Oaxaca: Day 2 - Mina de Real

Now that we're all aware of Bonificio's family history and his legacy of mezcal production in Santa Catarina Minas, let's talk a little bit about the distillery itself. The Real de Mina distillery was built by Boni's father and grandfather with two clay pot stills and a roasting pit located outside. Up until 2006, when Jake and Jose decided to partner with the family, the mezcal was only sold locally within the village; there was never any serious commercial production. Jake has known the Arellanes family since 1988 when he began studying mezcal as a teenager in region and visiting different producers all over Oaxaca. The spirits of Santa Catarina Minas were his favorite, and ten years later he thought about turning those mezcales into a business. His partner Jose began helping the distillery financially in 1995; sending money to help with repairs in the infrastructure.

Jake and Jose's ownership and financial dedication to the distillery marks a huge contrast from other mezcal brands sold in America who simply contract their production. Many expressions found today in the states are simply purchased from the locals (for a very inexpensive price), repackaged, and sold in boutique stores with authentic-looking labels (for a not-so-inexpensive price). I have a lot of respect for the dedication these guys have shown to Boni and his family, as well as the development of the region. The relationship is so strong that several of Boni's children have gone to Oakland over the last decade and lived with Jake and his family. This is not merely a capitalistic opportunity for Jake and Jose; it's become part of who they are as people. Jake's passion for Mexican cultural is part of what drew me to him four years ago. Our mutual love of the country and its people is part of what bonds us as close friends today.

Today, after a bit of remodeling, the distillery is a more functional and streamlined operation; although there's not much of a difference other than the fact that they've added a bit of modern technology (like an oven and one computer to send emails). All distillation is still done in clay pots, heated underneath by fire, and condensed in a second pot by a stream of cool water that runs from a pipe over the top. There are four stills currently in operation (two located outside) at Real de Mina.

After the agave is harvested, it is hacked into large chunks by machete and thrown into a pit lined with large stones placed over hot coals. The pile of piñas is covered with a mound of leftover fibers from the previously-spent agave and then topped with a large canvas tarp to keep the heat in. When the sugars have been sufficiently concentrated, the agave is fed through a custom-designed shredder (a proud personal accomplishment of Jake's) that was engineered to efficiently breakdown the tough, fibrous pulp without stripped the meat of desirable sugars. While the old burro y tajon is the more rustic and romantic way to crush agave -- the round stone wheel drawn in a circle by a horse or donkey -- it results in a greater loss of precious azucar. 

While the agave used for Don Amado mezcal is roasted in the outside fire pit, the agave used for Mina Real is steam-cooked in an internal oven built by Jake a few years ago (with advise from Carlos Camarena in Jalisco). Much like with Islay whiskies, the smoky flavor of mezcal has become the hot booze trend over the last few years, giving the category a much-needed boost against its more refined cousin, Tequila. Jake, however, has spent the last decade trying to temper the smoke from his mezcal and focus more on the flavor of his agave. "You wouldn't add a smoky flavor to wine," he said to me recently, "because it would mask the delicate flavors in the grape itself." He has other motivations besides terroir, however. When Boni's wife passed away eleven years ago from lung cancer, after working in a smoke-filled agave pit for most of her adult life, Jake had a revelation. "Some of these people are being poisoned by all of the smoke being put into the air around here. When Boni's wife passed it was the first time I really felt like smoke was the enemy, and it inspired me to find an alternate way to cook our agave."

The flavors that result from the two different processes are quite striking. The piñas roasted in the pit taste almost like barbeque sauce, with a smoky, tangy, meaty flavor with lots of sweetness. We chewed several pieces to release the juices onto our palates. The piñas steamed in the internal oven have a much fruitier flavor, and the texture of the agave itself afterward is quite different as well. The agave has almost the texture of a papaya or guava, and the sweetness is much less dominant. The contrast between these flavors represents the main difference between the delicate character of Don Amado and the more savory profile of Mina Real.

Fermentation for both expressions takes place in the twenty custom-built pine washbacks. There are no chemicals added during the wholly-natural process, and no distiller's yeast is introduced to the pulque. Fermentation happens organically after about two days when the local strains of airborne yeast eventually find the sugary-sweet liquid and begin feasting upon its many delights.

One part of the spirits process that I always have something to say about (although I've learned over the years to keep my mouth shut) is the label design and marketing aspect of each brand. While I never really hated the original Don Amado label, I was thrilled when I saw the upgrade that Jake and Jose came up with recently. It's a huge improvement over the old package and I think will help sales immensely when the bottles reach the states later this year. All of the bottling is done on-site at the Real de Mina distillery, as is maturation for the reposado expressions in a small warehouse behind the bottling line. 

At the moment, I'm sitting on a plane typing away while we begin our descent back into Mexico City. We've got an hour to kill before we catch the connection to Guadalajara and begin our drive east towards Atotonilco and the hacienda of Enrique Fonseca. The food in Oaxaca has been so amazing that it requires its own separate post (which I'll have to work on later), but I'll be lucky if I can pump out a Tequila write-up before sundown.

Until then.

-David Driscoll


Oaxaca: Day 2 - Into the Mountains

We began our adventure by heading south of Oaxaca de Juárez to Santa Catarina Minas -- literally translated: the mines of St. Catherine. There was once a large silver and nickel business operating deep underneath the terrain of the montañas, but today it's mostly just a maze of empty tunnels. When we arrived at Real de Minas distillery, half-owned by Jake and his partner Jose Espinoza, we took a full tour of the facility and watched the workers operate the clay pot stills. It wasn't until after a few hours that we headed for a walk into the hills.

However, I'm going to tell you the story in the reverse order. I'm going to start with the mountains because in order to understand what's going on with Don Amado mezcal and the Mina Real expressions, you have to start with the source. 

You also have to cross a small river.

After a bit of a hike you'll come to an expansive agave field with rows of budding espadín sprouting in orderly rows. It was in this field that we began to understand how special this place is to Bonifacio Arellanes Robles -- the man who owns the other half of Real de Mina. He is the eleventh generation of distillers in his family and his story began many years ago, on this very mountainside more than 4,000 feet above sea level.

Boni's ancestors began distilling mezcal in clay pots using outdoor ovens to roast the agave right next to this area from where they were harvested. Boni remembers tending to the ovens as a child and the scorched earth still remains from where the operation once took place. Back then, his great-grandfather would put the distilled mezcal into a pot, strap it on his back, and hike the thirty miles north to Oaxaca de Juárez where he would sell his spirit for thirty centavos a liter.

At the river, just a few meters from the ancient distillation site, an old stone bridge remains; built by his first family members to populate the area. 

After crossing the water (using the bridge and attempting not to fall to our death), we headed up the other side of the valley to where Boni continues to cultivate agave in a much less orderly fashion. He also plants trees nearby which he uses for wood to burn the still fire at the distillery. All of the lumber used for distillation is self-sustained.

Even though they somewhat exist here as well, the perfectly-parallel rows of shiny agave in Jalisco are a bit of a joke in Oaxaca. Boni's family never believed in agave farms; they preferred to plant them here or there, in which ever spot seemed reasonable. If you look closely at the hillside you can see the small plants poking their way from in-between the weeds. The competition for nutrients with the wild grass actually forces the agave to struggle for survival, leading to better sugar levels within the piña. This is the same strategy enacted by vintners looking to make wine. 

When you drink Don Amado or Mina Real mezcal, you're drinking a spirit made by simple people, using techniques that haven't changed much in more than a century. I know that sounds cheesy and cliché, but it's only because that line has been used by every liquor brand from here to Kentucky. It's just that, in the case of Bonificio and his partners, Jake and Jose, the story is actually true. More importantly, the person telling you the story is the person who actually lived it, and continues to distill that story into the bottle you purchase. It's that story you witness first hand when you walk into the mountains of Santa Catarina Minas.

-David Driscoll


Oaxaca: Day 2 - Glorious Morning

I awoke to a beautiful Oaxacan morning after nine hours of unadulterated slumber. After subsiding on no sleep for more than twenty-four hours, it felt amazing to grab my camera and hit the streets in search of some interesting sights.

Even at 8 AM there were still plenty of people about.

The main calle had a few locals walking to work.

This street vendor was selling businessmen tortas for breakfast. When I first looked I thought he was selling tomales, but after watching closely I realized he was putting the tomal into fresh baked bread. Holy shit! A tomal torta?! 

We had breakfast in the courtyard of our hotel (I had poached eggs in mole sauce) and headed south towards Jake's distillery in Santa Catarina Minas. More later, live from Real de Minas distillery!

-David Driscoll


Oaxaca: Day 1 - Setting the Scene

Touching down into Oaxaca, you can see clearly the three valleys that make up the heart of the region; the mountains dividing the terrain into separate quadrants that even today are rarely breached. There are more than fifteen different indigenous cultures that live together within the state, making it one of the most culturally diverse regions of Mexico. Despite their close proximity, many of the villages scattered throughout the area do not interact with one other communes nearby; according to Jake they often prefer to keep to themselves.

Jake Lustig grew up dividing his time between his mother, who moved to Oaxaca City, and his father in the Bay Area. Thirty years later, after spending many a summer meandering through the eclectic and colorful streets, he is a veritable tour guide; a wealth of information about the many sights and sounds happening around you. He'll tell you about the beautiful Catedral Santo Domingo.

And about how the Spanish completely looted the south of Mexico so that they could line the inside of the chapel with pure gold, resulting in one of the most intricate religious artworks outside of the Sistine Chapel. Of course, we're in an old colonial town, so what wasn't originally taken by the former conquerors?

He'll also tell you that the new boutique mezcal business popping up around the city is brand-spanking new. "These stores weren't here six months ago," he mentioned as we popped by a fun little outlet near our hotel.

Yet, it appears Oaxaca knows the world is catching on to its delicious spirits. Gracing the stores of the tiny bodega were numerous brands I had never before heard of, with wonderfully-creative labels that were hip, fresh, and exciting. The wealthier part of downtown definitely reflects an up-and-coming trend towards metropolitan life -- small cafes, courtyard restaurants, and a variety of well-curated shops specializing in local crafts.

We had a lot of things we wanted to do today, but since Nicolas wasn't due in until later in the evening, we decided to take it easy and schedule most of the booze-related activities for Thursday. That meant it was time to kick back, order a Michelada and a shot of local Tobala, and order some of that famous Oaxacan cuisine. "Back in the day you would never have been able to find Tobala at a normal restaurant. It was something reserved for special occasions," Jake added. Of course, we live in the new world of drinking where everyone wants "the best." For that reason, supplies of Tobala -- a wild species of agave with limited availability -- are drying up more rapidly due to global demand.

Seafood sounded good. How about shrimp, scallops, and abalone smothered in a red chile sauce and served fresh from a wood-burning clay oven?

After lunch we decided to hit up the gigantic market downtown; a complex and dizzying maze spanning more than eight city blocks. Don't dare allow yourself to get separated within the narrow throughways and dark alleys because finding your way out may take hours, if not days. If you do get lost, however, just meet back at the carneceria.

Or near the counter with all the fresh chicken.

Or in the voodoo-esque vendor of the occult, equipped with a number of candles and potions you can use to appease the proper saint or spirit of the over-world. There are so many mercaditos scattered within this complex it's amazing that any one of them can survive. You could spend weeks in there and never see it all.

All that walking makes a man tired, so we needed to refresh ourselves with a delicious beverage that has nearly gone extinct in the modern era of distillation: pulque. Before the people of Mexico learned to distill their agave, they drank it like a typical fermented beer. However, because freshly-fermented agave doesn't hold very long before bacteria begins to set in (maybe two days max), you can't store it with pasteurizing it; hence, why few cantinas offer it as a regular option. We found a fantastic place that had plenty of pulque on hand, however, so we ordered multiple rounds. It looks like lemonade, but has absolutely no citrus character whatsoever; rather a slightly-sweet fermented flavor and a mild disposition. You can easily put down four glasses before you've realized what you've done.

As we continued to walk into the evening, I was utterly captivated with the vibrant colors and the electric energy of the Oaxacan streets. There is artwork on every corner; adorning the walls of every alley. 

Everyone was out and about, the mountains looming behind them, enjoying the cool breeze of the afternoon. There's a lot of action in Oaxaca de Juárez; much more than simply mezcal. It has the traditional feel of a small Mexican town with the population and culture of a bustling city. I can see why it's long been a haven for adventurous tourists. I'm already in love.

-David Driscoll


Mexico: Day 1 - Benito Juarez

This is not my photo, as it was much darker when I landed, but it's pretty similar in feel

I have always wanted to come to Mexico City. In reality, I'm only at the airport and that's as far as I'll be going into D.F. while I'm here, but when the pilot announced we were making our descent I ripped open the window shade and began searching for signs of life below. It was about 6:45 AM when we made it below the cloud line -- the orange hues of the sun tickling the horizon, the contrast turning the puffy, rain-filled cotton into grey, brooding columns of smoke. There was enough light to make out the topography, but the early morning was still in its initial phase and the city lights still flickered like stars.

Then we cleared the clouds entirely and there it was: sprawling for miles, weaving in-between mountains and valleys, the headlights from a million cars racing wildly through the avenues like worker ants. Mexico City seems like the biggest city in the world, and as the plane hung a sharp left, turning the fuselage towards the towering buildings and frantic streets, I could see the scope of what I was dealing with; it was awe-inspiring. Even if I never get to venture into the many calles and edificios of the Distrito Federal, I'm happy with this one moment for now. At least I can now see Mexico City in my mind when I hear it mentioned.

There's not much for food at Benito Juarez aeropuerto, so I just grabbed the familiar cup of Starbucks, planted myself in a chair, and broke out the laptop. The one nice thing about Mexico City is that the dialect of Spanish is perfectly clear. That's why I love watching telanovelas that take place here; because I can actually understand what the actors are saying. Ordering a tall Pike's Place is like watching Amores Veraderos (my favorite soap opera no longer running); they're not over-enunciating because they're on TV, but rather simply because that's how they talk -- every syllable is pronounced perfectly. I'm eavesdropping on about four different people as I type this. The businessman next to me is talking to his wife about his kids. I feel much more fluent than I actually am.

Palazzi isn't due in until later tonight, and it's too early for Jake to check in, so I've got about another hour before I head over to the gate. I think it's duty free time. There's nothing more fun for an obsessive spirits geek than perusing the various big box selections and limited edition packaging in the airport liquor store.

-David Driscoll