“Its so good. It’s just so good.” This is something that I was not expecting to say or feel about sipping straight mezcal. But powerful forces were at work. I found myself in colorful central Oaxaca, Mexico siting at the bar of one of the best, if not the best, mezcalerias in the world known as In Situ, with a glorious flight of fine local mezcals in front of me.
With each sip and each taste of a different varietal of small batch, traditionally made mezcal, the more and more the sentiment became awoken within. It was a smoky, aromatic, herbaceous dream igniting my palette like a welcoming fire. Each one was as different in aroma and flavor as the tiny, clear glasses that contained them – one square, one round and short, one round and tall, one textured with ridges – a method used to be able to recall which kind of mezcal is in which little vessel. How can these crystal-clear liquors carry so much character and distinction?
I had to know more.
Fortunately for me, we had our trusty Mexico City based local guide and expert with us, Jonas Vanreusel, who had arranged just the expedition to achieve this desire.
The next morning we piled into Jonas’ van and headed about an hour south from the city of Oaxaca to Santa Catarina Minas, a small rural village of around 2,000 people, where we would be meeting Eduardo Ángeles, fourth-generation master mezcal distiller at his authentically rustic palenque de mezcal (mezcal distillery).
Forget the worm and any gritty, turpentine-esque, drunken reputation you might have in your mind for mezcal. This is mezcal as you likely don’t know it, at its finest, purest and most authentic expression. Read on and join me in the discovery.
Eduardo Ángeles – Lalocura Mezcal
We pulled up a dirt road to what would best be described as a gathering of simple, tin-roofed pavilions. In the near distance surrounding the pavilions you could make out several large greenhouses, and further, across a lush field of agaves, was a charming white-washed church. A backdrop of half barren, clay-colored foothills completed the landscape with intriguing contrast.
Our visit with Eduardo was off to a perfect start. We arrived just in time for an early lunch. After initial introductions, we took a seat around a large table situated under the shady refuge of one of the pavilions amongst piles of what looked to be dinosaur-sized brown pineapples, which we would soon learn, were smoked Tobasiche agaves.
After some chocolate de auga (hot chocolate made with water) and local brioche-like breads, bountiful plates of fresh tortillas smothered in a zesty, hot, black bean sauce (made of organic black beans grown right there on the palenque) and topped with thinly sliced onion, cilantro and local cheese were served. To accompany this, there were spiced meats, homemade chorizo sausages and sliced avocado. We washed everything down with melon water, a mixture of fresh melon juice and water. It was divine and filling.
A full stomach is a necessity for those working the palenque. It is hard, manual labor that needs to be done in dedication to the meticulous production process. The meal felt gluttonous for us mezcal sampling tourists. Be it necessary as well, though, to soak up the numerous handcrafted mezcals we were about to taste.
As we ate, Eduardo recounted his tale. As a younger man eager to make his own place in the world, he left his home. Home was, as it is now, Santa Catarina Minas where Eduardo’s father still runs his family’s palenque producing mezcal, just as Edward now does at his own operation and just as father’s father and father’s father’s father did before him.
He ventured to the United States settling in Los Angeles where he made a living as a day laborer and eventually landed a steady factory job. After years of toiling labor in a foreign land, Eduardo returned to his homeland. Back working on his father’s palenque, he came to develop his own vision for the production of mezcal and its contribution to the local community, which deviated from that of his father’s. And so, Eduardo decided to go independent. Based on his own foundation of beliefs, he established the distillery and agave nursery which we were on the cusp of discovering that very afternoon.
It All Starts with The Agave
We soon learned that the saga of mezcal begins with the agave plant, a beastly looking succulent indigenous to Mexico. With its great green leaves growing out from its center in a blade-like fashion, find one large enough, stand next the enormous plant, and it’s not too hard to imagine the thing animating and swallowing you right up.
Despite its anxious physicality, for many hundreds of years, the indigenous man has known and exploited the wonders of the agave. Hidden within the core, or as the locals say, piña, (pineapple in Spanish, so called for its resemblance to this fruit once its leaves are removed) of a mature agave, one finds a wealth of natural sugars. And where there is sugar, there is potential, potential for alcohol.
Depending on the varietal, an agave plant may take anywhere between 8 and 30 years to come to maturity and be ready to harvest. There are 15 varietals sought for the production of Eduardo’s mezcals. Each variety has its own life cycle timeline and comes to maturity at different times of year.
It is commonly thought that the best mezcals are made with wild agaves. Wild agaves grow naturally in the rugged Oaxacan terrain and surrounding territories, un-irrigated and un-menaced by humans until they approach their apex, flowering for their one and only reproduction attempt. At that time, you can expect there to be a mezcalero (mezcal producer) just waiting to pounce, ready with their small band of men armed with machetes with which the plant will be dismembered of its leaves to harvest and expose its precious core.
In few words, mezcal is a distilled liquor made from the smoked and then fermented cores of particular agave varietals. Not to make the process sound simple, because, it is certainly not. The finest mezcals transcribe the most interesting stories of place and people onto the palate. Each varietal will yield a mezcal with its own unique taste profile. And to achieve such results, it takes a master distiller, one with generations of passed-down, intimate knowledge of wild agave varietals, agave cultivation and the sensitive craft of smoking and distilling of their piñas, such qualities as we find in Eduardo.
Eduardo walked us over to the largest of the pavilions on the palenque. Under it we could see a sizable pit dug about two meters deep into the ground. Within the pit was a huge mound of river rocks in varying shades of grey. Smoke was wafting up from under the rocks where a fire was lit. Two men, who were manning the pit, sorted through the rocks, adding new larger rocks to the pit as they removed some of the smaller fragmented ones.
In a semi circle flanking the pit was a wall of pinewood colored agave piñas awaiting their smoky fate. Some were more round and bulbous in shape, and others, resembled the shape of a giant rolled cigar. Eduardo could identified to us which shapes were which varietal of agave.
The fire under the rocks was lit at 5 AM that morning. It was noon now. The pit would not be ready to load with the agaves for another few hours. By 3 PM, the rocks would be glowing hot. At that point, a layer of spent agave fibers from the last distillation batch moistened with water will be spread over the “coals.” This will provide a protective layer between the heat source and the piñas as to not burn them, but rather, smoke them.
When the pit is fully prepared, it will be loaded with the piñas. It is a true learned skill to load the smoking pit full of agaves. Eduardo likens it to completing a precise puzzle. The piñas must be layered ever just so in order for each to be properly treated by the smoke.
About 4.5 tons of agave cores will go into the pit as one batch. Eduardo’s team weights and records each and every agave core he harvests before it goes into each batch. This meticulous record keeping is required by the laws governing the mezcal application designation of Oaxaca, which producers must follow if they are to use appellation term on their labels. Eduardo appreciates and abides by these standards.
Once the puzzle is perfected and all the piñas are all loaded, the pit is covered with earth. Then, like a cherry on top, the pit is topped off with a little wooden cross. This homage to god is a common theme throughout the entire process of making mescal. Once the cross comes out, it is a way of saying “it’s god’s hands now” (or science, whatever you believe).
Five days later they will find out if god was good when they uncover the pit to recover piñas. Eduardo and his team will then unload the pit to sort out the smoked, now maple-colored piñas by varietal, setting them in different piles around the property where they will begin to cool off. It will be another 2 months until they have completely cooled and the saga of these piñas will continue.
Fermentation = Alcohol
Next, Eduardo took us over to a smaller pavilion adjacent to the smoking pit pavilion where a young man was chopping-up some previously smoked, now cooled piñas. Using a machete, he worked swiftly to remove the toasty outer layer of the piña to reveal the softer center.
Eduardo cut off a piece of the center from a couple different varietals of agave and gave each of us a little nugget to chew on. The pieces of core were tough and fibrous to chew. They were earthy, yet at the same time, juicy and sweet. Each was already very distinctly marked with a different flavor profile. All had a toasty quality from the smoking, but one was more earthy, herbaceous and bitter, the other more fruity and spiced, and the other had a molasses quality.
The center of the cores are then mashed-up into what is called the bagaso, a state of homogeneously sized mushy fibers. These fibers are then loaded into large wooden fermentation vats along with some water and left in peace until the natural ambient yeasts start to take over, eating away at the agave sugars, converting them to alcohol.
Once the fermentation begins and the mash starts to bubble, Eduardo closely monitors its progress, adding a little water when needed to keep the environment moist and fermentation going. To encourage a healthy, natural fermentation the mash is topped with little wooden cross.
Skillfully ascertaining when the fermentation is complete by taste and smell, and alcohol levels are at around 8%, Eduardo and his team transfer the fermented mash, now called tepache, to the stills for distillation.
There is a plethora of methods for distillation, ranging from the employment of sophisticated and expensive copper stills to more primitive, simplistic methods. Any way it’s done, you need some form of still where the fermented base product is heated and its alcoholic vapors are captured and condensed to derive a liquid distillate.
Eduardo uses traditional clay pot stills (ollas de barro) made by local villagers. These clay stills are placed atop brick, wood-fired ovens and punctured with bamboo rods where the liquid distillate (mezcal) escapes. This is certainly not the easiest or quickest method, but Eduardo believes it is the most authentic, and takes pride that his palenque creates demand for preserving the traditional skills and local jobs that go into fabricating these clay pot stills. At his level of production, the palenque goes through about 50 pots a year, as with use, they enviably crack and need to be replaced.
Eduardo believes it’s important for young locals to want to stay in the community, rather than seeking a life abroad as so many of his own generation have done. He therefore strives, through involvement in local government, to foster a better village community and provide reasons for younger generations to stay and carry on the local patrimony.
Sustainability & Preservation
When it takes 8 to 30 years for a single agave to be ready to harvest, when each plant only has one opportunity to reproduce at the end of its life, and as popularity and subsequently production of agave type spirits and products grows, sustainability issues loom on the horizon for Oaxacan mezcaleros.
Eduardo is committed to not only producing amazing, traditionally crafted mezcals, but the preservation of the different varieties of agave from which he makes his mezcals. In addition to the palenque, Eduardo raises agaves on his farm in greenhouses and has developed a preservation project through which he transplants these young agaves back into the wild to replenish the diversity and quantities of the species.
Additionally, Eduardo strives to re-purpose what would otherwise be waste from his palenque. After the fermented agave fibers have been distilled, rather than thrown them away, his men take the remaining spent fibers (after using some in the smoking pit), and sprinkle them into a mud formed with earth and water. One of the men uses his bare feet to integrate the fibers into the mud. This concocts an adobe mixture.
These bricks are sold locally as building material. Eduardo uses them himself for building expansions and improvements on his own palenque. In fact, his current storage building was fully constructed with these very bricks.
Tasting – The Final Product
After the grand tour, Eduardo graciously invited us into his home located just up the road to sample his final product. He pulled out a big basket of little tasting gourds. From these hollowed and dried gourds, we sipped tastes of each of his mezcal varieties.
Sitting among the numerous glass carboys of mezcal scattered around the living space, we quickly realized Eduardo’s meticulous and traditional production methods are well worth the results. As I sip the Arroqueño varietal I image the 25 years of soil and weather conditions that reared those agaves and every human labor to harvest and treat them comes through. The wild, pungent arid surroundings from which the agaves were harvested waft up from the gourd. I smell the earthen clay molded into the still pots by the local women and I feel the dance of the fire under the smoking pit as the mezcal warms me down into my belly.
Among the samples there was a Pechuga mezcal. To make Pechuga, a base mezcal is put through a third distillation while a basket of fruit and/ or raw chicken breasts are hung, suspended in the clay distillation pot. Naturally, Pechuga means breast in Spanish. Normally the varieties are only distilled twice to get a finished mezcal, but this third distillation with the fruit and meat makes a pechuga The fruit and meat infuse the mezcal with savory and fruity flavors evident in the final product. We even tasted the fruits after they have been used to aromatize the mezcal in this fashion. They had cooked-down into a leathery paste which had a smoky, spiced caramel flavor. It was actually quite tasty.
Visiting the palenque directly, we were lucky to be able to take a couple of our favorite bottles under the Lalocura label on our way with us. Lalocura is his local label and it is not exported out of the country.
The term Lalocura has interesting origins. It is derived from “Lalo” which is a nick name for Eduardo, and from the similar sounding terms of “loco” for crazy and “cura” for cure. So Lalo’s mescal makes one both crazy while also providing the cure.
Eduardo does export small quantity of mescal under a different label to the US called Sacapalabras Mezcal Artesanal.
Mezcal, a diamond in the rough, under-appreciated and under-exploited by enthusiasts of great liquors and libations for too long — true, but this notion is changing. Interest and connoisseurship of this gem are rightfully growing in tandem with its importation by US, European and Asian markets. Articles are now being written in major publications exploring this subject, and new brands and importers seeking small producers to blend and supply their own labels are increasing in number each year, joining the likes of 21 year veteran company Del Maguey.
And yet, if production is not strategically balanced with demand, mezcal could be a fleeting wonder, unable to basque in the spotlight for long at a sustainable cost to both consumers and the diversity of the agave species.
But as we learned on our visit to Lalucura, there is hope, inspired by a man impassioned and tirelessly striving to preserve a tradition, a culture, a community, a species, a gem. That man is Eduardo Ángeles, skilled mezcalero and compassionate community figure.
Though you may have difficulty finding Eduardo’s product in the US, don’t pass-up the thrill and delight for your palate in discovering mezcal yourself. Seek out some high-quality brands to try. Be it by asking your local spirits shop for a nice traditionally crafted mezcal, stopping by a local Mexican restaurant with a well stocked bar serving a selection of mezcals to try, or by visiting the region of Oaxaca and experiencing this gem first hand and among the locals yourself.
Information and Additional Resources
Interested in learning more about mezcal? For cover to cover information about mescal, Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! is a fantastic book by John McEvoy available for purchase via his website mezcalphd.com, which is also a great resource for a general wealth of mezcal knowledge.