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.
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.
Oaxaca to Durham–Pineapple-Lime Mezcal Cocktail Recipe: Serves Two
Is it a Mezcalini or a Mezcalita?
First you need tasty espadin joven mezcal. My limited stash in NC.
Most of the weight in my checked baggage from Oaxaca, Mexico to Durham, North Carolina, USA was attributed to three bottles of Gracias a Dios mezcal — two of Gin Mezcal and one of Cuixe (also spelled Cuishe, pronounced KWI-SHAY). I had four bottles packed and couldn’t move the luggage, so I reluctantly removed one.
(I buy my Gracias a Dios mezcal directly from Oscar Hernandez, the mezcalero, at his palenque in Santiago Matatlan, Oaxaca, the world capital of mezcal making.) He blends the Gin Mezcal with 32 aromatics including lavendar and juniper berries, ginger and rosemary.
The first pour!
Since I’ve gotten here, I’ve experimented with mixed drinks in addition to loving the aroma and taste of mezcal straight with no flavor additives. A little sip goes a long way! Never throw back a mezcal shot. It’s not done that way.
Start with ripe pineapple (more yellow than this one) and squeezable limes.
For the uninitiated, a Mezcalini is like a Martini in appearance only. Mezcal and pulverized fresh fruit with a bit of simple sugar syrup, are shaken together with ice and strained. Then, the bartender pours the aromatic liquid into a stemmed cocktail glass. Sometimes herbs and spices are added, like rosemary or ginger, in the shaken (not stirred) motif. Serve it straight up.
The Tipsy Glass of liquid gold — Pineapple Lime Mezcalita
But, for my version of a Mezcalini, I prefer to adapt the Margarita, substituting mezcal for the more lowly (IMHO) tequila. In restaurants, I order this as a Mezcal Margarita so no one makes a mistake. I like it over the rocks with a salted rim, garnished with worm salt.
Cut off crown, then bottom, and whack the sides off.
Let’s all now rightfully call this a MEZCALITA.
The classic will be fresh squeezed lime juice, mezcal and Cointreau (in Mexico, look for Controy).
It will look like this when you trimmed off the spines.
In Mexico City, I ordered such a drink on the rooftop terrace of the Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico, overlooking the Zocalo. So good, I returned again. And then, once more. It was blended with fresh pineapple and lime juice.
Section into quarters, then cut out the core.
I’ve been working on perfecting the recipe here in Durham, making it for every at-home occasion I can plan. I think I finally have it down, and I’m passing it along to you. No cheating. You can’t use tequila.
Here’s how you cut out the core. No mess.
Cut into 1″ cubes. Get your lime squeezer ready.
Pineapple-Lime Mezcalita Cocktail — Serves 2
In a blender, add together:
4 ounces of Joven mezcal distilled from the Espadin cactus
2 ounces of Cointreau
2 T. simple syrup (dissolve 2 T. sugar in 4 T. boiling water until liquid is clear)
1 C. fresh ripe pineapple, cut into 1″ cubes
2 ounces of freshly squeeze lime juice
6-8 ice cubes, or more for a slushier consistency
Add all ingredients to your blender.
Pulse your blender a few times to mix the ingredients. Then, add the ice cubes and turn speed to LIQUIFY. In seconds, your drink will be ready.
Add your ice cubes, and then …
I have two wonderful, clear, Tipsy Glasses, hand-blown by Asheville glass artist Ben Greene-Colonnese. You can order them online. Not sure where you can find mezcal where you live but definitely worth the search!
Blend on LIQUIFY, pour and enjoy.
We use this lime squeezer throughout Mexico. It’s a part of every kitchen. Mine is the cheapest and totally functional, all aluminum. I’ve had it for years. Where to buy in the USA? Amazon, of course.
At home in Teotitlan del Valle, I have a collection of many favorite brands made from wild agaves like tepeztate and tobala. Some, I bought from the distiller and they are unlabeled and not available for export.
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Food & Recipes, Oaxaca Mexico art and culture, Travel & Tourism
Tagged adult beverage, cocktail, Gracias a Dios, lime, margarita, mescal, Mexico, mezcal, mezcalini, mezcalita, Oaxaca, pineapple