In 2008, my life changed. After working a popup at Bacchanal, a cult wine bar in New Orleans, the manager stepped out with a bottle of Del Maguey Chichicapa Mezcal, “Have you guys tried mezcal yet?” We sampled this magical elixir in small clay copitas and he told us tales of underground cooking, wild yeasts, and horse drawn mills. It was then that I realized that everything I thought I knew about agave distillates was wrong. I embarked on an education that is very much ongoing.
After almost a decade of personal study, I headed to the Mexican state of Oaxaca for some hands on learning at William Scanlan’s palenques. Scanlan’s mezcal company, Heavy Métl Imports, is relatively new but is gaining traction fast due to the brands that he’s exporting across the border: Real Minero, Rey Campero, and Mezcaloteca (a.k.a. Mezcalosfera).
Scanlan is the gracious and generous sort—the kind of person who takes two days off from their company to play tour guide to us, three bartenders that he met over email, through his operation and to meet his partners. Our quartet set out from Santa Catarina in Minas, driving down a long road flanked by valley reddened by iron rich soil. Soon, we arrived at a stucco building perched on a parched hillside, a new town library opened by Graciela Angeles Carreño, the Master Mezcalera of Real Minero.
A half dozen volunteers buzzed around the building, unpacking and organizing boxes of donated books. Graciela warmly greeted us and then continued managing the unpacking and distribution of books. I would soon learn that the same intensity and focus was core to her work with Real Minero.
The Nursery: Promoting Agave Diversity
Our next stop was across town at the Real Minero Nursery, a facility that is Graciela’s lab for testing different methods of growing and maintaining agave plants. Visitors are welcomed by at least two dozen different live agaves, as well as a pile of harvested agaves—spines and all. Graciela explained that after purchasing a field of agave, the first step is to dig up all of the preexisting plants, even the immature ones. The uprooted plans will be replanted soon, but they can remain out of the ground up to about a month. Graciela believes that a bit of suffering can be good for the plant.
Placards next to each agave stated the common and Latin names. We walked by some Barril plants planted together so tightly that they formed a blind. They are members of the Karwinskii family of agave that don’t hold the typical “mohawk” agave silohuette. Instead, the plant stalk grows vertically while the spines extend outward at a sharp, near 90 degree angle. William told us that Graciela wants to plant these varietals on the perimeters of farmers’ fields where they will act as a daunting natural fence, and simultaneously expand the agave yield.
Graciela next introduced us to Esoch, who guided us through a row of black, tent like structures. The first one we entered is full of composting plants. Esoch showed us a hole in the ground full of what is essentially “worm tea”, or a highly nutrient rich collection of the liquids that come off the compost batch. In the next tent, a large mortar and pestle like device is used to grind up various mineral rich substances. Graciela explains that they supplement area’s alkaline soil with calcium and limestone to achieve a more suitable pH for the agave. The operation also produces a natural pesticide from a blend of including chili, oregano, vinegar, and soap (the soap helps the mixture adhere to the plant).
Behind the row of tents is a series of raised beds protected by a scrim like material propped up on tent poles. Inside are young agave of various species and sizes. Esoch showed off a pod full of Tobala seeds for us to admire. The appearance is not unlike a pea pod, but the seeds are inside are nearly 100 small discs neatly arranged in two columns. He explained that the blacks seeds are fertile while the pale and beige ones are simply thrown away. But, Esoch also has a less empirical approach, he performs a secondary test, examining each seed to “feel the plant inside.”
The Distillery: Old Meets New as Agave Comes Out of the Shadows
Another short jaunt down the road has us arrive at an impressive metal gate. Behind that entry, we found most orderly palenque, or mezcal production facility, that I’ve ever seen. Pallets of neatly stacked Karwinskii agave sat top of a surgically smooth poured concrete floor. Walls of cut firewood line the perimeter, and two massive ovens were dug into the ground, sloped walls blackened by the baking of countless agave. After these stone structures are heated by fire, agave will be piled in on top. Then, dirt and more stones will be piled on top allowing the plants inside to roast for a couple of days or more. How does one measure “a couple days or more” mean? Well, Mezcalero Don Lorenzo notoriously would stick a wooden cross atop the pile; when it fell over, the batch was done.
These traditions are key to Graciela’s process. She told us that at least four generations of her family made mezcal, but the number is probably higher. Mezcal has a history of being suppressed. Spanish colonialists tried to impose only drinks from Spain on their subjects, and local agave distillates were once banned outright. The spirit gained a reputation like marijuana among urban dwelling Mexicans. That stigma means that historical records of mezcal production are scarce, and records only go back a few decades.
However, mezcal is certainly not contraband in 2017. Graciela walked over to a pallet and hacked off a few pieces of cooked agave with a machete from a giant piña. Chewing a sample reminded me of a creme brûlée, with the charred exterior concealing a sweet and custard like flesh.
The Tasting Room
The “tasting room” is in a cavernous, half-buried room filled with more than a hundred glass demijohns with mezcal aging them. Graciela and her father have been aging in glass for some time, which will come in handy when recently passed regulations create an “aged in glass” category of mezcal. We sat down at some old wire spools aside the demijohns and William produces some small glasses while Graciela pulled out bottles of Real Minero bottles.
The first that we taste is the Real Minero Espadin. Espadin is the most common and sustainably produced variety in Oaxaca. Scanlan explained that he only began exporting it recently; he felt that that there were plenty of espadins around and wanted to first introduce people to the other distinctive bottles first, like their Largo and Pechuga. Yet, this espadin was unlike any I’d tried before. The taste boasted a big grape flavor—probably from high phosphorous content in the soil—as well asnotes of bananas and milk chocolate.
Next was a blend of Espadin and Largo. Largo is a very rare agave and member of the Karwinskii family. It has a bouquet of fresh grass and pepper, and on the tongue a sweet meatiness almost like cashew or coconut. We also tried Tripon—roughly translated as “paunchy” because of the stout and wide shape of the agave. The variety is particular to this region and matures at around 16-18 years old. The flavor is a full of leafy and bit of cinnamon.
My reverie would continue through the afternoon, but my Jedi training was far from complete. The next day would only take us deeper into the complex world of agave.
To be continued…
Nick Detrich is a founder and partner at New Orleans’ Cane & Table as well as a F&B consultant. In his his spare time, he enjoys jet skis, comic books, and evil.