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.