The Art of Making Mezcal in Oaxaca

I recently found myself making a batch of <em>mezcal de pechuga</em>—a special holiday version of the Oaxacan spirit that incorporates a raw turkey breast into the distillation process—at a backwoods still in Southern Mexico.

Dec 18 2015, 5:00pm

When I heard that Jonathan Barbieri was coming to the Bay Area, I canceled a date with my boyfriend, Scott, to meet the founder of Mezcal Pierde Almas at a pop-up taco event in Oakland. I had recently developed a taste for mezcal de pechuga, a specialty holiday mezcal distilled with seasonal fruits and raw chicken breast, and I knew he produced a high-end, artisan version called coñejo, made from wild rabbit. I was dying to know what the mezcal-misted meat tasted like afterwards.

"You wouldn't want to eat that," he said, staring into the clear glass copa of mezcal cradled in his palm. "Even if you use a big turkey breast, by the time you finish distilling it with mezcal, the pechuga is shriveled up to the size of a walnut."


Heirloom pineapples at Central de Abasos, a.k.a. "piña ciolla." All photos by the author.

He took a sip of coñejo, swallowed slowly, and lifted his gaze, mischief dancing in his eyes. "Now, what's really delicious is when you take all that fruta criolla from the still, stuff it inside a pig, and cook it in an underground pit. That's what you want to eat."

And that's how I found myself making a batch of mezcal de pechuga a few weeks ago at a backwoods still in Southern Mexico. The whole process required two visits to San Luis del Rio, a remote, 350-person village perched on the slope of a knife-edged mountain in the Tlacolula region of Oaxaca. Scott and I delivered the fruit on the first trip, then returned two days later with the pig.


Roasted maguey hearts.

When it comes to liquor, mezcal is as local—and as labor-intensive—as it gets. The agave plant from which it is made is grown on-site or foraged from local hillsides. Of the 100 or so agave species—known locally as maguey—about 50 grow in the state of Oaxaca; the most common type in mezcal-making is espadín. Depending on the species of agave, it can take five to 25 years for the plant to reach maturity.

A ripe maguey heart, or piña, can weigh as much as 40 kilograms. Workers harvest them by hand, with machetes, and burros haul them down impossibly steep hillsides to the mezcal production facility, or palenque. There, they are roasted in an underground pit for a few days, then dug up and cooled before being chopped into big chunks and transferred to a grinding circle called a molino, where they are crushed and shredded beneath a tahona, a stone wheel turned by a horse with a little encouragement from a human.


A horse turns the tahona to crush the roasted maguey hearts.

When the shredded piñas begin to resemble clumps of horse hair, they are transferred to hot-tub-sized wooden fermentation vats, covered with water from the stream, and left to ferment naturally for at least several days and up to a few weeks. When the bubbling stops, the workers transfer the mash to a wood-fired alembique for several hours of high-maintenance distilling. Mezcaleros often spend the night by the still, babysitting the fire to maintain the perfect flame.

Mezcal is ready to drink as soon as it comes out of the still, but pechuga requires even more work. The mezcal is added back to the still with fruit, nuts, and spices and left to rest for 12 hours or more. The next day, a chicken or turkey breast is suspended inside the still for another another round of distillation, so that the evaporating spirit captures the soul of the bird as it rises. Typically served at weddings and other special occasions, pechuga is traditionally distilled only in November and December, when the fruta criolla is ripe and abundant.


A market vendor selling platanos de castilla.

So, on a Tuesday morning in mid-November, Scott and I procured a dozen kilos of ripe fruit at Oaxaca City's main wholesale market, the Central de Abasos. More accurately, we chased Pierde Almas' perky, 38-year-old warehouse manager, Lorena Pavón, through the market as she bargained for bulging sacks of heirloom pineapples, apples, and bananas at a breakneck speed. She expertly navigated a seemingly impenetrable labyrinth of unmarked stalls stocked with elaborately displayed produce, live animals and butchered meat, plastic jugs of homemade pulque, and hundreds of hand-woven rugs and baskets. At one point, she shooed us aside to allow a small raft of ducklings to pass, kept in formation by a short man tapping a tall stick on the ground.

We quartered the fruit, packed it into baskets, and drove it three hours southeast to San Luis del Rio, where we met Maestro Gregorio "Goyo" Velasco Luis, a 38-year-old master mezcal distiller for Pierde Almas. The "Maestro," as mezcaleros are known, greeted us at the far edge of town, where we climbed into the back of his one-ton work truck for the final, off-road trek to the palenque.


Heirloom pineapple and tejocote, which is similar to a crabapple.

Twenty minutes later, we emerged from a shallow riverbed into a sun-dappled clearing in the trees centered around a pair of copper stills, a dozen vats, and a molino. A head-high pile of blackened maguey hearts flanked an open roasting pit lined with still-warm coals. The air hung heavy with wood smoke and the sweet musk of fermenting agave, bubbling away beneath a thick layer of masa—a doughy, mud-colored substance that forms on the top of the mash. A handful of young men mingled around the running still, tending the fire and checking the flow of freshly distilled mezcal into plastic jugs.

Goyo selected a piña from the maguey pile and carried it to the grinding circle, where he hacked it into chunks with a machete. He handed me a piece and said in Spanish, "This is espadín. Taste it." I ripped off a fibrous strip and bit into it. It tasted like smoky, malted sugar cane, too ropy to chew and swallow but sweet and juicy enough to warrant the attempt.


Fermenting maguey fibers.

"Tobalá," he said, handing me another chunk. This one—a wild variety of maguey in danger of over-harvesting—was nearly as juicy, but slightly less sweet. The third type tasted tart, tipping toward sour, with a woody texture. "Tepextate," he said, with a grin. This wild maguey can take two to three decades to reach maturity, making it one of the rarest and most expensive varietals. Even after distillation and bottling, mezcal de tepextate manages to maintain its gamey character.

When the distillation run ended a few hours later, Goyo's work crew dove into the task of cleaning out one of the copper stills in preparation for the pechuga. Using water pumped from the stream and a long-handled, curved paddle carved from coconut wood, they scooped, swept, and hosed out the still before plugging the drain with a wooden peg and wet maguey fibers.

With a long rubber hose, they siphoned mezcal from 55-gallon drums into the 250-liter still, then added several gallons of sugar water before Goyo stepped atop the still to add the fruit. He gave the mixture a stir with the coconut paddle, replaced the copper bell on the alembique, and sealed it with maguey masa.

The sun was setting, and the fruit needed to rest overnight before Goyo could add the turkey and distill the liquor one last time. But I didn't want to leave before meeting the guajolote, or heirloom turkey, that would be sacrificed the following morning. It was tied to a tree in the shade.


A Guajolote heirloom turkey.
pechuga_DSC_4818 Jonathan Barbieri of Pierde Almas.

"What is the turkey's name?" I asked in Spanish.

Goyo shrugged. "Thursday's pechuga?"

Two days later, we returned to the palenque with Barbieri and ten waiters from Casa Oaxaca, one of Oaxaca City's finest restaurants, eager to learn more about the mezcal they served to their dinner guests. Goyo's crew greeted us at the river's edge and helped unload chairs and tables, plates and silverware, napkins and tablecloths, a case of wine, and ten pounds of Oaxacan cheese, which was served as an appetizer.

The turkey was now gone, the pechuga was barreled up and ready to drink, and the mezcal-marinated fruit sat nearby in a five-gallon bucket, surrounded by bees. Several feet away, flames rose from a freshly dug pit at the edge of the clearing.

Barbieri lugged a bin to the table and pulled out a clear plastic sack packed with pig parts.

"Originally, I planned on stuffing this sucker," he said. "But the butcher suggested breaking it down so it would cook faster."

A suckling pig had been cut into recognizable portions, including two perfect head halves, in profile. A thick red paste coated every surface, nook, and cranny.

"We marinated it overnight in a sauce we made made with orange juice, peppers, and some spices. It should only take a few hours to cook, once we get it in the pit."

Working together, Barbieri and Goyo lined the bottom of a galvanized wash tub with moist, green coconut wood, which they covered with banana leaves before nestling the pig into place. Goyo spooned in fruta criolla, which Barbieri tucked into ears, under knuckles and beneath ribs, along with machete-chopped onions and garlic. When they could fit no more fruit into the pig nest, they covered it with another thick layer of banana leaves, and topped that with outer layers of piña from the maguey pile.


Maestro Goyo covers the "oven."

Goyo covered the flames with split wood and roasted maguey hearts, laid down a metal grill, and lowered the bucket into the pit, onto the flat surface. After covering the makeshift oven with a woven mat, the work crew surrounded it with logs, spread a tarp over the top, and shoveled dirt over the entire pit, trapping everything—including the smoke—inside.

Goyo strode over to a 55-gallon drum sitting in the shade of a tree and asked if I wanted to taste the pechuga.

He dipped a bamboo tube known as a venencia into the barrel and bobbed it up and down before retracting it and directing the tip into a traditional copa—just a round gourd cut in half.


Maestro Goyo and his venencia.
pechuga_DSC_4872 A palenque work crew member.

I couldn't say whether the flavor of mezcal de pechuga is more heavily influenced by the fruit or the feathered bird. Quite honestly, it didn't taste like either one. But something certainly made a difference, because this mezcal was silky smooth, as if the harsh edges had been rounded off and polished.

"What's the alcohol percentage on this batch?" I asked.

Goyo filled his copa with pechuga, submerged one end of his venencia, and placed the other end in his mouth. He sucked some liquid up into the bamboo tube, then blew it back into the copa.

"Forty-seven [percent]."

"How can you tell?"

"The bubbles," he said.

Goyo explained that smaller bubbles indicate lower alcohol levels, while larger bubbles—which tend to burst quickly when they fall to the bottom of the glass—indicate higher ABV. Using a venencia, any mezcalero worth his worm salt can identify the proof of his spirit within a degree or two of accuracy.


Crew members sample the mezcal.
pechuga_DSC_4804 Fruta criolla, post-distillation.

While the pig cooked, Barbieri led the waiters on a tour of the palenque and broke out four bottles of Pierde Almas to sample. The waiters started off sipping and comparing different varieties, but quickly progressed to shots and challenges of one another's manhood. When the bottles were empty, they surreptitiously refilled them directly from the still.

By the time the smell of roasted pork permeated the palenque, only half of the waitstaff remained standing. The maître d' teetered out of his chair twice before his colleagues carried him to a dilapidated hammock strung up next to the still. The woven material had split, leaving a gaping space under his head, so they fashioned a sling out of banana leaves to prevent his accidental strangulation.

Goyo and his crew dug up the basin, pulled it out of the pit, and peeled away banana leaves to reveal a perfect puzzle of pig meat falling from the bone.

Barbieri pulled me aside. "As the guests of honor, you and Scott are entitled to the pig's head. It's considered the best part of the animal, I'm sure you know."

"As much as I love pig cheeks, I feel it would be more appropriate for the hosts to enjoy the fruits of their labor, don't you think?"

"You may have a point," he conceded.

I filled my plate with a ham hock, a scoop of fruta criolla, and a healthy helping of refried black beans. The pork was smoky, sweet, and succulent; the kind of meat you find yourself gnawing off the bone when you think no one else is looking. The beans had a latent spiciness, prompting me to rip off a strip of an addictive tortilla, hand-made from heirloom corn grown on nearby hillsides.

But the fruta criolla was the star of the show. Despite the fact that we left the skin on the bananas, the spikes on the pineapples, and the seeds in the apples, the fruit was soft, sensual, and satisfying, conjuring images of bacon-wrapped candied yams.


The roast suckling pig, fresh out of the underground pit.
pechuga_DSC_5136 The best part of the pig.

Across the table, Goyo sliced off and savored the suckling pig's left cheek before scooping out its brain with a spoon and slurping it down with unmitigated glee. To my right, Barbieri had picked his half of the pig skull clean, except for the upper ear and the tip of the snout.

Pulling every last morsel of meat from the bone and sucking it from my fingers, I surveyed the carnage. Of the four waiters who made it to the dinner table, two were slumped over, foreheads in plates. The other two were taking drunken selfies. Several more lay snoring in a heap, beneath a mango tree. The head waiter was passed out on a wood pile, next to a an equally hammered member of Goyo's work crew.

Barbieri chuckled at the body count. "I was a little worried we wouldn't have enough pork," he said. "But it looks like I may have underestimated the resilience of our guests."

I remarked that the return trip would be hard on them. The curvy mountain roads were nauseating enough when sober.

Barbieri nodded. "Tomorrow will be even worse, when their hangovers kick in. Here in Oaxaca, they call it la cruda realidad, or the harsh, cruel reality. Some people are inspired by the spirit of the pechuga. For others, it is absolutely overwhelming."