Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D., of Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca
Maestra palenquera Leticia brings out what at first glance appears to be a block of concrete double wrapped in a pink then green plastic bag. She hands it to me, and I immediately know that my initial perception is dead wrong. It’s lighter, perhaps two or three pounds (i.e. a kilo and a bit), and as it reaches me the sweet aroma of fresh marijuana begins to fill the air. Though we are in the breezy outdoors, it pleasingly lingers, heavy. We’re making mezcal de mota (pot mezcal).
I’d had it before, of course only in American states where it’s legal. I’ve imbibed it as part of a mezcal de siete herbas (the agave spirit infused with seven herbs), and sampled from the small amounts from Doña Leticia which have reached Baltimore, MD. But this visit to the palenque (artisanal mezcal distillery in Oaxaca) of the newly anointed Goddess of Ganja, enabled me and my two clients to participate in its production, an experience vastly different from simply infusing a clear distillate with marijuana, or weed and other ingredients.
We’d already been in the car about four hours, having left Oaxaca mid-morning. The plan was to be back at roughly 5 pm. But I’ve learned over the past quarter century that in particular in this Mexican state when it comes to rural treks at all related to mezcal or agave, the best laid plans have to take a back seat to imbibing, engaging and inevitably learning something new and fascinating.
No matter that we’d visited other palenques en route, and traversed dirt roads for the better part of an hour. I had been charged with making several executive decisions as to for example which branch of the umpteen Ys in the road to take; though I’d travelled the route to Doña Leticia’s several times before, I still always feel a little like Dorothy … but without a scarecrow to assist.
A visit to Doña Leticia’s homestead never disappoints. She’s fun, and entertaining to the extreme. And while it often seems like there is no method to her outward madness, the day always takes shape, in some form or other. She is the consummate expert’s expert, though she makes her mezcal a little differently than others in and around the central valleys of Oaxaca.
“We’re just making it now, in a bit, so if you can wait two hours it’ll be ready,” was the exhortation of Doña Leticia upon our arrival. I knew and thankfully my clients sensed that we should just let the day unfold and forget about any fixed plans for that evening.
There’s perhaps only a handful of women in Oaxaca who are truly the makers of the iconic Mexican spirit, most of the rest being those who lend a female moniker to the brand name, yet have men to do all the hard labor. Others use their sex to best market mezcal, not to diminish their importance or qualifications. But Doña Leticia is the real deal. The men around her play only secondary or tertiary roles, with this physically and emotionally strong woman calling all the shots, and doing what has traditionally been men’s work in the industry: cutting and harvesting agave, carrying firewood, filling the oven, chopping and mashing the sweet baked agave with a wooden mallet, and much more. When she needs to enlist the assistance of male neighbors or cousins, she does so, just like other palenqueros.
But this essay is not about Doña Leticia per se, but rather how she makes her marijuana mezcal. And yes, upon our arrival a male cousin is already in attendance, visiting with her and her elderly mother. And within an hour or so four other men who live nearby have arrived. Perhaps a sixth sense was at play, or they’d heard what she had planned for the day and wanted a snort or two, or maybe gathering at her home was a Saturday tradition. More often than not there have been male guests at the home for this fifty-something hostess when I’ve come by, whatever day of the week.
She’s already begun cutting up a specific assortment of fruits into a large plastic bowl. We immediately chip in. She runs off and then in short order returns with a few pounds of small seasonal plums, and mixes them into the fray as she washes them off, more so as custom dictates than for safe practice.
She dismantles the copper still. A friend empties the remaining liquid from the last distillation. He places firewood under the alembic, and lights it.
We accompany Doña Leticia back to the house. She goes in, then returns seconds later with a large piece of cloth, a towel it seems, calling out to one of her helpers: “Here, take this to wipe and dry the [inside of the copper] pot; it has to be really clean.”
Someone else helps her fill three buckets of madrecuixe from a large container. She’s not using her double-distilled karwinskii, but rather the product of the first distillation. Into the still it goes. “You know what, let’s put some [double distilled] mezcal into the mix as well,” a last minute decision she makes; eight or so liters of “the good stuff” gets poured in. But for this step I’m the designated dipper. The top comes off of an 1,100 liter tank (tinaco) of her classic madrecuixe. I have to stick my head well into it to reach down to fill a plastic bucket. The fumes are almost overwhelming, but in a highly agreeable sense. But twice I have to come back up for air, literally, before getting the job done. Then we each take turns sampling from the 10 liter receptacle.
Liquid gold in the making is now heating up in the still, so there’s time to spare. We begin breaking up the marijuana brick. Doña Leticia says its dry, but to me it’s green and fresh with moisture still present, nothing like the dry bricks I’d been accustomed to seeing and watching friends break apart during the 1960s. We spend about 20 minutes pulling apart about two thirds of the brick to fill a large shallow round wicker basket. It’s much like shredding chicken breast. I obsessively keep smelling my finger tips. Once we’ve finished, I re-wrap the remaining solid chunk of weed.
“You know,” explains Doña Leticia, “this is better than mezcal de pechuga; with classic pechuga with fruit and herbs put into the still, the grease and whatever else from the dangling raw chicken or turkey breast stays with the mezcal, and eventually that causes the mezcal to become a little off or putrid; but with no meat, it’s pure fruit and herb and you don’t have to worry about it.” I’d been told this before by a palenquero friend who makes a vegan pechuga with just fruit and sugarcane. On the other hand I haven’t detected such a diminution of quality in my collection of mezcales de pechuga distilled the traditional way, with a meat protein.
We carry the fruit and marijuana over to the still. Doña Leticia drops in the fruit, and I follow suit with the ganja, notwithstanding a little trepidation. She then says, perhaps more thinking to herself than asking an opinion, “maybe we should put in the rest of the mota.” I pipe in “I think it’s fine the way it is,” of course as someone merely a novice at this type of preparation. She seems to agree with my ignorance since we’re immediately on to something else.
“Let’s go back to the house to sample some mezcal; I have a little jabalí left, some tobalá, of course that madrecuixe we can try again, that tepeztate I know you really like, but I’m not sure if I have any espadín right now.”
I figured that we’d be waiting the better part of another two hours until the marijuana mezcal was ready, but after only a brief period of time shooting the breeze about the price of agave, to certify or not, and where the industry may be heading, we hear someone shout out “it’s beginning.” We’re back to the alembic. The mezcal has begun to drip from the spigot; the periodic drops rapidly transform into a narrow flow into a vintage copper receptacle.
We continuously sample, determined to arrive at the alcohol content we want. When Doña Leticia and I figure that it’s coming out at about 52 – 53%, we decide that perhaps it’s ready, at least for sale to me and my clients. “Want to bring it down a bit further,” she asks. Almost in unison we reply “I think it’s fine just like it is,” since at least for my part I know full well that the mix in the container is clearly significantly higher.
My clients buy a couple of liters of the marijuana mezcal and one liter each of an assortment of other products. They’re already talking about having their friends over for a mezcal tasting while recounting this and our previous day together.
I opt for five liters, and is my custom I ponder if I’m buying enough, knowing full well that friends will be salivating as they sample and then try to convince me to part with more than I know I should. But who knows, perhaps the next batch will be even better than this one.
Aroma of freshly picked and compressed marijuana with a hint of honey-sweetened green tea, followed by notes of citrus leaf and ripe pineapple, with a long smooth finish reminiscent of asparagus and herb.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com), and has been a mezcal aficionado for more than 25 years, with a collection of 400 different mezcales and umpteen palenquero friends. Alvin is a permanent resident of the city of Oaxaca. Despite his expertise, he considers himself nothing more than an authority-in-training.