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


Oaxaca 2015: Day 2 – ...Y a la Mañana

Respect your car. In fact, have some respect for cars—period. There's a lot of business that can be done in Mexico via the coche and there's no better example of that than morning time in Oaxaca.

Taxi drivers and businessmen in a hurry often don't have time to find a parking spot, feed the meter, and sit down for a bite to eat. They need food on the go, and Oaxaca has plenty of street vendors who can cater to their every need. All they need to do is stop a little longer at each intersection.

The vendors can come to your car, or you can come to theirs. This guy serves tacos right out of his trunk, along with aguas frescas from the backseat. Did I engage, you ask?

Fuck yeah, I did! The morning communters were pulling up next to his ride as he handed them their tacos through the window. Pretty efficient, if you ask me! I had to get in on the action, so I went for the nopales and the huevos.

Meanwhile, no lines at the tortilleria. It's all about cars, man.

-David Driscoll


Oaxaca 2015: Day 1 – Into the Night

The small plane into Oaxaca is maybe my most favorite vehicle for transport in the world. It's like flying on a Lear jet; or maybe on Airforce One. There's a row of single chairs along the left side, with doubled seats along the right; plenty of leg room and more than enough space to spread out. You can feel the speed in the fuselage and the control the pilots have with every small turn and each little bump of turbulence. It's enthralling. On my last visit, I was only on the smaller, Oaxaca-bound jet for about forty minutes. We transferred in Mexico City and the flight from D.F. is just a hop, skip, and a jump away. This trip, however, we switched planes in Houston, which meant a two hour romp across the Gulf of Mexico in the most-stylish and comfortable of airliners. What a treat it was to finally see land outside my window as the sun began its descent behind the mountains, and we began ours into the Oaxacan valley.

I cleared customs, hopped a cab into town, and met Ansley and the gang over at the hotel. We were just itching to get out on the street. The weather was warm and balmy. The Sunday night crowds were mellow and the calle was tranquillo. The Templo de Santo Domingo was illuminated as we passed by it on our way to Danzantes. Our minds were food focused. We needed nourishment and alcohol quickly.

I'm not sure what people think about Oaxaca, if they even think anything at all. But let me clear one thing up for you: Oaxaca is not some little rinky-dink village in rural Mexico where all the houses are humble and the establishments modest and minute. No. This was the seat of Cortez during Spanish colonial rule, so the city itself is nothing but immaculate. The streets are clean and cobblestoned. The buildings are orderly and in perfect condition. Oaxaca is completely cosmopolitan. It just happens to be in a rather remote area, out of sight from the everyday hustle and bustle. There are little mezcal bars everywhere, just a quick cut away from the main strip, with atmosphere galore; dripping romanticism.

If I didn't make it clear before, I'm here to visit with the Danzantes boys—the pair of brothers who took their little chain of boutique restaurants and expanded it into a full-scale brand of top-quality mezcal. Make no mistake, however: Danzantes is more about food than booze. That's why we hustled right over to their Oaxacan outpost and settled in for drinks and dinner upon our arrival. This is the best restaurant in town and I couldn't wait to eat here for a second time.

Oaxaca is the culinary capital of Mexico, which is what originally drove the Dazantes group into the region to create their chain of restaurants. It wasn't long, however, until they realized that booze and food were two peas in a pod, so they founded their own distillery outside of town and began producing what we now know today as the "Los Nahuales" mezcales. They soon branched out into the Alipus labela series of contracted, single village spirits from a different subset of producers. I immediately ordered a Mezcal Punch and a glass of Santa Ana—the village we're headed to tomorrow morning.

We ate a lot of tacos. Tongue tacos, beef tacos, tuna tacos, and tacos de chicharron. I had a few more beers before calling it a night and heading down the main avenue La Constitución towards the hotel. We've got a lot to do tomorrow and it's not going to be easy. Santa Ana is a two and a half hour drive from Oaxaca City, down country roads that bring new meaning to the word "bumpy". We'll be meeting up there with the distiller that Danzantes uses for their Alipus label. I can't wait.

-David Driscoll


Oaxaca/Mezcal Overview

Like I mentioned in the blog post about Italy the other day, I hear all this talk about a big agave spirits awakening, but I see very little action when it comes to sales. Sure, our tequila and mezcal sales are better than they've ever been, but that's mostly because we've been finding better tequilas and mezcales to recommend! I don't think our success here in the spirits department is based on a global trend or a new interest in Mexican spirits. I think it's mostly a testament to our hard work (and we have to work ten times as hard to sell one bottle of mezcal as we do a bottle of whiskey). But that's not to say that mezcal as a category isn't in a better place than it's ever been previously. At no time ever has the selection of available agave spirits been as diverse, with as many interesting selections of a high quality, as it is right now. Mezcal specifically, however, isn't as easy to wrap your head around as tequila is. It can be classified in a number of different ways and the hierarchy of price rarely correlates to an obvious level of quality. That being said, Oaxaca is the new wild west of the spirits world because in no other one location are as many producers making so many different versions of what is ultimately categorized as one single type of distillate: mezcal. It's that unruly freedom and the intense, unbridled character of the spirit that interests the most geeky of all spirits geeks. But it's that potential for supreme order and balance amidst the most savage of all flavors that has me heading south once again for my second trip to the region.

Many people consider Bourbon to be the rugged, blue-collar American cousin of Scottish single malt. It's bigger, bolder, and more powerful than the refined and softer flavors of mainstream Scotch whisky. You could also say the same thing about Armagnac in comparison to Cognac, and mezcal in comparison to Tequila. But if Armagnac is the backwoods stepchild of Cognac, then mezcal would be Tequila's hippy-dippy brother who ran off to follow the Dead on tour and pop LSD every night while dancing around a bonfire in the wilderness. It's the wildest, and wackiest of all major spirits, and it adheres to few particular rules or regulations concerning how it can be made, or what it can be made from. There are clear and obvious distinctions between Bourbon and Scotch. They're made on two different types of stills, from two completely different grains, and they're aged in different types of oak barrels, yet they're both considered types of whiskey. Cognac and Armagnac vary in much the same way (both from grapes, but different varietals), but they're both considered brandies. Tequila must be made from one type of agave only: agave azul (or blue agave). It's almost always distilled twice in a pot still, much like Scotch and Cognac, and almost all of the production takes place in the state of Jalisco. Mezcal on the other hand can be made from dozens of different types of agave, on a number of different types of still (some made from clay pots). It can be made in eight different Mexican states, from processes that vary from front to back in almost every major way, but most of it comes from Oaxaca and most of it is made from a species called Espadin. That's the ordinary stuff. However, it's the increasing amount of unique artisan production that really excites you to your inner core as a spirits drinker (or makes your head hurt trying to comprehend it).

So how is mezcal organized? In a number of different ways, which is what makes it complicated. Producers are free to categorize as they see fit. Let's look at a few iPhone pics I snapped today:

By varietal: Just like some wines are labeled as Cabernet Sauvignon, and others as Merlot, there are mezcales that are labeled by the species of agave used to produce that particular spirit. Sometimes this can be a simple Espadin distinction (a species that can be cultivated and farmed in the region), while at other times it might be something like Madre Cuixe or Tepextate—rare and wild species of agave that must be foraged by hand. The rarer and more exotic the species of agave, the more expensive the price (it's like truffles). The most recent batch of Mezcalero #10 was made from Sierra Negra, which isn't a type of agave I've often seen used (but is absolutely delicious).

By village: Just like the French label their most-famous Bordeaux and Burgundy wines by commune or village, some producers of mezcal choose to label their spirits as San Juan del Rio or Chichicapa. It's assumed that certain regions have traditional ways of making their spirits, so by marketing the name of a specific village the consumer can come to expect a certain style or level of quality in the product. Alipus does a number of different mezcales under this moniker, including the Santa Ana del Rio seen in the photo above.

As an Ensemble: Just like we have "claret" or "Super Tuscans" in the wine world, which refer to specific types of blended varietals in the cepage, many producers like to create blends of different agave distillates. These are usually labeled as "Ensemble" and often will include the specific species of agave used in the blend. In the case of Bruxo's #4, we have Espadin, Barril, and Cuishe being utilized to create a harmony of mezcal flavor.

Like Tequila: If it ain't broke, don't try and fix it. Since most customers are used to silver or blanco, reposado, and anejo Tequila, then why not use the same distinctions for mezcal? Both Mina Real and Los Nahuales utilize the classic Jalisco tradition for their mezcales.

By speciality: You know how your family has that old secret recipe for a punch bowl, or for your grandmother's spaghetti sauce? Many Mexican distillers have similar traditions for creating specific specialities of mezcal. You'll often see the word "pechuga" on a mezcal label (which means breast in Spanish), meaning the mezcal was macerated with a raw chicken or turkey breast before bottling (it's actually delicious). In the case of Mezcal Vago, they have an expression called "elote" (corn) that was macerated with toasted corn for a richer and creamier flavor. Other mezcales might be flavored with fruits, nuts, or other forms of roasted animal.

Simply by producer: What about the old fashioned way? The name of a brand, pure and simple. Fidencio's Clasico is just a no-frills, straight-forward, deliciously-smoky mezcal.

OK! Now you've got it! You can take all of this information and begin classifying and organizing the expanding-world of mezcal into structured and orderly little groups of knowledge and understanding!

Except you can't. 

Why? Because even within these sub-groups there is still a huge amount of variance. Let's say you've got two mezcales and both of the bottles say "Espadin". All that tells you is the type of agave used. What it doesn't tell you, however, is how the spirit was made. Were the agave pinas baked, roasted, or steamed? Depending on how the hearts were cooked the flavors can be wildly different from one another. What type of still was used in the distillation? A clay pot? A stainless steel pot? A copper still? Or maybe a little backyard mechanism using some left over scrap metal from the local pick-and-pull. What am I saying? I'm saying you can't know anything about how any bottle of mezcal will ultimately taste unless you know everything about the production process (or you've tasted that specific mezcal before). But who has time to figure all that shit out??!! Nobody. That's why they pay me the big bucks. To figure all this shit out for you. It's not unlike France's Burgundy region. You think you can summarize that region by some blanket statement vintage report? PLEEEEASE. Every vineyard has its own microclimate, let alone commune, and it's exactly that ridiculous amount of requisite expertise required to understand these wines that makes Burgundy the most intimidating of all wine regions for people in the field. If I had to find a distilled comparison, I'd say mezcal is easily the Burgundy of the spirits world. Try and summarize it all you want. It can't be done. 

But we'll see what I can do to help make your appreciation of it less daunting. It's worth the effort, folks.

-David Driscoll 


Back to Oaxaca

I'm back on the road this weekend. Sunday morning I'll be boarding a plane to Oaxaca City alone, where I'll eventually meet up with Ansley Coale from Germain Robin and the rest of the folks at Danzantes. I'll be there for four days taking photos, speaking Spanish, drinking mezcal, and getting to know more about the region. Of course, I'll be live blogging the whole time, so make sure you check in over the Memorial Weekend!

Until then,

-David Driscoll