Tag Archives: mezcal

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gossip and Morning Refreshment: Following the Abuelitas

This morning I arrive at the daily market early, by 9 a.m. I had chicken soup on my mind and want to make some, so I first stop at a stall where I know that cooking teacher Reyna Mendoza buys her pollo. Criollo, advises the woman standing next to me in the aisle as she points to the small whole, white chicken, saying pollo, es pollo, (chicken, it’s chicken) a Spanish lesson for the güera. I smile and nod.

Buying roses, $2.50 a dozen . I always have fresh flowers.

Buying roses, $2.50 a dozen . I always have fresh flowers.

Criollo means natural or wild or organic. They eat maize, she says. She then points to the big, plump yellow chickens sitting with their big breasts, proud birds, twice the size of the criollos, and says, these came from Oaxaca and they eat commercial grain (in Spanish, of course). Then, the vendor and the shopper move into Zapotec, a language I don’t understand. Some chismes (gossip), I’m sure.

Mango vendor with an abundant supply.

Mango vendor with an abundant supply.

I love following the little grandmothers, the abuelitas, through the market, with their wool checked faldas (skirts) folded around their waist and tied with a handwoven red wool cinturon (belt) with tassle ends. In the old days, these belts were dyed with cochineal. Some still are.

Plaid wool skirt tied with a cummberbund, floral top, shawl for sun protection, basket to hold market goodies.

Plaid wool skirt, floral top, shawl for sun protection, basket for market shopping.

Plaid skirts, flowered blouses, sometimes aprons, always a traditional handwoven reed shopping basket balanced on the crook of the left arm, long hair braided with colored ribbons and tied together at the end or piled on top of the head like a crown, a rebozo (shawl) covering shoulders or head, sometimes the shopping basket. This is a passing generation.

Village tuk-tuk carries shoppers who don't carry baskets on their heads.

Village tuk-tuk carries shoppers who don’t carry baskets on their heads.

This was not meant to be a long shopping trip. I left the house gate open because I intended to return immediately.  A quick pass through the market for organic chicken, chard, a dozen fresh long-stem roses (40 pesos a dozen, that’s about $2.50 USD), criollo eggs from the gallina (hen), a couple of squash and mangos (it’s the season).

Following the abuelitas as they take a respite

Following the abuelitas as they take a respite

As I was loading my car I noticed a stream of abuelitas entering the doorway of the convenience store across the street. Such a good picture, so I decided to hang out. A few more entered, one at a time.

Inside, a congregation of about six grandmothers. Good for the stomach, they say.

Inside the inner sanctum, a congregation of about six grandmothers.

More than coca-cola inside

More than coca-cola here. Time for a chat and refreshment.

It was by now 10 o’clock in the morning. I waited for them to emerge but they didn’t. And, I remember that this is the ladies’ social hour and the convenience store is where they congregate before going back home to work, prepare meals, do laundry and take care of the grandchildren. So, I decided I was done waiting and would join them!

It's dark inside with obscure lighting. In the shadows I can barely see faces.

It’s dark inside with obscure lighting. In the shadows I can barely see faces.

Believe me! A shot of mezcal at 10:30 a.m. can really get you moving. As I sidle up to the counter cum bar to join the ladies, they welcome me with warm smiles, ask where I live, how long I’ve been here, and admire my filigree Zapotec-style earrings and embroidered apron, sign that I am surely one of them. Or at least a trying hard wannabe. Then, invite me to take photos.

I get a Zapotec lesson, Xa-Yu (how are you?) and chichi-bay-oh (salud) as we raise the cup. I already know Zakchi! (hello, good afternoon). This is really a foreign language.

A convenient stop across the street from the market

A convenient stop across the street from the market

Rosa, as she introduced herself, buys my first drink. Good for the panza, she says, patting her belly. I agree. Mezcal is a medicinal when not abused! She offers me another. I smile and decline, realizing I need to drive home without bumping into any burros.

Next time, my turn to buy.

And, that’s village life in Oaxaca.

For sale, fresh cornhusks for tamales, anyone?

This is, too. Fresh native corn and husks for tamales, anyone?

Norma’s Simple Chicken Soup Recipe

  • 1 small, white organic chicken, cut up, skin removed
  • include neck and gizzards and egg sack
  • 1-2 chicken feet (just like grandma used to make)
  • 4-6 cups water
  • salt to taste
  • 1 serrano pepper, dried
  • 6 cloves garlic
  • 2 whole onions, peeled
  • 1/2″ fresh turmeric, peeled

Add chicken and all other ingredients to 6 qt. stockpot. Bring to simmer on stovetop, cover and cook for 4-6 hours*. Chill. Remove fat. Muy rico.

These local, skinny free-range chickens are pretty tough, so to get the meat very tender, it needs to good for a really long time! It’ the feet that give the flavor.

Gracias a Dios! Have You Heard of Gin Mezcal?

We hadn’t heard of gin mezcal until the other night at Oaxaca’s Origen restaurant. Our very competent waiter suggested we taste it which was on the menu as a mixed drink. What was it like unadulterated? How could mezcal be gin? Hollie asked.

Gin Mezcal with 32 different herbs including lavender

Gin Mezcal with 32 different herbs including lavender

Gracias a Dios is the mezcal brand. That means Thank God. They produce several different varieties. This one, our waiter told us, has 32 different herbs including a very aromatic lavender. I guess it’s the aroma that gives the name GIN instead of the juniper berries. It was so good, we each ordered a little sipping cup and drank it along with our dinner instead of wine.

Gracias a Dios bottles espadin, plus the wild mezcales cuixe and tepeztate.

Gracias a Dios bottles aged espadin, plus the wild mezcales cuixe and tepeztate.

Next question: Can we buy it here? No, he said, and directed us to local La Mezcaloteca on Calle Reforma that sells bottles and dispenses tastings at the bar. They didn’t have it. Can we help you with something else they asked? No thanks.

Big selection, handpainted boxes at the ultimate gallery Mezcalillera

Big selection, handpainted boxes at the ultimate gallery Mezcalillera

Do you know where we can buy it? The barkeeper referred us to a vague place at the corner of Benito Juarez and Murguia. Lots of directions here are vague. One needs to be persistent. Along the way, we asked at the retail mezcal shop two doors down. No luck. Then, we stopped in a couple of mezcal bars along the way. No luck.

Map with contact information for Mezcalillera

Map with contact information for Mezcalillera

At the corner of Murguia and Juarez, there was no evidence of anything resembling the sale of mezcal. I asked a young man with an ice cream cone in his hand. He sported a beard. He appeared as if he might know.

Hard to find brands, artesanal and delicious.

Hard to find brands, artesanal and delicious.

And he did, pointing us to the middle of the next block on Murguia between Benito Juarez and Pino Suarez. Hallellujah. We found it. And bought the only two bottles of Gin Mezcal. So sorry! Maybe by the time you read this they will have stocked more.

7 Mysteries, with a look like a boutique California wine label.

7 Mysteries, with a look like a boutique California wine label.

Mezcal provisioners are cropping up all over town. Most mezcal bars will also sell bottles. Mezcal is the hot commodity all over the USA and Europe. Some of the bottles for sale have been certified for export. If you go out to the palenques and find the taste you love, you can often buy 750 liters of uncertified mezcal for 200 pesos, a real bargain and fraction of what a Oaxaca retail store will charge.

And, now for the Meteor!

And, now for the Meteor!

La Mezcalillera, Murguia 403A, Centro Historico, Oaxaca. Tel. (951) 514-1757. Facebook: mezcalillera  Enjoy!

 

Agave Beverage of Choice? Aguamiel, Pulque and Mezcal

Here we are in Oaxaca, Mexico, center of the universe for the cultivation, production, distilling and bottling of agave nectar we call mezcal.  Mezcal is hot. A hot commodity, that is.

I stand corrected! Agave is not a cactus. It is a succulent. Thanks to reader Andrew for bringing this to my attention. I’ve changed the post title.

A local friend told me his uncle sold his espadin agave field for 40,000 pesos when it reached maturity after seven years. It takes a long time to make $2,200 USD equivalent here, even at today’s exchange rate. But, that’s a lot of lana (money) and a farmer is happy to hold this crop for a while. The price of agave piña has risen exponentially, 15 times greater than it was seven years ago, according to Alvin Starkman, operator of Mezcal Educational Excursions.

For the last week, I’ve been drinking a cup of aguamiel in the morning. Zapotecs in the know say that aguamiel has curative, medicinal powers and aids in daily digestion. I’m a believer.

 

Aguamiel is the sap that comes from the heart of the agave when you cut the top off.  Honey water. That’s what they call it, and it tastes like it. After one day unrefrigerated, it begins to ferment and after a few days will become pulque. An acquired taste. After four days of fermentation, you are drinking pure bubbling alcohol that goes from clear to cloudy. Some flavor it with fruit or oatmeal to sweeten the taste.

Last week, I tasted tepache in the Tlacolula market. (Find the stand next to the row of ice cream vendors on the rug sellers street.) This is pulque with fermented fresh pineapple. A half a cup before lunch and I needed the arm of a friend to steady me. But, it sure was tasty. In the U.S. with the absence of pulque, some tepache recipes call for beer and pineapple!

 

Which brings me to mezcal, the epitome of distilled beverage in these parts.

 

I am not even close to being knowledgeable, but I now have about 14 bottles of locally produced mezcal in my collection. I added the last six — plastic bottles, mostly with the Coke label, filled at the source — during a day-long mezcal education tour with Alvin Starkman. (Plenty of tasting, too.) Nine family members and friends joined me. Those who flew away, left with officially bottled and sealed beverages, thanks to Alvin.

It takes an education and time to understand mezcal and one-day is just the beginning. So is a collection of 14 bottles. Hardly enough to matter to the serious collector.

On the trip with Alvin, I learned that I like tepeztate and clay distilled espadin. Clay gives the mezcal the flavor of loam and fire. I used to really like añejo and reposado, and these are very smooth. Now, however, what tickles my nose and throat are the nuances of the herbs and earthiness of the wild agaves.

 

Stick your nose in the glass. Inhale. Get that full smokey aroma from the roasted-over-wood agave heart (called piña or pineapple) into your lungs. Then sip. Just a little bit. Second sip, take a little more. You’ll see that what might have felt harsh to your throat at first is now subtle and delightful.

 

Each type of cactus will make a different type of mezcal. Maybe it’s an espadin distilled with a turkey breast (pechuga de pavo) hanging over the copper pot. Now, there’s a flavor worth trying. Is it fermented in oak, pine, a bull skin, plastic or stainless steel, and for how long? This impacts the flavor. Is it made from a tobala, Karwinskii or madrecuixe agave. Are fruits or poleo (wild mint) added for flavor? And what about that worm?

 

And what about the microclimates and soil types? Yes, the same agave will produce a different taste with a variation in soil temperature, altitude, and whether the field is shared with weeds or with squash and beans, and when it was last plowed.

 

Whether you live here or are visiting, mezcal is worth knowing about. It is an ancient artisanal craft on par with rug weaving, natural dyeing, clay making and more recently wood carving. Getting out to the palenques on country back roads is a unique experience.

 

Meeting the men and women who grow the agave and distill it is even more amazing. Many live very simple, humble lives and their production is small. They may not be certified but what they make can be every bit as delicious.

 

When you go to the source, you are able to buy, too, at a fraction of what you would pay for a bottle in the city. But, it’s not really about price, it’s about the adventure!

Mezcal Factoids, thanks to Alvin Starkman:

  • No 2 batches of mezcal is the same
  • Mezcal improves with age
  • 95% of tequila is made from blue agave in Jalisco, Mexico
  • In the State of Oaxaca there are about 8 species of agave used to make mezcal
  • Each of these species has as many as 20 sub-species resulting in many flavor profiles from just the varietal of the plant
  • On the other hand, while tequila has different flavors resulting from different influences, only blue agave can be used to achieve them
  • While most tequila is made with 100% agave, it can be made with as little as 51% agave bsed sugars. Read the label carefully, especially the more popular commercial brands made in the most industrialized way.

 

  • True artesanal mezcal uses natural yeast in the environment
  • Gusano worm in a bottle of mezcal changes the flavor of the spirit significantly, while some stil use it as a marketing tool
  • Most artisanal agave grows without irrigation
  • The most accepted theory is that the Moors brought the distillation process to Spain, and the Spanish brought it to the New World where they found agave

 

A Few Mezcal Resources:

  • Mezcal Educational Tours
  • La Mezcaleria — a new favorite, where to taste/buy aguamiel, pulque and artisanal mezcal — on the Macedonio Alcala walking street in the first block beyond Santo Domingo Church on the right
  • Las Mezcalistas — Susan Coss and Max Garrone, consultants and aficionados, talk about all things mezcal on their blog

 

 

Note: Most of these photos were taken on the trip with Alvin Starkman. Others were shot during an independent adventure I took with my son, sister and brother-in-law to San Juan del Rio the week before.

 

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.

San Juan del Rio_2-2

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.

San Juan del Rio_2-11

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.

San Juan del Rio_2-13

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.

San Juan del Rio_2-23 San Juan del Rio_2-37

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.

San Juan del Rio_2-36

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.

San Juan del Rio_2-17 San Juan del Rio_2-20 San Juan del Rio_2-16

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.

 

 

San Juan del Rio_2-40 San Juan del Rio_2

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