Can Mezcal in Oaxaca Elevate the State's Tripadvisor Tourism Rankings Relative to the Rest of Mexico?
Oaxaca is known for mezcal. For decades the southern Mexico state has also been known for its beaches, craft villages, pre-Hispanic ruins, cuisine and colonial architecture. Oaxaca had three hotels ranked in the tripadvisor.com 2016 Travelers Choice Awards in the category of top 25 bargain hotels in the country. But for a state which relies almost entirely on tourism for its very existence, that’s not enough, relative to the Tripadvisor rankings for Mexico as a whole. And if it were not for the beach resort towns of Mazunte and Huatulco, Oaxaca would have been almost shut out entirely. Tulum, by contrast, has come out of nowhere to rank first of the top 25 world destinations on the rise. Can mezcal turn Oaxaca’s tourism fortunes around? Certainly its other attractions have not kept the state a force to be reckoned with in the rankings, where it arguably should be.
Tripadvisor.com is the world’s largest and most respected international travel website. Annually it publishes Travelers Choice Awards for the world, individual countries and regions, in several categories ranging from different classes of lodgings, to restaurants, to museums and other attractions.
At least in the city of Oaxaca, mezcal tourism has taken off since about 2014, with a dramatic rise in the influx of visitors seeking out the spirit. They come from the US, Australia, other states in Mexico, Canada, the UK, and elsewhere. They are represented by:
Oaxaca failed to rank at all in the categories of Top 25 Best Hotels (number one spot taken by Rosewood Mayakoba in Playa del Carmen), Top 25 Luxury Hotels (top 25 number one spot taken by Rosewood Mayakoba once again), and Top 10 Fine Dining Restaurants (number one spot taken by Bravos Restaurant Bar in Puerto Vallarta). Surprisingly, internationally respected Oaxacan chef Alejandro Ruíz’s Casa Oaxaca restaurant failed to place in the rankings. It’s fairly safe to assume that the vast majority of tourists seeking out mezcal in the city of Oaxaca dine at Casa Oaxaca, yet the restaurant did not rank in the popularity contest.
Perhaps mezcal aficionados do not use and are not registered members of tripadivsor.com, to the extent of other tourists with more generalized travel and vacation motives.
While mezcal tourism cannot be expected to raise the reputation in all categories listed by tripadvisor.com, the entire state’s malaise is evidenced by virtue of the fact that Oaxaca fails to rank at all under Top 25 Family Hotels (number one spot taken by Paradisus Playa del Carmen La Esmeralda), Top 25 All Inclusives (number one spot taken by Le Blanc Spa Resort in Cancun) and Top 10 Beaches (number one spot taken by Playa Paraiso Tulum).
While top spot in the bargain hotel category was taken by Hotel La Quinta del Sol in Punta de Mita, Huatulco hotels ranked numbers two and 23 for Misión de los Arcos and Hotel Villablanca Huatulco respectively. Posada Ziga in Mazunte was number 21, rounding out the state of Oaxaca’s respectable showing in the category.
What’s interesting about these coastal resorts relative to mezcal tourism, is that one often hears complaints that it is difficult to find a good diversity of mezcal anywhere along Oaxaca’s Pacific shores Most mezcal aficionados who visit Oaxaca in fact do forego a beach portion of their vacation regardless of whether the visit is entirely for pleasure, or for business; though some in the former category combine culture and beach.
Mazunte shone as well in the category top small hotels, taking number seven spot with Casa Pan de Miel (top spot went to Hacienda de Los Santos in Alamos, with number 12 going to Hotel Casona de Tita in the city of Oaxaca). Mazunte took second spot for romance hotels with OceanoMar, losing top spot to Le Blanc Spa Resort in Cancun. Nearby Huatulco ranked number 20 in the category top 25 hotels for service with Misión de Los Arcos, with, yet again Rosewood Mayakoba taking top spot. That’s three top rankings for Rosewood Mayakoba in Playa del Carmen, for best overall, luxury and service! Yes, Hotel Casona de Tita is a quality lodging in downtown Oaxaca, but it’s not very often that visitors interested in learning about mezcal stay there; only one high end hotel in the tripadvisor.com rankings for the city does not really impact anything.
Rounding out the lodging categories, Oaxaca ranked number 12 out of 25 for best B & Bs and inns, for Casa Kei in Puerto Escondido, with top spot going to The Diplomat Boutique Hotel in Mérida. The state also had a showing in the museums category with the capital’s Museo de las Culturas taking number six spot, with naturally top spot going to Mexico City’s world acclaimed National Museum of Anthropology.
The implication of the foregoing is that the state of Oaxaca has a lot of catching up to do with the Yucatan Peninsula. The latter boasts Tulum, Puerto Morelos, Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Granted, aside from hurricane season the Gulf of Mexico boasts better and more predictable weather than the Pacific. But that is no excuse for travelers’ choices in quality, especially when one considers mezcal tourism. And while Oaxaca’s civil unrest of a decade ago still weighs on the minds of some prospective visitors to Mexico, this should only reduce the numbers, and not significantly impact rankings relative to other tourist destinations in the country.
Visiting Oaxaca? I suppose travelers should head to either Mazunte or Huatulco, at least for a southern beach-style vacation. But as suggested, Oaxaca’s coastal destinations will not get you much in the way of quality mezcal. The city must do a better job of promoting the spirit on the international stage. With at least 15 mezcal bars in a city of about 400,000, and aficionados converging from all corners of the globe, surely something is amiss. Let’s see if there is a change in the rankings for the 2017 tripadvisor.com Travelers Choice Awards.
The number of mezcal bars, or mezcalerías, in Oaxaca, has exploded over the past couple of years. These watering holes cater to locals, Mexicans from the furthest reaches of the country, and of course to international tourists. While “mezcal tourism” has been and will likely continue to be a significant boon to Oaxaca’s economy, a frequently asked question is if the number of retail outlets in the city has reached the saturation point despite the recent dramatic rise in mezcal’s reputation on the world stage.
Tourism in Oaxaca, in general, has had its peaks and valleys since 2006, especially in terms of visitors from the US. That year witnessed significant civil unrest, and despite the fact that it was not dangerous for travelers to visit Oaxaca, the US state department warned against stepping foot in the state. Media also played a significant role in deterring tourism.
Thankfully people’s memories are short, so tourism returned. That is until the “Mexican” Swine Flu scare. But tourism rebounded. Then there was the combination of the “Mexican drug wars” and the US economic crisis. But since the resurgence of the US economy, and President Peña Neto apparently taking a different approach to dealing with drug cartels from that of his predecessor, Oaxaca is back in business.
But will the current surge in tourism continue, and be enough to enable the city’s bars and cantinas to turn a reasonable profit (let’s forget about the well-known downtown Oaxaca “not-for-profit” mezcalería), and warrant the opening of more mezcalerías? On all counts, I would suggest so.
Mezcal will continue to positively impact the level of tourism in the state capital. There are several reasons to opine that more mezcalerías than the current (early 2016) 15 or so will open, and that the existing ones will not only survive, but continue to thrive. There are numerous reasons for this perspective.
It is trite that the profit margin for retail spirit sales is significant; more so in Oaxaca than for example in the US or Canada, since tourists are accustomed to hometown elevated prices (which of course take into consideration cost of export, import tax, warehousing, agency fees, etc.) and are more than willing to pay what amounts to half the cost of a shot as compared to in their home towns. Bars can sell a 1.5 ounce serving of mezcal tobalá for 120 pesos ($7 USD) or more, without patrons batting an eyelash. Average cost to the retailer for this type of mezcal is in the neighborhood of 250 pesos per liter, perhaps a bit more. This is not to suggest that tourists are easy marks, but rather simply that profit margins for mezcal here in Oaxaca are as healthy, if not healthier than in the US, Canada, the UK, and elsewhere. On the contrary; Oaxacan mezcal prices remain a bargain.
In theory, only mezcal which has been certified by a regulatory board, Consejo Regulador del Mezcal, can be sold in Oaxaca. There are costs associated with certification, and tax on a bottle of this kind of mezcal is extremely high. However, many mezcalerías in Oaxaca sell quality “mezcal” which is called destilado de agave, or is known by a similar name. Sale of this alternate agave based spirit (yes, still a mezcal) nets a significantly higher gross profit. Sometimes but not always, the lesser cost to the retailer is passed on to the customer. Another way that some mezcal cantinas have kept the cost down to consumers is by offering servings at one ounce servings (i.e. La Mezcalerita).
Some Oaxaca mezcalerías serve food (i.e. el Destilado), which broadens the pool of prospective patrons to include spouses and others in a party who are not all that enamored with the spirit. While the profit is of course less with food as compared to with spirit, offering a quality comida or cena certainly helps to pay the bills.
Other mezcal bars serve cocktails (i.e. El Espino Gastro Cantina), having a similar effect as those which go the cuisine route to keep their establishments filled. While some in the industry decry the bastardization of mezcal by using it to make cocktails, even such “purists” have begun to come around and have used a “cocktail night” as a way to attract customers.
You don’t need much space for a mezcalería (i.e. Los Amantes). It appears legal to sit, stand, and drink outside the bar on the street. Of course the closer the locale to the heart of Oaxaca’s downtown historic core, the higher the rent and the more modest the square footage, and thus the need for lax, if any, imbibing laws. On the other hand, with a bit of good publicity, a welcoming vibe and quality hooch, one can have all the space needed and a presumably affordable rent if at the fringes of downtown (i.e. Cuish).
Oaxaca is one of the poorest states in the country. Concomitant is the fact that wages are low, though retailers would be hard-pressed to encounter reliable staff at anywhere close to minimum wage, unless healthy gratuities are the norm. Thus, wages can be the most modest expense in a mezcalería’s cost equation. But it cuts both ways; low wages can mean staff of questionable quality, so it becomes incumbent upon mezcal bars to keep a close watch, with owners close at hand. However, quality personnel can be affordable in this industry, since many bars do not open until the afternoon. Thus, a single shift can keep wages in check.
Often family members and partners maintain hours of operation (i.e. respectively Mis Mezcales and In Situ). In such cases reputations are built upon friendliness, helpfulness and the knowledge of those staffing the mezcalería (i.e. Mis Mezcales) often combined with quantity and diversity of product (i.e. In Situ boasts 180 different mezcals). With the cost of mezcal purchased wholesale in quantity still extremely modest (i.e. as low as 60 pesos per liter for espadín), establishments can afford to be well-stocked.
Market saturation of mezcalerías in Oaxaca is a long way off. No doubt tourism in Oaxaca will continue to have its ups and downs. But spirits enthusiasts seem immune to the fear-mongering, and the urging by their friends and family against traveling to Mexico. The number of mezcal aficionados continues to grow, as does the diversity in their objectives: restaurant / bar owners visiting with their staff for training purposes; entrepreneurs with export aspirations; scotch, brandy and tequila drinkers anxious for something new; and of course novices wanting to sample and learn.
Alvin Starkman is a permanent resident of Oaxaca. He operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (http://www.mezcaleducaitonaltours.com). Alvin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Export brand owners of Oaxacan artisanal mezcal, the increasingly popular agave based Mexican spirit, come in many shapes and sizes. Some are proprietors of their own distilleries, or palenques are they’re known in this southern Mexico state. Others buy their liquid from small-scale family owned and operated facilities; in some cases they bottle on their own, while in others they contract with the producer to bottle, seal and label for them. There are umpteen arrangement permutations. Similarly the level of sophistication of palenqueros runs the gamut. However, by and large brand owners who are not directly involved in mezcal production are more savvy than their associate producers. This can, and does on occasion, lead to abuse within the industry as a result of inequality of bargaining power, and the palenquero’s desire to willy-nilly jump on the growing mezcal bandwagon with a view to selling much more product than previously.
Aventureros del Mezcal seeks to redress the imbalance by assisting artisanal mezcal producers to arrive at and obtain a fair price for their spirit. It does not pass judgment upon those who would take unfair advantage of hard-working palenqueros and their families while in the course of lining their own pockets. In fact Cynthia Ruíz Villalobos, co-owner of Aventureros, does not begrudge the Mexico City exporter who wears $200 USD sunglasses and sports $300 USD blue jeans, or his American counterpart who drives a Mercedes and lives in a posh Manhattan condo. By contrast, the lion’s share of brand owners are decent people who do their part to help Oaxacan palenqueros and their communities, of course at the same time earning a living for themselves.
At one end of the spectrum are non-Oaxacans who try to buy mezcal they earmark for foreign markets for as paultry a price per liter as possible. They seem little if at all concerned for the palenquero, who from time to time arises before dawn and concludes his work near dusk, often bloodied and exhausted after a day in the fields cutting and harvesting maguey. Its by-product, mezcal, is destined for export and ultimately sale at haughty retail prices. At the other end are those who want to succeed in the spirits world, but are equally concerned about ensuring a significantly improved economic lot for their producers. However palenqueros in Oaxaca are not yet at the point where the concept of “fair trade” has impacted price. Enter Aventureros.
Ruíz Villalobos is a chemical engineer with specialization in food sciences. Her business partner Paolina Musalem Ramos is a civil engineer. About two years ago they determined that of the three sectors they had begun to examine and analyze, being mezcal, coffee and crafts, mezcal was the industry requiring the most fortification from the bottom up. Retailers and wholesalers are at the top of the pyramid, intermediaries (exporters, distributors, agents, etc.) are in the middle, and the largest number and those who require assistance are the producers, languishing at the bottom.
“While our ultimate goal is to work with each of the three sectors,” Ruíz Villalobos explains, “we initially selected mezcal because in our estimation artisanal producers require more help than those in the other two [sectors], and the industry is in dire need of strengthening the beginning of the supply chain, the base of the pyramid.” She continues:
“How many palenqueros do you think arrive at the prices they charge for their mezcal by taking into consideration the cost of their [copper] alambiques amortized over the lifetime of that integral and expensive piece of equipment, or the actual cost of firewood when they do not pay cash out of pocket for it, or how much a highly skilled craftsperson or maestro albañil [master bricklayer] earns per day?”
Ruíz Villalobos and Musalem Ramos set out to find an initial complement of four palenqueros. Not surprisingly that task was relatively easy, though not a walk in the park. Who would turn away an opportunity to understand how much it really costs to produce a liter of mezcal, while at the same time receive both guidance on pricing and marketing assistance, all at no cost other than time? While the first goal of Aventureros is to calculate real costs of production for each palenquero, the plan also includes helping them to find new markets for their spirit. Part and parcel of the latter is to in due course assist them to become certified by the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM, or mezcal regulatory board). This will grant them access to the export marketplace. In addition, certification gives producers greater access to Mexico’s domestic markets by enabling retailers to legally call the spirit “mezcal” rather than “destilado de agave” (agave distillate).
The four palenques are located in two different districts of the state. In each case the process has been for Aventureros has been to set up an initial meeting with the palenquero and his family to explain the program, and for both sides to feel comfortable proceeding. This includes the palenquero trusting the motives of Aventureros and his willingness to provide detailed frank information of all facets of his operation, and his life. On the other side, Aventureros must be confident that its client will take the time to diligently gather information and follow through with disclosure promises, and be willing to embark upon next steps.
A key component of the project is the creation of spreadsheets or tables, onto which monthly or yearly pesos amounts are inserted into a plethora of categories; both fixed costs, and variable amounts contingent upon, for example, different labor requirements depending on stage of production. Since the learning curve regarding mezcal production is vast, and because each palenquero’s tool of the trade and methodology vary at least to some extent, creating the charts became part of the process in the course of Ruíz Villalobos and Musalem Ramos assisting each of their distillers. The ultimate result would become a blueprint for costing the production and sale of artisanal mezcal. Many columns are necessarily left blank pending the palenquero advancing with further steps such as expenses involved in batch certification, cost of export to Mexico City and further abroad, advertising and promotion, etc. And if production of the spirit, certified or not, is where his costs end, then he can determine his price per bottle and leave it to others in the chain to do their own extended analyses.
“I’m not aware of anyone else who has embarked upon precisely this kind of project in the state of Oaxaca, that is micro-analysis at the level of ancestral or small scale traditional mezcal production,” Ruíz Villalobos avows. Accordingly, while there are likely no intellectual property issues with disclosing Aventureros’ spreadsheets and the broader blueprint, I will leave it to Ruíz Villalobos and Musalem Ramos to, at their discretion, field questions and provide further information to those who are acquainted with palenqueros who might benefit from the program.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, I believe it is important for the reader to have a more concrete idea regarding the work Aventureros has been doing in terms of some of the categories that have been examined in the four instances, and the steps which follow after the initial agreement to proceed.
The second meeting between Aventureros and a palenquero enables the former to obtain raw data from the latter, based on presentation of receipts such as for electricity, telephone, internet, tarps for covering ovens, fermentation vats, gasoline for transport, small metal condensers in the case of clay pot distillation, etc. In many cases he can only go by memory since receipts are either lost or never provided. Discussion must ensue regarding, for example, how many tons of what specie of agave is harvested how often, the average yield (with its own set of variables), and so on. How many days per month does the palenquero work, how often are his wife and children involved, how much does he pay day laborers at what stage of production, and how does one value the labor of the palenquero and his family members? What if no money is paid to laborers, but rather compensation is in the form of trading of labor, goods and services, known as guelaguetza? How do you calculate the price of agave when cash is not paid to the comuneros, members of the village who determine, amongst other things, who has the right to harvest how much based upon that person having fulfilled his civil duty to the community, known as tequio?
Once the data is collected, and analyzed within the context of the broader Oaxacan economy, it is input into the spreadsheets back at the office. Matters such as valuing labor and materials where cash is not exchanged, significant capital costs, depreciation and amortization must be considered before a real per liter peso amount is reached.
At the final disclosure meeting Ruíz Villalobos and Musalem Ramos are armed with their completed charts and spreadsheets, and backup documentation, some of which is statistical. This is generally the first time the palenquero and his family truly gain an appreciation of the value of their work, and an understanding of why their price per liter requires substantial adjustment. According to Ruíz Villalobos, in one instance the palenquero had been charging about 70% less per liter than he should have been. After reviewing the material he understood two crucial points: 1) the reason why despite all the hard work, increased production, and growing popularity of mezcal, his family were little better off than they were five years earlier, and; 2) why it became imperative for him to increase his price per liter.
But if others in the local palenquero community are charging less, the question becomes how does the producer raise prices and still be competitive. The other arm of Aventureros’ project is promoting the concept of fair pricing through explanation and discussion at events arranged at mezcalerías in Oaxaca, Mexico City and elsewhere in the country. It is assisting with bottling and labelling, an important aspect of marketing. Certification and the export market is indeed on the horizon, but the issue then becomes addressing sales on an international scale.
Aventureros is still in phase one, enlightening more palenqueros regarding their real costs of production and sale, and ensuring that the mezcal consuming public has an appreciation of the industry from the bottom up. If palenqueros who are already involved in the export of the spirit recognize their actual costs, they may indeed be inclined to raise prices. The problem then becomes the exporter seeking other producers with whom to associate and maintain that inequality of bargaining power. In almost every industry you can find producers who will almost give away their widgets, just for the sake of a sale; and as in the case of many artisanal mezcal producers, it is done without embarking upon the type of analysis Aventureros preaches.
The mezcal market cannot likely withstand a much higher pricing level if it is to continue to compete and grow in the global spirits market. A solution for those exporters motivated primarily by avarice might be to pay the palenquero what he deserves, and at the same time downscale his lifestyle, just a tad. But frankly, how many exporters of artisanal mezcal have levelled the playing field by aiding their producers in understanding their real costs of production and sale. Bravo Aventureros del Mezcal!
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca. He and Ruíz Villalobos are organizing their first daylong group event scheduled for March, 2016, consisting of a mezcal educational experience combined with a visit to one of Ruíz Villalobos’ clay pot distillers and his families. They are using it as a means of promoting the project and exposing both aficionados and novices to the lifestyle rural palenqueros. The day will include a luncheon prepared by the family and (optional) hike.
Not a week goes by without a visitor to Oaxaca wanting to learn about Mexico’s iconic agave based spirit, and asking a very pointed question: why are some of these industry experts in the city steadfastly against common practices relating to imbibing mezcal, such as drinking reposados and añejos, using mezcal to make cocktails, and consuming one's product choice based on ABV (alcohol by volume) personal preference. I hear about the promulgation of rules about the shape and composition of drinking vessels, and of the dissemination of misinformation regarding how long it takes different species of agave to mature, and which mezcals are made with wild as opposed to cultivated maguey. Usually such points of view are not expressed as opinion subject to discussion, but rather fact, or in some cases gospel.
To be clear, while I have been around mezcal in Oaxaca for a quarter century, and am currently involved in the industry leading mezcal educational tours on a part-time basis, I am far from an expert. There is a long learning curve associated with mezcal, with so much to absorb in its now modern era. In fact many authorities (as distinct from "experts"), both relative newcomers to the industry involved in production and/or export, and veterans whose families have been steeped in distillation for generations, approach production with open minds, and are anxious to continue learning through the exchange of information.
Reposados & Anejos
Some say you should never drink reposado or añejo. When pressed for a reason they often state that it alters the natural flavors and aromas of the agave. True enough, but so what. Could one not equally use the word "enhances?" The same industry people, often owners and employees of mezcalerías, however, don't think twice about encouraging patrons to try a product where the baked crushed maguey has been fermented in a bull hide, yielding a unique profile; or a mezcal made where the agave has been baked over mesquite (as opposed to pine, oak, etc.), again creating a different nuance. So why dismiss aging? One mezcalería owner has told me that she has not been able to find good aged mezcals. Oh come on!
This leads me to one rationalization for the position, that aged mezcal is not traditional mezcal. Perhaps the spirit was not being stored or transported in oak during the earliest years of distillation in Mexico. But certainly towards the end of the 16th century, when the Spanish began emptying their imported Old World sherry barrels, and then later their rum barrels, oak receptacles were likely (if not certainly) being used for mezcal. Aging was taking place if not by design, then by default.
It was often more expedient for producers to store and transport product in a 200 liter barrel, than use several 70 liter clay cántaros (pots). And so with a good supply of used barrels emerging in the marketplace, aged mezcals became commonplace (i.e. traditional), dating back a couple of hundred years I would suggest, with some producers eventually making a science (or art) out of resting their spirits; in French sherry barrels, Kentucky bourbon or Tennessee whisky barrels, and in due course employing new barrels fashioned from Canadian white oak. For generations some palenquero families have prided themselves in the quality of their rested spirits, using various aging styles and different barrels for different lengths of time to achieve specific flavor profiles. So to suggest it is difficult to find aged mezcals of high quality in the state of Oaxaca, is in my estimation a weak excuse.
For my excursions I usually bring along an añejo in my nine-mezcal sample box. If a client enjoys it, this signals that we should visit one or two distilleries which produce reposados and añejos, and carry on discussing the topic of aging. If not, then its joven (or blanco, that is unaged) all the way. But here's the point: most of us are in the business of promoting the spirit (with of course varying degrees of profit motivation, altruism, passion, etc.) with a view to lauding its attributes so that more people will try, and subsequently become fans and regular purchasers of mezcal. The more mezcal that is consumed, the better it is for the industry, and most importantly for growers who live a subsistence existence, as well as for small-scale palenqueros and their families. We should not close off any market segment capable of becoming established and growing.
There's room for mezcal on the bar of any single malt scotch, tequila, brandy or whisky aficionado's home. If someone is a fan of a 16 year old Lagavulin or a Burgundy wood finish Glenmorangie, what positive result can there be by telling her to never drink an aged mezcal? Yes, over 90% of the mezcals in my collection are blancos, and that's what I usually drink. But sometimes I get a hankering for a mild reposado, or a rich five year añejo with tones of butterscotch, or a peaty single malt.
I believe that the more appropriate and educational modality is to encourage novices to begin by sampling blancos, from whatever region, type of agave, means of production, tools of the trade, and so on. Teach about the innumerable nuances and unrivalled complexity of unaged mezcal. But then encourage the client to try one or two aged products, especially if dealing with a client who is a fan of barrel aged spirits. If you dissuade someone from trying something aged, you risk losing a prospective convertee; you are also doing a disservice to the client.
The Cocktail Craze
I've read that the worst way to bastardize mezcal is to use it in a cocktail. Since publication that author has graciously tempered his dogmatism, likely after having realized that promoting mezcal as an ingredient in cocktails helps everyone in the broader alcohol consumption industry. Some bartenders still believe that it is not worth it to use a high quality expensive mezcal when making a cocktail. With all due respect, the better view as promulgated by mixologists and bartenders renowned for their cocktail prowess, is that mezcal should be considered as any other ingredient, with different qualities, varieties, etc. There's a difference between red and green pepper flavors, cilantro, cucumber, etc. If you have 50 different mezcals on the shelf, consider which one would pair best with the other ingredients. Is the predominant note of the spirit fruity, floral, herbaceous, earthy, caramelized, woody, and so on? How will a particular spirit character complement the other ingredients and enhance the ultimate cocktail? When it comes to pairing mezcal for mixing cocktails and for cooking, I'm a novice at best, though I continue to take classes with a view to honing my palate.
Alcohol by Volume
Telling consumers that they should only drink mezcal between 45% and 55% ABV (as distinct from proof) has become somewhat acceptable practice in Oaxaca mezcalerías. While most artisanal mezcals are within that range, there are excellent products both below and above the "norm." Spirits consumers who are accustomed to drinking quality yet commercial tequilas or scotches at 40%, may never come around to appreciating 53% mezcals. So why tell them what ABV they should and should not drink? If a patron has in mind an evening of imbibing, perhaps three 3-pour flights, consider sneaking in a couple of products outside of your preferred ABV range and gauge interest, welcome commentaries, and discuss.
The rationale for the rule simply does not hold water. The owners of one particular brand of artisanal mezcal conducted close to 100 blind tastings throughout Mexico before settling upon a 37% spirit for its flagship product. During the first year of operation the brand shipped 16,000 liters from its distillery in Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca, for the national market alone. The brand continues to thrive, opening new markets.
It is indeed true that some mezcals less than or greater than the stated ABV range do not enable the consumer to fully appreciate the particular spirit's flavor potential, but this is not always the case. Some mezcals well into the 60%+ category, in the realm of puntas or heads, go down more smoothly than a 45%, and retain exquisite notes.
It is suggested that with the current agave scarcity and concomitant dramatic increase in price per kilo of raw piña, producers and exporters will opt for one of two ways to address the "crisis" if they wish to maintain or enhance existing profit levels: significantly increase the price per liter or bottle - but the spirits market will determine the viability of doing so; or reduce the ABV with a view to remaining competitive in the marketplace. If the latter, the blowhards will have little choice but to temper their dogmatism.
"Tobalá [Agave potatorum] is a wild agave; tepeztate [Agave marmorata] takes 35 years to grow." Yes some, but certainly not all of the mezcal made with the former uses wild tobalá, and some tepeztate no doubt takes 35 years to mature. But such statements, made as hard-fast truths not subject to discussion, bandied about by staff in some Oaxacan watering holes, lack absolute veracity. I now rarely speak or write about mezcal or agave with a tone of certainty, and prefer including in my own bluster qualifying words such as “usually,” “on average,” “it is suggested,” or “in my opinion.” Tobalá is being cultivated from seed and thereafter transformed into mezcal. Some producers are apparently dropping seeds or small plants from airplanes, and letting them grow and mature in the wild prior to harvesting. Others are germinating seeds, growing small tobalás close to their homes or palenques, and then transplanting them in the wild. I confess that I don’t know whether such projects result in mezcal made with wild, domesticated or cultivated maguey. Regarding tepeztate, my palenquero friends tell me that it usually matures after 12 – 15 years of growth, but that yes, it can take much longer. They do not speak in absolutes.
I suppose that this promulgation as fact of matters relating to agave species, does help the proponent of half-truths, and to some extent initially the industry in a couple of ways. It advances the sense of romanticism and uniqueness regarding mezcal. But it could also be a means of rationalizing a highly inflated price for mezcal made with tobalá, tepeztate and other “designer” agave species (without of course denying the often dramatic increased cost of producing mezcal with them; although with the current stratospheric cost of buying espadín piñas on the open market, who knows?). The ultimate disservice to the client, and it is suggested adverse impact for the retailer and broader business interest, is occasioned when the novice begins hearing and reading alternate viewpoints reasonably not stated as dogma; he then may become confused and frustrated.
Glasses, Cups, Jícaras & Clay
It’s hard to dispute that a vessel made of glass is the best medium for drinking mezcal, or any liquid for that matter, because it is neutral. Similarly I would suggest, at least for mezcal, a small half gourd or jicarita arguably provides imbibers with a shape which optimally enables their spirit to open prior to drinking. Some suggest, however, that the “wood” of the jícara impacts the flavor of the mezcal. A standard shot glass for mezcal, or caballito tequilero, is neutral, but because of its shape the spirit cannot open as is the case if poured into a jicarita. Does this throw a wrench into the proposition that you should only drink mezcal from glass? Yes, a solution to the conundrum is that the positive reply to the question holds if the glass is in the shape of a small half gourd. What if it’s a small clay cup in the shape of a jicarita? Worse than a jícara? Better or worse than a glass caballito?
The point, once again, is dogmatism. If it’s tradition that we want, then we should be drinking our mezcal out of half gourds like Mexicans have been doing for hundreds of years, or out of small pieces of the invasive bamboo specie known as carrizo (river reed). Query if it is the same people who advocate only drinking “traditional” mezcal (unaged), who would also shun the idea of being too traditional by drinking from a jícara or piece of carrizo, and not sipping out of glass.
The solution is, I suppose, to try drinking your mezcal out of a variety of vessels of different shapes and compositions. I’ve noticed when experimenting with industry friends, that some mezcals open differently depending on the shape. For me, anything but a caballito, made of glass or carrizo, is fine, suggesting that perhaps form is more important than composition (leaving aside the issue of clay jicaritas).
Experiment if you can. Perhaps the small ribbed glass votive candle holders with the cross on the bottom, or a brandy, is the appropriate compromise. At the end of the day it’s akin to what I’ve read from the critics of new vehicle reviewers; when it comes to handling, cornering, shocks and comfort, forget what the experts write, and test drive to form your own opinion and decide based on how the car, truck or SUV handles when behind the wheel. Perhaps for one particular mezcal anything serves, for another one vessel enhances optimally, and yet for a third a different form and medium provides that exquisite aroma and flavor profile which has otherwise escaped.
Dogmatism and Mezcal: Harmful for the Industry, or Just the Blowhards
Dogmatism sometimes gets the better of us. When we’re teaching about the culture of mezcal, it is sometimes very easy to exaggerate and mis-state, by finding fact where there is none. And when we’re preaching to the uninformed, we sometimes forget that there is always fact-checking. The uninitiated will not always take what is stated as gospel; especially when their interest in visiting Oaxaca is to learn about our spirit from a variety of sources.
We must check our dogmatism at the door. The braggarts may be building up their own reputations, but only for that fleeting moment, hour or day, until more tempered discourse in a different drinking or learning environment takes over. Afterwards, it’s the reputation of the mezcalería which potentially suffers.
The foregoing are only a few of the instances in which blowhards in their dogmatic approach to the industry in the end do more harm than good: “X agave makes the best agave distillate; mezcal that is reduced to its ultimate consumption ABV by adding distilled or spring water rather than just the tail of the distillation (cola), is not real mezcal.” Again here, the same problem.
The dramatic rise in the number of mezcalerías in Oaxaca since about 2013, is remarkable. But without proper training of staff and taking greater care in promoting the spirit, it may all go for naught. Encourage both novices and the initiated, to experiment, read, imbibe and otherwise learn. Don’t speak or write in absolutes, save for when there is certainty. Opine, but at the same time acknowledge other points of view. The mezcal industry in Oaxaca, and for the world, will benefit and continue its surge.
Alvin Starkman is a permanent resident of the city of Oaxaca, from where he operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Alvin Starkman, M.A. J.D.
Mezcalerías, or mezcal bars in Oaxaca specializing in artisanal mezcal, began opening at a furious pace last year. In an article I authored in October, 2014, I foreshadowed ongoing rapid change in the retail sector, and suggested that numbers would increase; and so they have as of May, 2015, only months later.
The meteoric rise in the popularity of the iconic Mexican agave based spirit continues to spell more mezcal tourism to the city, both in terms of visitors to Oaxaca arriving from foreign countries, as well as from cities throughout Mexico – to learn, to sample, to buy and to export.
I am continually asked “where should I go to drink different mezcals.” This, then, is a compendium of mezcalerías in the city of Oaxaca, revisited for 2015, which includes a couple of local haunts which also serve beer and one lounge. They are all nevertheless known for their sale of the agave intoxicant.
While the listings are accurate and up to date, it should be noted that prior to my earlier article, within a year or so one mezcalería had opened and closed on the zócalo (a branch of La Mezcalerita, with its flagship noted below), another opened on the zócalo just after I had published my first article and closed only seven months later (Sabina Sabe, said to be relocating after tenancy issues), and one which indeed made my list, Tobalá or Toba, simply closed. So there is a shakeup in the industry. Landlord fickleness may be a factor. But it is suggested that those with a reasonable amount of business acumen and / or passion for mezcal, will continue to thrive, and that there will be rapid growth of new players on the scene as the months go by; that is until the saturation point is reached.
Special mention should be made about La Mezcalerita, noted in my earlier article with less than flattering words because of the sparse offerings and environment – at the time. Management has taken significant steps at improvement, so much so that La Mezcalerita is now a mezcal bar to be reckoned with, both in terms of ambiance and selection; La Mezcalerita is now a favorite for tourists and locals alike.
Another major change which has taken hold in 2015, is the tendency for mezcalerías, and indeed many restaurants offering a healthy complement of mezcals, to distinguish mezcals made in palenques certified by the regulatory board CRM (Consejo Regulador del Mezcal, previously known as COMERCAM), from those not produced as certified. In order to not run afoul of CRM dictates, non-certified mezcals (technically in fact not “mezcals”) are often noted as “destilados de agave,” “destilados de agave silvestre artesanal,” “agave silvestre,” and so on. There is a concern that authorities may be on the prowl.
An establishment may have an extensive array of house mezcals which cannot legally be termed mezcals because they are not certified, so designating as something in the nature of agave distillate does the trick. There may be two lists at Oaxacan establishments, of equally good quality, yet entitled differently. It is also noteworthy that it is not necessarily the case that when a mezcal is selected from a list with the word “silvestre” in the title, it is made from wild as opposed to cultivated agave. Fair play? Marketing license? I suppose in the minds of some.
Similarly, it should be noted that some (but certainly not all) wait staff and bartenders seem to want to build up mezcal, or their particular offerings, or their perceived knowledge, or all, by stating as fact what is at best opinion or uncalled for dogmatism, and at worst misstatement (i.e. “tobala is a wild agave,” or “tepeztate takes 35 years to grow”). It’s not for me to correct such statements, at least not herein, but rather for the owners of these outlets to better train or monitor – if they are so inclined.
I’ll begin this latest enumeration with mezcalerías not listed earlier, followed by those where change has occurred (i.e. La Mezcalerita), and conclude with those which have simply kept up within the industry.
Once again the days and hours of operation published on signs out front and enumerated herein, must be taken with a grain of salt. They seem to change at the whim of management, based on level of tourism in the city, and if employees and owners are otherwise elsewhere engaged. But in most cases you can find them open evenings Tuesday or Wednesday through Saturday. Some make a diligent effort to be operational during their published times, even those with morning hours.
La Porfiria Mezcalerlía: Porfirio Díaz #907 Centro [cel: 951 221 2539 (2 – 11 pm)]. La Porfiria is one of the new mezcal bars in Oaxaca. It has a modern ambiance with a reasonably good selection of house and certified mezcals. Amongst the former you can likely find an agave distillate made with your favorite species of maguey such as barril, tepeztate, tobalá, and so on. Prices are reasonable, especially considering that your mezcal is served on a smart wooden platter with orange wedges, sal de gusano and chapulines. The appetizer plates are healthy in size and do the trick, especially if you’re in for extensive drinking.
El Espino Gastro Cantina: 20 de Noviembre #103 [cel: 951 197 2696 (from 11 am)]. El Espino opened in 2014. It is large, dark, with relatively loud music and a DJ during peak days and hours, all very smartly done up to keep you there and drinking. With close to 120 certified mezcals, and with a good selection of craft beers, it is worthy of attention if the ambiance is something you crave from time to time. And yes there is food.
La Madre Mezcalería: Morelos #405 [(951) 501 2027; certainly weekends from about 8:30 pm, but other evenings may be open as well, so perhaps call or check social media; if open you’ll see a wrought iron gate with a few votive candles for illumination]. This is a small funky mezcalería, dedicated to the promotion of the unique, fine mezcals produced by a select number of maestro palenqueros in the Miahuatlán district of Oaxaca, more particularly in or near the municipality of San Luis Amatlán. It currently features 15 mezcals produced in four palenques (including that of Reyna Sánchez, one of only a few female producers [as opposed to promoters in their family businesses]). Part of the mission is to make the mezcals available at rock bottom prices, and accordingly a flight of three for 120 pesos is now offered. Beer is available. Soft guitar music is sometimes featured.
La Medida Mezcales y Vinos: Macedonio Alcalá #403 (upper level) [www.mezcallamedida.com; Mon - Thurs 6 pm to midnight; Fri – Sat until 2 am.] This is a wine, cocktail and mezcal lounge, not included in the initial article because I could not categorize it as a mezcalería. I still cannot, but have decided it’s worthy of mention because of the number of mezcals (about 60, all certified) and the different imbibing environment it offers. Where El Espino is not for everyone because of its boisterous ambiance, La Medida offers something different; for those wanting relaxed comfortable surroundings, those with healthy pocketbooks (shots from 60 up to a whopping 280 pesos), and those who are perhaps visiting the city with a partner or friends not particularly interested in drinking mezcal all evening – there are both wine and cocktail lists.
La Mezcalerita: Macedonio Alcalá #706-C [cel: 951 106 4432; 1:00 – 10:00 pm]. La Mezcalerita has stepped it up since last year, and now can be considered one of the premier mezcalerías in Oaxaca. Its selection of both commercial labels and agave distillates is impressive, as is the number of craft beers listed and actually available. Ambiance is pleasing with barn board style tables, chairs and décor, and interesting music both Mexican and 70s rock (last visit The Doors was playing). The rooftop was closed on a night in April. What sets it apart is patrons being able to select either one or two ounce drinks, meaning that if you are interested in sampling a significant number of offerings, doing so won’t set you back a bundle and will enable you to return home or to your lodging relatively intact. Although recommended for those staying anywhere in Oaxaca’s centro histórico, it provides an extremely easily accessible option for those travelers staying near the north end of downtown, such as at Casa Ollin B & B, Casa Conzatti and Holiday Inn Express.
In Situ: Morelos #511 [cel: 951 514 1811]. In Situ is generally considered the most respected mezcalería in Oaxaca. One of the co-owners is author / journalist Ulises Torrentera. The bar boasts over 180 different mezcals, and often hosts evenings featuring a representative of a particular brand, with healthy samples of the product served at rock bottom prices, including a botana. Ownership has tempered its earlier views on cocktails made with mezcal and acceptable percentage alcohol content; at least to the extent of having had cocktail nights and featuring palenqueros who make mezcal which is less than 45% ABV. Don’t let the main floor bar deceive, since there is an upstairs with tables and chairs for more relaxed drinking and socializing.
La Mezcaloteca: Reforma #506 [(951)514-0082; 4:30 – 10:00 pm, six days; reservations preferred] Mezcaloteca fashions itself a tasting room, and does provide a good basic education through encouraging patrons to sample groupings of three different mezcals produced in different regions, using diverse distillation and fermentation methods and made with different agaves. However it should be noted that other mezcalerías are now also offering “flights” of mezcals. Owners and employees are very dogmatic in their views about (read “against”) aged mezcals (Mezcaloteca’s party line, similar to that of In Situ). The teaching is admirable, but is still no substitute for getting out of the city and visiting real artisanal palenques not constructed for the tourist trade: putting the theory (tasting and explanation) into practice through in-the-field experience, witnessing first-hand what you’ve been told in the downtown Oaxaca “class.”
Cuish: Díaz Ordaz #712 [(951)516-8791]. Together with the foregoing two mezcalerías, Cuish represents one of the earlier mezcal bars to come onto the scene from the outset of the modern mezcal boom. It’s located in the south end of the centro histórico, in a somewhat seedy yet safe part of downtown. It has a more speakeasy feel to it, with comfy couches on the second floor and a remarkable air of informality.
La Casa del Mezcal: Flores Magón #209. La Casa del Mezcal is one of the oldest running cantinas in Oaxaca, dating to 1935. It’s known for its location right across from the Benito Juárez market, and its old west atmosphere with swinging oak doors and long exquisite bar, loud jukebox music, smoke, beer and of course mezcal. It does have a selection of house mezcals, but is more for drinking and soaking up the ambiance than for learning about the spirit’s subtle nuances. La Casa del Mezcal is definitely worth a visit if you want to experience a typical Mexican cantina.
Mezcalillera: Murguía 403-A [(951)514-1757]. From old to new, the sleek and modern Mezcalillera is one of the more recent entries onto the mezcal scene in downtown Oaxaca. It dubs itself “La Miscelánea del Mezcal,” promoting high end certified products for sampling and sale as well as some agave / mezcal related paraphernalia you can pick up to take home. It claims to carry 63 brands comprising 190 varieties, though the shop doesn’t appear to have that much spirit on hand. Mezcalillera seems more geared to sampling and buying, than sitting and sipping for an extended period of time.
Mis Mezcales: Reforma #528-B [(951)514-2523; 10 am – 9pm; seven days]. Mis Mezcales has the broadest range of mezcal-related gift ítems including T-shirts, glassware, pottery, and books and tasting wheels as does In Situ and Mezcalillera. Its selection of mezcals is perhaps not as large as Mezcalillera and certainly not as grandiose as In Situ, but it does have a nice modern sipping ambiance. Like Mezcalillera, Mis Mezcales appears to be more of an establishment for a brief visit to sample and pick something up to take home.
Los Amantes: Allende #107 [firstname.lastname@example.org; Tues-Sun, 4:00 – 10 pm] Los Amantes provides a wonderful yet tiny drinking environment decorated with vintage bottles and related mezcal items. The only downside is that it carries only products made in its distillery. However, it has indeed become a hangout for locals, perhaps in part because it does offer some of its premium small batch production when available, and has a strong welcoming air to it.
El Cortijo: 5 de Mayo 305-A [(951)514-3939; Mon-Sat, 6:00 – 10:30 pm]. As with Los Amantes, El Cortijo sells only its own spirits. But again there are times when it is producing specialty mezcals, new batches, and so on. Like the others, it can provide a tasting education, but certainly not to the extent of the mezcalerías which carry mezcal from different palenqueros, produced in a diversity of regions and states using different agaves and production methods (i.e. clay v. copper). El Cortijo lacks the panache of Los Amantes but is worth a visit and a couple of shots.
Piedra Lumbre: Tinoco y Palacios #602 [cels 951 135 1230 & 951 156 0321; evenings from 6 pm, Wednesday through Saturday (knock)]. Piedra Lumbre opened towards the end of September, 2014. The exterior is painted simple grey with small signage and otherwise no indication of what’s inside. Presumably this addresses the issue of being a retail sales outlet with issues relating to CRM. Different mezcalerías deal with the matter in different ways. It has a pleasing drinking environment, with its adjoining gallery, tables and chairs and welcoming ambiance and management. It’s geared for private functions, predominantly mezcal and food pairing events. The selection runs a decent gamut.
Mezcalogia: Garcia Vigil #511 [(951)514-0115; 5513921872 (Mexico City number of Alejandro, manager); by appointment or by chance, with stated hours Wed-Sat 4:00 – 10:00 pm]. Mezcalogia opened its doors during or about 2013. It has a pleasing Los Amantes ambiance. It currently offers about 30 mezcals (but with a good, diverse selection including from out-of-state); no commercial labels.
The foregoing enumeration notes the main mezcalerías in Oaxaca. But it is not suggested that there are no others. Keeping track of the latest mezcalería inauguration is a difficult task despite social media. It is hoped that those who come across other mezcalerías, and bars and cantinas specializing in a broad diversity of mezcals, will email details so that I’ll be able to augment the list yearly if not more frequently.
There are also numerous restaurants, bars and cantinas throughout the city which are not noted yet carry a wide range of mezcals, both commercial labels and house mezcals, the latter usually noted by type of agave and town of distillation either on the drink menu or a chalk board (i.e. La Biznaga, Zandunga, La Olla, and the list goes on). And there are other mezcal outlets which sell exclusively mezcal, which are similarly not included in this enumeration because their environments are not conducive to sipping in what I consider to be a pleasant environment; and the variety of product is not particularly large, though covers the basics. These include La Unión de Palenqueros de Oaxaca on Abasolo, Mezcal Artesanal Mezcalería on Doblado, amongst others; certainly consider paying a visit for a different experience.
Regardless of where you imbibe in Oaxaca, it is important to drink a diversity of agave distillates and mezcals and form your own opinion with a view to honing the palate. Many of the mezcals you’ll appreciate in Oaxacan bars, mezcalerías and even restaurants, are not exported from Mexico, and most, especially the ensambles, you cannot even find outside of Oaxaca; so enjoy while on your visit.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca. He is the author of “Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market: Unrivalled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances.” Alvin has been an aficionado of Mexican spirits for over 20 years, and has a personal collection of more than 200 different agave distillates.
In Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! The Complete Guide from Agave to Zapotec (Mezcal PhD Publishing, 2014), John McEvoy takes the reader through mezcal's history, nuances, regulation and innumerable incarnations, a task which until now has been essentially ignored in English popular non-fiction literature. And in so doing he distinguishes mezcal from tequila and other Mexican alcoholic beverages such as pulque, bacanora, sotol and raicilla. He pays homage to mezcal, while at the same time provides both its aficionados and novices with a wealth of information in an entertaining and often light-hearted manner.
The chapters are titled and laid out in an organized easy to delineate fashion, allowing the reader to quickly find a selected area of interest. Despite this being the case, since Holy Smoke! is a fast read one is more apt to pick it up and not put it back down until finished. The photos, plates and illustrations are well placed and captioned so as to enhance one’s ability to use them as a tool in capturing the essence of the text’s minutiae and McEvoy’s message.
McEvoy’s enumeration of the history of Mexico’s alcoholic beverages puts mezcal in a clear and understandable context. He rightfully dedicates a significant portion of a chapter to pulque, the most popular fermented drink during pre-Hispanic times, then traces its use to the present, along with that of other Mexican distillates such as sotol, bacanora and raicilla.
McEvoy’s coverage of the breadth of agave species and sub-species which are distilled throughout the country is admirable. Yet he does not get bogged down in the ongoing discussion of nomenclature. Rather, he acknowledges disagreements, and in chart form lists species, then alongside them several of the sub-species and common names depending on the locale where the distillation takes place. McEvoy would readily agree that it is a no-win situation for any aficionado, distiller or even so-called expert in the field to try to definitively resolve issues upon which botanists and taxonomists cannot arrive at a consensus. In any event, although he states that species (and to my thinking by implication sub-species where there is agreement) is the major determinant of flavor profile, with the plethora of other influences on aroma and nuance, dogmatism in terms of identifying species and sub-species does not take us very far in our quest to profile aromas and flavors.
There are three sections of the book which stand out more than the rest. McEvoy’s treatment of aging is admirable. He is in favor of lauding a good reposado or añejo, and gives short shrift to those who would be dismissive of anything but a joven. Similarly, without mentioning by name others who simply discount the concept of mezcal cocktails, he rallies around the Manhattan cocktail crowd, going so far as to include a chapter on mezcal cocktail recipes.
I’ve been around mezcal for a quarter of a century, and have written about both its sustainability, and how mezcal’s nuances are innumerable and unbridled. McEvoy’s sections on maintaining a healthy industry for all, and his detailing of the myriad of influences brought to bear on every produced batch of the spirit, provide food for thought …. for all of us. The modern era of mezcal is still so young. To a number, each of us should continuously be open to learning, even those who live and have lived mezcal and nothing more. It is indeed refreshing to have witnessed seasoned palenqueros such as Douglas French (Scorpion Mezcal, as well as bright up-and-coming youths within the industry such as Judah Kuper (Mezcal Vago), both eager to be taught by others. And so those who think they know it all, should at least acknowledge that a quick read of Holy Smoke! might just serve as a refresher concerning aspects of the industry not having been considered for some time.
I would be remiss if I did not point out shortcomings in Holy Smoke! For me at times the book was too anecdotal, referencing matters having nothing to do with mezcal. On the other hand, McEvoy’s excellent use of citations from industry insiders was both valuable and illustrative of the breadth of research which went into the book. However, following an absolutely wonderful, extensive quote by Stephen Myers (Ilegal Mezcal), wherein he romanticizes mezcal in a somewhat sensuous manner, McEvoy states “Yeah. I like that. I might have added, ‘and it’s f----- g awesome!’” simply detracted from what he was attempting to convey.
At times McEvoy unwittingly fell into the trap of others, stating absolutes where there are none, to the extent that it would have been more accurate using qualifying words such as “approximately,” “mainly,” “by and large,” and so on; in one instance he simply pigeonholes mezcal as artisanal and tequila as industrial. Finally, while McEvoy does an admirable job explaining and synthesizing COMERCAM’s complex regulatory scheme, he does get it wrong stating that “mezcal must be bottled at the distillery,” and at one point confusing COMERCAM’s export numbers with sales figures. But as suggested at the outset, his primary target readership is not those integrally involved in the industry, or those with visions of becoming exporters, but rather hobbyists; whether spirits aficionados, tequila enthusiasts or novices to mezcal and other agave based alcoholic beverages, as well as bartenders, mixologists and restaurant owners interested in advancing their knowledge with a view to better serving their patrons.
Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! The Complete Guide from Agave to Zapotec should be included in the personal library of everyone interested in Mexican fermented or distilled beverages. The breadth of coverage is impressive. While the depth does not rival that of certain topics contained in the third (and first bilingual) edition of Ulises Torrentera’s Mezcaleria Cultura del Mezcal The Cult of Mezcal, John McEvoy’s thorough treatment of an extensive range of topics relating to mezcal and agave is unmatched. To this extent it stands as an important contribution to the growing body of mezcal literature.
Alvin Starkman is the author of Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market: Unrivalled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances. He has written over 30 articles for both print and online publications about mezcal, Mexican fermented beverages and sustainability. Alvin operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca.
In January, 2014, NPR reported that people who follow mezcal and the growth of the market believed that the new kid on the block, Mezcal Tosba, “really could make it” (Planet Money, Episode 512: Can Mezcal Save A Village). By February, the 25 minute podcast had gone viral and become a hot topic of conversation (at least in Oaxaca, the state in south central Mexico where Tosba’s agave based liquor is produced) not only for the spirit’s aficionados, but also for many interested in microfinance, issues relating to migration, and the plight of rural Mexicans.
Shortly after the airing of the program I had an opportunity to hear the story more directly, from the mezcal’s producers, at a presentation and tasting held at the In Situ mezcalería in downtown Oaxaca. I surmised that if indeed what I had gleaned was half accurate, I would eventually have an opportunity to learn for myself through visiting the palenque (a small artisanal distillery as it’s known in the state) and enjoying a sit-down with the maestro palenquero, Edgar González.
Edgar and his cousin / business partner Elisandro González began with no background in agave production or mezcal distilling, and no money, yet were intent upon doing it all, by themselves, through learning; how to grow agave in their community, build a palenque, employ locals with likewise no experience in the trade, how to acquire the subtleties and secrets of making quality mezcal, and finally how to market their spirit in the US without agents or a distributors.
The Mezcal Tosba partners are from the village of San Cristóbal Lachirioag, district of Villa Alta, where the palenque is located. Their non-agave / academic backgrounds and family dynamics, their motivation for getting into the mezcal business and their early guarded success are well chronicled in the NPR story. It was only after my November, 2014, visit to Lachirioag with Edgar and the cousins’ friend and promoter Oaxaca resident Darinel Silva, that I first listened to the actual NPR account. From the perspective of a mezcalophile and someone who regularly lauds the positive attributes of the state of Oaxaca, the González cousins’ Tosba saga offers much more, without detracting from that quality narrative.
Darinel and I together with a Seattle based mezcal insider friend leave Oaxaca before 6 am. I had learned that the drive would take roughly five hours. Not wanting to spend the night in the village, we decided to prepare for a lot of driving and return to the city the same day.
After climbing to over 9,000’ ASL and traveling through simply spectacular countryside with remarkably diverse vegetation (including the majestic Agave americana Oaxaquensis) and flecked with quaint colorful villages noted for predominantly agricultural production, we descend into Lachirioag – after only four hours. An unremarkable breakfast in a village comedor under our belts, we drive a further 20 minutes into a lush river valley where the palenque is located. En route we stop to gaze at Don Edgar’s plots of cultivated Agave angustifolia Haw (espadín), grown from seed.
Over the past quarter century of drinking mezcal in Oaxaca, and more to the point visiting artisanal distilleries and speaking with the maestros producing the spirit, I’m almost always told by the palenquero that he learned to make mezcal from his father, his uncle, or his grandfather, with the tradition dating back as long as oral history would permit him to recall; usually four or five generations. Some have been taught well, and others produce a spirit of questionable quality, of course still good enough to keep the family revenue at an acceptable level above subsistence.
So how is it that Don Edgar (let’s just say Edgar, since after all he’s only in his 30s), self-taught and without a family mezcal pedigree, is able to make mezcals that rival or better the quality of palenqueros producing for the likes of del Maguey, Pierde Almas, Koch, Vago, Alipus and the rest?
Edgar began by experimenting, and claims he is still doing so; first by planting agave on the slopes of his own land, from seeds initially germinated just over a decade ago, and then finally beginning to distill over the last couple of years.
We start with Tosba’s pechuga. My northwest coast agave aficionado exclaims that Edgar’s pechuga is the best he’s ever tasted, and I cannot disagree. I’ve been a fan of this mezcal incarnation for the past ten years or so. But what Edgar’s pechuga brings to the table is remarkable; a subtle medley of fruit flavors and a mere hint of sweetness, but most importantly it maintains or perhaps better yet enhances the agave notes. Even those who covet the spirit and are not fans of pechuga, would be hard-pressed to not request a second.
All the fruit used has been grown on Edgar’s land. Since it is harvested throughout the year, some is initially frozen and brought out for distillation along with the seasonally fresh.
“No, I don’t put the fruit in the copper pot with the mezcal. I hang it in the still above the liquid in this sack [showing us a polymer mesh bag, similar to those used to sell supermarket grapes and other fruit], together with the turkey breast. No one ever told me any different, and I didn’t know if there was a right or a wrong way to do it, so I just did it this way.”
We explore the spacious palenque, and then the equally large interior rooms where we come across the stainless steel sterilizing and bottling machinery. To date Mezcal Tosba has exported to the US only four pallets totaling not more than 4,000 bottles. The equipment is certainly impressive, much more sophisticated than that of many operations which ship 20,000 bottles per year. “Yes, there has been the odd setback, but we’re now back on track,” he explains, then continues, “now let’s try some espadín, first something a little light, and then at 48% and at 50% because I want your opinion about which of the two higher ABVs you like best for when we start sending our mezcal north again, really soon.”
“Please keep an eye on the ribs while we’re down at the falls,” he instructs his lone worker for this day, doubling as sous chef and tender of the two stills dripping mezcal. Three pieces of pork back ribs have been dangling on a wire about 15” above a brick base charcoal pit. They’d been marinated for a while and must now be slowly cured above the low flame for a couple of hours before grilling.
With four shot glasses and a bottle of pechuga in hand, we walk down a long winding and rather steep overgrown dirt pathway, until reaching a flowing stream with crystal clear poolings. “All year round we catch white freshwater salmon, langostinos and a type of catfish, but we use netting rather than fishing rods,” Edgar boasts, then in answer to my question about fly fishing he elucidates, “let’s have a look at those deeper spots, since the current might be too strong for that kind of fishing.”
We then head back up, but just a bit until reaching a steep spring fed falls. We sit on a series of large flat boulders while we drink and chat. To the continuous din of water descending over rocks we discuss Edgar’s longer term plan to eventually have some cabins to receive guests, and somewhat of a more formal open air kitchen area than currently exists. His buddy Darinel, my mezcal maven and I each pipe in with our opinions regarding how much more formal he might want to make this already exquisite natural environment. I’m already getting excited at the prospect of bringing groups of mezcal aficionados to learn more about mezcal and agave while participating in the process, and including nature walks, swimming, perhaps even hunting, and digging into Oaxacan regional cuisine. Talk turns back to spirits and agave.
Edgar has a tract of land under cultivation with maguey approaching maturity. But this field of dreams is not just any plot of espadín. This one is completely encircled with coffee plants. The region is known more for coffee production than mezcal, despite the notoriety that the NPR episode has brought. He’s anxious to harvest, bake, ferment and distill the fruits of this particular crop more than others, and asks if I think the mezcal will taste different than other batches. I’ve been researching the impact on mezcal flavor of agave being in close proximity to different cash crops impacting terroir. I assure him that what comes out of that field will indeed have a special nuance. It must. We discuss environmental yeasts in this particular micro climate being impacted by the rich diversity of fruits harvested at different times of the year. No wonder his mezcals are so special, apart from Edgar’s dedication to the trade and penchant for learning through asking and experimenting.
We’re tempted to jump into the base of the falls. “Wait until the warm season,” Edgar advises, “about from February through May, when the water will be much more agreeable in terms of temperature.” In any event, time is marching on, and I’ve resolved to not return after dark.
Before returning to the palenque we head up to look at seedlings in two flower beds, and rows of five different varieties of maguey he is cultivating. Edgar is particularly proud of one series of rows of 2” – 3” tall agaves:
“These over here, I don’t have a clue what you call this maguey. It’s native to this region and to my knowledge no one has even named it except by referring to it as silvestre [wild]. I once made a small batch of mezcal from it, liked it, so decided I’d like to make more. So I harvested some seeds, and now here we are. I have no idea how many years it will take until these plants reach maturity and are ripe for harvesting.”
Back at the palenque the ribs are ready to be laid on the grill. Alongside, a thick iron comal sits on a stand made of rebar, just over over flames. Masa prepared by hand on a well-worked stone metate is pressed into tortillas then gingerly placed on the comal.
En route to San Cristóbal Lachirioag Darinel had commented that only a couple of days earlier Edgar had distilled a batch of ensamble made from four agaves. Now, just before digging into the ribs, tortillas and salsa, seemed to be a good time to request a sample. “It’s not ready yet, too high in alcohol at 60%, so I have to reduce it, perhaps with colas from tobalá, so next visit,” Edgar advises. I implore him, however. “Why would you want to try something that I don’t like,” his curiosity then taking over.
Finallly, over a comida described by my Seattle friend as the best meal he has experienced during his two week sojourn to Oaxaca, Edgar brings out the ensamble, 25% espadín and each of three wild agaves he elected to not name. Perhaps he thought that I would not be familiar with local parlance used to describe each.
We all agreed that the dominant note of the ensamble was sweetness, and none of us could pick up on a particular tone or flavor very well. Edgar was right, that with a little adjusting the mezcal would be much enhanced. Perhaps so, but I suggest that there is a reasonable probability that after resting in glass for six months, an exquisite medley of flavors and an agreeable nose might emerge. I manage to pry two liters from the reluctant maestro mezcalero.
Thoroughly satiated in all respects, we drive back up to the village, Edgar accompanying us so we could meet his charming wife and two young children in their home. It’s already 4 pm, so arriving back in Oaxaca before dark is not in the cards.
As dusk approaches on the return trip we hit the clouds, then light rain, all making negotiating the hairpin turns on the dirt roads somewhat of a challenge. I had completely forgotten that up in the mountains, at this time of year 6 pm spells darkness. Nevertheless, we return to the Oaxacan valley safely, recalling every detail of our visit to the Mezcal Tosba palenque, and the warmth and hospitality of Edgar, or on second thought despite his youth, yes, Don Edgar.
Mezcal Tosba is a brand to be reckoned with. It will be around for a long, long time. After all, you can’t spend a decade putting your heart and soul into a project, not only for your own but also for the benefit of your fellow villagers without something great emerging. And let’s not forget the growing complement of mezcal aficionados relying on cousins Edgar and Alesandro González. Their continued success can only help mezcal’s reputation in the global spirits market to rise, even higher and faster.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca. He is the author of Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market: Unrivalled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances.
The number of mezcalerías in Oaxaca, as well as bars in the city specializing in artisanal mezcals, has been increasing virtually every couple of months throughout 2014. The meteoric rise in the popularity of the iconic Mexican agave based spirit has spelled more mezcal tourism to the city, both in terms of visitors to Oaxaca arriving from foreign countries, as well as from cities throughout Mexico – to learn, to sample, to buy and to export.
I’m frequently asked “where in the city should I go to drink a range of mezcals.” This, then, is a compendium of mezcalerías in the city of Oaxaca, which includes a couple of local haunts which also serve beer but are nevertheless primarily known for their sale of the agave intoxicant.
It’s important to note the date of this publication, October, 2014, since retail outlets in Oaxaca come and go, especially restaurants, art galleries and craft shops. But in the case of mezcalarías and bars, notwithstanding the vagaries of tourism in Mexico, it is suggested that their numbers will keep growing, and nary a one will close; locales for leasing can be very small with corresponding low monthly rent, people will travel outside of the downtown core into the farthest fringes of the céntro histórico and indeed beyond in search of a “really cool bar,” and mezcal’s star will continue to rise. So today’s list will by definition, and based on the foregoing, be different from tomorrow’s.
The days and hours of operation noted must be taken with a grain of salt. They seem to change at the whim of management, based on level of tourism in the city, and if employees and owners are otherwise elsewhere engaged. But in most cases you can find them open evenings Tuesday or Wednesday through Saturday. Some make a diligent effort to be operational during their published times, even those with morning hours.
In Situ: Morelos #511 [(951)514-1811]. In Situ is one of the most respected mezcalerías in the city. One of the co-owners is author / journalist Ulises Torrentera. The bar boasts over 180 different mezcals, and often hosts evenings featuring a representative of a particular brand, with healthy samples of the product served, and featuring a botana made by Ulises’ partner Sandra Ortiz Brena. Ownership appears to be somewhat tempering its earlier views on cocktails made with mezcal and acceptable percentage alcohol content. Don’t let the main floor bar deceive, since there is an upstairs with tables and chairs for more relaxed drinking.
Co-owner Ulises Torrentera with Seattle Bar Manager Casey Robison
La Mezcaloteca: Reforma #506 [4:30 – 10:00 pm.; (951)514-0082; email@example.com; reservations preferred] Mezcaloteca fashions itself a tasting room, and in fact provides an excellent basic education through encouraging patrons to sample groupings of three different mezcals produced in different regions, using a variety of distillation and fermentation methods and made with different agaves. Owners and employees are very dogmatic in their views about (read “against”) aged mezcals (Mezcaloteca’s party line, similar to that of In Situ). The teaching is admirable, but is still no substitute for getting out of the city and visiting real artisanal palenques not constructed for the tourist trade: putting the theory (tasting and explanation) into practice through in-the-field experience, witnessing first-hand what you’ve been told in the downtown Oaxaca “class.”
Cuish: Díaz Ordaz #712 [(951)516-8791]. Together with the foregoing two mezcalerías, Cuish represents one of the earlier mezcal bars to come onto the scene from the outset of the modern mezcal boom. It’s located in the south end of the centro histórico, in a somewhat seedy yet safe part of downtown. It has a more speakeasy feel to it, with comfy couches on the second floor and a remarkable air of informality.
Chef Pilar Cabrera and Friends, Upstairs at Cuish
La Casa del Mezcal: Flores Magón #209. La Casa del Mezcal is one of the oldest running cantinas in Oaxaca, dating to 1935. It’s known for its location right across from the Benito Juárez market, and its old west atmosphere with swinging oak doors and long exquisite bar, loud jukebox music, smoke, beer and of course mezcal. It does have a selection of house mezcals, but is more for drinking and soaking up the ambiance than for learning about the spirit’s subtle nuances. La Casa del Mezcal is definitely worth a visit if you want to experience a typical Mexican cantina.
Exquisite Oak Throughout La Casa del Mezcal
Mezcalillera: Murguía 403-A [(951)514-1757]. From old to new, the sleek and modern Mezcalillera is one of the more recent entries onto the mezcal scene in downtown Oaxaca. It dubs itself “La Miscelánea del Mezcal,” promoting high end products for sampling and sale as well as some agave / mezcal related paraphernalia you can pick up to take home. It claims to carry 63 brands comprising 190 varieties, though the shop doesn’t appear to have that much spirit on hand. Mezcalillera seems more geared to sampling and buying, than sitting and sipping for an extended period of time.
Sleek and Modern Look of Mezcalillera
Mis Mezcales: Reforma #528-B [Seven days, 10 am – 9pm; (951)514-2523]. Mis Mezcales has the broadest range of mezcal-related gift ítems including T-shirts, glassware, pottery, and books and tasting wheels as does In Situ and Mezcalillera. Its selection of mezcals is perhaps not as large as Mezcalillera and certainly not as grandiose as In Situ, but it does have a nice modern sipping ambiance. Like Mezcalillera, Mis Mezcales appears to be more of an establishment for a brief visit to sample and pick something up to take home.
Mezcal Accessories and Gifts at Mis Mezcales
Los Amantes: Allende #107 [Tues-Sun, 4:00 – 10 pm; firstname.lastname@example.org] Los Amantes provides a wonderful yet tiny drinking environment decorated with vintage bottles and related mezcal items. The only downside is that it carries only products made in its distillery. However, it has indeed become a hangout for locals, perhaps in part because it does offer some of its premium small batch production when available, and has a strong welcoming air to it.
Behind the Bar at Los Amantes
El Cortijo: 5 de Mayo 305-A [Mon-Sat, 6:00 – 10:30 pm; (951)514-3939]. As with Los Amantes, El Cortijo sells only its own spirits. But again there are times when it is producing specialty mezcals, new batches, and so on. Like the others, it can provide a tasting education, but certainly not to the extent of the mezcalerías which carry 100+ types of mezcal from different palenqueros, produced in a diversity of regions and states using different agaves and production methods (i.e. clay v. copper). El Cortijo lacks the panache of Los Amantes but is worth a visit and a couple of shots.
Oaxacan Craft Beer and El Cortijo Pairing Evening
Piedra Lumbre: Tinoco y Palacios #602 [by appointment or by chance, evenings (knock); cels 0449511351230 & 0449511560321]. Piedra Lumbre opened towards the end of September, 2014, so is still working on hours, days, painting the exterior from its current simple grey front with no indication of what’s inside. It’s already on its way to creating a pleasing drinking environment, with its adjoining gallery, tables and chairs and welcoming ambiance and management. It’s geared for private functions, predominantly mezcal and food pairing events. The selection is still relatively modest, but runs a decent gamut.
Piedra Lumbre Opened Its Doors in September, 2014
Mezcalogia: Garcia Vigil #511 [by appointment or by chance, with stated hours Wed-Sat 4:00 – 10:00 pm; (951)514-0115; 5513921872 (Mexico City number of Alejandro, manager)]. Mezcalogia opened its doors four months ago. It’s working towards a pleasing Los Amantes ambiance. It currently offers 26 mezcals (but with a good, diverse selection including one out-of-state), no commercial labels.
Mezcalogia on Calle García Vigil
La Mezcalerita: Macedonio Alcalá #706-C [1:00 – 10:00 pm; cel 0449511064432]. La Mezcalerita has a selection of craft beer in addition to its mezcals. The variety of the latter is not all that great, however. Ambiance is somewhat sparse, although it advertises having a rooftop. It does provide an option for those travelers staying near the north end of downtown, such as at Casa Ollin B & B, Casa Conzatti, Holiday Inn Express, or any of the lodgings on the upper part of Macedonio Alcalá.
Mezcalerita is Rather Sparse, But For Those Staying in the North of Downtown ...
Tobalá: Murguía 405, at the entrance to Hotel Casa Murguía [evenings]. Tobalá opened its doors (initially at a different location) springtime, 2014. It’s operated on a very informal basis, and has a pleasing ambiance with tables and a simple bar, attracting locals and tourists “in the know.” It’s selection is small (a lá Los Amantes, El Cortijo), but manages to do the trick, representing palenques in four different areas in or near Oaxaca’s central valleys.
Tobalá Has a Small Selection, But Lovely Comfy Ambiance
The foregoing enumeration is relatively comprehensive, noting the main mezcalerías in Oaxaca, but it is not suggested that there are no others. Keeping track of the latest mezcalería inauguration is a difficult task despite social media. It is hoped that those who come across other bars and cantinas specializing in a broad diversity of mezcals, will email details so that I’ll be able to augment the list on a yearly basis.
There are also numerous restaurants throughout the city which carry a wide range of mezcals, both commercial labels and house mezcals, the latter usually noted by type of agave and town of distillation either on the drink menu or a chalk board. The only downside of drinking mezcal in a restaurant as opposed to a mezcalería is that wait staff employed in the former generally do not have the knowledge to be able to appropriately guide patrons to particular products, whereas at least in theory the latter has trained staff on hand with a reasonable level of knowledge.
Regardless of where you imbibe in Oaxaca, it is important to drink a diversity of mezcals and form your own opinion with a view to honing the palate. Many of the mezcals you’ll appreciate in Oaxacan bars, mezcalerías and even restaurants, are not exported from Mexico, and most, especially the ensambles, you cannot even find outside of Oaxaca; so enjoy now.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca. He is the author of “Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market: Unrivalled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances.” Alvin has been an aficionado of Mexican spirits for over 20 years, and has a personal collection of more than 150 different mezcals.
Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Mezcal Vago is one of a plethora of new brands of the agave-based spirit entering the US from the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca. Its sweet, swift success harkens back to the tenets of triumph in so many other entrepreneurial endeavors: hard work, vision and integrity.
The owners of Mezcal Vago aren’t pioneers in the field of exporting artisanal mezcal like Mezcal del Maguey’s Ron Cooper. Nor are the two American partners directly steeped in generations of family tradition as was the late Don Pedro Mateo of the highly successful commercial brand Benevá. And to be sure, they don’t have the financial means of Armando Guillermo Prieto, who through an extensive promotional campaign is apparently en route to taking the mediocre (at best in the minds of some) Zignum “mezcal” through the profit stratosphere.
Add to the Midas Touch of Mezcal Vago’s Judah Kuper and Dylan Sloan a combination of transparency in everything they do; more than fair compensation for their producers; passion for their product and what it represents; refusing to derogate from their vision; unconventional yet effective marketing; maintaining humility while at the same time being opinionated; taking a calculated gamble; and naturally a bit of good fortune with timely entry into the marketplace.
The seed of Mezcal Vago has been well chronicled by Kuper and Sloan on their website. It’s a story of fortuitous circumstances, like that of so many innovators in a diversity of commercial enterprises. It’s been told time and again, though much less so in the world of mezcal if not other alcoholic beverages.
Late one evening in early September, 2014, Kuper is holding court in his small, modestly outfitted office-cum-tasting-room, hosting a group of seven Colombian restauranteurs interested in importing mezcal for their eateries. He explains to them while they sip from a selection of a dozen or so Vago mezcals:
“We’ve been in business for less than two years, and are already established in 17 states, with others ones as well as Canada and Europe on the horizon, so I have to be cautious about expansion because our growth must be maintained in check so that we keep to our vision. When I heard Colombia, it seemed like it might be just a small enough market for us, a good fit, so that’s why I agreed to come to the office tonight to meet with you.”
Beginning about 2005, and continuing to date, the vision for many mezcal entrepreneurs throughout primarily the US and Europe, and also in Mexico City, has been to capitalize on the exponential growth in the spirit’s popularity across the globe, through pursuing a mainly profit motivated export business plan. As one such American commented in the course of seeking my tutelage about the spirit and its distillers back in 2007, “now is the time [for mezcal].” What she meant was the time to make money in the business of exporting mezcal from Mexico. Hence, she and her brash New York business partner descended upon Oaxaca. Kuper sees it this way:
“There’s just so much smoke and mirrors in the [mezcal as well as other spirits] business, not from everyone who has jumped on the bandwagon, but from many, the ones who have little concern about what mezcal has represented to Mexicans over the centuries in terms of livelihood, culture and relationship with the environment.
“In our case, we started with a grassroots campaign, enlisting the help of and targeting chefs, bartenders and spirits geeks, without paying them a cent, just serving them and finding out if we were on the right track with what we personally thought were amazing spirits made by sincere people with fascinating stories to tell. That’s how we started out.
“Many other exporters have begun at the other end, with their marketers, their advertising and promotional firms; how do we promote this particular alcohol and distinguish it from tequila, what kind of a campaign should we mount, what’s trendy, sleek, contemporary and will sell – as opposed to what’s the best product we can get out there. Dylan and I each pooled a modest amount of money before making a commitment. We did our own website, took all the steps for export certification, and all the rest of the paperwork without lawyers or accountants. You know, we could have gone the way that others have gone, and in fact a Texas clearinghouse wanted to give us $100,000 as a kick-start. We rejected the offer, wisely as luck would have it, and went with someone who had the same vision as ours. With his much more modest financing, we looked after name and trademark, labels and business plan. We were off.”
Kuper and Sloan are different from many [or dare I opine “most”] of the others, in ways aside from rejecting significant startup financing when offered. Kuper had been surfing up and down the Pacific coast of The Americas for eight years before grounding on a stretch of beach near the Oaxacan resort town of Puerto Escondido. He fell head over heels for a young Oaxacan nurse, whose father was a fourth generation palenquero (in Oaxaca, a small scale artisanal mezcal distiller). The lovebirds opened a palapa restaurant on the sand, and naturally included Kuper’s (soon-to-be) father-in-law’s mezcal. “I really liked Aquilino’s mezcals,” he explains “but had never given a thought to exporting it or getting into the business until I began to take notice that my restaurant customers really liked it and commented about the quality – the nose, the balance, the nuances, the approachability and everything else, despite it being upwards of 50% alcohol and sometimes more.”
Kuper had previously been exposed to good artisanal mezcal, but its potential for leading to a livelihood for him, and turning the mezcal world towards him, remained in the recesses of his mind – until Aquilino came along. He comments to the Colombians that if it were not for all the laud that was being heaped upon his father-in-law’s mezcal, “I probably would have continued to be a surf bum, albeit eventually having to find some way to make a living to support my new wife and our baby.”
Aquilino’s mezcals are produced in Candelaria Yegolé, a tiny hamlet of about 200 people, in the furthest reaches of the district of Tlacolula de Matamoros, bordering on the Sierra Sur region of the state. The area has a distinct microclimate with its particular environmental yeasts. Aquilino harvests his agave from steep mountain slopes with terroirs different from anywhere else. He uses a traditional copper pot still, or alambique.
“Once Dylan and I decided to each pool our capital to test the waters,” Kuper continues, “we knew that we had to find a second producer, one whose product would both be entirely distinct from yet complement the mezcals that Aquilino had been producing.”
Kuper and Sloan didn’t want to bottle and market a mezcal made by only one palenquero. “If you use only one distiller whose operation is in one microclimate, no matter how many different mezcals you’re producing, you’re doing yourself and spirits aficionados a disservice, because they will all by definition have a similar character,” Kuper suggests.
“Selling the mezcal made by only one palenquero who ferments and distills in only one area of the state is limiting. We were looking for a completely different line of mezcals, produced by someone else in a different region using a different production method with a different family tradition. By chance we came across a cousin of my wife’s family, in a different district of the state, Sola de Vega.”
They found Tío Rey, as he’s affectionately known, who for generations has been producing very different mezcals than those of Aquilino. Much of Tío Rey’s agave is grown in humid river valleys. Regardless of whether or not the same species or sub-species as Aquilino is used, the climate, terroir and environmental yeasts are so different that Tío Rey’s mezcals must inevitably be different from Aquilino’s. Combine that with the fact that Tío Rey employs clay pots rather than copper to distill, and the distinctions in the mezcal of the two producers becomes even more profound. And to top matters off, the palenqueros were each from a region more or less underrepresented in the export marketplace.
“I respect so many artisanal palenqueros in the state, and in fact producers in other parts of Mexico. And of course also those exporters who have done what we’re still doing, that is seeking out the best product from the furthest reaches of the state. We’re still looking for at least one other producer to work with. We’ve driven hours and hours over umpteen back roads looking for a palenquero whose mezcal would nicely supplement what we already have in our stable and who would epitomize the cultural history of mezcal as we see it.”
Kuper acknowledges that Vago’s marketing plan has been to identify the four or five most respected artisanal bands of mezcal in the marketplace, and to improve upon what they’ve been producing. But at the same time he cautions:
“I let Aquilino and Tío Rey do their thing, since their families have been making mezcal for generations. I’m just a student of the spirit, learning as I go along, always trying to produce a better product; and so we may have the odd discussion when I suggest something different or a little tweaking, but that’s about it. They’re the maestro palenqueros.”
That humility and respect for those who know more, has been a hallmark of the success of Mezcal Vago. And it’s part and parcel of Kuper’s transparency in everything he does.
He is outspoken about those producers and exporters who boast that they distill to proof and don’t add water – if indeed that’s the case. “So much depends on the water source, at what point you cut the tails (end of the distillation process), how you work with the tails if you’re going to use them, and so on,” he explains, then continues, that “dogmatism can inhibit your ability to produce a better mezcal.” Ask Kuper which of his palenqueros uses water to bring his mezcal to the preferred percentage alcohol, and how, and he’ll tell you. Ask him why his labels for his ensambles (blends) state the percentage used of each agave species or sub-species, and he’ll tell you:
“I have nothing to hide. I know that there are producers out there who simply state the names of the agave used to produce an ensamble because they consider disclosing any more details tantamount to giving away a trade secret. But I would rather indicate percentages, so the consumer knows exactly what he’s getting, and is better able to refine his palate, distinguish nuances of particular agaves, and so on. If I simply stated on my label that the bottle contains espadín, tobalá and cuishe, how is that really helping the consumer, if for example espadín is 90% of the blend?”
When asked about his labels, and their similarities in some respects to other brands on the market:
“What I said before within the context of wanting to take the best and improve upon other artisanal mezcals in the marketplace, applies here as well. We have a massive respect for brands like Mezcaloteca which committed to sharing every detail of the process of creating its mezcals and out of total respect follow suit because that’s the way all labels should be. We felt that another brand that used a bit of agave fiber in its labels was an amazing idea and took it a leap further by making our labels 100% from the used agave mash after distillation.
For many in the business, more taboo that the issue of water, is the use of chemicals to speed up the fermentation process, especially during the cold weather months. While neither he nor anyone else dare whistle blow, and although Kuper states that he will never work with a palenquero who adds anything to the fermentation vat, he understands that “other companies view chemicals as food for yeast” and that “they can improve fermentation rates and yields.” But he steadfastly asserts that “it’s not for us and never will be.” Enough said.
With Sloan based in the US and Kuper in Oaxaca, Mezcal Vago is in an advantageous position in terms of being able to keep an eye on what their palenqueros are doing, and how. As Kuper puts it, “it’s important to have your foot in both worlds.” An industry insider from the US northwest sees it this way:
“One partner is watching what’s going on with his production and the market from on the ground in Oaxaca, while the other is getting a balanced sense from living in the US. It’s really something; Vago is in every bar I visit.”
Both Kuper and Sloan make a point of visiting each of their markets once or twice a year, travelling one out of every five or six weeks. And they are even more hands on. For example, Kuper picks up his federal “verificadores” (agents of the regulatory board, COMERCAM) to take them to his palenques to be sure that there are no delays in getting his mezcals certified for export; and he works with his wife, friends and neighbors doing all the bottling and labelling on their own.
“This is a family business, and we want it to remain as such. After all, that’s the way it’s been for ages. You lose something if you deviate from the model which has brought you initial success. I know of export brands which have dramatically increased output but in the process have put a strain on production and their palenquero partners, through hiring lots of outsiders, building more and more stills, altering fermentation methods, and buying agave from further and further away from the villages where the mezcal is being produced. And you know what, I’ve witnessed those brands losing shelf space in the stores of major US retailers. Perhaps I’m naïve, but Dylan and I won’t let that happen to Mezcal Vago. It’s important to us that our palenqueros’ roots and age old means of production are respected.”
Mezcal Vago will have its growing pains as have other producers and exporters, but the partners are steadfast in their resolve that their original vision must be maintained at all cost – even if it has to mean turning their backs on Colombia.
“Mezcal is so pure, just agave, heat, water, and yeasts from the natural environment. It’s so simple. There is truth in mezcal. I want everyone who sips Mezcal Vago to be taken on a journey to real, rural Mexico, to get a sense of place with each sip. I even want them to sense something by merely picking up a bottle; I want them to feel like they’re holding something from an earlier era. Their hearts rates should race with a sense of adventure. I want them to appreciate the history of the families of our producers.”
Kuper is referring to the pride in family tradition, which he believes must be maintained in order for their mezcals to retain the highest quality. Bringing in outsiders to help produce would change that. Introducing different production methods would change that. Using agave that has no relationship to the palenquero, his family or his land would change that.
“We also feel the weight of our family’s needs on our shoulders, and respect that. Not a single drop of mezcal has ever been bottled until Aquilino and Tío Rey have been paid in full for their effort. We don’t subscribe to the philosophy of 50% when ordered and the other 50% when it’s on the pallet ready to leave the village for the border. Once they’ve distilled, they have complied with their primary obligation to us, that is, to produce a quality spirit. They should not have to wait any longer to get paid. If our mezcals are a bit more expensive that some others, and certainly that’s the case, it’s because we pay our palenqueros sometimes even more than they want. If there’s any price negotiation, it’s us trying to pay more to them, really. I don’t like labels, but I suppose it’s akin to a fair trade practice to the extreme. Aquilino and Tio Rey are the keys to our success more than any other factor and so we must treat them as such. But it shows in the quality they keep on producing for us.”
Previously, Aquilino didn’t much ponder the relationship of his family with the land, water, agave, and ultimately his mezcal. He was too busy eking out a subsistence though sufficient living. Both he and Tío Rey in fact exemplify mezcal as permaculture. They used to take it all for granted. But now, with mezcal lovers from all corner of the globe making pilgrimage by descending upon Oaxaca, and asking to visit Candelaria Yegolé and the hinterland of Sola de Vega, to meet and pay homage to the producers of Mezcal Vago, Aquilino and Tío Rey now get it, and they feel an enhanced sense of pride in their craft; which in turn feeds the desire to keep producing mezcals of excellence, as tribute to their heritage.
The Colombians left Oaxaca, sold on Mezcal Vago after learning of the existence of the brand only a couple of hours earlier. Whether they can convince Kuper and Sloan that their market is worthy of the mezcals of Aquilino and Tío Rey, is a question yet to be answered.
Alvin Starkman owns and operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca. He is the author of Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market: Unrivalled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances, (Oaxaca, MX: Carteles Editores – P.G.O., 2014)
Mezcal producers can do as they wish, promoting their products as blancos, aging their distillates in glass, or
resting them in oak. Barreling, however, has received unfair and inappropriate denigration of late. Yes, a case can and should be made for critiquing the sale of heavily infused and often sweetened agave-based spirits occasionally mixed with cane alcohol, under the guise of being mezcal. But distillers, vendors,
exporters, agents, journalists, and those who would otherwise pretend to market the distillate for the benefit of the industry, ought to rethink poo-pooing a quality mezcal which has been barrel aged.
Indeed the sale of the iconic spirit in the international marketplace as well as throughout major cities in Mexico has skyrocketed over the past several years, in large part due to the ever increasing diversity of un-aged product available for purchase. But we should remember that many consumers of spirits have, over the decades and indeed for much longer, gravitated to premium aged tequilas, brandies and single malt scotches. And they still seek out and covet quality, barreled liquor. Should we ignore courting them with mezcal reposado and añejo?
I can live with one writer’s commentary that blancos are the best way to appreciate mezcals. But other promoters go much further. One marketer outright advises against buying mezcal aged in oak, stating that oak destroys the flavors and delicate aromas of the liquor. Is changes not a more accurate and less subjective assertion? Another, an exporter, states on his website that storing or aging mezcal in wood should be avoided as it chemically alters the mezcal, adding flavors that traditionally were not there. To its credit it prefaces with the words “it is our belief,” rather than spewing as gospel. Beliefs change, and in this case the entrepreneur is in fact toying with the idea of barrel aging, even in the face of the bold avoidance advice.
Some producers and their exporters are quietly experimenting with barreling. Chemical engineers number amongst very successful distillers, and they select their barrels with great care in order to create very specific subtle differences in nuance. Canadian, American and French oak are generally used; new, or retooled from use making Kentucky bourbon, French brandy, and so on. Charring also has its place in the
science of chemically altering, in a positive fashion, the agave-based spirit in order to achieve a particular taste. In fact one Oaxacan palenquero, a chemical engineer, for decades has been creating a range of exquisite aged mezcals. Only some of his export clients have reached this realization and as a result have been marketing a range of his reposados and añejos. The rest will likely awaken, but not until the tides
What do we do with a writer who chastises those who would use mezcal as a mixer for cocktails, referring to their bastardization of the spirit, and then turns around and holds a cocktail evening at his mezcalería?
Is the written word in the industry akin to a politician’s campaign promises? Or should we write it all off as good, healthy, fair play capitalism – or perhaps growth on his part?
Granted, I currently drink much more joven than I did ten years ago; the diversity of agave used to produce mezcal is much broader now than before, thus expanding availability of mezcals made with different magueys and subspecies thereof. By contrast, decades ago producers making mezcal with other than simply espadín, would bake, crush, ferment and distill whatever they found, and lump it all together as mezcal silvestre (wild). Not so now. A unique botanical or common name tends to fetch a higher price than labeling as merely wild (i.e. karwinskii [madrecuishe, cirial, tobasiche, marteño, bicuixe], potatorum [tobalá mariposa], marmorata [tepeztate, curandero], rhodacantha [mexicano, de monte], cupreata [papalote, ancho], and the lists go on.
I don´t often drink aged, truth be told. However, after my single malt collection has been left dormant for several months, I look up high on the shelf, decide I want something different, and pull down one or two bottles, dust them off, and imbibe. Then, after asking myself why I have been ignoring such rich, aromatic and flavorful spirits, I begin to look to my aged mezcals; I thereby re-learn to appreciate particularly añejos.
Indeed, the Glenmorangie single malt scotch distillery has an aged whisky line of 15 different products, each distinctly barreled based on number of years, and cask type (i.e. sherry, port, sauternes, super Tuscan extra matured, extra matured in Pedro Ximenez sherry, Spanish and American). The aromas and flavors of the spirit first produced at the Morangie Farm in 1738, have evolved, yes through chemical alteration; and today’s single malt scotch whiskies have flavors which were traditionally not there. Is that a bad thing?
It’s time we begin to check our dogmatism cloaked as expertise, and opinion masked as fact. It’s all fine and dandy to profess being an authority, but not if we harm the growth and development of the industry as a consequence of novice mezcal drinkers actually believing that we are experts to whom an inordinate amount of deference should be shown. Continue campaigning against those sweet cremas and heavy infusions, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Alvin Starkman has been an aficionado of mezcal for in excess of two decades. He is the author of Mezcal
in the Global Spirits Market: Unrivaled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances. Alvin operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (http://www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).