been owned as a result of that colonialism, what would we have?
Despite the modus operandi of some in the industry to rape the locals to the extent possible in order to maximize profit, that is still the exception. Thankfully there are few in the industry at that end of our continuum, be they brand owners, writers and such, other media people and their corporate interests, and the mezcal tour operators working out of the city of Oaxaca. Inevitable something filters down to those much more in need than for the unscrupulous.
Our final dimension of cultural appropriation is indigeneity. It is perhaps the most difficult of all to get a handle and thus opine upon, yet otherwise likely the easiest to debate and “win” when dealing with antagonists, detractors and bleeding hearts.
Let’s say for arguments sake that the origin of mezcal dates back more than 2,000 years, and that indigenous groups have been distilling agave more or less continuously since then. And that, as the academic literature bears out, certainly in rural Oaxaca, most residents have some non-indigenous blood in their makeup. Is a white export brand owner from the USA or the UK any more or less guilty of cultural appropriation than a wealthy white export brand owner from Mexico City who has 98% Spanish blood? Are they both not guilty of cultural appropriation? What if the Mexican had 30% indigenous blood? What if one of the American’s grandparents was Zapoteco? Does class figure into the equation?
Consider a Mexican mezcal tour facilitator whose family is from the Mixteca district of Oaxaca, who keeps all the profits from his work for himself and readily accepts commission from palenqueros. How does one reconcile his standing within the cultural appropriation discussion, with his white American counterpart whose grandparents hail from Poland and who donates most of her tour’s net revenue to worthy Oaxacan charitable causes? Which one of the Mexican as compared to the foreigner, is appropriating from a somewhat indigenous culture? To what extent does or should motivation impact one’s answer?
Cultural appropriation in the mezcal industry can and does benefit indigenous communities, to varying degrees. Let’s asume that Del Maguey and Pierde Almas were guilty of cultural appropriation because they were (and perhaps to some extent still are) owned by whites with no indigenous blood. Were it not for those two and other “foreign owned” brands, other more recently constituted brands owned by Oaxacans with indigenous blood and from rural communities, perhaps would never have begun. True, inventions can occur independent of one another in the same era and geographical location, based on economic and other global circumstances. But not necessarily so. The issue might then be, are the two foreign owned brands doing more for villagers than those owned by indigenous Mexicans.
Whites born and raised outside of Mexico now living in Oaxaca, in the mezcal industry, yes have felt that undercurrent which alleges that they are misappropriating local culture to their own. Is it warranted? Not unless the troll, the accuser, has done his due diligence, knows the purported usurper and his motivation, background, and the implications of the conduct. There are very few in the industry who are capitalists to the nth degree, without a scintila of altruism. Even those who fit into that category, without knowing it are benefiting the mezcal industry, the communities growing it, Oaxaca, and Mexico. Once the foregoing has been carefully weighed, perhaps then, and only then, is it appropriate to opine regarding cultural appropriation in the Oaxaca mezcal industry. And, it should be done so within the context of a continuum. For me, I’ll defer further comment and reaching of conclusións pending completion of my anthropological and legal research.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).
There are parts of the state of Oaxaca where agave has been distilled for hundreds of years if not longer, in which the populace has not been impacted one scintilla by the mezcal boom. It is so much so that espadín has only been under cultivation since about 2007. And there, still today, in the Mixteca Alta region of the district of Zaachila, the specie is only single distilled. Residents don’t even call their spirit mezcal, but rather recicado. Can its origins date to the pre-Hispanic era?
The hamlet of Pueblo Viejo is a five hour drive from the city of Oaxaca, the last hour of which traversing a seriously potholed dirt road which follows a stream known as Rio Azucena. The Sánchez Cisneros family lives there. They bake the agave (angustifolia) in a traditional in-ground pit over firewood and rocks. Then they pulverize it by hand using a tree burl to mash and a makeshift wooden trough as a receptacle, ferment it in an animal hide hanging between four posts extending to about four feet off the ground, and finally distill, only once, in a most rudimentary mud and stone still. The result is recicado. The name is said to be derived from a Mixteco root.
I had read an article about the region’s recicado in a Oaxacan daily, so decided to go there for an adventure, with a good friend. The fact that the journalist of the piece at no point mentioned the quality of the spirit should have been a hint as to what we would encounter. The gist of the article was that these means of production and tools of the trade perhaps take us back to the origins of agave distillation in Oaxaca. That reason in and of itself made it a worthwhile experience for two mezcal aficionados; just to be able to track down a family of distillers, chat, and ponder; it all appeared much more “primitive” and rustic than what one encounters in Sola de Vega, Santa Catarina Minas, and other towns in the orbit of Oaxaca’s central valleys which are known for clay pot agave distillation.
At the time of the visit, Hilda Sánchez Cisneros was 19 and living with her older sister, Natividad, and four of Natividad’s six children. The other two were living and working in the countryside of North Carolina. Fernando, Natividad’s husband, was away the day we arrived, doing community service (tequio). Their son Esteban, and daughter Dália are fully trilingual, because they and their mother spent several years living in the US and they had an opportunity to attend American public school. But here they were eking out the most modest of existences, producing recicado for Friday sale in the San Juan Mixtepec weekly marketplace.
The family was also subsisting by growing squash, corn and beans. It was clear that fowl and other meats were not staples in their diet, rather typical for many families in the most rural communities in Oaxaca.
Rio Azucena is an occasional provider, supplying local families with small fish at certain times of the year. And then there is rabbit, squirrel, possum, and fox. “I know that city folk won’t eat small animals like squirrel and possum,” Natividad explained, “but we do up here, when we can get it, and it’s actually quite good.” Esteban proudly added that occasionally you can also come across coyote and wolf, but more often than not it’s only found higher up in the mountains.
Hilda and Natividad learned to distill from their parents and grandparents. Neither recalls how or from whom the older generations learned. Until recently the plants used in production were strictly wild varieties of agave, likely tepeztate (Agave marmorata) and tobalá (Agave potatorum) that had to be collected by climbing the hillsides. Then about a dozen years ago Fernando went to Santiago Matatlán, the purported world capital of mezcal, and brought back a number of baby agave espadín (Agave angustifolia Haw). The family was then, for the first time, able to grow its own agave in this fertile yet sparsely populated valley. But the degree of knowledge of family members concerning scientific process and function, seemed to be lacking, or rather basic. Alternatively, economic circumstances and/or acceptance by fellow villagers of the quality of spirit produced, may have been the principal factors dictating how they made their recicado.
The family had never considered leaving their espadín in the field for the quiote to appear, and then either harvesting and germinate the seeds, or letting nature take its course and awaiting crosspollination of the flowers on the stalk and subsequent transformation into baby agaves (maguey de quiote) for planting. Instead, they relied on the pups (hijuelos) which grow from the mother plant, that is, clones with no genetic diversity. Similarly they had never castrated the quiote upon its first appearance so as to let the carbohydrates concentrate in the piñas. None of their practices were optimum for agave reproduction, nor for achieving the best yield (number of kilos of piña required to produce a liter of mezcal).
Distillation takes place in an area sheltered by laminated metal roofing, located 20 yards from the home. The family employs four virtually identical igloo shaped stills, aligned in a straight row. The housings are fashioned from stone and mud. Beginning from the bottom, for each still the opening where firewood is placed contains a tubular stone which supports a clay pot into which the fermented juices and fiber are placed. Vapor rises from it through a somewhat pear-shaped clay cylinder in which a piece of agave leaf rests on a piece of corn stalk. A laminated metal condenser is sealed to the top of the cylinder with mud, waste agave fiber (bagazo) and corn husk.
Water from a halved and hollowed out tree trunk runs above the stills, and fills each of the four condensers through concave pieces of agave leaf leading from four exit holes in the canal above. The boiling “tepache” causes steam to rise through the clay cylinder, condensing as it hits the bottom of the laminate. Liquid drips onto that other piece of agave leaf dangling in the middle of the cylinder and pointing downward, the narrow end inserted into a length of hollowed river reed (carrizo) inserted into the cylinder through a hole in it. The liquid exits the vessel through the carrizo and into an urn.
The process and some of the equipment do mirror, to an extent, what one encounters in villages such as Sola de Vega and Santa Catarina Minas. But key elements are lacking, no doubt reflected in the quality of the spirit:
The result is a relatively low alcohol content watery distillate, almost sour to the taste. Yet the local populace buys it and drinks it, and pays about double the price it costs to acquire traditional 45 - 50 percent alcohol by volume double distilled mezcal produced in and around the central valleys of the city of Oaxaca. To be sure, I did try the recicado produced by a competitor up the road, and found it to be only marginally less displeasing.
On my return visit to Pueblo Viejo, I intend to bring two or three liters of my favorite mezcales for the Sánchez Cisneros family to sample. The hope is that Fernando, Natividad and Hilda will embrace the opportunity to experiment with production, and conceivably begin to distill a spirit more acceptable to the palate, at least mine. Then who knows, the family may even begin to market it as mezcal, leaving recicado to die a slow, and perhaps even welcomed death.
However it is suggested that care should be taken to not disrupt the basic means and materials currently used in production. Should those of us not Mexican by birth, or even Oaxacans with some degree of indigeneity, impose anything of the sort on the residents of Pueblo Viejo? Or should we be assisting them in improving their economic lot if not the quality of their agave distillate? A visit under current conditions of course holds a strong attraction for the enthusiast willing to make the trek to Pueblo Viejo. But more importantly, it can be argued that the means of production and tools of the trade must remain for time immemorial, to bear witness to the proposition that spirits distillation perhaps developed in the Mixteca Alta region of Oaxaca prior to the Conquest or other foreign influence.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (http://www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). He is much more than an aficionado. Inquire about his qualifications and for unsolicited testimonials.
Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
About a decade ago, beginning in the wake of the 2008/9 US economic crisis, the pattern of migration between the United States and the state of Oaxaca got turned on its head. To a significant extent it was because of the initial stages of the global mezcal boom.
Depending upon which statistic one reads, Oaxaca is either the poorest, or the second poorest state in all Mexico next to Chiapas. We have agriculture, and we have tourism. While export of mangos, black beans, tomatoes and all the rest have been a relative constant over the years, tourism has not; and the state has relied on beach going and culture seeking visitors for much of its economic fortune.
Tourists from diverse corners of the globe would flock to Oaxaca for its Pacific sun and sand, cuisine, craft villages, archaeological sites, colonial architecture and quaintness. But they would stop coming, especially from the US due to State Department warnings and journalistic sensationalism, at the drop of a dime: the (Mexican) swine flu epidemic, the 2006 Oaxacan civil unrest, drug cartel activity no matter where in the country, zika, and the list goes on. Prospective visitors would eventually forget and again select the state for vacationing … until the next scare; tourism’s economic impact was characterized by peaks and valleys.
To address this schizophrenia, Oaxacans, both skilled and otherwise, would leave the state, emigrating in search of the American dream, or simply relocating to Mexico City or other large commercial centers where work was always available. The former is elusive, and it became especially so when a decade ago both Americans and migrants began either losing their jobs or some of their week’s hours. It grew to be much more difficult for Mexicans to get by, let alone remit money home to family in Oaxaca.
Enter the bold new era of mezcal. Over the past several years, both its production and the agave spirit’s popularity on the world state, have literally been increasing exponentially. Statistics bear this out.
Reverse migration has addressed the first prong of the phenomenon, in part due to the American economic crisis. That is, Oaxacans who were losing their jobs in the US began returning to their rural homesteads to help their relatives make mezcal. In earlier times they were leaving towns and villages and they headed north, in droves. Now, with no or less work than before, they were coming home, and for good reason given the spike in production and sales of the agave distillate.
I personally know of three cases in the hinterland of Oaxaca where immigration into the US has changed to emigration back to Oaxaca; in Santiago Matalán, in San Dionisio Ocotepec, and in San Pablo Güilá. In two cases the direct motivation was to help the family produce mezcal for both domestic consumption and export since these Oaxacans were in need of good reliable labor. In the third case it involved a construction worker who in his youth learned to make mezcal in Oaxaca. He then lived in California as a laborer for 20 years, and now had an opportunity to return home and build and work at his very own traditional distillery, and construct a home.
Oaxacans in the lower classes and rural areas have always imbibed the spirit. But a new phenomenon began around the beginning of this decade, with middle class urbanites all of a sudden jumping on the bandwagon. It was the early stages of the boom in the US which has given Mexicans a sense of pride in mezcal, as a quality sipping spirit much like a good bourbon or single malt scotch, rather than as a gut wrenching way to get drunk quickly. Remember those college years?
Now, mezcal is respected globally, and there is increasing worldwide demand for it. So more mezcal is being distilled for both national and international markets. And, with this popularity has come an influx of visitors; to learn about it either to increase personal knowledge or with a view to opening a mezcalería in their home cities, to film and photograph it for business purposes, to sample and buy it out of pure passion for the spirit, and to begin their own brands for export.
These pilgrims, from as far away as Australia, are not as deterred as the normal tourist by what their governments and media warn. Mezcal tourism is a constant, and growing.
The actual production of mezcal is both causing the return of Oaxacans to their homeland as indicated, and keeping Oaxacans here. However there is more; while the motivation of many travelers for visiting Oaxaca is for mezcal (i.e. learning, documenting and of course buying), the spirit is actually having a much broader positive impact on the state. That is, when visitors come for mezcal, they also buy crafts, take cooking classes, dine in restaurants, stay in hotels, visit archaeological sites, and the list goes on, and on, and on. The dramatic impact is that emigration from the state is either halted, or at minimum significantly curtailed. And this keeps families together, in all walks of life.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). He has been witnessing the metamorphosis from the beginning.
The mezcal industry’s upward trajectory appears unstoppable, especially given the global reach of the multi-nationals. Over the past few years they have been buying up quality brands of ancestral and artesanal mezcal. And so the potential is there, for industry growth. But you know what they say about one bad apple.
¨Heroes and Villains, Just see what you’ve done” was the refrain of the 1967 The Beach Boys song. Now while I’m neither, though some might disagree, Mexico’s burgeoning non-tequila agave distillate business contains representatives of both; too many of the latter. But even one person is more than we want, especially since this mezcal industry’s star is still rising, and the rogues and reprobates among us can bring it to a crashing halt.
In May, 2019, I was interviewed by a media type working on a piece about recent changes in the mezcal trade as a consequence of increased commercialization. We spoke about the extent of the likelihood for change in quality and pricing structure; the former going down, and the latter up. It would seem that every step a brand takes towards industrializing the means of production and tools of the trade in the manufacture of its mezcal inevitably reduces quality. I’ve seen it happen. I have tasted the difference in a product distilled by a palenquero 15 years ago, and then today the purportedly same mezcal. He yielded to pressure from the brand owner to produce more, quicker. And over the past five years I have noticed known brands reducing their ABV as a means of lowering cost, and new, start-up brands flogging their juice at 37 – 40 percent --- simply not what traditional mezcal is all about.
Fair enough. We do live in a capitalist society, with “let the buyer beware.” But we also have consumer protection laws (though here in Mexico I would suggest their enforcement is questionable). But they are not designed to address the issue about which I am writing.
As a general statement there’s nothing wrong with lowering quality and/or ABV, since you get what you pay for. That is, sometimes! And it is the qualifier which brings me back to that interview, and a more pressing reason for this discourse.
The interviewer began to relay a story to me, about interaction he had had with a bilingual (Spanish/English) Mexican who regularly flogs mezcal he bottles under his own label, made by traditional distillers, in the US. The carpetbagger, as I would term the interviewee, at one point began to talk about selling a bottle of mezcal for $1,000 USD, presumably premium, and 750 ml. He said something to the effect of “if a dumb American is willing to pay me a thousand dollars for a bottle of mezcal, then I’ll sell it to him.” Can you reasonably call the guy anything other than a carpetbagger, except perhaps a scoundrel? To be clear, he wasn’t referring to a mezcal made with jabalí, aged ten years in a bourbon barrel, then marketed in a hand blown glass bottle with a hand blown glass agave inside.
In this early era of mezcal, that is, referencing its modern age which dates to no earlier than the mid 1990s, such an attitude and behavior is wrong. It does harm to the growth of the industry. At this point in time in the meteoric upsurge in the popularity of agave distillates (aside from tequila), should we allow capitalism and entrepreneurialism to be acceptable and just let it run rampant, or should we be doing all we can to stamp out this type of activity, and more importantly attitude?
You can take what the market will bear. For example retailing a bottle of specialty pechuga in Washington state for $400 USD. In that case the price eventually came down, likely because the market simply did not support that price. However the particular product did create a buzz, and still does today, so that’s fine. Charging high prices for novelty items like pechugas made with ham, iguana, deer, turkey breast, and yes rabbit, is fine; as long as they are truly unique and exceptional to the palate of the purchase; and the brand owner’s motivation is not simply getting as much as he can for the product. (As an aside, in my humble opinion the protein is quite often used not for imparting a particular aroma, taste and texture, but rather utilized for marketing purposes. If you distil with a chicken breast and a dozen different fruits, spices and herbs, how much is the meat relative to the other ingredients altering the end product?)
There is a good chance that the spirits aficionado who buys a $1000 USD bottle of mezcal, will go back to his Talisker 57 or Lagavulin 16 year old single malt scotch, and be done with mezcal. And that’s something we simply don’t want. You can stick it to him once, but no more. We want to continue to grow the mezcal market with at least some semblance of fair trade, for the benefit of us all; at least most of us. Shame on Sr. X … and every person in the mezcal industry anything like him. As Lynyrd Skynyrd sang, “does your conscience bother you?”
Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Can Orthodox Jews confidently drink a traditionally made agave distillate, specifically mezcal, purported to be kosher via kashrut certification, and truly be assured that it is pareve (neutral) or otherwise drinkable? Should they be concerned regarding imbibing Mexico’s increasingly popular spirit despite the label designating the contents of the bottle as COR, U, KA-Kosher, K, or another way of identifying the drink as kosher? Is there another way of satisfying oneself that mezcal is drink-worthy by biblical standards?
A palenquero in a Oaxacan field is harvesting agave espadín destined to be distilled into kosher mezcal. He comes across a rattler or coral snake. Can he kill the snake with the machete he is using to cut the pencas off the maguey? I’m far from a Talmudic scholar or an Orthodox Jew, and I don’t even keep a kosher home, but I have been around the production of agave distillates in southern Mexico for more than a quarter century, so the question intrigues me. More importantly it leads to the broader issue of the extent to which traditionally made mezcal, labeled as kosher, actually complies with biblical dictates.
It is suggested that perhaps the only really kosher mezcals, regardless of what’s stated on the label, are the most industrialized products in the marketplace, or from the most traditional smallest scale production. The latter would never find its way out of Mexico based on economies of scale. The corollary is that if the orthodox Jewish imbiber wants to drink artesanal or ancestral mezcal, he may not be enjoying what the Law of Moses suggests is the only spirit he should be ingesting. It is submitted that rabbis, directors and employees of kosher certification boards, as well as owners of kosher mezcal brands and their palenqueros, have a vested interest in assuring the public that kosher means Stricly Kosher in compliance with accepted standards. Admittedly I’ve become more of a skeptic while a permanent resident of Oaxaca, and so interviews with any of the foregoing people regarding practices and procedures doesn’t satisfy my curiosity nor allay my trepidation.
The rabbinical certification of food to make it kosher involves ascertaining that the food (or drink) has no ingredients or processes forbidden by Jewish law. Nothing anyone can say or do, including a rabbi, can make non-kosher food kosher. There are organizations which monitor process, from the initial production stages to mezcal being packaged and ready to go on the shelf of the retailer. The organization is then able to certify something as Kosher, with its icon clearly identifiable on a label. But every organization has its own standards, and not all Orthodox Jews accept every board’s seal of (kosher) approval. In virtually every religion where there is ancient text, different groups, sects and individuals interpret some words, phrases and chapters, differently. So right off the bat we have the makings of a concern, for me an issue when it comes to passing judgment upon what is kosher. If you are Orthodox, perhaps no mezcal should be deemed Kosher. In any event, it is suggested that only a tiny fraction of the approximately 22% of American Jews who follow a kosher diet, would be uneasy if their spirits are Certified Kosher.
The agave, a succulent, is, in and of itself, pareve. It’s not meat, and it’s not dairy; nor has it ever swam, hopped, flown or slithered. But what does happen to agave and with what it comes into contact in the process of becoming mezcal, in the lion’s share of cases takes it out of the category of being Kosher. Or does it?
Most of what can and what should never be consumed, and in what and when, is contained in Deuteronomy Chapter 14, and Leviticus Chapter 11. Different books in The Torah cover other related matters as will be explained further along. The former chapter is more comprehensive and subsumes the latter, and so is reproduced here in its entirety, for the sake of completeness, and to illustrate the breadth of The Law:
Leviticus 11 King James Version (KJV)
11 And the Lord spake unto Moses and to Aaron, saying unto them,
2 Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, These are the beasts which ye shall eat among all the beasts that are on the earth.
3 Whatsoever parteth the hoof, and is clovenfooted, and cheweth the cud, among the beasts, that shall ye eat.
4 Nevertheless these shall ye not eat of them that chew the cud, or of them that divide the hoof: as the camel, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you.
5 And the coney, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you.
6 And the hare, because he cheweth the cud, but divideth not the hoof; he is unclean unto you.
7 And the swine, though he divide the hoof, and be clovenfooted, yet he cheweth not the cud; he is unclean to you.
8 Of their flesh shall ye not eat, and their carcase shall ye not touch; they are unclean to you.
9 These shall ye eat of all that are in the waters: whatsoever hath fins and scales in the waters, in the seas, and in the rivers, them shall ye eat.
10 And all that have not fins and scales in the seas, and in the rivers, of all that move in the waters, and of any living thing which is in the waters, they shall be an abomination unto you:
11 They shall be even an abomination unto you; ye shall not eat of their flesh, but ye shall have their carcases in abomination.
12 Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you.
13 And these are they which ye shall have in abomination among the fowls; they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle, and the ossifrage, and the ospray,
14 And the vulture, and the kite after his kind;
15 Every raven after his kind;
16 And the owl, and the night hawk, and the cuckow, and the hawk after his kind,
17 And the little owl, and the cormorant, and the great owl,
18 And the swan, and the pelican, and the gier eagle,
19 And the stork, the heron after her kind, and the lapwing, and the bat.
20 All fowls that creep, going upon all four, shall be an abomination unto you.
21 Yet these may ye eat of every flying creeping thing that goeth upon all four, which have legs above their feet, to leap withal upon the earth;
22 Even these of them ye may eat; the locust after his kind, and the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind, and the grasshopper after his kind.
23 But all other flying creeping things, which have four feet, shall be an abomination unto you.
24 And for these ye shall be unclean: whosoever toucheth the carcase of them shall be unclean until the even.
25 And whosoever beareth ought of the carcase of them shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even.
26 The carcases of every beast which divideth the hoof, and is not clovenfooted, nor cheweth the cud, are unclean unto you: every one that toucheth them shall be unclean.
27 And whatsoever goeth upon his paws, among all manner of beasts that go on all four, those are unclean unto you: whoso toucheth their carcase shall be unclean until the even.
28 And he that beareth the carcase of them shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even: they are unclean unto you.
29 These also shall be unclean unto you among the creeping things that creep upon the earth; the weasel, and the mouse, and the tortoise after his kind,
30 And the ferret, and the chameleon, and the lizard, and the snail, and the mole.
31 These are unclean to you among all that creep: whosoever doth touch them, when they be dead, shall be unclean until the even.
32 And upon whatsoever any of them, when they are dead, doth fall, it shall be unclean; whether it be any vessel of wood, or raiment, or skin, or sack, whatsoever vessel it be, wherein any work is done, it must be put into water, and it shall be unclean until the even; so it shall be cleansed.
33 And every earthen vessel, whereinto any of them falleth, whatsoever is in it shall be unclean; and ye shall break it.
34 Of all meat which may be eaten, that on which such water cometh shall be unclean: and all drink that may be drunk in every such vessel shall be unclean.
35 And every thing whereupon any part of their carcase falleth shall be unclean; whether it be oven, or ranges for pots, they shall be broken down: for they are unclean and shall be unclean unto you.
36 Nevertheless a fountain or pit, wherein there is plenty of water, shall be clean: but that which toucheth their carcase shall be unclean.
37 And if any part of their carcase fall upon any sowing seed which is to be sown, it shall be clean.
38 But if any water be put upon the seed, and any part of their carcase fall thereon, it shall be unclean unto you.
39 And if any beast, of which ye may eat, die; he that toucheth the carcase thereof shall be unclean until the even.
40 And he that eateth of the carcase of it shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even: he also that beareth the carcase of it shall wash his clothes, and be unclean until the even.
41 And every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth shall be an abomination; it shall not be eaten.
42 Whatsoever goeth upon the belly, and whatsoever goeth upon all four, or whatsoever hath more feet among all creeping things that creep upon the earth, them ye shall not eat; for they are an abomination.
43 Ye shall not make yourselves abominable with any creeping thing that creepeth, neither shall ye make yourselves unclean with them, that ye should be defiled thereby.
44 For I am the Lord your God: ye shall therefore sanctify yourselves, and ye shall be holy; for I am holy: neither shall ye defile yourselves with any manner of creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
45 For I am the Lord that bringeth you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.
46 This is the law of the beasts, and of the fowl, and of every living creature that moveth in the waters, and of every creature that creepeth upon the earth:
47 To make a difference between the unclean and the clean, and between the beast that may be eaten and the beast that may not be eaten.
Aside from some of the standard prohibitions of which virtually all Jews and most non-Jews are aware (i.e. against pork and seafood), the chapter reproduced also includes additional rules which are particularly pertinent to the thesis herein, regarding:
From the outset, that is planting agave, there is an issue, even assuming that the seed, pup or hijuelo transplanted into a furrow where it will remain for the better part of a decade, is kosher. When the small maguey is sown, the more industrialized operations may spray a bit of insecticide in each hole to assure no immediate infestation. Traditional campesino growers, and palenqueros producing artesanal or ancestral mezcal, likely will not. There is a reasonable likelihood that flying insect and/or larvae infestation (i.e. the slithering gusanos), both un-kosher, will begin to interact with the piñas grown by traditional means. If a home remedy 100% natural insecticide is employed, do we have to examine the kosherness of the ingredients used to make it (i.e. how the garlic, the chiles and all the rest have been produced)?
The foregoing suggests that, contrary to some lay belief, there is not a relationship between on the one hand Kosher, and on the other certified organic, 100% natural, etc. Furthermore, the industrial mezcal (labelled by CRM dictates as simply mezcal, as opposed to artesanal or ancestral) which present-day mezcal aficionados loathe, is more likely than the others to comply with biblical standards. Traditionally produced mezcal indeed may approximate organic or natural standards, but tends to be further removed from the ambit of Kosher, right from the beginning.
Taking The Bible literally, perhaps the only truly kosher mezcals are those produced in the most industrialized plants. Sterility is maintained using stainless steel, versus clay or copper, diesel versus ant infested firewood, bleach versus cola for cleaning floors of concrete as opposed to dirt, and exacting particular tools designed for each specific task, versus our machete used to both cut agave and kill that (prohibited) snake. Nary a forbidden fly is found in such facilities. Of course this is the furthest removed from factories of biblical times (or its subsequent composition).
Means of production and tools of the trade in agave distillate manufacture lie along a continuum. It is suggested that, regardless of Kosher certification, in some respects the closer one moves towards the traditional mezcal production axis (coveted by many, and assumed to be more organic and natural), the less likely the spirit complies with strict biblical standards. Yet in other respects this doesn’t hold wáter. If we move to the absolute smallest scale of production, the palenquero controls everything, from planting through to bottling. It’s his own agave, harvested from the quiote or transplanted from clones. He simply cannot afford Kosher certification and his production is extremely limited, though he has the ability to be the utmost vigilant. By contrast, those who produce Kosher mezcal may state that they examine every piña to ensure no gusanos have infested. But can we really take at face value their assurances? They are successful business people. They, as most who now produce mezcal for export and many who do not, purchase piñas from growers, by the lot or three ton truckload. Will they discard every piña where they see a gusano? And what about the piñas where the existence of gusanos cannot be readily detected? The non-Jewish grower just wants to ensure that he gets his fair price, infested or not.
Ants, and well as other creepy crawlers and flyers often infest the logs used to bake agave traditionally in that conical shaped below-ground airtight chamber. They are surely impacting the flavor and character of those pristine piñas. Is that permisible based on biblical dictates?
The Old Testament would appear to approve of crushing the baked sweet agave by hand, provided the machete used to chop the maguey hearts has not come into contact with anything un-kosher such as the ants when it was used to cut the firewood, and again that coral snake. The wooden mallet of course must be free of infestation. The rule regarding utensils is that those which have come into contact with non-kosher food may not be used with kosher food. This applies only where the contact occurred while the food was hot. How hot out does it have to be for a campesino harvesting agave with his machete, to kill a rattler then continue his harvest, and in good faith be able to maintain that his tool has remained “clean” throughout the day?
But when it comes to crushing traditionally, using a beast of burden, the Bible provides a complete code of conduct, regarding treatment of animals. Chapters in Books such as Genesis, Exodus, Proverbs, Samuel, Deuteronomy and Leviticus instruct, as does The Talmud. Jewish law prohibits causing unnecessary suffering or cruelty to animals. In many cases they are afforded the same sensitivity as human beings. They can be used to satisfy legitimate needs, like food for sustenance and clothing, and even within these contexts we must use and kill using the least painful way possible. Deuteronomy is specific in forbidding the muzzling of an ox to prevent it from eating while it is working in the field.
Now to the extent that The Bible accords animals the same rights as humans (i.e. resting on the Sabbath), palenquero compliance should not be problematic. However, can mezcal be considered Kosher at all if a horse, mule or team of oxen is used to mash the agave? After all, alcohol consumption does not satisfy legitimate needs, although a reasonably argument can be made for drinking wine on Friday evenings and otherwise at Sabbath. This takes us along the industrialization área of our continuum, where machinery is used for crushing and extracting the sweet agave juice. Even if we deem consumption of spirits as a legitimate need, horses are typically muzzled when crushing agave, so as to reduce the likelihood of them constantly having their heads down in an effort to consume that enticing caramelly maguey.
You can ferment in any receptable. Industrially produced mezcal employs stainless steel, which presumably is not problematic. In and around the central valleys of Oaxaca, the traditional vat is roughly 1000 liters and made of oak or pine. Pine can more easily become infested. How does one prevent that from happening? Cedar is not typically used, but perhaps it should be. Depending on the time of year of fermentation, variously bees, flies and knats buzz around the containers, nourishing themselves by feeding off of the sweet agave which has had wáter added. Yes, one can prevent that by using a metal mesh cover. Has the vendor of that piece of equipment been eating pork just prior to lifting it off of his truck?
Can non-Jews even make mezcal? Wine made by non-Jews is prohibited. For agave distillates, assuming at face value they can be certified Kosher, which individuals in the production chain have to be Jewish, and how devout? I’ve never seen a campesino harvest agave in a field while wearing a yarmulka. Wine must be made by Jews because there is a restriction against using products of idolatry. Wine was regularly sanctified for pagan purposes while it was being processed, and thus the prohibition. Should the rule apply to only wine, since mezcal, just as wine, is an intoxicant? Talmudic scholars have debated the suggestion that wine should be no different than whisky, rum and other non-grape based spirits. Further discussion on the issue is beyond the purview of this essay.
Taking any ancient religious text literally is dangerous. When The Bible was written there were no exacting standards. Sanitation and cleanliness were nowhere near where they are today. We pick and choose what suits us. It is not suggested that you should only drink industrially produced mezcal, but rather that that class of agave distillate more closely approximates what the drafters of The Bible had in mind. Satisfy yourself as a devout Jew, that the processes employed in producing your favourite artesanal or ancestral mezcal, meet your personal standards as you extrapolite them from Torah.
Recall the continuum. Kosherness comes in degrees, as is evidenced by the fact that some Jews opt for trusting in one Kosher certification board versus the other. The system of defining which foods are kosher was developed by the rabbis of late antiquity, hundreds of years ago. Given that the word “kosher” means fit or appropriate in Hebrew, perhaps as long as one is confident of sanitary standards, and the treatment of any animal used in the process, that should weight more importantly than that little logo on the can of tuna, or bottle of mezcal. Cleanliness is essentially irrelevant since we are dealing with a distillate. Know your palenquero, visit his palenque to assure yourself of his treatment of any beast of burden used in production, and don’t sweat the rest. Conduct your own rabbinic supervisión (remember that no blessing is required to consider anything Kosher) and drink up: cheers, salud, and l’chaim.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.alvinstarkman.com). His sources researched and quoted are:
Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Over the past dozen years I have played a part in the development of a number of brands of mezcal distilled in Oaxaca; for the domestic Mexican market, but mainly for export to the US, South Africa, Germany, the UK and Italy, with projects currently underway for additional US trademarks as well as for Canada and Australia. Some are a source of pride, while others of discomfiture, the latter not necessarily based on quality of product since some are pretty good. However I suggest that since traditionally made mezcal (both ancestral and artisanal) inevitably varies from batch to batch, simple tasting notes in any event are not always very helpful in assisting consumers on a buying quest. And conversely, the brands which have provided me with the greatest gratification do not always produce mezcal to my personal liking. It is for additional reasons that these particular mezcals and agave distillates are worth of being honored. They include Nacional, Atenco, Corte Vetusto, 5 Sentidos, Dangerous Don and Cuentacuentos. There are others, but not all clients keep me updated after the principal job I have been retained to do has been completed.
My involvement has run the gamut and includes:
No, all is not rosy nor altruistic in the Oaxacan mezcal business. I am fortunate enough to be in a position to pick and choose with whom I want to work, and which brands and their reps to expose (though never in writing) for what they are and represent based on my intimate knowledge of and relationships with their owners. Not to overly dwell on the negative, it is important that the buying public at least be aware of some of the issues and undersides out there which I have personally encountered:
Regarding the final point above, how much can that brand owner be paying his palenquero if his mezcal in an American marketplace costs $30 USD a bottle? Consider the costs associated with transportation, warehousing, taxation, agency representation, together with the profit the retailer must earn. Yet the entrepreneur is still making a sufficient enough profit so as to enable him to live a middle class lifestyle. Yes, everyone is entitled. But no, we don’t have to support it.
That’s more than enough of the negative. And yes we live in a capitalist society. But in the agave spirits industry the concept of fair trade, if it exists at all, is in its infancy. However there are brand owners who indeed practice it without fanfare.
Only time will tell if the trademarks named above will meet with significant success the likes of Vago, Del Maguey, Alipus, and the rest. But I’m extremely pleased with what they have done, and the route they have followed. I have been honored to have worked with them, and some continuing to date, each for different reasons which include:
Each has other significantly positive attributes, including the actual agave spirit’s character, with differing broad taste profile, nose, and finish. The product is one thing, but the comprehensive corporate philosophy is another, for me perhaps more important than price and the contents of the bottle. To my knowledge none of the brands enumerated falls prey to the six negatives noted above. Each is worthy of becoming even more efficacious than is currently the case.
How do you evaluate success in the business of branding and marketing agave spirits produced in Oaxaca? For me it’s quite different than perhaps for the brand owners. For me it’s:
Finally, it’s the yearning of many to revisit Oaxaca. In turn, those who make a return pilgrimage will inspire others. Whether or not any of those six brand owners realize it, what they are doing for the industry and Oaxaca is significant, far beyond and much more important than any degree of financial success which comes their way.
True, the brands owned by financially triumphant industry scallywags inevitably at least to a limited extent aid Oaxacan communities and the broader economy. That’s the positive. I still have a scintilla of faith in humanity, at least to the extent that eventually the chickens come home to roost, and thus in due course the good in the business will thrive, and those not deserving will falter. If only the world really worked like that. I’m embarrassed to have aided some brands which I shall not name, the owners of which now enjoy significant success in small part through my tutelage; and I am similarly embarrassed that other mezcal brands have floundered; I can lead their owners to water, but can do no more. Thankfully this club of six appears on its way to continued accomplishment, both in terms of maintaining viable businesses, aiding the industry and Oaxaca through spreading the good word about mezcal, and enticing those who appreciate quality spirits.
Alvin Starkman has an M.A. in social anthropology, and a J.D. from Osgoode Hall Law School. He owns and operates Mezcal Educational Tours of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).