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


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