Oaxaca 2015: Day 4 – Mezcalerias de Oaxaca

I'm not sure how many people are aware that Mexico passed a certification requirement for all products labeled as "mezcal" a few years back. It was a rather controversial decision, from what I understand, and the law stated that all producers wanting to classify their spirits as mezcal would have to keep strict records of production, declare all of their stocks, and present the government with consistant lab analysis to ensure the standard of quality.  It all sounds pretty simple and straightforward to those familiar with the basic responsibilities of alcohol production, but imagine you're one of these remote village distillers, way out in the mountains, without running water, let alone access to a professional lab. How in the hell are people who can barely read and write going to keep detailed records and do the math required to keep accurate stock counts? Where's the local lab in Santa Ana, a village two and a half hours away from the nearest highway? The idea seemed a bit discriminatory to some in the industry, but the requirement passed, and today—if you want to export your mezcal out of the country, or even sell it in Mexico as "mezcal"—you have to be certified. But that's where the local mezcalerias come in. Like the one pictured above, for example.

En Situ is one of numerous mezcalerias in Oaxaca that purchases what no longer counts as "mezcal" from these remote producers and pours them directly to discerning customers. It's basically like a giant bar that only serves "mezcal" (certified and uncertified) and it's one of the best avenues for country producers that either can't or won't comply to standard practices. You can specify which type of agave you want to try, and from which region, and it's all but given that En Situ has a bottle of it somewhere on their shelves. It's not just about complying to certification for some of these producers; it's about not wanting to change their tradition. For example, the new certification requires all mezcal to be double-distilled, but many producers have long diluted their spirits down to 45% with a bit of the head from the first distillate (a much more flavorful reducer than spring water). Since the heads are only once distilled, that practice is no longer allowed.

En Situ also has various types of drinking receptacles, along side a vast menu that also exists in print if you don't want to stare for an hour at overwhelming number of bottles and strain your eyes to read the tags hanging from them.

I spent most of today barhopping with Hector Vázquez, the former head of production for Danzantes before Karina took over. He's just as wonderful as she is, and he's just as knowledgeable (like I did with Karina, I'll have more to tell you about Hector later). Next on our list of mezcalerias was La Mezcaloteca, a very sophisticated speakeasy-type lounge run by a man named Marco Ochoa. He's very passionate—both about mezcal and education—and we talked for a good hour about the state of the industry and the potential for relaying our passion to consumers. 

Marco also has his own private label for "mezcal" and does his best to support the more remote producers who no longer qualify as mezcaleros. Some of his selections were absolutely heartstopping. It's a must-visit spot for anyone visiting Oaxaca; mezcal fan or not.

Besides selling directly to the local mezcalerias, some remote village producers do have another option: the education of their youth. Part of what makes Danzantes (and many other larger distillers) so amazing is their commitment to the health and survival of their artisansal producers. This is Cirilo Hernandez, the son of distiller Don Hernandez who makes the San Baltazar expression for Alipus. With the support of Danzantes, Cirilo went to school and was eventually groomed to handle all of the complicated logistics concerning certification for his family's mezcal. He's incredibly sharp, has poignant ideas about the future of the business, and isn't afraid to speak his mind about changing the long-standing traditions in his village. It's because of his involvement, and therefore his education, that Danzantes is able to maintain the certification for the Baltazar brand and export it to us here in the states. Without him, his family could never comply with the procedures.

That's pretty cool.

-David Driscoll


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


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


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 gas-powered 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


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