Female, Young, Bilingual, & Without Generations of Family Mezcal Heritage
By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Whoever said that to make an excellent agave distillate you have to come from a family with a heritage steeped in mezcal distillation? That belief was one of the reasons I never tried my hand at it, despite having given the idea considerable thought over the past couple of decades. Well, crack clay pot palenquera Rosario Ángeles from Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca, dispels the myth, as well as the rest including the ideas of industry male dominance and the importance of decades of hands-on experience.
After having taught English in downtown Oaxaca, and spent several months in California, 29-year-old Rosario finally realized that mezcal was her calling. If a couple of years ago you asked her how to grow tomatoes in greenhouses, her family’s trade, her answer would have been detailed and thorough; the opposite of a reply to a question about distilling agave in clay pots. She didn’t have a clue. And why would she? But she had become intrigued by the processes employed by her neighbors, and admired what they were doing. And so she read, and sought advice from those in her village who were willing to assist in teaching her regarding the uniqueness and idiosyncrasies of ancestral production.
Rosario began construction of her palenque in November, 2019. She distilled her first batch in April, 2020. Back then it was rather difficult on her emotionally. Not because she was a slow learner, and in fact the opposite is the case. But because there was, and still is somewhat of a resentment since (1) she’s a woman, and (2) she had no business getting into the industry, having no family background in distillation, of any kind. Surely she would fall on her feet. After all, she was starting her business when COVID-19 had already begun to engulf the world, with travel coming to a halt, and bars, restaurants and mezcalerías both local and abroad being ordered shut down through bylaw enactment. But Rosario’s family provided her with much needed and appreciated moral and psychological support; even though her mother was indeed appalled at the sight of her daughter wielding a machete, something unheard of in the village.
But today, not only does she produce an agave spirit of comparable quality to that of others in the village who boast Ángeles as one of their surnames, but her youth, her eagerness to continue to learn, her new-found refreshing passion for mezcal, and not being constrained by family tradition, have cumulatively given her perhaps somewhat of an edge over nearby palenqueros; if not now, then surely in years to come. Not that others have not experimented and begun to think “outside of the box.” In fact some distillers of artesanal mezcal in neighboring district of Tlacolula who have traditionally distilled in copper alembics, have begun to combine clay and quiote as part of their still make-up; a tradition dating to their forebears. But Rosario takes it all a step further.
To begin, her palenque combines a fresh, open-air, well-groomed look including washrooms even my mother would have entered. It has all the hallmarks of ancestral distillation; in-ground oven, mazo and canoa for crushing the baked sweet maguey, wooden slat vats, and four clay pot stills. Lest I be accused of sexism, yes Rosario’s distillery has a woman’s touch, all the way down to her logo, and brand name Rambhá, the Indian goddess of pleasure. While she does employ men to assist in the processes, she can be seen doing it all alongside them, just as her male counterparts who also rely on hired hands for certain stages of production.
But there’s something else about Rosario which has made me take notice, perhaps suggesting a kindred spirit between us. I often both speak and write about the plethora of influences, impacts and factors which dictate that no two batches of traditionally made mezcal can be the same. It’s virtually impossible to replicate the exact same distillate twice in a row, or ever. And, because of the umpteen reasons for diversity from lot to lot, it’s hard to isolate one element from the other. Only a year into her career as a palenquera, Rosario has already begun to do just that.
In early 2021, Rosario wanted to learn about the impact of using different water sources in the fermentation process. So she took an oven-load of tobasiche (a local name for a sub-species of Agave karwinskii), crushed it, and then placed half in one wooden vat, and the rest in another of the same type of wood and vintage of use. Molds and airborne yeasts were the same since the magueys were kept beside each other. Into one vat she placed river water, and into the other well water. Both vats were allowed to ferment the same length of time, and were then distilled in clay pots beside one another, again those tools of the trade being as identical to one another as possible. The same wood was used firing the stills, and as best possible temperatures were kept the same. In clay pot production the smoke from the wood used in distilling can impact the liquid above, and, as we know, the temperature at which distillation occurs impacts quality. Then subsequently, great pains were made to achieve the same ABV mixing head, body and tail. Finally, the end results were stored in the same type and size of vessel. One mezcal was appreciably sweeter than the other. The only difference was the water source used in fermentation.
And now (April, 2021), the mad scientist is at it again, this time working with cuixe (another Agave karwinskii) removed from the same bake. Half she is leaving for one week prior to crushing and proceeding with the remaining stages of production, and half she is leaving for a second week. And so there will be differences in the beginnings of fermentation, perhaps the insects buzzing around and feeding off of the honey-sweet baked agave, and the molds. All else will remain the same, the presumed difference in end product still to be seen.
So what’s on the horizon for Rosario? Well, certification by CRM (Consejo Regulador del Mezcal) is in the works, which will give her access to marketing Rambhá, and exporting the label internationally. For Rosario, the objective is to ensure that a quality agave distillate will always be produced at her palenque, so that whenever a consumer tastes Mezcal Rambhá, he will know with certainty that it has been distilled and bottled at source, providing quality assurance.
While Rosario is already welcoming small gatherings for cocktail and simple culinary experiences, she is well on her way to construction of a large open air kitchen area. Her mother will be in charge of preparing traditional Oaxacan cuisine, enabling Rosario to supplement her mezcal offerings by hosting groups for desayunos, comidas and cenas. Bringing family into the fold for such ancillary operations will permit Rosario to continue to devote 100% of her time to distillation and to break down barriers which have by and large dictated resistance to change, innovation and advancement within the world of most Mexican agave spirits.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). He often includes a visit to Rosario’s palenque in the course of a touring day.