Keeping Traditionally Made Mezcal Alive & Well

Versus Helping the Distillers

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

We all love the romanticism of mezcal’s heritage and its sometimes continuing rudimentary production manifestations. But is hoping for tradition to continue well into the future being selfish? Is lobbying for it to remain “as is” actually at the expense of talented palenqueros and their families who simply want a better and easier life; especially the younger generation? Is feeding such desires pitting us against them?

I don’t have the answers to the foregoing rhetorical questions. But rather my interest in the topic was piqued for the umpteenth time when reading an online post, the author of which was hoping that the use of laminated metal condensers in clay pot agave distillation production would continue until time immemorial. The palenquero who continues to distill in only laminate, which yields a yellow, rust-laden spirit, accordingly does not have access to the export mezcal market, and thus his economic fortunes remain relatively stagnant. Is that what we want?  Should it not be enough to be able to document in the archives of Mexican agave distillation the rich history of an era gone by, rather than hope that the particular tool of the trade remains in use?

My wife and I have had a similar discussion with a brand owner who objects to the suggestion that his palenquero business associates ought to keep crushing using a mazo (wooden mallet) rather than move into the post-colonization era by using a beast of burden and tahona; or even worse, a machine powered by electricity or fossil fuel. Surely the labor required to crush by hand for 8 – 10 hours a day takes a toll on palenque workers. Do they not deserve a somewhat easier life, giving them the time to reap the benefits of the mezcal boom? Should the main regulatory board for the agave distillate, Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (apparently once again COMERCAM), adjust its prerequisite for designating ancestral mezcal by allowing the use of a machine? After all, its dictates are already somewhat incongruous. It seems as if the suits have failed to take into consideration the implications of requiring manual or beast labor (for both mammals).

And then there are those who would oppose a tahona operated by an electric or fossil fueled machine. Have the animal advocates been forgotten?  I have had the discussion with palenqueros in their late 70s and 80s, who are opposed to anything but horsepower. Their perspective is understandable. Their lives will not change with a more modern method of crushing. But that of their progeny certainly would. Yes, noise is a factor, as is polluting the palenque environment with the smell of the fuel.

Now here I’ll opine regarding the topic. We should be employing a cultural relativistic approach, meaning that we should attempt to examine the issue of resisting change from the perspective of those who make the agave distillate. What right do we have to encourage palenqueros and their workers to keep making the spirit the way their forebears have been doing it, especially since in the lion’s share of cases we enjoy an easier and more remunerative existence than they have?

alvin starkman, mezcal

I admit that I like to see a worker wielding a mazo; a horse hauling a tahona; and that yellow mezcal reminiscent of an era lost in time.  But at what, or rather whose expense?

ASIDE: Not a single expression of agave distillate condensed using laminated metal has knocked my socks off, nor have I ever pulled a bottle of that rusty spirit off the shelf in anticipation of an enjoyable evening of imbibing.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).   

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Salud!!