“I think we may have to stop for a minute”. We’d been on the road from Oaxaca City for a little over an hour and a half, along winding, bumpy roads at an altitude notably higher than our natural habitat. It would be fair to say that we were beginning to appreciate the remoteness of our destination, the Sola de Vega region of Oaxaca and the family ranch of the brothers behind Los Siete Misterios, Julio and Eduardo Mestre. Eduardo kindly pulled over at the next suitable spot – a good twenty minutes later – and we got out to stretch our legs and have a few well-deserved deep breaths. Julio went on a mercy mission for some water, crisps and marshmallows, and I noticed a friendly stray dog. I stroked it, thinking about what a lovely man I am, when Eduardo opened the boot of the car, pulled out some dog food and popped a nice portion on the floor for our new friend. The brothers, it transpires, are dog lovers and always keep a pack handy in case they come across a stray. I need to up my game.
Once we’d regained our composure we piled back into the car for the final leg of the journey, gratefully pulling into the ranch a little over an hour later to receive an enthusiastic welcome from the 10 dogs – all from the same litter – who are also a part of the family. The brothers’ mother, Angela, and her husband Eduardo have lived here for two years now and have converted a former cattle ranch into a Palenque, an agave field and a nursery.
There are around 200 known species of agave, most of which grow in Mexico, and roughly 45 of these are used in some form of distillation (estimates vary, but over 30 is certainly a safe bet). The Sola de Vega region is home to about 18 of these, cultivated and growing wild. Unlike in tequila production, where the blue agave is cultivated by means of hijuelos, and hence clones of the same plant, at the nursery the emphasis is on letting the quiote sprout from the agaves and gathering the seeds, which are then planted and nurtured. Some species of agave, particularly the ‘wild’ varieties (notably the legendary Tobala), are thought to not shoot hijuelos and can only be propagated in this way. In terms of sustainability this is becoming more essential: during our trip we heard several reports of hillsides being stripped of immature wild agave. Suspicion falls on the agave syrup industry – which requires a lower level of brix than mezcal – but in truth no-one is sure.
We took a stroll through the nursery, after applying a healthy layer of suncream, and cooed over the baby Tobala we found there. Antonio, the master palenquero, joined us as we continued into the field to see an impressive range of agave growing side by side: jabali, barril, mexicano, sierra negra, arroqueno, espadin, tobala and more, with a staggering range of size and appearance that contrasted sharply with the regimented lines of blue agave we’d seen in Jalisco. Somewhat overexcited I quickly became a self-declared expert in agave identification: sierra negra has black tipped teeth on the penca, hence its name (‘black saw’); tobala looks ‘like an angry cabbage’ (according to my personal botanical notes); barril has a small ‘trunk’ beneath the plant and looks a bit like a small yucca palm (in Sola de Vega barril tends to be used to refer to agave from the karwinski family so some of these were madrecuixe, tobasiche and others).
At the ranch Antonio was preparing to cook a batch of barril agave, the thin, woody piñas arranged in a neat pile next to the oven, which holds three tons of agave per cook: enough for just 150 litres of the finished mezcal. After cooking the agave are smashed up in a hollowed-out log (a canoe, basically) with a large homemade mallet, which is great fun to wield. Antonio’s mezcal is distilled in traditional small clay pots (as are all the Siete Misterios Mezcals, with the exception of Doba-Yej) and he took a break from stacking the stones in the oven to taste some with us, while Eduardo talked us through the distillation.
After this comprehensive tour everyone sat for a wonderful lunch of Angela’s Oaxacan food and enjoyed the warm Mexican hospitality, and we tasted the range. Julio and Eduardo work with a number of palenques in the Sola de Vega region, sourcing some of the finest traditional single agave varietal mezcals. The brothers first discovered mezcal when taking road trips from Mexico City: they would drive to the coast and pick up mezcal from the villages on their way. This was always popular with their friends, and after requests for more they began to take plastic jerry cans back to Mexico City; the best of these mezcals eventually became the Siete Misterios range. Over lunch we started with the ultra-rare, earthy mexicano, moved onto the fruitier coyote, the herbaceous arroqueno, and then the buttery barril: all with some of the nicest home-cooked food I’ve ever enjoyed. Oh, and some dried grasshoppers.
After a long afternoon in this idyllic setting we left much later than we planned, meaning that the return journey was in darkness. This didn’t improve it much, but a bellyful of great food and mezcal and a soulful of hospitality certainly helped. Also, Eduardo drives fast. We finished with a couple of beers and mezcals in one of Oaxaca City’s nice bars and headed to bed.
Day 2 started with a quick quesadilla and hot chocolate in a local café before Misty and Gabe from Del Maguey picked us up and drove us to Teotitlan del Valle, where the bottling is done and some very special casks are resting. Del Maguey was my first real encounter with mezcal – the best part of a decade ago – so I spent the whole day in a perpetual near-dream state, starting as we tasted the now immense range with Misty – after she’d personalised our copitas for us. Sticking to the Del Maguey rule, of course: sip, don’t shoot.
After a quick burrito stop (yep, a burrito in Mexico. I think Jon is still in shock.) we drove to the first of the two palenques of the day, in San Baltazar Chichicapam. When Ron Cooper started Del Maguey way back in 1995 Chichicapa was one of the first two he brought to the world, accompanied by San Luis del Rio. Correspondingly, this was also the first real mezcal I ever had the pleasure of tasting, and I still remember the feeling of a whole new world opening up as my taste buds tried and failed to find a suitable reference in the memory bank of spirit flavours. It would be fair to say I was excited to be here, and not a little overwhelmed. This was only compounded when Faustino joined us: it is always a privilege to drink with a producer, and to sit and enjoy a mezcal (okay, many mezcals) with him and his son Max was something of a dream realised for me.
Next stop was Santa Catarina Minas, where Minero is produced. If Faustino’s Chichicapa first drew me into mezcal, it was the clay pots of Minero which ensured I was hooked. Like the majority of the Siete Misterios range, Del Maguey Minero is made in the artisanal fashion, meaning that along with the use of clay stills the agave is smashed by hand, or rather with big bats: molinas (stone wheel mills) powered by horses or donkeys are the alternative (mezcal is ‘craft’ and ‘small batch’ long before those terms were invented, let alone desirable). We gave this a good go. I must confess I’ve wanted to try my hand at agave smashing ever since I heard about it, and I would have patted myself on the back were it not for the fact that both my hands were blistered to the point of bleeding after about 20 minutes. A batch takes around five hours, admittedly by someone with better technique than me.
Luis Carlos and his wife Alejandrina sat and drank mezcal with us as we caught our breath (this took some time), and admired the view of the sunset, and attempted to make friends with the goats. Well, I did at least. We enjoyed the mezcal, the company and the view for some time before reluctantly having to take our leave.
We returned to Oaxaca City to meet with Michael, Steve and Jaime from Del Maguey for the evening; dinner followed by a visit to In Situ, a local mezcaleria, for some of the rarer agave and dasyrylion (sotol) distillates before retiring happily to our flat for a couple of rounds of backgammon. Mezcal, for all its virtues, doesn’t improve my technique.
Day 3, our final full day, we met Jaime Munoz of Los Danzantes and Alipús. Jaime – who is incidentally one of the nicest characters in mezcal – drove us to their under-construction new distillery. For anyone with a geek-leaning temperament this was paradise. Tradition combined with science and sustainability, from the heat-conserving arrangement of the stills, to the use of different fuels, to the plans for a solar powered tahona, to the agave ‘museum’ and nursery in the grounds. Jon and I spent at least half an hour taking photos of the labelled agaves outside. Running a little late thanks to this over-enthusiastic agave snapping we moved to the original distillery that Jaime set up in the ‘90s. Los Danzantes was started by Jaime and his twin brother, Gustavo, as a restaurant in Mexico City with a focus on top-end Mexican food (at a time when ‘top-end’ and ‘Mexican food’ were unusual bedfellows); its success led to the second restaurant in Oaxaca City. The emphasis on cuisine led the brothers to bottle their own tequila early on, and it didn’t take long for them to move to mezcal, which continues to be Jaime’s passion.
If the new distillery is a geek’s paradise, the original is a salve to those of us who like organisation (if you’ve ever arranged your spirits in the same order as the stock take sheet, or changed the bar setup to make people move more efficiently, then this is the distillery for you). The set up allows the agave to arrive at one end, where they are put into the traditional oven. The oven is on a raised level a little higher than the fermentation vats, which are on wheels for added ease. The stills are then on a slightly lower level. The whole production is in a line, working with gravity, and the cellar (more of a chai, in that it’s above ground) is at the end; the finished product leaves the distillery at the opposite end to which the agave arrives. There’s a deep beauty to this kind of organisation and whatever’s the opposite of your skin crawling, this does it to me.
We tasted the Los Danzantes range with Jaime, and spent a long while talking in the cellar/chai, (which even shares characteristics with the equivalents in Cognac, such as gravel on the floor to regulate the humidity), before getting back in the car to head to San Baltazar to meet one of the Alipús producers.
The Alipús project was started by Jaime to support the indigenous growers and distillers of the region. As with Del Maguey and Los Siete Misterios he works with a number of producers, with the mezcals bottled under the Alipús label. At San Baltazar we again encountered the mix of tradition and sustainability at the heart of Los Danzantes and Alipús: Don Cirilo and his family are close to completing the construction of their new distillery and home, built with the proceeds they have made from Alipús and using technical advice from Los Danzantes. Modern as this seems we are abruptly reminded of how remote we are by Jaime translating Spanish with Cirilo, who then had to translate into the indigenous Zapotec for his father, Don Cosme. By now we were accustomed to the kindness and hospitality of the people of Oaxaca, but no less thankful to be on the receiving end. The warmth between Cirilo and his family and Jaime was emotional to witness. Jaime treated us to a stunning dinner at the Los Danzantes restaurant that evening, and I may have over-indulged on some strong mezcal. My backgammon skills took a further dip.
On our final morning Jaime and Sten, who is responsible for production and sustainability at Los Danzantes and Alipús, presented us some of their projects for the conservation of agave and the industry surrounding it; their passion and commitment is incredible.
Quick guide: Del Maguey
Del Maguey – the original Single Village mezcal – was started in 1995 by artist Ron Cooper, and is a firm bartender favourite the world over. The first four villages (Chichicapa, San Luis del Rio, Santo Domingo Albarradas and Minero) are still the core range, along with the house pour level Vida and the dangerously moreish Crema de Mezcal, but an impressive variety of different villages and agaves now form part of the range.
Quick guide: Los Siete Misterios
Single agave mezcals from the Sola de Vega region, distilled in clay pots and bottled by Julio and Eduardo Mestre. Each bottle is numbered and has the name of the master palenquero who produced it. Doba-Yej (a local name for espadin) is a copper-pot distilled mezcal designed to be a house pour.
Quick guide: Alipús
Mezcals from villages around Oaxaca, sourced by Jaime of Los Danzantes as part of a project to support the locals. Five villages form the core range: San Baltazar, San Andrés, San Juan, Santa Ana and San Luis.
Quick guide: Los Danzantes
Owned by Jaime Munoz (a strong contender for nicest man in Oaxaca) and originally produced for the restaurant of the same name. A blanco, reposado and añejo are distilled at their distillery, soon to move to the newer site.
Quiote – The flowering stem of the agave, which shoots up from the mature plant. This is usually cut off in tequila production as it takes sugar from the plant. When they have flowered and gone to seed the plant dies.
Hijuelos – Small clones of a plant that sprouts up around the main plant after the 4th year of its life (though at the Siete Misterios nursery they have witnessed it in agave as young as 1 year). The most common form of agave propagation is to take these and replant them.
Palenque – Mezcal distillery
Molina – Big volcanic stone wheel in a pit for milling agave (called a tahona in Jalisco)
By Phil Duffy (Amathus Head of Spirits)