Mexican Craft Tradition Explodes With Mezcal / Agave Distillate Boom

         Aficionados of Either Can Step Up to the Plate in Wake of Coronavirus

Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

Now is the time for those with an affinity for Mexican crafts, and aficionados of agave distillates such mezcal, to show their support. As of May, 2020, the strength of the US dollar combined with the ravages of COVID-19, make it much easier, and important for the economic survival of talented artisans.  Consider seeking out décor for your home, office, bar, mezcalería, restaurant or retail shop. And the range of agave distillate paraphernalia is limitless if you prefer custom-designed products.  It can enhance ambiance, promote additional retail sales, and just as importantly show that you care about now-struggling highly skilled Mexican artisans. 

The exponential growth of the mezcal boom over the past couple of decades has created new markets for many craftspeople in literally hundreds of towns and villages peppering Mexico.  Here is a photo gallery of just some of the options available to you, the consumer.  Employing mediums of clay, glass, cotton, wool, stone, metal, animal hide and even plastic, exquisite top quality articles are fashioned.  Some are purely decorative, while others are functional. I encourage you to reach out to artisans directly, wherever you live or vacation in Mexico, or to me for assistance if so inclined.  In my personal collection accumulated over the past 15 years, the price per piece has ranged from as little as $1 USD to no more than $300 USD, sourced in the states of Puebla, Guanajuato, Michoacán, Querétaro and Oaxaca.

When viewing the photos and commentaries regarding each, perhaps some will pique some interest, for you to personally own, to gift, or to enhance and stimulate your business.

This is the Lamborghini of quality Mexican crafts with maguey motifs, a sold walnut bar stool, back panel hand-carved into a single piece of wood, by Efraín Fuentes Santiago of San Martín Tilcajete, Oaxaca, cerca 2015.

Some 15 years ago, a bright, ingenious young public school girl in the Oaxacan village of San Marcos Tlapazola, known for its pre-Hispanic Zapotec tradition of making red clay pottery, created this innovation.  It’s a small shot-size mezcal drinking vessel, with a face on one side and agave on the other. Today her mother and aunt, still using that thousand-year-old tradition, handcraft these clay copitas by the hundreds, without the use of a wheel. Most are sold to a high end downtown Oaxaca craft store, but many are bought up by mezcal brand owners and aficionados. Aside from being aesthetically pleasing, each is made with only locally mined clay, with no artificial colors, and burnished by hand using a small stone; no lacquer or varnish. Each is individually fired in an open air rudimentary “kiln” fueled mainly with dried pencas and quiote (agave leaves and flower stalk).

These hand-blown glass cups, made in two different states, are the shape of traditional jícaras, or halves of small gourds, the traditional vessel for drinking everything under the sun prior to the arrival of the Spanish. Today jícaras are the preferred shape for imbibing mezcal, though purists maintain that any material other than glass will alter the flavor. The brand Mezcal Vago has the style on the left engraved with its name.

For those who prefer the jícara shape, and are not dissuaded by clay (as opposed to glass), the same women from San Marcos Tlapazola produces these aesthetically pleasing jicaritas de barro, complete with serving tray.

Oaxaca boasts centuries old metal industries, on the one hand hand-forging knives, machetes and swords, and on the other hand producing a diversity of decorative hammered tin products. This box was custom made to hold a bottle of mezcal. Other shapes and sizes can be crafted, restricted only by the imagination of the artisan or his customer. A knife-making family hand-forged a machete for a friend who owns a mezalcería in Seattle, hand engraved with scenery of cacti, magueys, and a jimador in the field. The family has been doing custom engraving for me for the past two decades. In fact the two brothers forged the swords for the Conan the Barbarian movie series.

For the agave distillate aficionado, what better birthday or Christmas gift than a personalized leather wrapped bottle. I saw one in a palenque, asked if something similar could be made for me, and a few weeks later it appeared, letters burned into the hide. The other side is “graced” with an iguana hand, embedded into the leather.

On a driving trip through Guanajuato and Querétaro a few years ago, we stopped along the highway at a limestone workshop. I drew a picture of what I wanted, then returned just 24 hours later.  It measures 25 X 17, 2 inches thick. The original plan was to embed it in a concrete wall. Just an hour’s drive north of Oaxaca lies a region filled with limestone quarries. A friend, Adolfo Cruz, hails from the village.  He taught art classes for 30 years at the state university faculty of fine arts. In retirement he does custom stone work.

Several years ago walking through the Sunday market at Tlacolula, Oaxaca, I came across a young man selling lamps made out of four inch PVC tubing, with an image of the Virgen of Guadalupe cut into the tube. I asked if he could make one with an agave, no religious imagery. It includes light bulbs of three different colors. Just a funky neat idea.

The villagers of Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca, have been weaving since pre-Hispanic times, using wool since the introduction of sheep by the Spanish in or about 1535. The family of Don Porfirio Santiago wove the first tapete for us in 1993. A strong friendship between our two families developed. About four years ago I asked a daughter-in-law, Rocio, if she could make coasters with agave on them. Then in April, 2020, I asked if she could make me a tapestry.  It measures 60 cm X 1 meter. She can customize with a name at the bottom, and employ yarn dyed by the family using natural substances such as insects, plants, nuts and flowers, upon request.  A while back she custom made a tapestry for the owners of King Bee bar and mezcalería in Austin, TX, of their business logo. It turned out better than any of us could have anticipated!

For hundreds of years monkeys have been associated with drunkenness. Beginning in the 1930s, in Oaxaca, craftspeople began making “chango mezcalero,” a clay receptacle used for promoting the sale of mezcal. Its history has been documented by me over the years. Vintage changos are now hard to come by, but for the asking a number of a potters would gladly make them, in the tradition of their family forebears. Pictured from the left are a vintage change; a reproduction made by Fernando Nieto from the 1930s mold of the first documented piece by his grandfather Juventino Nieto, one by the women of San Marcos Tlapazola; another by Concepción Aguilar of Ocotlán; and lastly one made in 2014 by the late Ernesto Vásquez Reyes, father of internationally acclaimed potter Angélica Vásquez of Atzompa. Changos now graces mezcalerías, as well as bars and restaurants promoting Mexican cuisine and spirits, throughout Mexico and the US.

Most bars and mezcalerías cannot accommodate a full size 300 liter copper alembic.  However, a miniature such as this one, measuring about 17 X 13 X 6 inches, would surely warrant a hallowed spot in any watering hole. There are at least two copper workshops within an hour’s drive of Oaxaca, and of course others in different states throughout the country which can do custom stills of any size.

This light cover was sourced in one of the craft villages in Michoacán on a visit centering upon the state’s cuisine, specifically the Morelia en Boca food festival. It throws soft light, perhaps suitable for a room seeking a muted somewhat dark ambiance.

Oil on canvas, this work of art was done by a close friend whose primary source of income is from the sale of both decorative and functional pottery. Now, in 2020, whatever income she earns comes only from the sales of comals in Oaxacan marketplaces.  Oaxaca relies on agriculture and tourism for its economic existence. Oaxaca has no tourism due to COVID-19, and even once the world has opened up, tourism will be slow to return to Mexico.

Hand carved from a single piece of cedar, measuring 3 feet long, this plaque depicts three stages of ancestral mezcal production. Again by Efraín Fuentes Santiago, he can carve just about anything, including smaller single panels of one stage of production such as cutting agave, crushing with horse and tahona, and at work distilling in clay. While the family makes most of its living carving and painting wooden figures known as alebrijes, from soft woods, Efraín prefers working with walnut and cedar because he gravitates towards woods which can showcase different colors, textures and characters.  Hence he leaves many pieces natural. Since I began featuring his work on facebook, he has received custom orders from aficionados and in fact is now working on a large number of hard carved wooden boxes for the agave distillate brand Melate.

The mother of the four Aguilar sisters of Ocotlán, Oaxaca, began making fanciful painted clay figures in the 1940s. Her children learned the trade, and now all earn their livings producing figures showcasing market scenes, regional dress, religious imagery, sexually explicit works, and politically motivated pieces. Several years ago I asked Concepción Aguilar to make me Mayahuel, the goddess of agave (and fertility). I gave her full reign to depict based on her artistic impression at the moment. Those who know Mayahuel may recall that she is often shown with large breasts and/or rabbits surrounding her.  When you give full artistic license to the artisan, it’s hard to go wrong.

This is a nine foot long cotton table runner made in Santo Tomás Jalieza, where the women of the village weave on backstrap looms. Each craft village has its typical, traditional designs. To my knowledge no one in the village had created table runners with maguey depicted. I provided an artisan in the village with my idea, and she did exactly what I wanted, and then some. She included a hummingbird on feeding on some of the quiote flowers. Typically the runners are not more than 2 meters long, but I wanted this for our rather long diningroom table.

This other side of this clay bottle made by María Aragón Sánchez of San Marcos Tlapazola, has an agave. Note the fine lines, all turned by hand without a wheel.

Several years ago one of María’s patrons gave her a magazine about Mexican archaeology. The photo below is María’s adaptation of the picture on the left.

Once you give talented Mexican artisans an idea, they will take it and run with it, doing their very best to illustrate their expertise, and demonstrate that they can think outside of the box. The pride they have in their work is palpable.  The results of whatever project entrusted will virtually never disappoint. Just as importantly you’ll be helping where there is need, and leave feeling just a little better about what you’ve accomplished for yourself, and for the craftsperson.

Alvin Starkman began establishing relationships with skilled personable Mexican artisans in the early 1990s. Alvin operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).