Like Mexico itself, Morelia is a place of contrast. The baroque-style cathedral is as ornate and impressive as any in Europe. The historic center built around it is filled with small cafes, bars and shops. Young people congregate in the parks and sip espresso under the arcade.
The regal plazas of the city seem worlds away in the rural hills just to the south, as are the modern apartment blocks and dusty pueblos in equal parts on the way. In the community of Pino Bonito some of Mexico’s finest mezcal is being produced. The Vieyra family has been distilling agave for 6 generations. Emilio Vierya Vargas took over in earnest after the tragic death of his father, Emilio Vieyra Rangel, last November.
Long before that Emilio was considering the future of his craft and positioning his excellent distillery, Don Mateo de la Sierra, as one of the most progressive and sustainable distillers of mezcal in Mexico. That vision, as well as a shared disdain for the impending NOM-186 regulations, are what drew importer David Suro to his products four years ago.
Together they’ve invested in both the distillery and the fields. Emilio’s main rancho, El Limon, is now recognized as Bat Friendly and Biodiverse certified. He uses certified deadwood harvested sustainably from the local region to prevent degradation of the surrounding forest which Emilio sees as crucial to the future of his operation. He’s forward thinking, but completely rooted in tradition.
The distillery (in Michoacán they call it “la vinata” from the old way of describing the products, Vinos de Mezcal) is one of the cleanest and best organized I’ve ever seen. It sits on the side of a mountain in at 6500 feet. All around old growth pine and oak trees are dotted with orchids and lichen and a lush garden of roses separates the distillery from the kitchen where Emilio’s mother Dehlia is already preparing Gorditas for the group.
Like most great distilleries in Mexico, it’s clear that the commitment to quality, hospitality and tradition stems from the matriarch. Dehlia’s beautiful out door kitchen is bustling with activity. The delicious chicharron gorditas In tomato sauce she’s filling foreshadow the remarkable feast to come.
Dehlia’s not only the chief of the kitchen, but in charge of the recipe for our Pechuga. She’s spent the day before preparing the cheese cloth sacks that now hang inside the stills. Their savory oils impregnating the spirit now dripping from the bamboo spouts in the Vinata. Dehlia’s unique recipe for pechuga is one of the most complex in the industry and she’s added a special twist for our exclusive batch.
At Don Mateo they separate their distillation into 5 distinct cuts. It’s a sort of an insurance policy against the Denomination of Origins strict regulatory standards. Specifically, Emilio is trying to guard against the presence of higher alcohols in the final blend. By distinguishing various stages he’s more likely to catch parts of the distillation that might throw the numbers off the final blend.
After discarding the first couple of liters of each batch he begins to collect a drinkable distillate called Flores. The spirit is upwards of 70% alcohol at this stage and pungent high tone fruit and floral aromatics dominate. The texture is thick and envelops the palate with sweet oils. As the cuts progress, the deeper savory and earth aromatics begin to dominate and the body becomes lighter and less viscous.
The subsequesnt steps are Mezcal Floriado, Mezcalito, Fuertes and Colas. Each adds an important aspect to the ultimate flavor of the mezcal and once they’ve been certified separately they will be blended together and rested for at least 6 months. If one falls outside the regulations it will be removed from the final blend or mixed in with the “ordinairios” (low wines) a subsequent batch.
This batch of Pechuga was unique for Don Mateo in that it used a base of two types of agave, Cenizo (now called Manso to prevent confusion with the Cenizo of the Durango DO) and Cupreata. In the still, Dehlia’s preparation hangs above the mosto. The raw cleaned meat of turkey, iguana, venison and rabbit is the heart. To balance the rich savory flavors of the meat, she’s included tejocote, apples, pears, peaches, almonds and cinnamon.
The agave, roasted in Emilio’s large earthen pit for five days, is fermented in oyamel lines pits. About 14 tons of agave was used to distill just 900 liters. This batch was separated into two parts, one bottled “naturale” for the domestic market and the other 450 liters dedicated to our Pechuga. After milling, the 28 thousand lbs of roasted agave are blended with an equal part by volume of water.
The resulting mosto is fermented with their full bagasso (agave fibers) for about 8 days and then distilled without filtration a first time on two 450 liter stills. That means the stills needed to each be filled more than 18 times to finish the first distillation run. The ordinarios were then stored in anticipation of our arrival.
As our Pechuga bubbled into the glass jugs below the stills, Emilio’s master distillery Oliviero and his team prepare the pit for the next roast and the group loads into the back of two old pick up trucks. The long winding road to Rancho El Limon connects the Vinata to their main agave farm only 5 miles away, but the steep dirt roads take more than an hour and half to traverse by car.
Rancho El Limon is in a completely different ecosystem than Pino Bonito. Dry scrub and cactus dominate the land scape and wild agave becomes more prevalent. Once you enter the Rancho, the forest gives way to steep hills all marked with batches of green agave of various sizes. Patches of red and yellow dot certain groupings where similar aged plants have sprouted their quixote and begun to release pollen.
This varietal of agave, Cupreata, is unique in its inability to reproduced asexually. Unlike the agave in tequila, which is sourced exclusively from clonal material, Cupreata doesn’t not throw pulps or offshoots and requires natural pollination to produce seeds which are carried across the landscape by the wind. Here we leave the scientists for their research, four nights of trapping, counting and cataloging the bats which come at night to feast on the nectar seeping from the blooming agave flowers.
When we return to the distillery, the team had begun loading the firewood into the conical stone oven. The process begins with a cone of thin pine splinters. Positioned around those progressively larger oak logs in concentric circles wind around the pit. When the final logs are laid to rest, we’re invited to help load a layer of volcanic rock into the pit. Moving from smallest to largest, the rocks last about three years before they breakdown into a fine black dust.
With the pit fully prepared, Dehlia calls the group over for dinner. The massive pot that she’d tended all day was now set in front of us, a rabbit picadillo. This traditional dish of Michoacán was Dehlia’s grandmothers recipe. A deep red color and wafting savory aromas were unlike anything I’d ever experienced.
The hearty dish served with pinto beans, fresh blue corn tortilla and Zucchini a la Mexicana easily ranks as one of the most satisfying meals I’ve ever had - the result of the incredible skill of Chef Dehlia and the knowledge that the rabbit we’d used to produce the sacred spirit flowing off the still was also now feeding our souls as well. A sacrament to tradition, the complex culture that created these wonderful things and the incredible people of Michoacán.
We returned to Morelia in a daze, but with enough sense left to check out some of the local mezcal bars. Their we found a vast array of unknown producers from every part of Mexico. A hidden treasure trove of the new and unexplored displayed neatly in front of us.
Tomorrow we return to the Vinata to load the pit and begin blending the various cuts of our special Pechuga. This mezcalito imbued with the spirit of its creator, it’s mother -La Pechuga de Dehlia Vieyra Vargas. We must cherish it.