Photo by Brian Finke
Photos by Brian Finke
In Oaxaca, mezcal harvesting and production methods are passed down from generation to generation.
That fancy cocktail in your favorite bar is changing everything in the villages of Mexico’s southern state.
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Intensity was in the air. Up in Los Mochis, Mexican marines were tightening the noose on El Chapo, fugitive head of the Sinaloa Cartel. Twelve hundred miles away, things in Oaxaca City were also urgent. That flavor in my mezcal: Was it raw potato? Sunflower seed? How had the microbial population near the distillery affected the local yeast? Did the mezcalero use copper or clay pots? It was midnight at a small, dark bar called Mezcalogía. It would be hard to overstate the import here of a smoky liquid made from a spiny succulent, or the irrelevance of the country’s distant drug-trafficking theatrics.
Outside, the cobbled streets of the colonial city were black with rain. Inside, things were hopping, elbows politely jostling under an old chandelier. At the center of things, circulating with low-key gravitas, was a stocky young man in glasses and a Hendrix T-shirt. A distinct parting-of-bodies preceded his mellow movements, discreet murmurs followed him. He might’ve been a movie star from Mexico City, but I doubt a movie star would command such respect. This was the bar’s owner, Asis Cortés.
Mezcal joints are plentiful here in Oaxaca, but Mezcalogía exists on another plane. Outwardly casual, it’s a temple beneath the surface, and meticulous fanatics come to declaim thoughtfully about finish and mouthfeel. Because of the bar and because Cortés is a sixth-generation mezcalero himself, he is a luminary in the exploding world of mezcal. For the next couple hours I took in that explosion, sampling espadines, tobalás, tobaziches, and pechugas—the latter a mezcal redistilled through a raw chicken or turkey breast, of course. This cousin-of-tequila? It’s the most interesting thing you can put in a glass, the bar patrons insisted. More complex than wine, more subtle than whiskey.
Cortés hails from a small town where his family has made mezcal since before the American Civil War. Remote family distilleries have long been features of the landscape here, as familiar as the agave plants themselves. Culturally if not culinarily, they were essentially moonshine operations. They seldom distributed farther than the neighbor’s house, and usually in an old Coke bottle. Putting a label on it? Selling it beyond Oaxaca? Mixing it in a cocktail glass? These notions were foreign. Then the world shrank, and foreign ceased to exist.
There were mountains and empty valleys and the smell of the global south, that mix of warm hillsides and backyard fires.
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Oaxaca is the second-poorest state in Mexico and its most indigenous, two braided facts that owe much to geography. When the Spanish plowed through in the 16th century, they found a rugged terrain dividing Oaxaca into isolated village-states. In some ways that’s still the case: Many communities have maintained their own dialects, their own traditions—and yes, their own mezcals.
So how do you penetrate the state’s 36,000 square miles of god-knows-how-many tiny producers? I had been led here by two guys from the United States—my spirit guides, if you will. Clayton Szczech is a serious fellow with a minor pompadour and dark, skeptical eyes. When he was younger, a career test predicted he’d grow up to become a podiatrist or an undertaker. Instead Clayton moved to Mexico to lead tequila and mezcal tours for the similarly obsessed. Max Garrone, bitten by the same bug, lives in California and co-runs Mezcalistas, which is both a deeply researched blog and an ongoing series of tastings. I’ve known Garrone for years, but I can’t quite say I know him well, because he’s mysterious and speaks in riddles. “Mezcal will set you free,” he told me before the trip, raising his eyebrows meaningfully, “unless it doesn’t.” I couldn’t argue.
I told Max and Clayton I didn’t want a cursory tour of all god-knows-how-many distilleries. I wanted to see one—to zero in on a single family at the center of these massive changes. To Max and Clayton it was a no-brainer. The next morning we’d drive out to the village of Santa Catarina Minas.
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Over the next half hour I learned what mezcal is. You start by harvesting a prehistoric-looking agave, locally called a maguey. This is no small assignment, as they can take a decade to mature. The leaves are lopped off and the heart, or piña, along with a few tons of its brothers and sisters, is tossed into a pit layered with hot stones and maguey fiber. Under a blanket of straw mats and dirt, the piñas roast in that pit for the next few days or even a month. (With tequila, the agave hearts are often merely steamed—pshaw.) For mezcal, the cooked maguey is then ground to a pulp. Some mezcaleros use a hand tool, others an enormous round grinding stone pulled in a circle by a deeply patient donkey or horse. The resulting pulp ferments in those open-air barrels a few days more, until at last it’s run through simple stills over a wood fire.
Soon we were seated at a long table in a small home near the palenque. The elders of the Angeles family, which owns Real Minero, lived here. We sat in a half-indoor, half-outdoor dining room. In the cluttered courtyard, a child played with a length of old hose. At the far end of the table sat the owner of the house, a wiry man in a worn cowboy hat.
It’s hard not to worry for a remote village that is voluntarily enlisting in the First World’s demented and depleting capitalism.
After lunch, she led us through town. Tell people you’re off to mezcal country and—you can tell from their faces—a percentage will picture some debauched, Tijuana-like realm. But Minas is quiet and gentle, a place of small homes under a big, hot sky, and of children on dirt roads stealing shy glances. As we walked, Graciela and I spoke about the younger generation leading their families’ village mezcal operations into the global market, and how that can change a family. Don Lorenzo carries a knife, his daughter an iPhone. He attended elementary school until fourth grade; she has a graduate degree. Graciela finds herself doing things that would’ve been unfathomable just a few years ago: giving presentations around the country, hosting a fancy tasting event at a Four Seasons, representing all of mezcal in Istanbul. On top of that are the changes sweeping through Minas. Gawkers like Clayton and Max and me now breeze through their once hidden town, oohing and Instagramming. Graciela understands that authenticity itself must be branded on occasion.
It’s hard not to worry for a mellow, remote village that is voluntarily enlisting in the First World’s demented and depleting capitalism. That sweet kid playing with the hose in the courtyard earlier—in the States he would’ve been whimpering for a PlayStation. At the same time, my concern issues from a well-fed mouth. When we passed a playground, Graciela talked about the schoolmates she grew up with. By the time she graduated, most of the boys—her friends—had been forced to look for jobs across the border. A generation of lost men, she said, many of whom never made it back. Now imagine an alternative emerging, she added: not just making a living right here, but doing so from your own family traditions, with your own family hole-in-the-ground, and paying fair wages.
The next day was El Día de Reyes, or Three Kings’ Day. Real Minero organizes the village festival, which means Graciela organizes it, and after a church service and procession through town, everyone comes to the palenque for a big party. We agreed to return the next day for the festivities.
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