Two Mezcal Jewels from Oaxaca
We spoke to two mezcal producers from Oaxaca about how the demand for the spirit had changed, and what that means for their lives.
"Many people like to add mixers to mezcal to make it lighter, with less alcohol. But mezcal should be consumed pure, in all its strength," Jesús Diaz, a craft mezcal maker from the Sola de Vega Community in Oaxaja, tells me. "I like to drink it neat, because it's tastier that way. The only downside is that you don't really feel it when you are talking to other people, and then it hits you when you least expect it."
Maybe that's what it's going to happen to me now that I'm having a mezcal with him and his buddy, Uncle Leonardo Rojas. These mezcals, along with the one produced by Uncle Félix (another craft mezcal maker joining us today), just got official certification and are now fit to be sold outside of their community. This was made possible by the work made in partnership with Los Danzantes, Chapingo University, and the SAGARPA program, in which 20 sustainable and craft mezcal producers were selected to be certified. (And let's not forget that certified mezcal makers always do it better.) The three of them sell their mezcal under the Alipús label, a social project that commercializes different traditional mezcals under a fair trade system. Until now, Alipús consisted of eight producers. The ones joining us today use the most artisanal processes.
Here are their stories.
Tío Jesús Díaz
I first started to help my uncles to plant when I was a kid. Then I started to help with the animals, to harvest the plants, to bring them down the hills. Back then, there were many tobalá around (wild maguey) and they were of great quality, but nobody could actually make a living off our of mezcal. My uncles would harvest and do all the land work, like harvesting the corn or beans; after they were done with that, they'd work on the mescal—otherwise they couldn't survive. The mezcal was like a hobby to them.
I always loved the way they made it. I started to go though the whole mezcal process when I was 18 years old, but I wouldn't make much money out of it. It was just for our community, to drink it with our friends.
Tío Leonardo Rojas
My grandfather worked making mezcal. When I was 11 years old, I started to sow and harvest with him. When he died, I left to work on my uncle's land. Then, when I turned 18, I got my own land. It was then when Los Danzantes found me. I got drunk for the first time when I was 13. We would go to school, and on our way back our uncles were drinking outside, and my friends and I would steal mezcal from them. I realized what mezcal is capable of soon enough, so I stopped drinking it. I just produce it now—I don't get drunk with it anymore.
Mezcal Is Identity
Why is this mezcal as precious as a jewel?
They are made of 20 percent maguey arroqueño—the oldest in this community—and 80 percent of espadín—which is the most common maguey in Oaxaca. The most important thing in the whole process is who makes it and how they make it.
These producers use wooden barrels for the fermentation process and then clay pots for the distillation process. The difference is that the flavor of mezcal made in clay is much cleaner and more pure. Copper stills tend to make the flavors a little dimmer.
"Mezcal is our identity," says Jesús. "It's diversity. If you don't see it that way, then you don't know what you're drinking." He serves me a bit, and then a bit more for him. Leonardo toasts with water because he stopped drinking many years ago. "What's important is the place, the technique, the type of maguey used, and the producer making it. Even when our mezcals are produced in the same region, using similar processes, the difference between one and the other is pretty notable. Why? It's because the yeast in the environment produces different flavors in them."
"My secret is that when I cut the maguey I don't strain it much. If I do, it gets sour," says Leonardo.
"The water that we use is also important. For instance, I used spring water right out of the land because it's cleaner. I still do now, but since I get it from a rockier area, it has more minerals in it, so the flavor changes. The kind of trees that grow in the land are also important. There [in Sola de Vega], there are junipers and pines, and that changes the smell of the agaves because their roots are in the same land, and the mezcal gets that same smell later. That's why is so important for us to know if it's a rock or soil agave. Rock agave is sweeter."
After drinking three mezcals of each kind, I get it. Leonardo's mezcal is the softest one, the quieter one, and the most prudent. It's just like him.
The Mezcal Trend
Around five years ago, drinking and producing mezcal was considered vulgar. Uncle Jesús says: "A lot of people used to make fun of us because we would work with this. There [in Sola de Vega], the normal thing to do was to work the land or cattle. You wouldn't make money by making drinks. They would sell cows and we would sell aguardiente. They really looked down on us."
Uncle Leonardo interrupts: "People used to see mezcal as any other alcoholic drink. Now, with this project that we have with Los Danzantes, it's different. They no longer look down on us. They look to buy mezcal from us, even when it's more expensive."
"I'd never thought that I would get this far," uncle Jesús tells me. "Now they're recognizing my product. When I first started to sell tobalá, I would do it for 8 or 10 pesos [about 45 to 55 cents US] for every five liters. Then it went up to 50 pesos, then 80 pesos, and then to 100. And so on."
Another mezcal is served. Salúd, uncle Leonardo! Salúd, uncle Jesús ! This works even if I'm toasting with water.
When I ask them how the certification has helped them and the whole mezcal frenzy around the country, uncle Jesús smiles. "The truth is that mezcal is 'trendy' now, as they say. We used to just sell in this region, we didn't make a living out of it. Now we are selling a lot more, we feed our families, and we give work to a lot of people."
"There's a lot more work. That's always good," uncle Leonardo says.
"Yes," adds uncle Jesús. "It changed our life. We used to sell around ten or 15 liters every time there was a party. Now we work all year long."
"It's also great because my kids, I think, will follow the tradition. Not the older ones—they are musicians and have a band called La Villa," Uncle Leonardo says. "The youngest ones, who are still in school, are the ones that are going to follow our steps, because they're very proud of the work we do here."
I'm also thankful that the mezcal industry is growing. If it wasn't for it, I wouldn't get to try this amazing mezcal, which is a bit smoky, herbal, intense, and definitely not made for weak throats.
"Our greatest accomplishment," uncle Jesús says, "is that we, the mezcal makers, have a great relationship with each other. If it's a bad season and you don't have any mezcal to sell, you can always count on your neighbor. Now, for example, it's not a good season because there's a shortage of agaves and they got really expensive. Right now they are 7 pesos per kilo, when they used to cost only 40 cents. What happened is that when they started to bring agaves from Jalisco, people started paying 50 cents per kilo, and [the price] kept going up from there."
"But look: The whole thing about the price of agave is too boring. Today we are here to celebrate. Drink another one."
I can drink to that. Salúd!
This article originally appeared in Spanish on MUNCHIES ES.