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.

King of Mezcals: El Cortijo’s Pechuga de Pollo

You be the judge!  Is Pechuga de Pollo (breast of the chicken) distilled by El Cortijo in Santiago Matatlan, Oaxaca, the best of the best?  At 1,500 pesos (that’s $118 USD at today’s 12.65 exchange rate) for a 750 ml bottle in fine Mexican restaurants and far more in the U.S.A. (so I’m told by my in-the-know brother-in-law), this organic mezcal is a knock-your-socks-off fruity drink with a hint of poultry earthiness.  It packs a wallop at 38% alcohol content. This is a sipping drink, not a slug it back, down-it-in-one-gulp followed by a beer chaser beverage.

How do I know?  During our last evening in Puebla this week, before my return to Oaxaca and her return to Santa Cruz, California, Barbara and I went back to El Mural de los Poblanos where we love what Chef Lizett Galicia Solis does with seasonal and indigenous food (click on her name and see the makings of Pipian Verde).

After a satisfying and healthy sunflower sprouts salad mixed with walnuts, sunflower seeds, tomatoes, peeled green apples, garnished with avocado and dressed with a lime-olive oil vinaigrette;

after Mole de Olla, a beef shank stew simmered with carrots, onions, zucchini, green beans (vegetables so fresh and crunchy that they tasted just picked), epazote, and other mysterious local herbs;

after the Regalo de Quetzal, a crusty Mexican chocolate cake oozing creamy goodness accompanied by an intensely vanilla homemade ice cream that we shared, we took a deep sigh and finished off our one glass each of an Argentine malbec — a good, basic wine.  (The three-course meal with wine came to 450 pesos [$36USD] per person including tip.)

Across the restaurant, the Captain Enrique Garcia was setting up for a four-flight mezcal tasting.  When we asked him about what was on the tasting menu, he brought over two shot glasses filled with Pechuga de Pollo and gave us a sample.

Zowie!  I think I flew back to our lovely little Hotel Real Santander, which was around the block.  Barbara wanted to buy a bottle on the spot to take home to George and then thought better of it.

El Cortijo web site indicates the retail price for a bottle is 650 pesos.  Of course, that’s in Mexico.  If you can find it in your wine/liquor store, give your own mezcal tasting.  They only distill 300 bottles a year. (Another great reason to visit Oaxaca!)  Fortunately, Santiago Matatlan is 15 minutes from where I live so I had to buy two mezcal shot glasses at the last Talavera workshop I visited, just in case.



Oaxaca Community Museums Are Source of Pride, Attempt to Stem Tide of Outmigration

My friend Bruce lives in Baja, California (Mexico).  We are carrying on a correspondence about safety, Oaxaca sights and sounds, and life as gringos in Mexico.  He recently sent me the article written below and asked me to comment on it.  Here is what I wrote back to him: “Thank you for sending me the article about Santiago Matatlan and the Field Museum of Natural History excavations there in 2004.  I began going to Teotitlan del Valle in 2005 and was not aware of the archeological program in Matatlan, although I have been to that village several times to see the ancient tradition of handmade mescal harvesting and fermentation.  The church there is very beautiful.  Teotitlan has a community museum and archeologists worked there in the 70’s and 80’s to excavate the base of the church to discover orginal Zapotec stone carvings.  (American and European archaeologists and cultural anthropologists have been in the region for a long time.) There is a movement to create community museums throughout Oaxaca, since there is so much history there. ”  The community museum in Teotitlan is operated and staffed by a committee of volunteers.  Since this is a communitarium endeavor, the group decides what is exhibited and what related activities deserve investment.  I imagine it is the same for Matatlan.  I have been the the Field Museum in Chicago where there is an extensive permanent exhibit on the Zapotec civilization at Monte Alban.  It is considered one of the finest examples of mesoamerican political organizational structure.  The article below is well worth a read, an important review of how small villages in the Oaxaca valley depend upon tourism to bolster their agrarian economy.  The difficulty for most villages in the Tlacolula valley is that people rarely venture into the villages, and only stop along the convenient highway shops where tour buses can easily enter and exit.  This cuts off the majority of people from benefiting from the tourist dollar.  And, this article was written pre-2006, when Oaxaca erupted in protest against a restrictive local government.  I will see if Matatlan was able to complete its museum and generate tourist interest on my next visit.  Saludos, Norma

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****Now for the article:

Artifacts are a field of dreams for a remote Mexican village

Residents have the support of a Field Museum Team to put them on the beaten path for tourism cash by exhibiting 6th Century relics

By Hugh Dellios

Tribune foreign correspondent

Published October 3, 2004

SANTIAGO MATATLAN, Mexico – The ancestors on the hill left no written record. Until a team of Chicago archaeologists came, nobody really thought much about them. And, strangely, some of the urns they left behind showed supernatural figures with two left hands. Nevertheless, this small village hopes a connection with the 6th Century Zapotec community on the nearby hilltop will help preserve their 21st Century future, or at least keep some of the teenagers from leaving for Los Angeles.

With the help of a Field Museum team, a group of energetic young men is trying to set up a small community museum to exhibit the ancient Zapotec artifacts dug up by the archaeologists. The main objective is to honor and preserve the area’s history. But the group also wants to put the village back on the tourism map so more jobs are created and fewer young people are forced to look for a life elsewhere.

Known locally as “The World Capital of Mescal,” a tequila-like beverage, this village faces the same stagnant fate as other rural pueblos across Mexico and the situation could get worse when a new highway, diverting the few visitors the town gets now, is completed

The site’s promoters faced tough questioning last spring about the archaeologists’ permits and intentions. Although eventually approved, the approval process gave the Field Museum team a fascinating window into how decisions are made in a traditional Mexican village.

Monument to the future

“This museum is so people don’t forget us,” said Abel Lopez, a mescal factory owner working on the project. “It will be an attractive place for people to visit before they disappear down the road.”

Whereas Santiago Matatlán has an official population of 4,000 residents only about 2,500 people actually live in the village. The rest of them are working in the United States.

“Those who have been to the states start talking about Sunset Boulevard and Venice Beach, and the young people start getting antsy. They say, `I’ve got to see it!'” said Ambrosio Escobar, head of the museum committee, who once worked illegally on a fishing boat in Alaska.

For many years, the village survived by harvesting agave to make mescal, which was shipped to nearby Oaxaca or sold to visitors along the highway. But now others have stolen much of that market, and only about 10 small, horse-powered mescal factories remain.

Oaxaca, 45 minutes away by car, is rich with tourists. And guidebooks already promote a tourist circuit that passes near Santiago Matatlán, including the well-known Zapotec ruins at Mitla, the carpet-making village of Teotitlán, a giant, 2,000-year-old tree at Tule and sulfur springs at Hierve de Agua.

“The museum is for the people who don’t want to leave,” said Mario Santiago Nolasco, 24, one of the young men who call themselves the village’s “culture promoters.” “People are bombarded with so much from outside these days. This is to preserve what is ours.”

The archaeologists, led by Gary Feinman, chairman of the Field Museum’s anthropology department, have been excavating at El Palmillo hill since 1997. The team is researching the terraced homes of Zapotec commoners for clues to the structure and demise of the empire that dominated the Oaxaca Valley 1,300 to 1,500 years ago.

Among their finds are skeletons, pots and beads from a tomb, urns showing the Zapotec deity-like figure Cocijo and a hollowed-out rabbit bone that may have served as a beverage straw or snuff tube. All of it is stored in cardboard boxes at the village hall.

“I think the best pieces are display quality,” said Feinman who said the museum also could show the excavating techniques and the long history of agave use. “Even though it would be undoubtedly small, we can do something you don’t normally see in museums.”

Asked about the two left hands on depictions of Cocijo, Feinman said the answer to the mystery might not be so dramatic. “They just lost the mold for the right hand?” he said. “I could be wrong.”

Part of a national effort

The young men promoting the museum plan say their interest also stems from stories their grandparents told them about the hill and the ancient people who lived there. In one myth, the hill was a temple above a great emptiness where a giant snake lived.

The Mexican National Institute of Archaeology and History seeks the establishment of local museums. It has supported Santiago Matatlán’s project, which would be among at least 15 similar programs in Oaxaca state.

Feinman and his wife, Linda Nicholas, an adjunct curator at the Field Museum, helped present the museum proposal at two town hall-like hearings last spring. They were met with suspicions about outsiders and a grilling over what they might be up to on the hill.

The “culture promoters” and community leaders helped lay those suspicions to rest. Ultimately, the project was approved by a show of hands among the several hundred in attendance. The promoters were given a 19-page permit, which some of those assembled “signed” with thumbprints.

“The former village leaders never told his people that [Feinman] was up there excavating. They didn’t know what he was doing,” Escobar said. “The community is totally in agreement now.” Still, the project hasn’t cleared its last hurdle. The museum committee was told it could use a municipal storehouse for the exhibition, but committee members say they will need about $10,000 to repair the leaky roof and the walls.

The village administrator was recently replaced; his successor is not as interested in the museum project. And yet to be known is the opinion of a new mayor who should be elected in December to fill a seat that has been empty because of a decade-long spat among the village’s principal families and factions.

“Matatlán has a lot of history,” said Gregorio Hernandez, 33, another promoter, “and we’re going to rescue it.”

Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune