Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Though his eyesight and hearing were failing, Isaac Jiménez’s memory was still sharp. One afternoon in 2012, at his homestead in Santiago Matatlán, the self-proclaimed world capital of mezcal, ninety-two year old Don Isaac reminisced while rocking back and forth in his favorite rickety old wooden chair: “When you ask me about the origins of mezcal de pechuga, I can’t take you back any further than about 1930,” he apologetically confesses, then continues; “that’s when Ramón Sánchez arrived with his family in Matatlán.”
Mezcal, of course, is Mexico’s iconic agave-based spirit, distilled in many regions throughout the country. The southern state of Oaxaca is where most is produced. Traditionally, a ton or more carbohydrate rich hearts or piñas of the plant are baked in a sealed, in-ground oven over firewood and rocks, following which, now hopefully sweet as sugar, they are crushed using a beast of burden or by hand using a wooden mallet, then naturally fermented using environmental years and the addition of only water, before being distilled in copper pot stills or alembics, or clay pot arrangements. There are innumerable means of production and tools of the trade, but the foregoing summarizes the basics.
My effort to learn about the history of mezcal de pechuga, and to a lesser extent catalogue variations of its recipe, lead me to Don Isaac, whose grandfather arrived in Matatlán in 1870. Doubtless, there are several myths and legends regarding its origin, at least as many as exist regarding the first time a Oaxacan infused mezcal with “the worm;” a larva known as gusano.
Those under the impression that mezcal de pechuga contains only the essence of chicken breast, which when raw has been suspended inside a still over which steam produced from fermented baked agave has passed, know only part of the story. Formulations, more in the nature of recipes, may call for wild turkey (guajolote) breast or whole cleaned fowl, rabbit leg, deer or iguana meat, or no protein at all, in either case with or without fruit and / or herbs and spices integrated into the distillation process.
Pechuga’s First Appearance in Santiago Matatlán
“I was about 10 years old, so it must have been around 1930 when a palenquero named Ramón Sánchez put down roots in town, apparently coming from Río Seco, or at least that’s what he told everyone,” recalled Don Isaac. At that time Río Seco would have been days away from Matalán by foot or riding a mule or horse. It’s near the junction of what are now the districts of Tlacolula, Ejutla and Miahuatlán. Each of the three is known as agave growing country. And so residents of Río Seco made mezcal.
“Then in 1938, a fellow by the name of Chuy Rasgado came to Matatlán,” Don Isaac continued. “One day he showed up at a local hacienda where I was playing with my band-mates.” In Oaxaca, as in other parts of Mexico, there has been a longstanding tradition of playing band, woodwind and percussion instruments, proficiency beginning at a young age. The youthful Isaac learned to play alto saxophone, eventually becoming a member of a band. He and his fellow musicians occasionally played at a well-known hacienda which was owned by a family of Spanish aristocrats.
The day that Rasgado attended at the hacienda he had no instrument in hand. But he asked if he could hang out with Isaac and his fellow musicians and somehow contribute. The band rejected the overture since at that time there was no indication as to how he could help. Eventually, after subsequent failed attempts to integrate into broader Matatlán, Rasgado disappeared.
One morning Isaac and his mother, Felipa Arrazola, travelled to San Pablo Mitla to buy provisions. They came across Rasgado. Since Isaac had now become an accepted part of the region’s music scene, and the two had to stay in Mitla for at least an overnight because of the distance they had to travel to get there, it was easy for him and his mother to find lodging. That first evening Isaac and his mother by chance encountered Rasgado drinking in a cantina and playing music; but not just any music. He was playing bottles; glass bottles of different sizes, shapes and neck openings, thus yielding different tones. He used both his breath and a makeshift drumstick to create different sounds. He was playing melodies reminiscent of the music of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, near Oaxaca’s Pacific coast.
At the end of the set Isaac and his mother seized the opportunity to speak to Rasgado, Isaac now clearly humbled by someone it had become clear to him was a true, multi-facet talent whom he and the other band members had rejected weeks earlier. At the time Isaac was learning how to read music. In the course of discussion with Rasgado Isaac realized that he was in the company of a true maestro, a musician who played more than just bottles. Isaac recognized that an opportunity existed for him to further his own musical skills while at the same time have someone in town, Matatlán that is, who could tutor others. Rasgado accepted the invitation to return to Matatlán, and there began to teach and to play, not only bottles, but also guitar, trumpet, sax and a couple of other traditional instruments.
Ramón Sánchez, that palenquero purportedly from Río Seco, quickly learned about Chuy Rasgado and the work he was doing within the Matatlán community of musicians. He decided to throw a special reception in his honor. During the festivities Sánchez presented Rasgado with a large bottle of mezcal de pechuga. Others at the event also imbibed the pechuga, many for the first time. Prior to this occasion, while Sánchez had shared his pechuga with some, no one really took notice of the unique flavor nuance, and if they did they didn’t ask about it. The cat was out of the bag, and mezcal de pechuga was born, at least for broad public consumption and in this region. Perhaps more importantly, it had become elevated to the status of a spirit for special occasions.
No one knows for sure if villagers in Río Seco had been making mezcal de pechuga, if Sánchez was the only palenquero with such a recipe, or if it was first prepared by him in fact after his arrival in Matatlán. We do know two things: since that day when the honor of receiving mezcal de pechuga was first bestowed upon Rasgado, pechuga has been served in many Oaxacan towns and villages at special fiestas; and, there are several formulations of the drink.
Epilogue to Chuy Rasgado & Ramón Sánchez
In 1940 General Lázaro Cárdenas travelled to Mitla. While there were still no paved roads in or leading to the village, General Cárdenas nevertheless rode there, to inaugurate the arrival of electricity. It would take another 19 years for electric lines to get to Santiago Matatlán. By then Rasgado had become well-known and a highly respected musician in both Matatlán and Mitla (and eventually statewide and beyond). The mayor of Mitla invited him to play for General Cárdenas during one of the celebratory dinners. Rasgado did not dress up to perform. He played a brief first set. No one applauded. For the second set he was part of a trio, and at its conclusion a bit of praise was bestowed upon the group. For the third and final set Rasgado lead the local philharmonic orchestra in four songs, decked out in formalwear, a suit traditionally worn by band leaders. General Cárdenas called him to the box where he and the other dignitaries were seated, to congratulate him. Perhaps the clothes provided the inspiration for an exceptional concluding performance. Rasgado was known to throw back a few, so perhaps by evening’s end mild inebriation had contributed to his excellence.
Three or four months later Chuy Rasgado once again disappeared, this time never to return to the region. Word has it that he died in the Mixe district of Oaxaca. Ramón Sánchez continued to make small batches of mezcal, including pechuga, for his own use and to provide to others who had become aficionados and / or wanted it for fiestas. None of his progeny became palenqueros. During that era there was a pervading perception that making mezcal was not a dignified trade, much the same as leading the life of a musician. In the case of Don Isaac, he paid little if any attention to public sentiment, and continued to excel at both vocations.
Oaxacan Mezcal de Pechuga Today
According to Don Isaac’s son Enrique Jiménez, a chemical engineer and palenquero in his own right, authentic mezcal de pechuga is produced by placing a specified amount of chopped seasonal fruit in a copper alembic (the only type of still the younger Jiménez knows how to use) along with previously distilled mezcal (thus in preparation for a third distillation), with a full chicken or turkey breast hanging inside the apparatus. If breast is used, without fruit or other additions, it is naturally rightfully considered mezcal de pechuga; and if herbs and / or spices are added, with or without fruit it is still considered the real deal. If no protein is used, the spirit is more properly considered mezcal afrutado. That’s the term used by Manuel Méndez, a palenquero in nearby San Dionsio Ocotepec who inserts five fruits plus sugar cane. On the other hand, in San Baltazar Chichicapam, down the highway from San Dionisio, Fortunato Hernández terms his pineapple mezcal formulation mezcal de piña. Rodolfo López Sosa in San Juan del Río employs just turkey breast, and calls it pechuga de guajolote.
At least one Oaxacan mezcal brand owner and exporter instructs his producer(s) to use rabbit leg rather than breast of fowl. A palenquero from the state of Michoacán uses breast of chicken, deer meat, and a selection spices, the recipe closely guarded by his wife. One incarnation calls for placing 200 liters of mezcal into a traditional 300 liter copper receptacle, part of the alembic, along with 100 liters of diced fruit, with the chicken or turkey breast dangling inside the top bell portion of the still. This yields about 120 liters of mezcal de pechuga. If protein is omitted from the formulation, while the spice and / or fruitiness of the flavor will surely prevail, the spirit tends to lack a certain nose created by the meat, fowl or otherwise.
A second broad category of mezcal de pechuga calls for adding the fruit and / or spice to the still during the first or second distillation, along with mezcal and / or tepache (the fermented liquid) and / or bagazo (crushed, fermented fiber).
In both of these two cases, the mezcal de pechuga is clear, since regardless of the ingredients inserted into the bottom pot of the still, whether copper or clay, a final distillation occurs, resulting in a colorless spirit. These are the two variations of pechuga which are often highly coveted, and in fact served at many rite of passage celebrations in typically rural Oaxaca, such as weddings, quince años, baptisms, and so on – a tradition enduring since about 1940, if not earlier.
Since many readers are likely tourists who may consider buying “pechuga” which is an amber color, appearing as reposado or añejo, a word of caution is in order. A third classification of mezcal de pechuga is being marketed, at minimum in the city of Oaxaca and central valleys. It is simply mezcal blanco (clear, un-aged) with a piece of either sugar cane or baked agave having been inserted into the bottle before sealing in short order altering the color to amber. Another consists of mezcal blanco which has been infused with fruit and / or herbs and spices, then filtered before bottling. Whether chicken, turkey or any other meat has been used in the distillation process is doubtful, regardless of representation, and so caution should be exercised when considering purchasing this type of mezcal de pechuga.
Unanswered Historical Questions about Mezcal de Pechuga
The foregoing is meant to provide merely an introduction to mezcal de pechuga. There is an endless variety of recipes. Both palenqueros and their exporter entrepreneurs will likely continue to experiment, a goal being to create a more taste-worthy and marketable product than the competition. To be fair, there’s also more altruistic motivation, spirit as artful formulation.
The questions which remain unanswered, at least to the fullest extent, are precisely why, where and when that first palenquero decided that using something in addition to baked agave, that is in particular breast of chicken or turkey, would make for a palate pleasing mezcal.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (http://www.mezcaleducationaltours.com) and has been drinking various formulations of mezcal de pechuga for more than 25 years. He is an aficionado of both mezcal and pulque, and endeavors to enlighten his clients about the state´s iconic spirit and beverages produced since pre-Hispanic times.