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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Food & Recipes, Oaxaca Mexico art and culture, Travel & Tourism
Tagged blogsherpa, distilled alcohol, El Cortijo, maguey, mescal, Mexico, mezcal, Oaxaca, SANTIAGO MATATLAN, Tequila