Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Within the first couple of hours of leading a Oaxacan mezcal educational tour, two of the most commonly asked questions are, “what’s the difference between a mezcal ensamble, a mezcla and a blend,” and, “why do the palenqueros do mixes in the first place.” In this article I do my best to answer both questions, based on having been around agave distillates primarily in the state of Oaxaca for the past 30 years, and on a very frequent basis over the past couple of decades having spoken with tens of traditional distillers and their family members (who produce mezcal ancestral or artesanal) regarding such queries.
Mezcal: An Ensamble, a Mezcla, or a Blend
Many mezcal aficionados nonchalantly toss about the word “blend,” such as stating “oh, so it’s a blend of tobalá, madrecuixe and espadín.” There is certainly debate and disagreement amongst both the mezcal geeks/experts and the distillers (even from the same village) regarding nomenclature when it comes to mixing different species and sub-species to arrive at a desired end product. But there is, or at least in my opinion should be, a consensus distinguishing a blend on the one hand, from a mezcla/ensamble on the other.
Blends are commonplace in the world of mezcal, but typically not in the world of artesanal or ancestral production. Think of a blended whisky. Take two or more finished products, blend them together, and you get, for example, Johnny Walker Red Label, a blended whisky (as opposed to a single malt). Now switch to agave distillates produced in the large modern factories in Oaxaca such as those en route to San Pablo Villa de Mitla or on the outskirts of Santiago Matatlán, just to name a couple of locales. These factories can and do buy large quantities of distillates from various sources, bring them to a central facility, blend them, and voilá we have blended mezcals. Or they can produce different batches at the same distillery, and then blend them together. The foregoing is an easy way to distinguish a blended mezcal from the others, regardless of whether we term them ensambles or mezclas.
Now think of the mezcals commercially available through retailers in the US, Canada, the UK, and elsewhere around the globe. The labels typically include the word “ensamble” to identify a mezcal made from two or more distinct varietals of agave. Usually the piñas have been baked together, then crushed together and placed in a fermentation vessel, and finally the mosto as it’s known, is distilled. Thus, the mixing starts at the beginning rather than at the end. A variation on the theme is baking in different lots and/or the agave at different times, but then crushing and the rest, together. But some palenqueros state that the broad means of production should properly be termed a mezcla rather than an ensamble. And so the disagreement remains, and will likely continue into the relatively distant future.
A few of my palenquero friends steadfastly maintain that it’s a mezcla when the mixing starts at the beginning, and an ensamble is what we (should) refer to as a blend. But what happens when those same palenqueros’ distillates are bottled, labelled and shipped abroad? The label pretty much invariably states “ensamble.” Why, one might ask, is there is such groundswell of disagreement between the two camps? Many of those imbibers in the English (and I suppose French) speaking world know the word “ensamble” but not the Spanish word “mezcla.” The word “blend” would never be used since to many it has a less than quality-product connotation. And so on the store shelf we find mezcal ensambles, and typically not mezclas.
In my opinion we can use the words mezcla and ensamble interchangeably, just as tow-MAY-tow and tow-MAH-tow. Don’t get hung up on something akin to that which etymologists often disagree concerning. But do recognize the difference between blends on the one hand, and mezclas/ensambles on the other.
Top Five Reasons Palenqueros Mix Different Varietals of Agave
!. Several years ago a client asked one of my palenquera friends how she determined how much of each species she mixed together to arrive at her ensamble of six agaves. Her answer was rather simple, easy to understand and made an abundance of sense: “we brought one donkey-load of each type of agave to the palenque, and that’s how we decided.” Before the modern era of mezcal, which dates to no earlier than the mid-1990s more or less, foraging was the order of the day, and often regardless of what kind of agave was put in the oven and further processed, the end product was called just plain mezcal: not madrecuixe, nor tobalá; termed neither an ensamble or a mezcla. That’s what mezcal used to be.
I recently purchased 10 liters from a neighbor who hails from a far-off village, some six hours away from the city of Oaxaca. Here in the state capital, specifically in our neighborhood, he flogs his villagers’ honey, coffee, and mezcal distilled in clay. He described the mezcal as made from maguey campestre, that is, agave from the countryside. It was just plain mezcal, produced as has been the case dating back hundreds if not thousands of years. There are still palenqueros who harvest whatever they can, from wherever they can, in as large quantities as time, distance and beast of burden allow. But these palenqueros are in the minority, rarely encountered by our readers, except those who want true far-off adventures to where one never knows what will be sourced; with what species of agave the purchase has been comprised.
2. The polar opposite of 1. above, is when a palenquero combines different types of agave because the ultimate taste is extremely agreeable to him. The corollary also sometimes comes into play. That is, he will refrain from mixing certain varietals together because the combination does not yield a good flavor. Typically, nose and finish do not enter the equation; taste rules.
3. The objective of many palenqeros is to completely fill as many fermentation vats as are to be used for the particular oven-load of baked, sweet, crushed agave. Often roughly a ton of the mash fills a wooden slat vat. While all is based on science, it is an art, a skill, which doesn’t always work out as planned. Sometimes, for example, eight tons of agave, one ton of each varietal, are baked together, then segregated with a plan to ferment one ton of each in a particular vat. But occasionally there is a bit left over from a couple of the species; the extra won’t fit into the vats for which each sub-species has been earmarked; That is, without seriously overflowing once water has been added and fermention begins in earnest. And so the palenquero will combine the excess kilos together into a vat, resulting in a particular mezcla which may never be repeated; unless of course it yields a particularly agreeable ensamble.
4. Sometimes a palenquero will combine two species of agave, in circumstances wherein one has a low sugar content, and the other much higher. The motivation is that this may result in a higher yield of the ultimate mezcal.
5. Finally, at least one palenquera friend is rather sensitive to what she is compelled to charge for mezcal produced from a particular varietal of agave, based on typical yield. She has explained to me that a mezcla sometimes is produced in a way that reduces the ultimate cost she must charge, yet retains much of the flavor of the more expensive (low carbohydrate content) type of agave. She used the example of combining tepeztate with some espadín in such a way that the end product still has a classic tepeztate taste, yet is not as expensive as it would have to be if she were to distill 100% tepeztate.
So there you have it, my take on nomenclature, and what I have gleaned to date as to some of the reasons ensambles of mezcal and agave distillates are produced in the state of Oaxaca.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).
Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
How can we determine if our preferred brand of mescal is properly termed a craft spirit? In this opinion piece I attempt to refrain from using brand names of mezcals and agave distillates we tend to consider being traditionally produced (i.e. ancestral or artesanal). The reader, after reviewing the following, will likely be able to place particular mezcals along a craft spirit continuum. And so right off the bat my thinking about the topic should be clear, that is at least my singular broad conclusion.
Arguably the most primitive of agave distillate operations this century.
Understanding and defining craft spirits is a complex topic with several nuances and points of view, even for those in the know. Adding mezcal to the mix further complicates, and makes arriving at concrete answers even more dumbfounding.
Craft Spirit Definitions
A search for a clear definition of “craft” within the context of spirits yields many results. Typically it denotes drink made in a traditional or non-mechanized way by an individual or a small company, or made using traditional methods by small companies or companies and people that fashion it. This alone reveals problems which arise within the mezcal context, when one tries to define “traditional,” “non-mechanized” and “small.” When the word “craft” is used as a verb, we fine definitions such as “to make with care or ingenuity,” and “to exercise skill in making, typically by hand.” Again there are issues when parsing the phrases to determine their applicability and relevance to mezcal.
The community of the American Crafts Spirits Association (ACSA) has different definitions of “craft,” and thus has elected to not live by a singular definition, but rather to allow its members to each come up with an interpretation which serves his/her needs. However it has indeed passed judgment on what it considers to be subsumed by the term “craft spirits,” and what it considers to be a “craft distillery.” And so ACSA believes that:
Craft Spirits means (1) a product made by a distillery which values the importance of transparency in distilling, and remains forthcoming regarding the spirit’s ingredients, distilling location, and aging and bottling process, (2) a distilled spirit produced by a distillery producing fewer than 750,000 gallons annually, and (3) no more than 50% of the Distilled Spirits Plant (DSP) is owned directly or indirectly by a producer of distilled spirits whose combined annual production of distilled spirits from all sources exceeds 750,000 proof gallons removed from bond.
A craft distillery is a facility which values the importance of transparency in distilling and remains forthcoming regarding its use of ingredients, its distilling location and process, and aging process. It produces less than 750,000 gallons annually. It directly or indirectly holds an ownership interest of 50% ownership or more of the DSP.
The American Distilling Institute (ADI) is another industry organization. It provides a craft spirit certification designation. For ADI to certify:
The most sophisticated of mezcal distilleries, the polar opposite of craft.
Factors to Consider
Based on the foregoing, as well as from a review of several articles centering upon applicable definitions, it is fairly easy to conclude that within the mezcal context a simple answer should not reasonably be proffered, because of the lack of uniformity in the agave distillate industry; perhaps arguably distinct from, for example, the single malt scotch pursuit. However we can examine a number of factors and reach our own conclusions, both regarding our favorite brands of mezcal, and the spirit in general:
Emptying a copper mezcal alembic in San Lorenzo Albarradas, Oaxaca
Discussion Within the Mezcal Context
Ownership of Brand / Distillery:
Should percentage or type of ownership of the distillery be a factor in designating a mezcal brand as a craft spirit? Perhaps instead we should examine control of means of production. We know that Diageo, Pernod Ricard, Samson & Surrey and Bacardi are all in the mezcal business. If the distillery proper is still owned by the family of palenqueros, but decisions are made by the conglomerate, how does that change our thinking? How “hands-on” can the family be, other than participating in all processes, if its members are excluded from the decision-making process?
Ownership of a brand by a multi-national corporation should not be the determining factor. In many cases sale to one of the big boys simply enables the brand to achieve global exposure than it otherwise would not have enjoyed, a good thing in terms of helping the family of palenqueros, the community, promotion for the region, etc. But once the non-Mexican corporate entity begins to tamper with means of production and tools of the trade, then the other factors come into play. If the corporation, let’s say Pernod Ricard, has purchased 100% of the brand from the previous owner(s), but leaves day-to-day management to them, can the brand still maintain a craft spirit status? Samson & Surrey actually boasts its “craft spirits portfolio” and advantageousness of having the “resources of a larger company.” It appears to be doing all the right things. Its reference to “human touch” would bring its products into the fold of “craft,” noted above as in “with care.”
Let’s examine Mezcal Benevá, a brand which most would likely agree does not produce a craft spirit, even though over the past couple of years it has added equipment to bring some of its production under the rubric of the term artesanal. The brand is 100% privately owned by a Oaxacan family (the last time I spoke with ownership), some of the members of which have a strong pedigree of production dating back generations. Its annual production is less than 750,000 gallons, but sales are more than 100,000 gallons. It lacks transparency only to the extent that, to my knowledge it does not offer access to its plant by the general public; otherwise in my opinion it is transparent in all determinative respects. The main issue with Benevá is means of production and tools of the trade, employing computer technology and finely calibrated scientific equipment, with its autoclaves, stainless steel equipment, diesel fuel and the rest.
How different is Benevá from Lagavulin single malt scotch, owned by Diageo? Would you consider Lagavulin a craft spirit? Diageo is a publically traded company. This brings us to “values.” Is the first priority of a company which trades on the stock market to answer to its shareholders (i.e. improve bottom line above all else; of course I’m not referring to “green” companies)? If so, then where do its values lie? Do we put Diageo in the same category as Benevá, both as non-craft enterprises? Lagavulin appears to maintain tradition, but produces well over 100,000 gallons annually, and I would suggest at the end of the day must answer to its parent company.
Equipment Employed / Production Methods:
If a mezcal brand has several distilleries producing for it, using traditional, non-mechanized production methods and tools, but produces one million gallons annually, is it still producing a craft spirit? If one of the brand’s products is a “blend” in the whisky sense, that is, not a traditionally made mezcal, should we refrain from terming the blend a craft spirit? What if a palenquero elects to use a gas powered crushing machine rather than mashing by hand or with horse and tahona, just to make like a bit easier for him? Is it no longer “craft” because the product arguably does not fit within the definition of “traditional” or “non-mechanized?” What if the palenquero switches to an autoclave for one or more reasons, including wanting to:
I have already touched upon the volume of production index. I don’t think that volume should be a factor, at all, if it is clear from an examination of all the other determinants whether the brand or the distillery is craft, or not. If we cannot pigeonhole by looking at the rest, then, and only then, perhaps an examination of volume produced can correctly sway us in one direction or the other. Or, using the continuum model, take us closer to one end versus the other.
Staff Numbers and Relationship to Owner(s):
This, once again, should be one of the lesser important factors in making the craft spirit determination. Staff numbers reflects success of the brand and little if anything more, which returns us to numbers (i.e. gallons produced). What is the maximum staff numbers allowed for the brand, or distillery production team, to be considered craft? Returning to Benevá, the Zignum brand is just down the road, but owned, to my recollection, by non-Oaxacans or at minimum non individuals whose families emanate from nearby mezcal producing villages. Yes the two are large sophisticated operations, and likely each has a comparable number of employees. But in the case of Benevá, likely most are family simply because in a general rural Oaxacan sense, owners tend to prefer hiring family whenever practicable. The Zignum ownership likely hires workers who are not family because ownership is comprised of “outsiders.” So as relative to Zignum, Benevá can boast at least one half of this craft dimension, that is, the strength of family relationships from top to bottom. But certainly this does not mean that Benevá is a craft spirit.
After the mezcal bake; tasting a piece of baked agave to ensure sweetness is okay.
Transparency and Values:
Should the consumer always be able to readily learn the name of the distiller and location of the distillery? There are typically reasons for withholding this information. The reader can judge for herself the validity, and the extent to which this should impact her thoughts about whether or not the mezcal should still be considered craft. Reasons include:
Where I think a mezcal’s characterization should be impacted, is regarding misrepresentation of the contents of the bottle. And regretfully this does occur. There are brands of traditionally-made mezcal which label every bottle, except those distilled with espadín, as being made with wild agave; wild tobalá, wild madrecuixe, wild mexicano, and all the rest. Now yes of course there are still wild agaves up in the hills and otherwise far off, but currently virtually every agave currently used to produce mezcal in the state of Oaxaca is under cultivation. How could the Diageos and the Pernod Ricards of the world, each with a global reach, meet demand if they were not having these species cultivated for them. A good friend of mine has 16 different varietals under cultivation, only one being espadín. Yes there is literature stating that only after the fifth generation of production, should one begin to classify the plant as cultivated. But how does the public know? The better and more honest route is to label “semi-wild” or “semi-cultivated,” or not preface the name of the species with anything. Not following this suggestion illustrates a significant lack of transparency.
But thankfully the good and the righteous outweigh the bad and the scoundrels. It all comes down to the values the brand and the palenque embrace. If profit is first and foremost, then you’ll mislead regarding the character of the agave, since the average consumer assumes that a mezcal made with wild agave is better than one made with cultivated agave, and thus pay significantly more for the former.
A movement has emerged over the past decade or so, towards putting as much information as reasonably possible about the mezcal’s production, on the back label. However this is not to suggest that brands with sparse labelling information are less committed to transparency as a value. It might be more in the nature of what the brand owner wants to promote most about the product line, while still being 100% transparent about the product.
Crushing the baked sweet agave espadín using a team of oxen.
It all comes down to the due diligence upon which the consumer is prepared to embark in order to investigate the extent to which his favorite mezcals are craft spirits. He should educate himself by asking the right questions of the brand reps, the bartenders and the mezcalería and restaurant staff. Test them all and try to discern their level of knowledge and forthrightness. And read the brand websites and blogs; what are they telling you, and what are they omitting and why. Try to have the unanswered questions answered by making inquiries. You might lose some respect for your favorite brands, and gain respect for others.
Perhaps break down all of the foregoing into 10 – 15 determinants of craft-ness. Then grade the brands accordingly. I let the cat out of the bag at the outset when mentioning the word “continuum.” Brands lie along it. Those who have read my musings know that I tend to reject absolutes. Here, I have been clear that mezcal as a category should not be labelled as a craft spirit. In fact just because it’s labelled ancestral, should not be determinative that it’s a craft spirit; at least not until you’ve done that due diligence and investigated as many if not all of the determinants on your own list.
And just because the distiller uses an autoclave should not cause you to discount the brand or factory. Briefly examining the brand Scorpion Mezcal using some of the determinants, exemplifies the kind of exercise we should be doing when placing any mezcal operation along the craft spirit continuum. In the Scorpion case, owner Douglas French works at the distillery daily, and is in charge of operations. His staff are mainly single mothers, some of whom have been with him for a quarter century. He welcomes visitors to his facility, with a bit of advance notice, and anything not noted on his labels he is happy to explain on a visit or a call or via email. Ask him the extent to which he has expanded his operation over the past two decades, and why. Labelling for brands such as his and others which date to the 1990s are usually as they appear, without a plethora of descriptors explaining means of production and tools of the trade, because that was the custom at the time, and the marketing has boded well for them. Why change what has worked in the past, and continues to do so? It is not necessarily indicative of a conscious attempt to inhibit transparency.
Lest we forget flavor, and texture. It’s indeed curious that the umpteen defining characteristics of “craft,” many of which have been noted above do not mention quality of product, although a major related consideration, impact of the hand of the maker, is tangentially included in most cases. Three considerations are in order:
Enjoying a sip of artesanal mezcal from a tradtional half gourd or jícara.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com), a small, two-person federally licensed company with full transparency, and altruism as a primary focus of its raison d’être. Thus, it is a craft enterprise.
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Potters of San Marcos Tlapazola, Oaxaca, Retain Pre-Hispanic Tradition While Transitioning to Attract Mezcal Aficionados
In keeping with my efforts to support talented Oaxacan artisans, especially during these tough economic times of COVID-19, I wrote this article about the potters of San Marcos Tlapazola, known for its barro rojo or red clay pottery, and how one woman in particular has transitioned to taking advantage of the global mezcal boom by producing hand-turned items with agave imagery. Here's the article link, and a photo gallery of the range of red clay pottery: https://ezinearticles.com/?Red-Clay-Potter-of-San-Marcos-Tlapazola-Transitions-to-Mezcal,-Agave-Motifs&id=10299358
María making a series of copitas; no wheel, all formed by hand, with agave on one side and a face on the other. But she can also customize as requested.
Finished red clay mezcal cups, initially designed by María's daughter Lucina when she was only eight years old. Every copita is unique.
The family also makes complete dinnerware sets, as illustrated here at the 2018 village fair. Oven safe!
Happy buyer scooped up this piece at the San Marcos Tlapazola Feria de Barro Rojo, 2018.
María relaxes by doing oils, when there is time.
Gloria is burnishing in the family workshop. Creations are burnished by hand, with no shellac, no varnish, no nothing except hand-labor, making every piece environmentally friendly and safe for using as drinking cups, cooking pots, etc.
Simple, folky plates. The plan is to have the women make more elaborate ones, with agave, quiote flowering, and hummingbirds feeding. And plates with other scenes illustrative of different stages of the process of making mezcal.
Other side has a raised face. Notice the form, finish, etc., all turned by hand,
All in the family, photo taken at the 2016 San Marcos Tlapazola fair.
Stands about 21 inches, campesino taking a break with bottle of mezcal.
Both sides of this vessel are illustrated. Any shape, size, image is possible.
Monkey planter stands about 22 inches.
The classic chango mezcalero, the originals dating to the 1930s.
Putting the finishing touches on a couple of pre-Hispanic Zapotec idols. All their pottery is fired in a rudimentary, open air above ground oven, fueled mainly with dried agave leaves (pencas) and flower stock (quiote).
Rather unique tops, just for the asking.
Thanks for viewing. Alvin Starkman: www.mezcaleducationaltours.com.
Preparing the oven for baking Agave karwinskii
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.
With Lidia Hernández of Mezcal Desde la Eternidad
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.
Preparing the oven to bake Agave potatorum
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.
Mezcal is distilled in clay pots here in San Bernardo Mixtepec
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.
Preparing a copper alembic for a first distillation in Zimatlán
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.
Checking oven depth, first hand
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.
Vintage cántaros are highly collectible, and hard to come by
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?
Enjoying a meal with Doña Reina Sánchez, maestra palenquera and good friend
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.
This client insisted that she help crush the sweet, baked espadín (Agave angustifolia Haw)
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.
New bride from San Marcos Tlapazola, learns the ropes to help her Santiago matatlán husband
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.
Hard at work with the quiote in San Dionisio Ocotepec
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). He has been witnessing the metamorphosis from the beginning.
The direct and easily discernible effect of the surge in mezcal tourism for the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca, is the dramatic spike in sales of the agave spirit. Production has increased approximately fourfold between 2010 and 2017, and that’s not even including uncertified mezcal (which has not passed through the auspices of the federal certification/regulatory board).
Consider the positive impact on the lodging industry, and on both Oaxaca city restaurants and rural eateries where production occurs. Mezcal tourism impacts the economy in these and a plethora of other ways, even during times of the year when visitor numbers to the state are traditionally low. But this is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
On a recent warm, sunny afternoon, for the first time that I can recall, there was a lineup leading outside the front door at CATOSA bottle distributor in the city suburb of Los Volcanes. Everyone was waiting to place orders for bottles destined to be filled with the iconic Mexican spirit. The numbers of both company office staff and warehouse personnel had indeed been increasing over the past couple of years. But now, even with a good complement, the distributor could not keep up.
Part of the problem was that because of a dramatic increase in sales, CATOSA was short of inventory from one particular bottle factory outside of the state, and so customers had to ponder, at least temporarily, what size and shape to buy. And then there was the issue of which top to use for the bottles currently available, at least on a provisional basis; natural or artificial cork, wood, plastic, metal, color, and; whether or not plastic sleeves to shrink wrap the stopper should be used, required or not.
These were not even the large commercial clients who would regularly order significant quantities for domestic and export mezcal sales. They were small scale distillers with equally modest retail outlets alongside their palenques; owners of city mezcalerías, bars and restaurants which would buy bulk mezcal and then retail by the shot or in 750 ml glass bottles; as well as individuals planning to gift the spirit with a personalized one-time label as a token memory of a family rite of passage celebration (wedding, quince años, baptism, etc.).
Related to the increase in bottle sales are the paper and printing industries, and the graphic design and related art vocations, each business competing for new opportunities to work with entrepreneurs both developing brand recognition and expanding market reach. The handmade paper factories a short distance outside the city of Oaxaca as well as downtown and suburban printers, have all noted a sharp increase in client numbers and in sales for existing mezcal enterprises. But there is more.
Oaxaca has traditionally been a veritable wasteland for those interested in acquiring antiques and collectibles. But now there is value perceived in anything even remotely related to agave, mezcal and pulque: old wooden mallets (mazos) used for crushing baked agave in preparation for fermenting; cracked clay distillation pots (ollas de barro) which can still be used as planters; the shell of the fully tapped majestic Agave americana or salmiana which is also used as an adorning planter; ancient rusted laminated metal condensers, an integral part of ancestral distillation; vintage postcards portraying distillation or harvesting aguamiel which when exposed to environmental bacterial becomes pulque; iron implements used in cutting agave from the field such koas; metal tools used to scrape the inside of agaves so as to induce the seepage of aguamiel into the well (raspadores), and; vintage clay pots (cántaros), used in decades past for storing and transporting mezcal. There is of course the most highly collectible of them all, the clay vessel in the shape of a monkey, chango mezcalero, dating to the 1930s and used to market and boost mezcal sales. While it is a stretch to suggest that collectors now visit Oaxaca for the principal purpose of acquiring antiques, those whose interest have been piqued by agave and its cultural importance over millennia, now find a new reason to spend more time, and money, in the state.
It’s not only the collectors of vintage who are making a pilgrimage to Oaxaca in search of anything old and related to agave. Entrepreneurs are finding ways to benefit by selling online. Their clients are both collectors, and owners of American bars, mezcalerías and Mexican restaurants with a healthy complement of mezcal. Often the latter visit Oaxaca to both learn about mezcal, and to return to their home cities with paraphernalia to adorn their establishments. Their numbers include American bars and restaurants in Seattle, Portland, Carmel, Dallas, Houston, Austin, Baltimore, D.C., Chicago and New York, with cities in Canada slow on the update yet gradually catching on. They also converge on Oaxaca from a broad range of cities throughout Mexico.
Success has come relatively effortless for such retailers. Almost to a number, at least in the case of American establishments, their owners in due course make return visits to Oaxaca, now with their staff. Selling mezcal is much easier if your employees have been here and learned first-hand about artisanal production. There is a newfound passion, unattainable through merely reading articles and books or watching YouTube videos. And so the numbers visiting Oaxaca are literally increasing exponentially.
Some mezcal brands are offering incentives to bars by giving comps: “if you buy 25 cases of our mezcal, we’ll provide a free trip to Oaxaca for two of your premier bartenders.” And it works.
Antique and vintage items are not the only class of collectible being retailed in Oaxaca and earmarked for mezcal aficionados. Not since the tourism boom which began in the 1960s with hippies converging upon Oaxaca in search of the magic mushroom, have craftspeople begun to think outside-of-the-box. Thanks to mezcal we now have more than the typical blouses hand-embroidered with flowers, wool rugs woven with motifs representative of the Mitla archaeological site, carved wooden figures (alebrijes) with dragons, and traditional designs on clay pots and figurines in terra cotta, barro negro and green glaze.
Just walk into higher end downtown Oaxaca retail outlets like La Mano Mágica, or saunter through any of the umpteen craft shops and indoor marketplaces. Agave and mezcal are now well-represented, whereas only a decade ago it was “same old same old.” Craftspeople and their retailers are now in a position to double and even triple sales by marketing anything related to mezcal and agave. We can easily find contemporary changos; drinking vessels for spirits in hand-blown glass or in clay fashioned with raised agave leaves; ceramic water and pulque serving pitchers again with agave; hand woven agave table runners, coasters and bottle carriers; carved wooden boxes, bar stools, sofas and more, all with the succulent whittled into the wood; jimador stone carvings; linen shirts with embroidered agave; silver agave earrings; etc., etc. etc. Whether a novice with merely a passing interest, or an ardent mezcal aficionado, it’s almost impossible to resist buying just something, anything relating to mezcal, pulque or agave, regardless of your taste, level of sophistication, or budget. Just as the vintage, the contemporary is finding a place adorning American bars, restaurants and mezcalerías.
And, mezcal tourism is immune to the usual vagaries impacting travelers to Oaxaca. Those who typically visit to experience the state’s renowned cuisine, pristine beaches, archaeology, more traditional crafts, museums, vibrant marketplaces, the capital’s café-lined zócalo, and colonial architecture, change or cancel plans based on a media reports, typically making unwarranted decisions. Oaxaca’s economic fortunes are appropriated described in terms of extreme peaks and valleys: the 2006 civil unrest, the Mexican swine flu, the US economic crisis, the warring drug gangs, zika, and then the next report which is undoubtedly just around the corner. Most people forget a short while after each, and then there is another reminder to not visit Oaxaca. But those who come for mezcal appear to be a different breed of visitor. They take the media and their home country state department cautions with a grain of salt, and/or do their own more directed and detailed investigation. They come, and they spend.
New markets for mezcal and consequently opportunities for its export are rapidly growing. And so there is a resultant dramatic influx of visitors wanting to take advantage of the boom. Both aficionados and those seeking business opportunities from France, England, Australia, South Africa, Panama and further down into the southern hemisphere, and many from other reaches of the globe, are all now picking up mezcal on their radar screens. And so at least for the next decade, industry growth and the related economic opportunities for Oaxaca, and indeed for other Mexican states legally able to call there agave spirit mezcal and thus export it, will continue to surge.
Since 1991, Alvin Starkman has been a mezcal aficionado and student of its diverse and fascinating production methods and broad range of aroma and taste nuances. He operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com), imparting his knowledge on his clients, and literally bringing them into the worlds of the dedicated, hard-working, and now proud palenqueros and their families.
by Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Second only to dark chocolaty mole negro, without a doubt tlayudas are the principal, uniquely Oaxacan culinary seduction, renowned throughout Mexico. While eaten virtually any time of day or night, tlayudas are more typically consumed late evenings, and tradition suggests that they be purchased from street vendors.
Tlayudas México 68 is one such nighttime stand which has meteorically grown in popularity since its inception a dozen years ago. In 2006, Giezi was an 18 year old adolescent living with his family in Colonia Loma Linda, a suburb of the city of Oaxaca. He had been working at a nearby taco stand, when one day he began a discussing a business project with his mother, Alma. Within a few months the two of them opened Tlayudas México 68, in the Colonia Olímpica neighborhood of the city, close to their home. It was just Giezi and his mom.
Tlayudas come in different incarnations, the only constant being the main ingredient, that is an oversized somewhat crispy all-corn tortilla, usually about a foot or more in diameter, with toppings and/or accompaniments. A single tlayuda constitutes a full meal, as distinct from tacos, tostadas and the like. It can be vegetarian, vegan, even kosher style, usually just for the asking. But the most common formulation is a very thin layer of pork fat (asiento), followed by a patting of bean paste, then Oaxacan string cheese (quesillo), and meat either inside the tlayuda or alongside it. Sometimes they are served open faced, and sometimes folded over in half. Often lettuce, tomato and avocado is included, but certainly not always. Typically condiments are served with it, consisting of salsa, guacamole, marinated onions and chiles, an aromatic herb (chepiche), and/or grilled onions. The meat is usually beef (tasajo or arrachera), pork (cecina), pork rib (costilla) or Mexican sausage (chorizo); less so shredded chicken. If ordered from a restaurant or roadside eatery (comedor), one can often substitute fried egg and/or mushrooms for the meat/cheese protein. Tlayudas are grilled over charcoal, either placed directly on the coals or on a grate above. For the asking your tlayuda can be custom designed.
Tlayudas México 68 took off immediately. Until then there were very few nearby local haunts for getting tlayudas. There are many places downtown, as well as flecking different neighborhood streets in and near the city. But up that way, bordering the wealthy north suburb of San Felipe del Agua, and close to middle class Colonia Reforma and upstart Colonia Loma Linda, there really wasn’t much. And right around the time of the stand’s inauguration, Oaxaca was experiencing a great deal of civil unrest. Member of the working and upper classes were loath to venture downtown because of teacher protests and marches, road blockades, vandalism, and even nighttime tire fires in major city intersections often outright precluding the ability of residents to venture to the city’s core even if they wanted to.
Giezi and Alma opened at the right place (on Calle México 68) at precisely the right time, and haven’t looked back. The complement of employees / business partners has grown substantially. Alma and two sisters stay at home in Loma Linda and daily prepare the salsas, guacamole and other accompaniments as well as fresh juices (aguas frescas; horchata and jamaica). Suppliers deliver all the other ingredients to the house which are needed for a late afternoon start-up, such as quesillo, raw meats (arrachera and costilla), tortillas and other corn products, fruit, vegetables, charcoal, etc.
The stand begins set-up around 4:30 pm, and is open for business 7 pm to midnight, seven days a week. It is operated by ten people including Giezi and his wife, his four brothers and the wife of one of the brothers, and three friends who have day jobs; an accountant, a key cutter, and an ironworker. For the seven, this is their sole source of income. But they prepare for not just on the street where patrons can pull up a plastic chair to chat while awaiting what they have ordered. They also do take-out, home delivery, and events such as birthdays, anniversaries and school graduations.
Giezi and one of his brothers split two week shifts. For one period Giezi works at México 68 while the brother does home deliveries and events, and then they switch jobs. They’ve done events where they’ve prepared as many as 1,200 tlayudas. While tlayudas are the mainstay, they also do a brisk business grilling tacos and tostadas.
For take-out, the condiments are packaged in small plastic bags. For events, team members set up a veritable mini México 68 at homes, schools and event halls, bringing along their grills, charcoal, tables, and whatever else the client needs.
It’s common to see more than a dozen cars, trucks and motorcycles parked along both sides of México 68, well into the night, seven days a week, drivers and their passengers awaiting their orders. Smoke billows from the grill, the quesillo is being shredded, the meats are being barbequed and then chopped, and finally the tlayudas are being armed together based on the wishes of the patron, folded, placed on the grill, and finally heated to perfection before being either served on a plate, or packed with condiments for take-out or home delivery.
The logistics of it all? A member of the team connects to a hydro wire every night, with the permission of the neighborhood including the local church. For Giezi it’s crucial that their neighbors are treated with the utmost respect and deference. The city renews the on-street permit annually. All workers must attend for medical examinations twice yearly, and for training on sanitary food preparation and service. So now you know, at least should you venture to México 68.
Giezi and family have considered opening a branch, but have so far resisted because of concerns about having non-family or friends as employees, and thus worrying about them not showing up for work, arriving late, or quitting without providing sufficient advance notice. And why even bother, when as in the case of Tlayudas México 68, patrons come from as distant as the outer reaches of the Etla villages and further beyond, often more than 40 minutes away, just to sit and eat tlayudas, tacos and tostadas, all prepared to order by their favorite nighttime stand.
Alvin Starkman owns and operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).
Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Why do many in the mezcal business, the self-aggrandized experts, and others supposedly in the know, shun the thought of drinking mezcal con gusano and any type of aged product be it reposado or añejo? More troubling is that many counsel imbibers against even touching to their lips anything but a blanco or joven (unaged) mezcal. This issue is particularly incomprehensive given that corn whiskies, brandies, scotches and some wines are aged in oak barrels. And, both internationally renowned chefs and acclaimed traditional Oaxacan cooks use the gusano del maguey or agave worm to flavor some of their culinary delights.
In prehistoric times, that is prior to the mid 1990s, we were drinking relatively few types of mezcal. With nary an exception our options were essentially limited to unaged, reposado (aged in oak for at minimum a couple of months), añejo (aged in oak for no less than a year), “with the worm,” and if we were lucky we could put our hands on the occasional bottle of tobalá. Selection options are very different today, innumerable in fact. Many imbibers have either never known or forgotten that quality mezcal can come in several forms, including aged and infused.
Mezcal con Gusano
Mezcal con gusanso first appeared in the marketplace decades earlier than the modern era. It became popular on college campuses as a cheap way to get drunk fast because of its relatively high alcohol content, and of course the traditions and myths surrounding its imbibing carried its popularity forward. “The worm,” actually a moth larva which infests and attacks the root and heart of certain agave species [variously identified as Aegiale hesperiaris, Hypopta agavis and/or Comadia redtenbacheri] became a marketing tool for distillers, exporters, importers and distributors. But the infusion also changed the flavor of the mezcal into which it was inserted. Most gave short shrift to considering how the character of the mezcal was being altered, and would never consider this type of mezcal a fine sipping spirit. Perhaps back then it wasn’t.
But what if today you enjoy the nuance of mezcal which has been infused with a gusano? A couple of years ago I took a bottle of mezcal con gusano off one of the shelves housing my collection of agave spirits. I slowly sipped it. The flavor shockingly reminded me of a couple of my favorite whiskies, peaty single malt scotches from Islay!
Today there are good and bad mezcals with gusanos, with our assessments being based on subjective criteria, just as there are good and bad unaged mezcals. Quality may be impacted by, amongst other factors, the type of gusano (although it is typically one type used to flavor mezcal), how the larva has been prepared for infusion into the mezcal, the specie and sub specie of the agave used to make the base mezcal, and the skill of the artisanal distiller. The point is, that yes this type of mezcal was likely initially marketed with a view to increasing sales of the spirit because of its uniqueness, but we should give it a chance, just as we would sampling different joven mezcals. Not all mezcals produced with madrecuixe, tepeztate, jabalí, tobalá and espadín are the same. Some we like and some we don’t. You may find the same thing with mezcal con gusano. And if you find a couple of brands to your liking you may just stop spending $100 USD on a bottle of Lagavulin. So don’t write off mezcal con gusano just because at this moment in history it’s un-cool to like it, or your memory of it is clouded by what it meant to you years or decades ago.
Now the story of aged mezcal is entirely different, since long before the emergence of mezcal con gusano, añejos and to a lesser extent reposados were deemed quality sipping spirits. Thankfully in many circles they still are, and indeed many brands have been able to capitalize on the continuation of this perception. But since the early 2000s a movement has emerged, and seems to be gathering steam, dissing aged agave spirits, mezcal in particular. The rationale goes something like this: they are not “traditional” mezcals; aging masks the natural flavors of mezcals which are derived from an agave specie and impacted by means of production and tools of the trade, and microclimate; and the list goes on. Hence, we should avoid drinking reposados and añejos at all cost. The proponents of these lines of thought lecture about it, disseminate their position on their websites, and promote their “knowledge” in print, all purporting to promote the industry.
What can be more traditional than a custom dating back hundreds of years? Depending upon the version of history to which one subscribes, the aging of agave spirits in oak barrels dates back to somewhere between the 1500s and the 1700s, and certainly not more recently. The oral histories I have personally taken are based upon elderly palenqueros having recounting to me from their own experience dating back to the 1940s. The current crop of brand owners and representatives were not even born then.
The history of aging mezcal in wood actually begins with the Spanish arriving in The New World with brandy transported in oak casks. Many barrels remained in what is now Mexico. Even using the most recent dateline of the 1500s for the birth of distillation in Mexico, we find aging. Here’s why. At some point after distillers began producing agave spirits and storing and transporting them in clay pots, they realized that the capacity for transporting was restricted to about 70 – 80 liters because of the size of the receptacles. And since the pots were fragile they were prone to breakage. Oak barrels from initially Spain became available for the same purposes, that is, storing and transporting the spirit. They became preferred because they were larger and more break-resistant than the clay “cántaros.”So, if not by design then by default, palenqueros were aging their spirits in oak, long, long ago, and consumers were enjoying it. Aged mezcal is traditional. Query the purists who state that mezcal should only be stored in glass. Is glass traditional? No, clay is, dating earlier than oak. Clay too changes the notes of the agave spirit. Perhaps we should distinguish traditionalists from purists.
But some of these same “experts,” the purist class, drink, sell and promote mezcal de pechuga. Typically this type of mezcal has been distilled a third time, during which there is generally a meat protein (chicken or turkey breast, rabbit or deer meat, etc) dangling in the upper chamber of the copper alembic or clay pot, over which the steam passes thereby imparting a subtle change in the spirit’s nuance. Most contemporary distillers insert a range of fruit, herbs and spices into the bottom pot while continuing to use the protein in the process. There are umpteen variations on the theme. In any event, the totality of these added products dramatically alters, and yes to a certain extent masks the natural flavor imparted by the particular agave specie, means of production and tools of the trade. Where aged agave spirit is not acceptable, mezcal de pechuga is, and is sold at handsome prices. Is there a disconnect?
There are other rationale some use for urging spirits drinkers to not drink aged mezcal:
The recent promotion of mezcal based on specie and sub-specie of agave rather than the few categories noted at the outset, as well as on the particular village or district where the agave was grown and processed into mezcal, has helped the industry get to where it is today. But the downside has been that añejos have been left behind in the wake, and many who have become mezcal aficionados have not even had a chance to try aged product. And they wouldn’t even think of trying a mezcal con gusano. It just isn’t cool or acceptable in much of today’s world.
It’s time we begin to embrace diversity which includes gusanos, reposados and añejos, and either ignore the naysayers or better yet tell them that their opinions are no more valid than ours. If we, the imbibing public, try a mezcal with something in the bottle or a product that is not perfectly clear, and don’t like it, we may not try it again, or we may sample from a different brand or batch. But don’t even suggest that it isn’t traditional or of good quality. Let us be the arbiters. Retailers, mezcalerías and tasting rooms, should consider carrying initially at least a bit of those products so we can make our own decisions. Otherwise they are doing a disservice to those producers who are continually working hard to trying to create more pleasantly palatable and diverse mezcals, and just as importantly they are restricting the options of their own clientele, without valid reason.
Alvin Starkman owns and operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). He has a collection of more than 400 different mezcals, with con gusano, reposado and añejo housed alongside his single malt scotches.
Lidia Hernández Baneza García
Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
A characteristic of growth in the global wine industry for some decades is slowly creeping into artisanal mezcal production in the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca. That is, small producers are using their new-found disposable income to educate their children, with a view to increasing manufacture in a sustainable fashion while at the same time improving sales through tapping new markets.
Oaxaca is where most of Mexico’s mezcal, the typically high alcohol content agave-based spirit, is distilled. In the early years of this decade the state began to witness a dramatic increase in sales of mezcal, both in the domestic market and for export to the US and further abroad. Mezcal tourism was born. Visitors began to make a pilgrimage to primarily the state capital and its central valley production regions, coming to learn about artisanal production, to sample and buy for home consumption, to educate themselves and their staff with a view to attracting sales at bars and mezcalerías, and to consider a business plan for export to foreign and to non-Oaxacan Mexican markets.
Lidia Hernández and Baneza García are representative of this sweeping new trend in Oaxacan mezcal production, not because they are young women (in their early twenties), but because of education. In both cases their parents, integrally involved in family artisanal distillation dating back generations, did not progress beyond primary school. Ms. Hernández has recently completed law school at the state run university and Ms. García is in third year industrial engineering at a private college. Both, however, work in the mezcal business and are using their education to advance the economic wellbeing of their respective families, and to preserve and improve the industry. And of course as is typical in virtually all families which produce artisanal mezcal, both began learning how to make the spirit at a very early age, literally upon taking their first steps.
The impetus for the meteoric growth in the industry occurred in the mid-1990s with the introduction of Mezcal de Maguey’s brilliant “single village mezcal” marketing, with other brands following suit (i.e. Pierde Almas, Alipus, Vago). Virtually all artisanal producers began experiencing a dramatic increase in sales. Initially the new-found wealth meant the ability to buy toys such as flat screen TVs, new pick-up trucks and the latest in computer technology. But then a curious phenomenon began to emerge in families, not only those with ready access to the export market, but those in which domestic sales had begun to skyrocket. More families began perceiving the value in higher education, creating opportunities both for their children and for their own advancement. Therefore they began to divert funds in this new direction.
To best understand the part these two women have already begun to play in the mezcal trade, we must step back several years to industry changes which began to impact the Hernández and García families, and of course many others. But before doing so we should note that lawyers don’t just learn the law, and industrial engineers don’t just learn how to design buildings and factories. Higher education impacts the ways in which we think more generally, how we process information, our spatial perception of the world, as well as about options for dealing with change and adaptation. But still the pedagogic strategies these women have been learning are rooted in their particular disciplines. And while palenqueros with a lack of formal education do not necessarily understand the intricacies, niceties and full impact of the foregoing, at least today in Oaxaca they do get it; that is, the broad though not fully digestible positive implications for the family of supporting higher education of their progeny.
If we accept that it takes an average of eight years to mature an Agave angustifolia Haw (espadín, the most common type of agave used to make mezcal) to the point at which it is best harvested to be transformed into mezcal, and that it was only about 2012 that producers, farmers and brand owners began to in earnest take notice of the “agave shortage” (more appropriately put as the dramatic increase in price of the succulent), then we are still a couple of years away from being inundated with an abundance of the agave sub specie ready to be harvested, baked, fermented and distilled. The phenomenon has been created by both businesses from the state of Jalisco sending tractor trailers to Oaxaca to buy up fields of espadín, and the mezcal boom. The latter has resulted in many palenqueros of modest means all of a sudden experiencing a dramatic increase in sales and corresponding extra income for the family, albeit now having to pay much more for raw material.
Communities are struggling with waterways above and below ground being chemically altered by distillation practices and wastewater, wild agave being stripped forever from landscapes, and several aspects of sustainability. At the same time regulatory stresses abound; from discussions with palenqueros and others in the industry, it is clear that the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (the mezcal regulatory board, or CRM) is exerting pressure by “encouraging” palenqueros to become certified, and whether by design or not then adversely impacting those who do not comply by making it more difficult for them to eke out a living selling the distillate. The movement has been spearheaded by those who believe that uncertified agave spirit should not be termed “mezcal” nor sold and certainly not exported as such. It is of course trite to suggest that there are implications regarding taxation.
Lidia Hernández’s parents are in their early 50s. They have three children aside from Lidia, and all help in the family business; 30-year-old Valente lived in the US for a few years then returned home at the request of his mother and is now a full-time palenquero, 27-year-old Bety is a nurse who helps out with mezcal on her day off, and 16-year-old Nayeli is in high school in an education system known as COBAO, a hybrid between public and private to which many bright students in rural communities have access. While Lidia is writing her law school thesis she is working in the family palenque in Santiago Matatlán full time. After completing her dissertation she intends to continue on with mezcal until she believes that her expertise is no longer required on a continual basis. Even then, she will use her skills to advance the economic lot of the family.
Lidia attended public school. While initially she was interested in history and anthropology, because Oaxaca did not offer that program at the university level she opted for law. “I wanted to help people, to defend them because regular Oaxacans are really not very good problem solvers, at least when it comes to dealing with the law, police, family issues, business plans, and so on,” she explains. By age eight she had learned about and participated in virtually all steps in mezcal production. Early on she realized she could help grow the family business, using her new skills to help navigate through the rules and regulations in a changing mezcal industry. For in excess of the past year she has been:
Lidia sums it up:
“Of course down the road once all is in order and the family business is certified and is running more efficiently and productively, and profitability is where we think it can be, I’ll get a job working as a lawyer, perhaps for government; but I’ll always be there for my family and continually strive to help produce high quality mezcals at market driven prices.”
Baneza García’s mother is 43. Her father died of alcohol related ailments three years ago at age 40. There are six children in the family ranging in age from 9 – 25. The two youngest are in primary and junior high and the next oldest attends high school at a COBAO. The eldest completed junior high and now works in the family tomato growing business. Baneza and a younger brother attend a private university just outside of the city, both studying industrial engineering. Baneza is in third year of a five year program. She and her brother rent an apartment close to school, but return home to the family homestead in San Pablo Güilá on weekends and for holidays. The extended family all helps out in the mezcal business which was started in 1914 by Baneza’s great grandfather. The family includes her aunt and uncle who are slowly assuming more responsibility, yet are still learning from Baneza’s grandfather Don Lencho.
The García family’s palenque became certified a few years ago, when an opportunity arose to sell mezcal which now reaches, of all places, China. More recently Baneza and family have been working with a different brand owner to produce mezcal which they are on the cusp of bottling and shipping to the US.
The Hernández and García families are in very different circumstances. Nevertheless, there is a common thread in the education of both Lidia and Baneza; utilizing the skills and opportunities to ultimately advance their respective family businesses.
Baneza is interested in both improving efficiency in her family’s mezcal production, and reducing adverse environmental impact of traditional practices. With regard to the former, although her family is still resistant to the idea, she is interested in giving more thought to replacing horsepower currently used to crush the baked sweet agave, with a motor on a track directly above the tahona, similar to that employed in other types of Mexican agave distillate production. The heavy limestone wheel and shallow stone/cement pit would remain thereby not altering flavor profiles, often the result when for example metal blades in an adapted wood chipper or on a conveyer belt are employed.
Regarding environmental impact, Baneza is working on ideas to transform otherwise waste product such as discarded agave leaves and the spent fiber produced at the conclusion of distillation, into commodities of utility. Both materials have traditionally found secondary and tertiary uses (i.e. the latter, that is the bagazo, being used as compost, as mulch, as a principal ingredient in fabricating adobe bricks, for making paper, and as the substratum for commercial mushroom production); but the bounds of ingenuity are endless, especially as learned in the course of a five year program in industrial engineering. The family has already adopted Baneza’s suggestion for recirculating water in the distillation process, rather than the more costly and typical (at least when water was not as scarce a commodity) practice of simply discarding it.
The application of Baneza’s classes in industrial psychology will have a long-term effect on how her family views its place in Oaxacan society:
“It’s a matter of convincing my family, through discussion, illustration and perhaps trial and error, that there are many ways to improve production which will ultimately lead to an easier and more self-fulfilling life for me and my relatives, and better sustain our industry.”
Lidia Hernández and Baneza García are not alone. They are representative of a much broader trend. Both young men and women who are children of palenqueros without higher education, exemplify change in the Oaxacan artisanal mezcal industry. I have spoken with students and graduates in business administration, tourism, linguistics, amongst other university programs, and their stories are similar: help the family artisanal mezcal business in Oaxaca. Then, down the road embark upon an independent career while maintaining an integral connection with the family’s spirit distillation.
In 2014, while attending meetings of the American Craft Spirits Association and then the American Distilling Institute, master mezcal distiller Douglas French began to question why whiskey was not being produced in Oaxaca. After all, he pondered, the southern Mexico state had been acknowledged as the birthplace of corn, its domestication dating back somewhere between 11,000 and 14,000 years (depending on to which research one subscribes), with native strains still being cultivated today.
Mezcal of course is the agave based Mexican spirit most of which is distilled in the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca. And French is best known for his internationally distributed Scorpion Mezcal, launched two decades ago when artisanal mezcal was virtually absent in the American marketplace, and to be sure, not on the radar of most spirits enthusiasts, even tequila aficionados.
It was a combination of both fortuitous circumstance and some unproductive conduct by individuals in the administration of the Mexican agave spirits industry, which resulted in what had long been overdue; the birth of whiskey distilled in Oaxaca – under the name Sierra Norte Single Barrel Whiskey.
French’s mezcal distillery had the space to augment output and to diversify production as his American counterparts had been doing; he had been buying used equipment at auction and in the open marketplace at a furious pace yet uncertain as to its use in his mezcal production; and he became concerned about the skyrocketing price of agave as a consequence of both mezcal’s increasing global popularity and tequila producers buying Oaxacan raw material and earmarking it for the state of Jalisco’s tequila country. While French had hectare upon hectare of agave under cultivation, he was worried about being able to maintain competitive retail pricing if he was required to buy agave in the open market at inflated prices.
Finally, with aged mezcal being both out of vogue and unfashionable having not yet been “discovered” by neophyte mezcal aficionados jumping on the bandwagon, what to do with some 400 oak barrels.
So French began learning about whiskey, and experimenting with its production. While some of his existing equipment could be used in his new operation, and part of his aging stockpile of scrap metal could be adapted, he did have to invest in milling, mashing and filtering equipment not employed in mezcal production.
All was proceeding fairly well. But then beginning in August, 2015, and continuing for seven months, Scorpion was unable to supply its mezcal to its global retailers. French retooled. He cut hours of employment and salaries in half. In order to remain in business he had to. His employees had been being paid enough during regular times so as to enable them to survive and remain loyal to him. His unwavering commitment to the employment of women, predominantly single mothers, has been chronicled elsewhere.
Not able to ship mezcal, together with his faithful team he spent his time working on whiskey recipes, fabricating optimum equipment, branding Sierra Norte, sourcing native strains of corn in the villages, and planting it with the assistance of a team of ten male workers.
French’s Sierra Norte Single Barrel Whiskey is currently entering the US in three formulations, each matured in French oak casks so as to showcase its individual character and nuance; yellow corn, white corn and black corn, with red corn around the corner. He continues to work on recipes for additional whiskies, as well as for other spirits, but out of respect for French and journalistic integrity I have decided to keep details of these new projects under wraps. He expects that within two years his gross revenue will have doubled its previous high, meaning more work for more women, perhaps even some of the progeny of his devoted female staff.
French currently employs in his distillery on a full-time basis two men, and ten women, one of whom has been working continuously for 34 years, for French and before him for his late mother Roberta in the textile industry. Another has been with him for 24 years including four years prior to when French began distilling on his own and while he also was producing textiles for export.
Douglas French is likely the only American – born mezcal distiller in the state of Oaxaca; and now his wonderful whiskies, shockingly unheard of until now. His dedication to his trade as a distiller and as an employer of women in an industry dominated by male workers, is steadfast.
Perhaps history is repeating itself. It has been suggested that the promulgation of the North American Free Trade Agreement had an adverse impact on many small producers in the Mexican textile industry and that more generally 70% of Mexican industry was required to close because of it. In the wake of NAFTA, while struggling in the textile manufacturing business French found a way to keep himself and his staff above water, and in fact grew Scorpion Mezcal into a force to be reckoned with in the spirits market. And now, decades later, Scorpion has survived, and indeed thrived despite a dramatic increase in brands resulting from the recent mezcal boom and despite not being able to ship mezcal for more than half a year. What Scorpion did for French and staff previously in the textile business, Sierra Norte Single Barrel Whiskey is doing for them now. Growth and prosperity is returning.
Whiskey will likely never displace mezcal, either in Oaxaca or elsewhere in the country. But if pioneer and resilient innovator Douglas French has his way, the 2016 launch of his Sierra Norte Single Barrel Whiskey will at minimum have an impact on the retail spirits market both in the US and further abroad. Down the road this will undoubtedly mean growth and prosperity for French, his staff, and spirits production and producers throughout Mexico.
Sierra Norte Tasting Notes Compiled by Thom Bullock, Chef Pilar Cabrera and Alvin Starkman
Yellow Corn Whiskey:
Nose – notes of toasted corn, buttery popcorn with a hint of caramel
Palate – relaxed pleasing and extremely smooth with mellow grilled pineapple and subtle red chili spice
Finish – long and warm with honey, allspice and ash
White Corn Whiskey:
Nose – vanilla, almond and black squid ink with a subtle undercurrent of gym shoes
Palate – tones of green apple accented with metallic / lead
Finish – smooth with cinnamon spice
Black Corn Whiskey:
Nose – penetrating maraschino cherry and banana peel
Palate – deep ripe plantain
Finish – wedding cake with almond vanilla icing
Alvin Starkman owns and operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (http://www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).
Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
It’s hard to separate fact from fiction from fear-mongering, when trying to understand the relationship between the Mexican agave-based spirit mezcal, and methanol poisoning resulting in blindness or death as the worst case scenarios. The purely physical science treatises are in large part beyond my level of comprehension. At the other end of the spectrum one finds lay literature without references backing up claims and allegations regarding the likelihood of hangovers, headaches and the much more serious harmful effects; it’s all cloaked in words and phrases like “as little as,” “likely” and “probably.” And it ignores aspartame.
Is it appropriate to equate mezcal which has been produced essentially safely and without incident by families in the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca for generations, with American moonshine, with deaths due to deliberately adulterating a spirit for purely profit motive, with concoctions created by naive youth, or with reports from third world countries in which ignorance of safe spirit production results in imprudent means of production or the use of equipment which contaminates? It is suggested that the alarmists draw their data from such sources.
For the past 25 years I’ve been drinking mezcal sold at small, family owned and operated artisanal distilleries (palenques as they’re known in Oaxaca), without incident. And so have my Oaxacan friends and compadres, hundreds of thousands of villagers who have been patronizing their neighborhood producers (or palenqueros), and more recently visitors to Oaxaca anxious to sample and take home what they cannot find at their local bars or source from retail liquor outlets.
Otherwise all I have to rely on is my cursory review of online literature (including but not restricted to International Center for Alcohol Policies, UPI, Methanol Institute, National Institute of Health / U.S. National Library of Medicine, World Health Organization; a list of references consulted is available upon written request), and my background in social anthropology. It was my Darwinian academic training which lead me to an internet search so that I might be able to prove what I considered to be a reasonable hypothesis, and put into perspective the tall tales I’d been reading. Regarding the latter, I have read that mezcal not certified by a regulatory agency is fake, illegitimate, results in hangovers, and may even lead to blindness or death from methanol poisoning. Have imbibers of agave-based spirits been extremely lucky all these years, decades and perhaps even millennia?
The two lines of thought regarding the origins of distillation in Mexico are that indigenous groups learned to distill long before the arrival of the Spanish, or, that the Spanish learned distillation from the Moors and so brought that knowledge with them in the first half of the 16th century. The former theory gives more credence to my thought process, although 450 years of trial and error and perfecting safe distillation is nothing to sneeze at.
Just like the early Zapoteco natives of Oaxaca learned to dye with the cochineal insect, and in due course presumably through trial and error that the mineral alum served as the best available mordent or fixer, it is suggested that so too did the invaders and the indigenous peoples of Mexico learn how to distill safely. Following the same analogy, it is likely that long ago wool dyed red with cochineal dramatically faded from the sun or through washing, until the best available mordent was found; and so perhaps dating back hundreds of years indeed native Mexicans (and Spanish) succumbed to unwise distillation practices. They have learned the benefit of using alum; and of taking off the methanol, and using predominantly clay or copper or other “safe” metal compounds during and for distillation respectively.
Even the healthiest among us, and that includes those who do not imbibe alcohol, have methanol in their bodies. Humans get it in small amount from eating fruits and vegetables. It is not only absorbed through the gastrointestinal tract, but also through the skin and by inhalation. Methanol is metabolized in the liver, converted first to formaldehyde, and then to formate (formic acid). As a building block for many biological molecules, formate is essential for our survival. On the other hand, high levels of formate buildup after excessive methanol intake can cause severe toxicity. An EPA assessment reported that methanol is considered a cumulative poison due to the low rate of excretion once it is absorbed.
The primary uses of methanol are for industrial and automotive purposes. It is found in antifreeze, canned heating sources, copy machine fluids, de-icing fluids, fuel additives, paint remover or thinner, shellac, varnish, windshield wiper fluid, and more. This is known as denatured alcohol. Government regulations in fact dictate the inclusion of high levels of methanol as a compound in such products, knowing its toxicity and wanting to ensure that the public buys its liquor (in which levels of methanol are controlled, as opposed to other alcohols), in order to maintain healthy tax revenue.
But Government dictates do not prevent the drinking of denatured alcohol or it being used to fortify other beverages. In fact the literature on non-commercial alcohol, which is sometimes referred to as unrecorded alcohol, cites these “surrogates” or non-beverage alcohols, as one of three categories of drinks which potentially create health risks. They are drunk alone (i.e. the classic skid row cases), and used as “cocktails” when they are added for example to fruit juices. The other two are “counterfeit” products and illicit mass-produced drinks, and traditional drinks produced for home consumption or limited local trade (licit or illicit). It is suggested that artisanal mezcal falls into the second part of this third category. So yes, there is the possibility of health problems arising as a consequence of consumers imbibing Mexican mezcal with higher than “safe” levels of methanol.
Spirits Health Risks in Mexico and Internationally
In central Mexico, as born out in the literature, much more than anything else the singular health problem related to mezcal and other traditional alcohol consumption is alcoholism resulting in liver cirrhosis.
In an article centering upon global methanol poisoning outbreaks, the World Health Organization cited examples of adulterated, counterfeit and informally produced spirits in Cambodia, Czech Republic, Ecuador, Estonia, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Libya, Nicaragua, Norway, Pakistan, Turkey and Uganda. Mexico is conspicuously absent from the list.
In an article centering upon the quantification of selected volatile constituents in the Mexican spirits sotol, bacanora, tequila and mezcal, while methanol was the most problematic compound and at times the samples taken were far above the levels recommended by international as well as national standards, two points are particularly noteworthy: methanol levels were not of toxicological relevance; and, other legally obtained drinks such as German fruit spirits were found to have significantly higher methanol levels.
In an article entitled “Noncommercial Alcohol: Understanding the Informal Market,” the International Center for Alcohol Policies reported that much of the perceived health risk stems from patterns of drinking such as chronic consumption and binging, use of low quality ingredients, adulteration, and lack of control during production or storage. In Russia and other republics in the former Soviet Union samagon is cheap and easy to make using household equipment. Kenya’s poor fortifies its grain spirit, chang’aa, with surrogates. Brazil’s national drink cachaca or pinga is sometimes fortified using industrial alcohols, some of which have been noted above.
And what about the United States’ renowned moonshine, the usually high alcohol content spirit typically made using corn mash as the main ingredient? Poorly produced moonshine is contaminated mainly from materials used in still construction, such as employing car radiators as condensers (glycol from the antifreeze or lead from the connections). In addition, methanol can be added to the spirits to increase strength and improve profits.
The 1994 reported poisoning from ingesting mezcal produced in the Mexican state of Morelos cite the spirit having been spiked with methanol. It is suggested that this was an aberration, though of course is noteworthy. Somewhat surprisingly, there was relatively little reported about the incidents, and they have not to my knowledge received attention in the broader English literature centering upon methanol poisoning.
As suggested, methanol is not the only potentially harmful constituent. Lead as well as other toxic metals can poison not only as a consequence of employing unsuitable distillation equipment but also through the use of a contaminated water source. Volatile compounds such as acetaldehyde or higher alcohols can be produced in significant amounts due to fault in production technology or microbiological spoilage. There have been occurrences of certain fruit and sugarcane spirits containing the carcinogen urethane.
When is Methanol Safe?
Returning to methanol, one must now ask what is the safe maximum level of its ingestion. It was only in 1981 that the sugar substitute aspartame was approved for dry goods, and two years later for carbonated beverages. It is made up of three chemicals: aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol which makes up a whopping 10% of its composition. The absorption of methanol into the body is sped up when “free methanol” is ingested, and this form of the chemical is created from aspartame when it is heated to above 86 degrees Fahrenheit (i.e. when making sugar-free Jello). In 1993 the FDA approved aspartame as an ingredient in numerous food items that would normally be heated to above that temperature.
The EPA recommends consumption of no more than 7.8 grams of methanol daily. While the amount of aspartame in a diet soda can vary, it has been reported that a single can produces 20 mg of methanol in the body. It is no wonder that aspartame accounts for over 75% of the adverse reactions to food additives reported to the FDA. Chronic illnesses can be triggered or worsened by ingesting aspartame. The range of afflictions reported is alarming.
The current regulation for the maximum amount of methanol in mezcal is .3 of a gram per 100 ml. It is an arbitrary standard. Query how much mezcal one must ingest to reach the EPA maximum limit of methanol of 7.8 grams daily. The FDA states that as much as .5 of a gram per day of methanol is safe in an adult’s diet. Should the Mexican standard be higher, or lower?
It is no wonder that the study referenced earlier identifying volatile constituents in Mexican spirits, did not find toxicological relevance in the face of analyzing samples far above recommended levels. Furthermore, as distinct from household foodstuffs and drink containing aspartame, ethanol (i.e. mezcal) serves as an antidote for methanol toxicity in humans.
There is indeed confusion in the literature regarding recommended maximum levels of methanol and at what level health risks kick in, both dealing specifically with Mexican spirits, and where they are noted merely tangentially or not at all. However there is also considerable consistency:
Aside from my Darwinian suggestion that the days of dangerous mezcal production have long passed, and acknowledging the issue of still construction, it is noteworthy that almost all artisanal distilleries in Oaxaca consist of either copper alembics or similar production equipment made in equally standardized and carefully monitored workshops and factories; or in clay pots. In both cases they are essentially free of harmful levels of chemical compounds.
If there is a lesson to be learned, it is perhaps that one should never drink artisanal mezcal, commercial or otherwise, while consuming government authorized products containing aspartame.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (http://www.mezcaleducationaltours.com), a registered trademark. He is authorized to teach about the culture of mezcal and pre-Hispanic beverages by the Mexican government.