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Wednesday
May272015

Oaxaca 2015: Day 4 – Vinos de Mezcal

There's not really one blanket term to refer to all the different versions of distilled agave; at least not that I know of. Some people summarize tequila, mezcal, and the various other regional versions of agave spirits simply by calling them exactly that: agave spirits. I've heard the term "vinos de agave" tossed around here and there, but we're not really talking about wine here, are we? Maybe in a way we are; because the more I learn about the mindset and the philosophies concerning mezcal production, the more it sounds to me like wine. I was talking to Karina this morning about the agave species she used in her special "Arte de Mezcal" distillate; one of which was called sierrudo (pictured in the photo above). I asked her how she came upon this particular type and she told me the story of a farmer in Matatlan who had planted espadín, but somehow wound up with a bunch of sierrudo. "He found these gigantic piñas in his field years later—twice the size of his normal espadínand wasn't sure what had happened," she said, "so I decided to buy some to see what a mezcal made from this agave would taste like."

You hear stories like this in the wine industry; about growers who plant a varietal in their vineyards, but end up with a bunch of pinot blanc, or some other varietal that somehow managed to sneak its way into the field. There have been plenty of growers who thought they were actually planting chardonnay, but ended up with pinot blanc because the vines, leaves, and clusters look so similar to one another. On top of that, I've spoken with a number of wine producers who label their wines as single varietal, but will tell you off the record that there's a bunch of other grapes blended in because in reality they're making what's called a "field blend"—a marriage of whatever happens to be growing on their property. When you're dealing with agriculture it's hard to be 100% black and white. Nature usually has its way of throwing you a curve ball, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's about working with what the earth gives you. With both wine and mezcal, the attention is primarily on the growing conditions and the flavors of the base materials themselves, whereas with whiskey the distillers are normally much more focused on the production methods and the maturation process. 

The other species Karina used in her distillate was called cuishe—a long, thinner, wild agave that's part of a larger family of agaves silvestres. Going back to wine as an analogy, this would be consistent with grape varietals that are often part of larger families of similar types. Muscat, for example, has many different versions and relatives in the wine world—more than 200 actually; black muscat, muscat de alexandria, etc. In addition to cuishe, there's also madrecuishe, bicuishe—each a little different than its close relative. The wild cuishe that Karina used for her distillate was harvested from the mountains just south of the distillery. Much like with grapes, there's a huge difference in the flavors of mountain agave versus flatland, valley-floor agave. Napa, for example, has a region called Howell Mountain; an AVA known for producing powerful and long-lived Cabernets like Dunn. There's also Spring Mountain, where Keenan Winery makes incredible, structured wines with balance and delicacy. There's a number of reasons for the supremacy of mountain fruit, but much of it has to do with climate, drainage, and sun. When you grow crops on the side of a mountain slope, you don't have to worry about flooding because the excess water runs downhill. The grapes don't get too much sun because at some point during the day it will be on either side of the hill. Higher elevations also tend to be cooler, which allows for a longer and slower ripening process (you don't make a flavorful soup by boiling your vegetables in water for five minutes). The same is apparently true for mountain agave.

Take everything you know about making a great wine from the best possible grapes, and it all applies to the production of mezcal. The various varietals that impart a variety of flavors. The co-fermenting of various types to create a more balanced cepage. The desire in most cases to minimize the impact of wood on the ultimate flavor of the product (or add it in, depending on the producer's stylistic preference). The way that these mezcal producers talk about their mezcales is identical to how a winemaker talks about his or her wines. They're both stressing the same agricultural fundamentals and the same details of importance when referencing the quality of their products. Maybe that's how we should start talking about mezcal in the United States—like we do with wine. Maybe producers should start marketing more of their products to the sommelier crowd, rather than the cocktail culture. Just some food for thought.

-David Driscoll

Wednesday
May272015

Oaxaca 2015: Day 4 – Around the Town

It's morning again in Oaxaca. Let's take a little walk around the city center, shall we?

Imagine hundreds of buildings that are as vibrant as this paper store, and you'll understand why people love the expressive colors of the Oaxacan colonial architecture.

All was calm in the Zocalo this morning. Folks were passing through to do errands or having a quiet coffee at one of the cafes surrounding the square. 

I was going to stop in this beautiful building and grab a bite to eat, but it wasn't open yet. Because of all the colonial-style buildings in Oaxaca, most of these places have inner courtyards where you can sit peacefully and enjoy the serenity of the small gardens within them.

Parents were walking their kids to school. Just like any other Wednesday, anywhere else in the world.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
May262015

Oaxaca 2015: Day 3 – Los Danzantes

About thirty minutes outside of Oaxaca City sits one of the most-heralded production centers of mezcal in the region. I don't know that I'd call it a modern distillery, but Los Danzantes has what is by far the most efficient and streamlined operation I've yet to visit in Oaxaca. It's still pretty much a hands-on facilty, but everything looks orderly and well-maintained. It's both rustic and highly-functional. Three pot stills on the main floor next to the fermentation vats (to make the transfer of fermented agave much easier) and two additional pot stills on the upper level for wild agave distillation and projects that require more attention. I was really, really impressed with their outfit.

The roasting pit sits at the back of the open air space, right next to the loading dock where trucks periodically pull up to make an agave delivery. They drop the agave right next to the pit, making it a cinch to roll them over into the coals. From there it all moves downhill, which allows gravity to help with each transition. The stone tahona pit is just beneath this, so all you have to do is roll each piña over to the next station.

Once the piñas are mashed, they're fermented for five days or so in wooden vats before the materials are cooked and distilled in the wood-fired pot stills. They look like gigantic barrels full of carnitas.

Unlike with most tequila, Danzantes is actually putting the pulp and the fiber into the still during distillation. Tequila production strains out all the agave fiber and boils only the sugary liquid when distilling. That makes a huge difference in the intensity of the agave flavor. Keeping extra contact with the solids during the entire process can be a stylistic choice of various producers. For example, some vintners like to punch down the cap when fermenting wine (pushing the skins back down into the liquid so that they impart more flavor into the final product).

Despite the logical layout and the clean quarters, everything at Danzantes is still done by hand on-site—from the beginning to the end of the process. Even the bottling is done in a small room to the left of the entrance, where a group a workers sit and release the mezcal out of a water cooler-like device. There's very little technology at work here. The entire distillery operates in a space about the size of the Redwood City sales floor.

Next to the front door sits the office of Karina Abad Rojas—the head of production for Danzantes and one of two main distillers at the facility. I said I was going to tell you more about her later, and now seems like as good of a time as any. This woman is nothing short of amazing. She is without a doubt the most competant distiller I've ever met; in the sense that she not only knows everything about the science and the chemistry of distillation, but also about the agricultural background of the base product itself. Unlike most of the Danzantes management (from Mexico City), Karina is a native Oaxacan who knows the terrain like the back of her hand. She can tell you what the soil looks like in the mountains along the Pacific Coast, how that specific tierra affects the sugar in the agave grown there, and what those conditions will ultimately translate to flavor-wise when distilled. Not only can she tell you all of these things, she can do it calmly and with complete patience. She's not only a great distiller, she's the best educator I've yet to meet in this industry—and I'm communicating with her in a language in which I am far from fluent. She takes the time to speak slowly, in detail, and with a sly smile so that you know she's enjoying herself as she does it. She summarizes concepts clearly and with easy-to-understand analogies. She's humble when she describes her work, with no ego, and no chip on her shoulder whatsoever. She's more interested in listening than talking, but won't hesitate to chime in when something needs to be said. I've been glued to her side for the last 48 hours because I can't get enough of her. This woman is the epitome of talent and grace when it comes to the booze business. If I were going to put the future of mezcal into anyone's hands—as a spokesperson or beacon to lead the industry forward—Karina would be my first choice, by a long shot. 

We've long sold the Danzantes mezcales at K&L (now known as "Los Nahuales" in the U.S. due to a trademark issue with the Danzantes name), but until today I never really understood where they stood in comparison to the other selections we carry. They're following the tequila model, which is the standard blanco, reposado, and añejo progression; choosing to market familiarity rather than specifics. The brand has actually enjoyed more success abroad with the Alipus portfolio, simply because of the wilder flavor profiles and the romanticism surrounding the remote locations of production. The reason Danzantes was struggling a bit in comparison was clear to me after today. Simply put: the Danzantes mezcales are too well-made! Seriously. They're so clean, so well-crafted, and so pure in flavor that they get completely obliterated by some of the more intense and powerful mezcales coming out of the mountains. If you need a whisky comparison, think about Clynelish in comparison to Laphroaig. Far more whisky drinkers appreciate the latter distillery, but most experts I know admire the former for its delicacy and grace. Karina's mezcales are the Clynelish of the agave spirits world. She's too talented of a distiller for her own good because far more consumers appreciate intensity over balance.

I could sit and talk to Karina all day (and I actually tried to today, following her around like a puppy dog while she worked). We chatted in her office about a number of different subjects—from the best locations for wild agave harvesting to analogies in the wine world—while I tried to get a better sense of her role at the distillery. That's when I spotted a number of bottles along the back of her desk.

"Que está en esta botella?" I asked, looking at the hand-written label out of curiosity. 

"That's a special project I've been working on," she said. "It's for the Arte de Mezcal series," referring to a label not available in the states. Danzantes has been working on a project called Arte de Mezcal that utilizes some of the more creative and experimental batches of mezcal distilled on site, while allowing Karina to pursue her own interests and push herself further as a distiller. "I've always been a big fan of sierrudo," she continued. "It's a cultivated species that gives off flavors of cherries and dried chile." When Karina first started experimenting with sierrudo, she thought the species had potential for greatness, but it needed to be combined (co-fermented, not blended) with another type of agave to help balance out some of the fruitiness. That's when she got the idea of including in a bit of cuishe into the recipe—a wild agave species known for dark chocolate flavors and notes of bitter herbs. 

"I think the combination of these two creates the harmony between the flavors I've been looking for," she said further, grabbing the bottle to pour me a taste. I took a sip and let the mezcal linger on my tongue. It started with citrus and sweet agave spices, then moved into a clean, yet vibrant display of pepper, roasted fruits, and cinnamon. The finish was fresh and lively, with the clear flavor of sweet roasted agave present on my palate for minutes after I swallowed. It was incredible.

"What are you going to do with this?" I asked coyly.

"I'm not sure yet," she said.

"I have an idea," I answered with a huge grin.

At that moment, however, another truck filled with agave parked itself at the back entrance, so we had to table that conversation. It was time to get our hands dirty. We could talk business later in the evening.

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
May262015

Oaxaca 2015: Day 3 – Compare/Contrast

There's always a shortage of some sort when it comes to the booming spirits business these days. There's a shortage of mature whiskey. Then there's a shortage of available casks. Then there's a shortage of wood to make the casks. But that's the consequence of mass consumption in the modern 24-hour-news-cycle, I-can-have-anything-whenever-I-want-it era we live in: you run out of stuff when you use too much of it. Not only do you run out of it, you become numb to its significance. Now that the selection of Mexican spirits is expanding, and large companies are scrambling to add a selection to their global portfolios, the tequila and mezcal industries are preparing for their own shortage and it’s the worst kind possible—they’re going to eventually run out of available agave.

And because we live in this new modern age where everything has to be "the best" at all times (even if we don't understand what makes it "the best"), and where grown men throw temper tantrums when they can't get their precious wheated Bourbon, Oaxaca is preparing for a shortage of not just agave, but its most-prized version of it: tobalá. If there were such a thing as a craze amongst the Oaxacan growers, it would definitely center around this cherished wild agave species. "When we're looking to buy agave," Karina told me yesterday, "the growers try to present their tobalá first because they know it's in demand. But we don't distill tobalá year round." It's because of this increased demand for tobalá that Danzantes is experimenting with their own cultivation of the wild species. Their main office downtown has a small greenhouse to the side, filled with plantings. So far the distilled results haven't been as good as hoped for (or at least not as good as a mezcal made from wild tobalá).

But how many people really know the difference between wild, flavorful tobalá and mediocre tobalá distilled from a less-flavorful, cultivated crop? Ten? Fourteen? I don't know. I certainly wouldn't know the difference unless I had two prime examples sitting side by side (and that's part of the plan for today, actually). But since most consumers don't really understand mezcal as well as they wish they could, they'll continue to do what they always do: ask for the best. When you ask a mezcal producer for "the best" mezcal, he'll probably shrug and say "tobalá" because it's expensive. Then the buzzword begins flying around the golf course, and the office, and the online message boards, and suddenly everyone's looking for tobalá because it's supposedly the best. Then you drain through all the Pappy in a few months, then all the Weller 12, then the Weller 107, and even the basic Weller Reserve until all that's left are a few bottles of Larceny. "But that's wheated right, so it's kind of like Pappy?" 

Sure, dude. It's exactly like it. That's why mezcal labels are scrambling to put the word tobalá on the bottle. So that you'll know what's best. But will you really know? Or are you just buying the off-hand advice from Vic down at the driving range who happened to mention tobalá as you were loading your clubs into the car?

-David Driscoll

Tuesday
May262015

Oaxaca 2015: Day 2 – Santa Ana del Rio

Today was a very long, but incredibly rewarding day. I got up around seven in the morning and had my street tacos before meeting the rest of the Danzantes gang over at the main office. We crammed into two large vehicles and prepared ourselves for the long drive to Santa Ana del Rio—one of the villages featured in the Alipus mezcal collection. They said it was going to take a while to get there; and it did. But there was plenty to see along the way. 

Santa Ana is about three hours south of Oaxaca City and is situated deep within the mountains surrounding the valley. By the time you reach the turnoff that says "Santa Ana - 26", you think to yourself: "Oh, we're only twenty six miles from Santa Ana!" But you're really still a good hour's drive from the village. Those twenty six miles are pure dirt and gravel with everyone in the car bracing themselves for the next big dip in the road. Snapping photos through the window is possible, but every third photo ends up being a jittery shot of the handle over the window because your lens ends up getting tossed upward from the turbulance. Can you spot the cultivated agave fields adorning the steep mountains slopes?

In a way, visiting the mountains of Oaxaca is just like visiting the mountains around the Napa Valley—it's a bunch of wilderness with a few crops growing sporadically along specifically-chosen hillsides. Of all the various spirits, mezcal is really the most like wine. There are so many similarities. In between the rows of Espadin, you'll come across the occasional wild agave growing amidst the pack. We saw various examples of Tobalá, Tepextate, and Madrecuixe along the way.

We also passed a lone cortador harvesting some agave and using his burro to carry the load. Oaxacans don't use the term jimador like the tequila producers in Jalisco do to refer to their agave harvesters.

After a good hour of bumping and grinding you finally come to the river, or the rio in the name Santa Ana del Rio. It's the same river that passes by other fairly well-known mezcal-producing pueblos like San Juan del Rio and San Luis del Rio (also villages featured in the Alipús portfolio). It flows somewhat red like the earth underneath it and splits the village from the distillery itself. You have to actually drive (or walk) across the river to reach the mezcal-producing area.

And suddenly you can smell the roasted agave in the air. You pull into the stony driveway and there in front of you is the agave pit and the huge tahona used to mash the piñas into a mass of fermentable pulp. You just need to give each agave a few whacks with a machete first. Then you're in business.

So what is the Alipús label and what does it represent in the world of mezcal? Alipús is a series made from contracted mezcales, purchased and marketed by the Danzantes group in Oaxaca, and imported into California by Craft Distillers. Each label corresponds to a specific village where the producer is located. All of them are made entirely from Espadin agave (with the exception of the San Andres that has a smidge of something else thrown in during fermentation). The point is to show the geographical differences that terroir, fermentation, and water ultimately play in the flavor of each spirit. Other than the three main factors I just mentioned, they're all basically produced the same way—made from Espadin agave roasted in an open pit, fermented in used wood, and double-distilled in a wood-fired pot still. Let me break those steps down for you again:

1) The Espadin agave piñas are roasted in an open pit.

2) Then they're hacked to pieces with a machete and ground into a pulp by a huge stone wheel being pulled by a donkey (in this case a horse being attacked by a crazed goat).

3) Then fermented in wooden washbacks for about eight days (give or take depending on the temperature outside)

4) Then they're distilled in these brick oven stills by this man: Meleton Contreras. 

Not alone, of course. He's supported by the rest of his family: his son Lucio, along with cousin Eduardo Hernandez, his sister Minerva, and her husband Enrique (and their kid, little Luis!). The mezcal bottled under the Alipús Santa Ana del Rio label is truly a family affair. I asked Lucio (pictured to the right) what made the agave near Santa Ana so special, and he said the sugar levels. There's always an extreme ripeness to the piñas, he said, which makes fermentation a breeze.

But behind every project of men, there's always an omniscient woman running the show, keeping everyone in line, and letting the boys think they're in charge.. Let me introduce you to my new best friend: Karina from the Danzantes group. She is an absolute superstar. No joke. She took the wheel for the entire drive to Santa Ana and not only manned the most ungodly of roads, but also pointed out every species of agave along the way, as well as differentiated between the soil types and how each specific tierra affects the ultimate flavor of the mezcal. I learned more from her about mezcal in three hours (translating her Spanish into English) than I have from anyone else in the last three years. I'll have a lot more to say about her later on. I'm completely smitten with her at the moment.

After a long day drinking mezcal at the Santa Ana distillery, it was time to head up towards the village itself and hang out at the family house with la abuela. What a place to take a load off and grab a bite to eat!

Mmmmm...caldo de pollo, por favor.

Then it was time for the three hour drive back to Oaxaca City. Check out that lone cortador still harvesting agave on the side of the mountain. He's had an even longer day than I have!

-David Driscoll