Tag Archives: maguey

Take Me to the Source: Gin Mezcal in Matatlan, Oaxaca

Last Thursday was pretty depressing. Not because of Oaxaca safety concerns or traffic or the zocalo encamped by teachers. I got around Oaxaca easily by foot last week.

Aye, que borracho! That's what happens after too many!

Aye, que borracho! Don’t blame the mezcal for making me stupid.

I was depressed because when I got to La Mezcalillera, the purveyor of artesanal mezcal on Calle Murguia in the historic center of Oaxaca in the early afternoon, they were out of my favorite Gracias a Dios Gin Mezcal. I wanted to buy a few bottles to bring back to the U.S. with me to give as gifts. Of course, once the bottles were open, I could have a nip or two.

Copper still for processing mezcal, just like moonshine but more refined.

Copper still for processing mezcal, just like moonshine but more refined.

Despite the attempts of the barkeep to help me find something else that would equal, and after numerous tastings (sips, please), I just couldn’t bring myself to buy anything else and walked out empty handed.

Dreams of juniper berries and orange peel dancing in my head.

Agave Gin: Dreams of juniper berries and orange peel dancing in my head.

My head hung for the rest of the afternoon as I tried to divert my mood, concentrating on the shopping list: a 5-year old aged añejo mezcal for my sister (her favorite), special order Oaxaca blouses for friends, Oaxaca chocolate, and a much needed haircut.

Cuixe wild agave cactus, pronounced Kwee-shay.

Cuixe wild agave cactus, pronounced Kwee-shay.

When I woke up on Friday morning, still feeling let down, I decided it was time to research where Gracias a Dios is distilled. After a 30-minute Internet search I came up with a location, website and contact form.

Tobala, another wild agave cactus, yields a distinctive herby aroma and taste.

Tobala, another wild agave cactus, yields a distinctive herby aroma and taste.

I got a reply back from Emmy Hernandez within minutes via email and then a phone call. It was about 11:30 a.m. She was willing to drive three bottles to the city from Santiago Matatlan at the tail end of the Tlacolula Valley and world capital of mezcal.

Horse driven stone wheel used to crush roasted agave pineapple

Horse driven stone wheel used to crush roasted agave pineapple

I said, No, I’ll go there! I wanted to see the palenque and find a regular, reliable source for what I have come to consider an amazing spirit. I want to go where it’s made, I mumbled to no one in particular as I was standing on the cobblestone street in the historic center. I arrived an hour later.

Vintage, well-used copper vessel for distillation

Vintage, well-used copper vessel for distillation

Emmy Hernandez is the daughter of master mezcalero (distiller) Oscar Hernandez Santiago. He is the person who creates the distillation process to ensure he gets the best flavor from each of the varietals during roasting, pressing and aging. He’s the mezcal equivalent to a winemaker.

Espadin is the most common agave and the base for gin mezcal

Espadin is the most common agave varietal and the base for gin mezcal

The family lives where they work: On the far side of Matatlan as the Federal Highway 190 disappears from view over the rise on the way to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

Distilled in copper, aged in oak, 45% alcohol by volume, 90 proof, ground by horse-driven stone, organic.

Contact Gracias a Dios

Thank God for Mezcal. I believe it. So do Zapotecs. A great medicinal.

Thank God for Mezcal. I believe it. So do Zapotecs. A great medicinal.

The palenque is more than where Gin Mezcal is made. It is an event destination and there’s going to be a big mezcal, food and music festival there in mid-July. If you are around, don’t miss it.

Fiestas, festivals, parties, weddings, a great event space.

Fiestas, festivals, parties, weddings, a great event space.

Ok, so there’s a commercial edge to what’s going on here. It’s not like going to the rural agave farms in San Dionisio or San Baltazar Chichicapam or Santa Catarina Minas. That’s okay, because they sure do make an excellent Gin Mezcal (organic, triple distillation, flavored with 32 herbs including juniper berries, rosemary, orange peel and cinnamon, 45% alcohol by volume). And, they have distribution in the USA and Europe.

Gracias a Dios Gin Mezcal, boxed and ready to go!

Gracias a Dios Gin Mezcal, boxed and ready to go!

Salud. I now have three bottles to pack and take!

Ready to plant tobala cactus starts. I bought three. Ants hate cactus.

Ready to plant tobala cactus for my garden. I bought three. Ants hate cactus.








Five Generations of Mezcal Making in Oaxaca

Santiago Matatlan is lined with neat rows of carefully tended agave.  They stipple the hilly, fertile fields.  The climate is hot and dry, perfect for growing the succulent.  Small, artesanal distilleries process the piña (the pineapple or root) of the agave into this stunning liquor.  Here, Juan Carlos Mendez Zamora and his brother Raul Mendez Zamora (below, left) are continuing the family tradition of producing fine mezcal that began in 1795 in this small Oaxacan village.


The El Cortijo brand captured my attention after my sister Barbara and I tasted their Pechuga de Pollo in Puebla last week.  It was so good! And, Matatlan is so close to where I live (about 20 minutes south of Teotitlan del Valle on the Pan-American Highway), that I asked my friend Pedro Montaño Lorenzo if he wanted to go with me in search of where it was made.


Juan Carlos (above, center) welcomed us into his grandparents’ hacienda and  introduced us to the staff of three people who were busy wiping and packing the precious mezcal-filled bottles.  He explained that there were no distinctive labels or brands when his grandparents created the El Cortijo label in 1951.  His grandmother, originally from Guadalajara, hand-painted the first ones herself and he showed us a bottle with the original label.  Then, he pulled out another one from the 1970’s with a Dance of the Feathers label, also hand-painted.  Both are works of art and this tradition continues today.

The family works with local artists, including Amador Montes, to create the labels for their three types of mezcal:  Joven–44% alcohol (young),  Añejo–40% alcohol (aged), and Pechuga de Pollo–49% alcohol (distilled with five fruits and the scent of chicken breast).


This is a small production, artesenal operation.  Only about 1,000 bottles of the Joven are produced each year, and about 300 bottles each of Añejo and Pechuga de Pollo are produced each year.

Making mezcal is an ancient, handmade process, brother Raul explains.  A mezcal palenque will produce about 5,000 liters of liquid a month whereas a tequila factory will produce about 60,000 liters a month.  Many consider tequila making to be more industrial. It takes a minimum of 33 days for the mezcal making process to be completed and 20 days for tequila.  It can take two or three years or more for an Añejo mezcal to age in the barrel.  An agave plant must mature for 10-12 years to produce a sweet piña good enough for a fine mezcal.


The mezcal making process

After the agave piña is harvested, it is put into a fire pit filled with hot volcanic rock and then covered with earth where it cooks for four to five days.  The volcanic rock absorbs a lot of heat which oxidizes the rock to cook the maguey.  Only maguey espina is used for Matatlan mezcal.  After the cooking process, the piña goes to the molino.


A huge cantera stone is pulled by horse to mash the cooked plant.  Then, it goes into wood barrels to soak in well water  until it becomes very sweet and the color of caramel, about 10 or 12 days.  After six days, it gets visibly bubbly and starts to look like yeast.  The smell and aroma is important in the process.


After the fermentation, it goes into a wood fired copper pot called an olla.  During the final part of the process, the liquid from the olla drips out and then is put into the still that further cooks down the liquid and then cools it through a serpentine that is immersed in water.


The smell of the wood fire, chewing the sweet, just cooked maguey, the sound of the dripping water into the vat where the liquid is cooled, the taste of the raw, strong liquid as it comes through the pipe was a memorable experience.

Alcohol content of mezcal that is certified for sale can vary from 35 to 55%.  Home-brewed Oaxaca mezcal in Oaxaca will often have 75% alcohol content, and is illegal to sell.  Because mezcal is part of the ritual life of Oaxaca villages, it is widely available locally for personal use.  The El Cortijo brand is not sold through retail stores in Oaxaca, although it can be purchased by the cup at Casa Oaxaca and other fine restaurants in the city.  Because of its higher price, there is not a big local demand, and the family concentrates on exporting to Puebla, Queretero, Mexico City, France, Spain, Italy and Costa Rica.  They are working on getting certification to export to the United States, but this in development.

What distinguishes Pechuga de Pollo?

This type of mezcal goes through three distillations.  The chicken breast hangs above the distilling pot and the vapor is absorbed by the liquor as the chicken breast cooks.  The fruit is part of the distillation process.  The resulting liquor has a creamy texture because of the chicken.

Pedro and Raul surveying the crop

From July 23-30, 2012, El Cortijo will be represented at the Feria de Mezcal in Llano Park in Oaxaca.  The fair will showcase the mezcal producers of the region and this is a perfect time to do a mezcal tasting and compare for yourself what distinguishes one mezcal from the next.

And, in case you are wondering, I paid full price for the two bottles of Añejo that I bought!  Yum, it was good. (Below, me and Pedro sampling the mezcal.)

The house of El Cortijo, Independencia #29, Santiago Matatlan, Oaxaca, Tel. 951-516-0091.  The house numbers in Matatlan are not well-marked, so after a phone call we found the family hacienda and bottling facility located next to the green painted elementary school.  I suggest you call ahead to make an appointment since Juan Carlos and Raul split there time between Oaxaca city and Matatlan.


Above, family portraits: (left) Grandmother Julieta Torres, (right) parents of Juan Carlos and Raul.