Tag Archives: mezcal

San Juan del Rio, Oaxaca: Mezcal on the Mountain

We didn’t start out planning a trip to San Juan del Rio, Oaxaca. It just happened as we moved into the day. Friend Sheri Brautigam, textile designer, collector and Living Textiles of Mexico blogger, is visiting me. After a roundabout through the Teotitlan del Valle morning market, we headed out to San Pablo Villa de Mitla to visit master flying shuttle loom weaver Arturo Hernandez.

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Don Arturo creates fine ikat wool shawls and scarves colored with natural dyes, including cochineal, indigo, wild marigold and zapote negro (wild black persimmon).  Sheri knew him from the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market where he exhibited in summer 2014.  I’ve known him for years through my friend Eric Chavez Santiago, education director at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca. So, of course, we couldn’t help ourselves and new rebozos made it into our collections.

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It was only eleven in the morning. I asked Don Arturo if he knew the village of San Juan del Rio, where some of Oaxaca’s finest mezcal is produced and sold under private label. He said, Yes, it’s only about forty-five minutes from here.

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I looked at Sheri, she looked at me. We said, Let’s go. I invited Don Arturo to come with us and he said Yes, once more. A native Zapotec speaker, we were lucky to have him with us. He helped find our way!

About Mezcal: The agave piña or pineapple is dug up out of the ground at maturity (seven to twelves years of field growth) and taken to the distillery, where it is roasted over a wood fired, rock-lined pit.  That’s what gives it a smokey flavor. It’s then crushed to yield the liquid that becomes mezcal. Good mezcal goes through two distillations.

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Years ago, Sheri  worked with a seamstress embroiderer Alma Teresa who lives in San Juan del Rio. Sheri designs gorgeous quechquemitls and Teresa crochets the pieces together. To reconnect with her was another reason to go.  Notice Teresa’s blouse and jacket, with the elaborate crochet trim. Seems like some of the most fun days in Oaxaca start with no particular plan.

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We headed out toward Hierve del Agua but made a left turn onto a winding road that soon became unpaved dirt, rough from recent rains. It took a good hour plus to get there from Mitla.  The road ends at the picturesque village, tucked away in a river valley. Houses are built on hillsides.  Other hillsides are terraced with mezcal palenques and maize crops. The stills are at river level.  They use the water to cool the distillation process. This is not yet a tourist destination.

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This village is known for small production, artesenal mezcal. I was on a hunt for reposado. What I found was an extraordinary reposado at a third the price of what I usually pay in Oaxaca city, plus a wild agave (silvestre) mezcal called Tepeztate from a mezcalero who is akin to a winemaker. He produces mezcal that he sells to some of the top hand-crafted brands.

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Sheri got a taste of just distilled mezcal, warm and just out of the still. At eighty-percent alcohol her engine was roaring after just a sip.  I inhaled and almost fell over. Don Arturo joined us. Being the designated driver, I had to be more careful. The whole thing reminded me of North Carolina moonshine, but the resulting product here is so much more refined it’s not even comparable.

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There are now so many varieties of mezcal, depending on the type of agave used and whether the mezcal is aged and for how long. Añejo can be aged as long as twelve years in oak which takes on characteristics of the wood. Wild agave has a distinctive herbal flavor and aroma. You need to taste to see which you prefer.

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This is a full day trip. We could have stayed longer and visited more mezcaleros. But I think we came home with some of the best produced in the village at a fraction of the retail price. If you go, bring your own liter size glass bottles with tight lids. Some bring gallon jugs to fill up. Plan to leave Oaxaca by nine in the morning. You’ll return around seven at night. Don’t go in the rainy season! You will slide all over the road!

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Who to visit?

  1. Redondo de San Juan del Rio, Rodolfo Juan Juarez, mezcalero. Tel. (951) 546 5260. Reposado and Tepeztate
  2. Perla del Rio Mezcal, Ignacio Juan Antonio, mezcalero, Tel. (951) 546 5056. Espadin joven.
  3. Alma Teresa’s clothing cooperative, a block from the church. She is sending two daughters to university in Oaxaca. Her husband went to the U.S. to work years ago and never came back.



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You can buy a road map of Oaxaca state at the Proveedora, corner Reforma and Independencia, in the Centro Historico. Comes in handy for exploring and having an aventura, like we did.

Coming Up: Oaxaca Portrait Photography Workshop, Starts Jan. 30, 2015

Adentro: A Glimpse Inside Puebla, Mexico

The Franciscans created Puebla as the first true (ha, ha) Spanish city in Mexico, building it from the ground up, not on top of destroyed indigenous religious sites as they had a habit of doing.  The Paseo Viejo de San Francisco is a cobblestone walking promenade that connects the church named in honor of St. Francis of Assisi where Hernan Cortes worshipped with upscale shopping, restaurants and hotels.  This is a renovated historic area — the oldest part of the city where Puebla was founded. It’s the neighborhood I’m staying in on this visit.

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I’m back in Puebla for an overnight before heading to Mexico City and then on to San Francisco for Thanksgiving with my family.  I’ve been here so many times in recent years that I can negotiate the avenues by foot and not get lost, returning to some of my favorite spots.  It was an all-day walkabout — eight hours total.

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Today as I meander, I decide to take a different approach.  I look into courtyards where tall, heavy wood gates open slightly give me a glimpse of an interior life.  I peer into obscurely lit stores.  I see shadows and light, profiles and outlines of figures.  I look inside instead of at the stunning Talavera tile and wedding cake plaster facades that captivate visitors.

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Still life hides behind high plaster walls through the cracks of gated doors, between the bars of gated churches at altars where no one worships, down alleyways where laundry dries, through windows into storage rooms.

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Before I leave Puebla, I treat myself to a lunch at what I undoubtedly believe is the best restaurant in the city, El Mural de los Poblanos.  Don’t miss it. Spectacular service and perfectly prepared food.

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It was a mezcal kind of day for me: first a tamarind mezcal margarita, then a shot glass of Puebla origin mezcal (with worm salt and orange slices) compliments of the manager (that I managed to nurse throughout the 2-1/2 hour meal), a sunflower sprout salad, and shrimps sauteed in mezcal.  I finished with a small scoop of house made pumpkin ice cream and a raisin liqueur. Who’s hungry? Did anyone say bed time?

Mexican vanilla beans, mezcal and chocolate

What to do with a Mexican vanilla bean? Why not a Groucho Marx impersonation?  Even though I recommended adding it to a bowl of sugar for flavor.


On Friday, we had a Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat mini-reunion at the Oak Leaf Restaurant in Pittsboro, NC.  Who? Robin, Debbie, Becky and me.  As soon as I presented my North Carolina friends — all professional women — with a gift of a Mexican vanilla bean, a maguey fiber facial scrub, and a package of tasty mango fruit leather, you can see what they did first. I’m not certain which one started it.  This speaks volumes about the fun we have in Oaxaca during the retreat each year!  And, there’s space for you.


I also brought along a bottle of private label El Diablo y La Sandia madrecuixe sylvestre (wild) agave mezcal to open and share.  This is only available for sale at the B&B in Oaxaca. The restaurant was to charge us a corkage fee, but their first question was, Where did you buy this?  Oaxaca, I said, waiting for them to ask, How do you spell that?  Oh, she said, wait a minute.  Then the manager came over.  We are really sorry, we can’t serve you this bottle.  Though I’d love to taste it, she confessed.  It has to have been purchased in an ABC (Alcohol and Beverage Commission) Store for us to legally open and serve it here.  She was really, really apologetic, but we had another solution.


After our delicious BLT lunch of a fried green tomato, goat cheese and bacon sandwich (minus the bacon for two vegetarians), we declined dessert at the Oak Leaf.  We had something else in mind and went next door to the Chatham Market Place.  This is our local organic grocery store and cafe.  Here we bought vegan chocolate cake dessert for each of us, and took four tumblers outside to the picnic table, where we easily broke the wax seal on the bottle, twisted off the cap and poured.


I have to confess, chocolate and this herbal earthy mezcal go really well together. We did NOT drink the entire bottle!  Not even close.  Just a little sip.  But, most of us managed to finish the cake!

Mexico’s gifts to the world include the vanilla bean, mezcal and the word for chocolate.  Add to that mole, corn and colorfast cochineal.  Anything else you can think of?

Six Flight Mezcal Tasting with El Cortijo

The village of Santiago Matatlan bills itself at the mezcal capital of the world. The arch holding the banner welcoming you into town has a copper still on top of it.  I’m from North Carolina and in that part of the world the same type of still is used for moonshine.   There is no comparison.   Especially when going for a tasting with El Cortijo mezcales.

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After our Felted Fashion Workshop ended, Debbie, Leslie, Christine and I went off on an all-day excursion through the Tlacolula Valley.  After stopping at Yagul and Mitla, we headed to Matatlan where I had made an appointment in advance with Raul Mendez Zamora, fifth generation mezcal maker, to visit the family home.  No one lives there now.  It is used for labeling and packaging.  It is like visiting a 1950’s museum.   This is where Raul’s grandmother came up with the idea of a private label, the first in town.

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Raul showed us the original labels, including one with a photo of Brigitte Bardot.  Next to this was an antique garafon, or blown glass jar, used to store the mezcal after it went through the aging process.

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After a brief introduction into the family mezcal making history, we sat down at the dining room table.  Raul asked us if we had the wherewithal to taste five mezcals.  We said, aye, yayayaya, that’s a lot.  Three ought to do it, we replied! Ultimately, we ended up tasting six, including several of the new limited edition mezcals distilled from wild agave that tastes like herbs from the field.

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Raul instructed us.  First smell the aroma.  Take a bit of the liquor on your tongue for a second then toss it back until your mouth gets used to it. Since we had our trusty taxi driver Abraham, as we moved up the flights from joven to añejo  to reposado to the wild agave and finally to the king, pechuga de pollo.  The tastes were becoming muy suave.  The flights started at 38% alcohol and went up to 54% alcohol.  We were sipping slowly. 

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I can’t say we were borrachitas by the end of it all, but we sure did feel good when we got home to Teotitlan del Valle, only 10 miles away.


During the tasting, we heard the sound of little girl voices from the street.  In came a family of basket sellers.  We had a great time playing with the children as we prepared to leave, new baskets in hand.

It takes nine years to grow the maguey fruit before it can be harvested.  The aging process can be as much as three years in oak barrels — or longer.

The bad news is that El Cortijo is not exported to the United States.  Nor do they sell at the Matatlan casa.  The good news is that the brothers Raul and Juan Carlos who now operate the business have opened Mezcaleria El Cortijo in the historic center of downtown Oaxaca city.  There you can taste and buy!  (Two bottles per person allowed into the U.S.)

Mezcaleria El Cortijo, Avenida Cinco de Mayo, between Abasolo and Murguia, across the street from the Quinta Real Hotel (formerly El Camino Real).  Tel: 951-514-3939.  They are open 6-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday.


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.