Women in Mezcal: Traditional Roles vs. Market Assumptions

Women in Mezcal: Traditional Roles vs. Market Assumptions https://wp.me/p3u1xi-5LWWomen Making Mezcal in Oaxaca: Division of Labour between the Sexes

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

It is inaccurate to suggest that mezcal production in the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca is by and large a man’s job or trade, and that there are very few palenqueras, that is artisanal mezcal distillers who are women. The female of the specie makes mezcal.  Women’s involvement in the processes is essentially determined by the same criteria used to understand sex roles in other vocations in rural Oaxaca; strength and stamina, traditional child-rearing and other household responsibilities.

As most mezcal aficionados know, palenqueros (using the more generic term for male and female producers of the agave based spirit) typically do not read books or watch youtube videos to learn how to make the iconic Mexican, typically high alcohol content drink.  They learn from their fathers, their uncles and their grandfathers, just as their relatives before them, over the course of generations.  Young girls, just as young boys, begin learning the trade, virtually from infancy; watching, helping, and fantasizing their futures as palenqueros while in the course of playing on their own or with their friends and siblings. I frequently bear witness to this acquisition of knowledge.

Women in Mezcal: Traditional Roles vs. Market Assumptions https://wp.me/p3u1xi-5LWCustomarily women raise families, dating to the hunter and gatherer division of labor in humankind. Mothers remained close to home with the children, gathering fruits, nuts, berries, etc., and preparing meals, while their male partners were off on extended hunting expeditions often requiring that they be fleet of foot, and at times requiring more physical fortitude than women could muster. With mezcal production, typically the fields of agave under cultivation are relatively far from home, and if wild maguey is sought, the palenquero is often required to walk a couple of hours into the hills before coming across his bounty. The same holds true for scrounging and cutting firewood to fuel ovens and stills.  Furthermore, lifting the piñas (heart of the succulent used to produce mezcal) often requires more strength than traditionally exhibited by women.  Although sometimes while the palenquero is still in the field the piñas are cut into smaller pieces for their eventual baking, whether whole or halved they can weigh hundreds of pounds and must be lifted into trucks or onto the sides of donkeys or mules.

Women in Mezcal: Meanwhile…Back at the Palenque

Once back at the palenque (artisanal mezcal distillery), which often adjoins the homestead proper or is in close proximity to it, women’s work making mezcal begins in earnest, of course subject to their priority obligation of preparing meals and tending to the children. They nevertheless are often, and customarily, an integral part of the baking, crushing, fermenting and distilling processes, working alongside and even dictating to men.

Women in Mezcal: Traditional Roles vs. Market Assumptions https://wp.me/p3u1xi-5LWTrue enough, women much less than men are involved in cutting the agave into appropriately sized pieces back at the palenque in preparation for baking, again for reasons relating to stamina and strength required to wield machetes, axes and mallets. Similarly splitting logs and loading the oven with large, heavy tree trunks is typically men’s work. But then when it comes to filling the oven with stones, wet bagazo (waste fiber from distillation), piñas, tarpaulins and earth, women participate, typically as equals to men. Even in the face of whatever remnants persist of the perceived macho mexicano, once the rocks in the oven have been sufficiently heated, it is important to second as many helpers both male and female to get the rest of the work done as expeditiously as possible filling and then sealing the oven airtight.

Women as well as men remove the piñas from the oven once the carbohydrates have been converted to sugars, or caramelized.  Later on, in preparation for a subsequent bake, once again individuals of both sexes empty the chamber of the bagazo, stones and charcoal remaining at the bottom.  These women are the daughters, daughters-in-law, mothers, wives/partners, nieces and granddaughters. I see them all participating, not infrequently, and they are as much a part of the processes as their male counterparts, including actually being in charge of directing and decision-making.

When crushing the baked agave is done by hand, then yes, almost exclusively it is men who attend to this most arduous task. But working the horse, determining when the pieces of maguey have been sufficiently pulverized, loading the receptacles for fermenting whether into wooden slat tanks, in-ground lined pits, bovine skins, or otherwise, is often the work of men and women shared equally. Similarly women are often the ones who load up and tend the stills be they clay or copper, decide upon the optimum ABV (alcohol by volume), and determine the appropriate cuts of head, body and tail so as to result in best possible flavor of the resulting double distilled mezcal.

But now let’s assume that the palenquera is also charged with typical household chores including meal preparation for the family and raising the children including attending to their health, education and general welfare. She cannot of course be reasonably expected to look after all this, as well as partner with her husband for example, in terms of directing and attending to all of the foregoing tasks required in the spirit’s production.  However upon hearing the shout or receiving the cellular phone call from her male partner, cousin, son or father, she’s there, as needed. In addition, she is the one remaining at home in charge of sales. She typically also prepares comida for the men, and in fact it is customary when the home is not alongside the palenque, for the woman to bring food and drink for those (men) who are at some stage of producing the spirit;  all this, as well as making mezcal.

Women in Mezcal: Necessity Dictates Roles

Economic necessity on occasion dictates that a woman, to almost the complete exclusion of men except in a support role, become a palenquera.  She plants, tends, cuts and harvests maguey; splits logs, and even crushes by hand. In one case a husband/palenquero died suddenly in a car accident, leaving his wife and four young children. She became a palenquera in the traditional sense, doing everything previously done by her late husband, and raising the children. In another case a single mother’s two children left home for the US in their late teens, leaving her and her mother as the householders. She had learned mezcal production from her grandfather.  Currently she has a reputation for being one of the very few palenqueras who does it all and produces one of the finest mezcals produced in the entire state of Oaxaca.  She directs her underlings, that is, male cousins and neighbors, as to how to produce mezcal based on her exacting recipe. The foregoing are two exceptions to the tradition of both men and women working together, cooperatively with members of their families and communities.

A shift in paradigm is both warranted and strongly suggested when it comes to our perception of the industry being mainly within the purview of men. Women deserve to have their proper and important place acknowledged in the world of mezcal production in rural Oaxaca.

 

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

Women in Mezcal: Traditional Roles vs. Market Assumptions https://wp.me/p3u1xi-5LW

Why Now, Mezcal: The Lone Ranger Rides Again

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

lone-ranger-and-tontoThe branding of Kimo Sabe mezcal is brilliant.  Perhaps not since the mid 90s when Ron Cooper coined the phrase Single Village Mezcal for his Mezcal del Maguey, has anyone used a name so effectively to attract a particular demographic in the alcohol buying public. Back then it was a take-off on single malt scotches.  Now it’s addressing those of us in our sixties who recall the weekly TV show, The Lone Ranger, affectionately known by his sidekick Tonto as Kimo Sabe.  Most, however, don’t know that its literal translation is something like “trusted friend.” The name nevertheless calls us, despite the fact that when I first heard it I thought there could not have been a hokier moniker on the planet. I couldn’t have been more wrong, at least from a marketing perspective, especially after I understood what the brand owners, at least in my mind, are trying to achieve.

logoThe peace and love generation has finished raising its children and put them through college, paid off mortgages and retired other debt, all the while having forgotten about the counter-culture.  It sold out to become part of the corporate and professional western world. But there has been a significant positive: its members now have sufficient disposable income to spend as much as they want on whatever they want.

Enter mezcal, taking us back to our roots, that is our desire for something real, natural and organic, reminiscent of what back then we coveted but couldn’t afford.  Sure, there were Birkenstocks.  But unlike a bottle of $200 USD mezcal (not Kimo Sabe), they didn’t empty and then require replenishing.

Kimo-Sabe-Mezcal--241x300I’m asked at least twice monthly, why only now is there a mezcal boom, when the spirit has been around for some 450 years, if not longer.  My retort has been pretty standard, citing the hippie generation, the values of which were consistent with the production of artisanal mezcal.  But back then we couldn’t afford to put our dreams, our words and our passions into action.  Now we can, and we do. Not me literally, since I live and breathe mezcal and don’t have to pay what Americans customarily fork out. And it’s even more costly for those who live across the pond in the UK, or worse yet Australia.

And so it appears to me that the makers of Kimo Sabe are targeting my generation, though probably not the higher end purchasers since the price-point of Kimo Sabe is extremely attractive. Why else select a name that conjures that era of B & W shows on an Admiral television built into a console?

The brand recently took first place in a spirits competition, even ahead of quality tequilas. It won “Best of Class International Specialty Spirit” judged by the American Distilling Institute.  

alvin starkman, Oaxaca, mezcalBut Kimo Sabe may just be a flash in the pan.  I haven’t tried it so am not in a position to proffer an opinion.  But I’ve been around the mezcal industry long enough to know that winning a competition is at least occasionally the result of no more than building relationships, and at times payola in one form or another, definitively not suggesting that this is the case here.  Let’s just hope that would-be mezcal aficionados just don’t end up being tontos, and that Kimo Sabe ends up being a trusted friend of throngs of spirits consumers, both first time imbibers and those with a discerning palate.

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

Mezcal and Dogmatism in Oaxaca: The Cocktail Craze (Part 3 of 7)

el silencio cocktail
I’ve read that the worst way to bastardize mezcal is to use it in a cocktail.

Since publication that author has graciously tempered his dogmatism, likely after having realized that promoting mezcal as an ingredient in cocktails helps everyone in the broader alcohol consumption industry.

Some bartenders still believe that it is not worth it to use a high quality expensive mezcal when making a cocktail.  With all due respect, the better view as promulgated by mixologists and bartenders renowned for their cocktail prowess, is that mezcal should be considered as any other ingredient, with different qualities, varieties, etc.

ilegal cocktailThere’s a difference between red and green pepper flavors, cilantro, cucumber, etc. If you have 50 different mezcals on the shelf, consider which one would pair best with the other ingredients. Is the predominant note of the spirit fruity, floral, herbaceous, earthy, caramelized, woody, and so on? How will a particular spirit character complement the other ingredients and enhance the ultimate cocktail?  When it comes to pairing mezcal for mixing cocktails and for cooking, I’m a novice at best, though I continue to take classes with a view to honing my palate.

 

sombra cocktailRead our next installment on this thought provoking feature by Alvin Starkman tomorrow where he’ll discuss alcohol by volume.  

 

alvin starkman, Oaxaca, mezcalAlvin Starkman is a permanent resident of the city of Oaxaca, from where he operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca.  He can be reached at mezcaleducationaltours@hotmail.com.

Alvin Starkman holds an M.A. in social anthropology from Toronto’s York University and a J.D. from Osgoode Hall Law School.  He has written one book about mezcal (Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market:  Unrivalled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances) and over 35 articles centering upon Mexican craft beer, pulque, mezcal and sustainability, as well as a further 250 articles about Oaxacan life and cultural traditions. He co-authored a chapter in an edited volume on culinary heritage (published August, 2014), and wrote an article about brideprice in a Zapotec village (scheduled for release in autumn, 2014, in the Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies).

Mezcal and Dogmatism in Oaxaca: Reposados & Anejos (Part 2 of 7)

mestizo_reposado_mezcalSome say you should never drink reposado or añejo mezcal.  When pressed for a reason they often state that it alters the natural flavors and aromas of the agave.  True enough, but so what? Could one not equally use the word “enhances?” The same industry people, often owners and employees of mezcalerías, however, don’t think twice about encouraging patrons to try a product where the baked crushed maguey has been fermented in a bull hide, yielding a unique profile; or a mezcal made where the agave has been baked over mesquite (as opposed to pine, oak, etc.), again creating a different nuance.  So why dismiss aging? One mezcalería owner has told me that she has not been able to find good aged mezcals.  Oh come on!

This leads me to one rationalization for the position, that aged mezcal is not traditional mezcal. Perhaps the spirit was not being stored or transported in oak during the earliest years of distillation in Mexico.  But certainly into the latter half of the 16th century, when the Spanish began emptying their imported Old World sherry barrels, and then later their rum barrels, oak receptacles were likely (if not certainly) being used for mezcal.  Aging was taking place if not by design, then by default.
briscas mezcalIt was often more expedient for producers to store and transport product in a 200 liter barrel, than use several 70 liter clay cántaros (pots).  And so with a good supply of used barrels emerging in the marketplace, aged mezcals became commonplace (i.e. traditional), dating back a couple of hundred years I would suggest, with some producers eventually making a science (or art) out of resting their spirits; in French sherry barrels, Kentucky bourbon or Tennessee whisky barrels, and in due course employing new barrels fashioned from Canadian white oak.  For generations some palenquero families have prided themselves in the quality of their rested spirits, using various aging styles and different barrels for different lengths of time to achieve specific flavor profiles.  So to suggest it is difficult to find aged mezcals of high quality in the state of Oaxaca, is in my estimation a weak excuse.

For my excursions I usually bring along an añejo in my nine-mezcal sample box.  If a client enjoys it, this signals that we should visit one or two distilleries which produce reposados and añejos, and carry on discussing the topic of aging.  If not, then its blanco all the way.  But here’s the point:  most of us are in the business of promoting the spirit (with of course varying degrees of profit motivation, altruism, passion, etc.) with a view to lauding its attributes so that more people will try, and subsequently become fans and regular purchasers of mezcal.  The more mezcal that is consumed, the better it is for the industry, and most importantly for growers who live a subsistence existence, as well as for small-scale palenqueros and their families.  We should not close off any market segment capable of becoming established and growing.

wahakaThere’s room for mezcal on the bar of any single malt scotch, tequila, brandy or whisky aficionado’s home. If someone is a fan of a 16 year old Lagavulin or a Burgundy wood finish Glenmorangie, what positive result can there be by telling her to never drink an aged mezcal? Yes, over 90% of the mezcals in my collection are blancos, and that’s what I usually drink.  But sometimes I get a hankering for a mild reposado, or a rich five year añejo with tones of butterscotch, or a peaty single malt.

I believe that the more appropriate and educational modality is to encourage novices to begin by sampling blancos, from whatever region, type of agave, means of production, tools of the trade, and so on.  Teach about the innumerable nuances and unrivalled complexity of unaged mezcal.  But then encourage the client to try one or two aged products, especially if dealing with a client who is a fan of barrel aged spirits.  If you dissuade someone from trying something aged, you risk losing a prospective convertee; you are also doing a disservice to the client.

Read our next installment on this thought provoking feature by Alvin Starkman tomorrow where he’ll discuss the cocktail craze.  

 

alvin starkman, Oaxaca, mezcalAlvin Starkman is a permanent resident of the city of Oaxaca, from where he operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca.  He can be reached at mezcaleducationaltours@hotmail.com.

Alvin Starkman holds an M.A. in social anthropology from Toronto’s York University and a J.D. from Osgoode Hall Law School.  He has written one book about mezcal (Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market:  Unrivalled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances) and over 35 articles centering upon Mexican craft beer, pulque, mezcal and sustainability, as well as a further 250 articles about Oaxacan life and cultural traditions. He co-authored a chapter in an edited volume on culinary heritage (published August, 2014), and wrote an article about brideprice in a Zapotec village (scheduled for release in autumn, 2014, in the Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies).

Mezcal and Dogmatism in Oaxaca: Harmful or Just Blowhardism (Part 1 of 7)

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

Not a week goes by without a visitor to Oaxaca wanting to learn about Mexico’s iconic agave based spirit, and asking a very pointed question:  why are some industry experts in the city steadfastly against common practices relating to imbibing mezcal, such as drinking reposados and añejos, using mezcal to make cocktails, and consuming one’s product choice based on ABV personal preference. I hear about the promulgation of rules about the shape and composition of drinking vessels, and of the dissemination of misinformation regarding how long it takes different species of agave to mature, and which mezcals are made with wild as opposed to cultivated maguey.  Usually such points of view are not expressed as opinion subject to discussion, but rather fact, or in some cases gospel.

Without maguey there is no mezcal or tequila.

To be clear, while I have been around mezcal in Oaxaca for a quarter century, and am currently involved in the industry leading mezcal educational tours on a part-time basis, I am far from an expert.  There is a long learning curve associated with mezcal, with so much to absorb in its now modern era.  In fact many authorities (as distinct from “experts”), both relative newcomers to the industry involved in production and/or export, and veterans whose families have been steeped in distillation for generations, approach production with open minds, and are anxious to continue learning through the exchange of information.

Read our next installment on this thought provoking feature by Alvin Starkman tomorrow where he’ll discuss reposados and anejos.  

 

alvin starkman, Oaxaca, mezcalAlvin Starkman is a permanent resident of the city of Oaxaca, from where he operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca.  He can be reached at mezcaleducationaltours@hotmail.com.

Alvin Starkman holds an M.A. in social anthropology from Toronto’s York University and a J.D. from Osgoode Hall Law School.  He has written one book about mezcal (Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market:  Unrivalled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances) and over 35 articles centering upon Mexican craft beer, pulque, mezcal and sustainability, as well as a further 250 articles about Oaxacan life and cultural traditions. He co-authored a chapter in an edited volume on culinary heritage (published August, 2014), and wrote an article about brideprice in a Zapotec village (scheduled for release in autumn, 2014, in the Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies).

Mezcal Production in Oaxaca – More Mezcal is on the Way! by Alvin Starkman

The Maturation of Palenques and Mezcal Production in Oaxaca, 2015: Migration, Certification, Expansion   

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

oaxaca, mapEvery two weeks or so I’m asked about the change in the number  of artisanal mezcal distilleries, or palenques, in and around the central valleys of Oaxaca, given the dramatic rise in the spirit’s global popularity over the past couple of years, and the meteoric increase in the number of export brands. “Where do they all come from; there must be a couple a week at this point,” a colleague integrally involved in the American retail mezcal business asked me in May, 2015.

My stock answer used to be that the number of new palenques has effectively not changed, but production of course has increased significantly along with more palenques becoming certified by CRM (Consejo Regulador del Mezcal); that is, those which then become legally being able to produce mezcal for export.

I’ve now reconsidered my admittedly rather simplistic reply, and am prepared to convey my thoughts, after having travelled the central valleys and beyond on a frequent basis with this theme fixed in my mind, all the while observing, and asking.

Early in the decade a curious phenomenon began to become apparent to me. In the wake of the US economic crisis, many Oaxacans began losing their jobs in the US; but that in and of itself was not an earth-shattering revelation.  However, at the same time, pressure upon their palenquero family members began increasing as mezcal’s star rose, and there were not enough workers de confianza (trustworthy) to do the job required to meet the demand for production.   Sons and nephews and their families began returning to Oaxaca to help their fathers and uncles plant and harvest agave, and proceed with the subsequent processes leading to distillation of mezcal.

crmIn addition, other Oaxacans, former palenqueros who headed north during the lean years of mezcal production, have elected to return to their roots, and invest their savings in home and palenque construction.  The latter has in part been facilitated by a federal government subsidy program, wherein the feds are contributing between 60 and 90 percent[1] of the cost of certain equipment deemed essential for the increase in production of artisanal “certified” mezcal; fermentation vats, gas powered crushing machines, scales, laminated roof construction (over ovens, important during the rainy season), and 1,000 liter stainless steel storage vessels.[2]

On the other hand, a palenquero friend has stated that the key to the increase in production is the number of copper pot stills, and that nothing else significantly impacts increased production capacity.  For example, a 300 liter copper still on average churns out 750 – 1,000 liters of mezcal per month.  It doesn’t matter how many in ground ovens, horses and tahonas or fermentation vats there are.[3]  If you build more stills, mezcal production will increase. You can have ten fully fermented vats lined up and ready to go, but if still capacity is limited, it doesn’t really matter how many there are.

About eight years ago one producer in Santiago Matatlán who now distills for two popular export brands, had one brick and cement lined room for steaming his agave, having at the time elected to deviate from using a traditional in ground oven for baking.  He then built a large horno capable of cooking more than 15 tons of agave piña at a time over firewood and rocks.  He began with one multi-chambered copper still unit, then added a column still, and finally four large traditional copper alambiques.  So while his ovens doubled in number, he has remained with one horse and tahona.  It is suggested that it has been the number of stills which has been the main factor in his ability to increase production.[4]

Two successful artisanal commercial producers in San Dionisio Ocotepec, virtually neighbors, have addressed the problem of meeting increased demand, in different yet similar ways.  “A” palenque has simply built a brand new facility a few kilometers from the original one.  “B” palenque is in the planning stages of constructing a new building alongside his existing facility to house additional stills, likely using federal grant resources for at least additional fermentation vats, since as they say “the money is there.”

Another San Dionisio Ocotepec inhabitant returned from a two decade residency in the US just a couple of years ago,  with enough dollars to enable him to build an impressive American style home, and once again using federal funds to help with his palenque.  He had attained the requisite knowledge for producing mezcal while in his teens and twenties growing up in San Dionisio Ocotepec. By Contrast, a former US resident now in charge of the new “A” palenque noted above recently returned to Oaxaca with very little industry knowledge.  However with family members steeped in the tradition of growing agave and making mezcal, the learning curve will be short.

San Baltazar Chichicapam is best known for its mezcal produced for two popular export brands. However, there are at least a couple of dozen other small scale artisanal producers in the village.  Until about 18 years ago, most “rented” a palenque from a palenquero, paying an often lofty percentage of the mezcal produced as the fee.  Now, a larger co-operative style palenque provides the service at a reduced charge.  But even so, with federal funds available and pressure brought to bear to a varying extent by CRM for palenqueros to become certified (and of course down the road have La Hacienda [the tax man] come knocking), palenqueros who had previously been renting, are now building their own palenques and are in the midst of certification. One inaugurated his palenque in mid – May, 2015.

Other brands which have been meeting with success as a result of a combination of marketing, product quality and brand owner acumen, are struggling to keep up with demand.  It’s a combination of staffing with workers de confianza and building additional stills. One brand which has met with impressive export market success in only two years, has palenqueros producing for it in two different districts of Oaxaca. It’s seeking a third region or palenquero with quality product with whom the brand owners can work.  Its particular business model appears to be to not let current palenqueros grow too much for fear of quality of product being adversely affected, in favor of finding a third.

latin kitchen, mezcalNew players are primarily[5] non-Oaxacans from Mexico City or outside of the country, seeking opportunities to associate with families with a longstanding and strong pedigree in mezcal production. A palenquero family in San Pablo Güilá is partnering with a Mexico City family of means, the latter with contacts for export to the US and China. Capital infusion has been from the private source alone.  Many Mexicans are of the belief that the less involvement with government, the better, regardless of a federal carrot dangling in front of them.

There is yet a further scenario playing out in Oaxaca, sometimes but not always involving tapping federal funds.  Employees from one palenque are at times hired by an individual, partners or a family with financial resources, to open up a new palenque.  Someone can be transformed overnight from a helper (ayudante or chalán) to a maestro palenquero, with automatic prestige and with that title a corresponding significant increase in income.  In this case as in most others, we are once again dealing with combining an infusion of capital with experience in the industry, the latter at times dating back generations.

So the norm, at least for 2015, appears to be more family members with some background in distillation becoming involved in mezcal production with the aid of federal funds or private domestic and foreign cash infusions; building new palenques or expanding existing ones through increasing the number of copper pot stills, and to a lesser extent associated equipment.  It is curious that, at least to my knowledge, the capital required to purchase the stills is not on the subsidy table.  However private capital is always around the corner for purchasing stills, as well as prerequisite bottling equipment and more.

A final word about the “agave crisis.” The crisis will come, assuming the foregoing continues. It is still not upon us.  Every day one sees truckload upon truckload of piñas being transported from fields to palenques in and around the central valleys of Oaxaca. At least for now, it’s the price per kilo of maguey piña which is driving the rumor mill.  This benefits hardworking campesinos, now finally receiving payment at least close to proper value for their labor and time waiting for their agave to mature in the fields.  From 1,300 pesos for a three ton truckload some six years ago, to now upwards of 20,000 pesos. Let the agave shortage begin!

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca.  He can be reached at mezcaleducationaltours@hotmail.com.

 

 

[1] That’s the range in percentage I’ve heard from my palenquero friends, one of whom has told me that the  subsidy amount depends on the  particular region of the state, using a number of different related factors.

[2] Not particularly important except for the spirit consuming public’s perception that any grade of plastic is less than desirable for storing, no matter for how short a time.

[3] Except of course if a nutrient is used to speed up the fermentation process; but even then, still capacity remains the same.

[4] His operation can hardly be termed artisanal or traditional, but it remains to be seen how CRM will categorize the mezcal he produces for those sophisticated owners of the brands. The palenquero is currently designing and building a machine to crush and extract the sugary juices from the piñas, taking his operation yet further removed from what we would reasonably consider traditional, artisanal or handcrafted.

[5] But certainly not exclusively. In the case of one particular brand, the owners are cousins from a rural Oaxacan community who worked for years in California.  They had no prior knowledge of mezcal production, nor close relatives with knowledge to guide them.  They amassed US dollars which enabled them to start from scratch.  They read, asked, consulted, planted agave, and finally built and began operating their palenque.

Mezcalaria, The Cult of Mezcal: Book Review by Alvin Starkman

Mezcalaria,The Cult of MezcalMezcalaria,The Cult of Mezcal:  Book Review

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

Mezcalaria, Cultura del Mezcal, The Cult of Mezcal (Farolito ediciones, 2012) is the third edition, first bilingual (English-Spanish), of the seminal 2000 publication by author Ulises Torrentera.  The book is highly opinionated on the one hand, yet on the other contains a wealth of both historical and contemporary facts about agave, mezcal and pulque.  Torrentera places his subject matter within appropriate social, cultural, ethnobotanical and etymological context, at times referencing other Mexican as well as Old World spirits and fermented drinks.  And where fact is uncertain, or when Torrentera feels the need to supplement in order to hold the reader’s interest, he infuses with myth and legend.

Torrentera takes the reader far beyond the decades old introductory book, de Barrios’ A Guide to Tequila, Mezcal and Pulque and much deeper into the field of inquiry than the more recent series of bilingual essays in Mezcal, Arte Traditional, although the latter does include excellent color plates(the Spanish first edition of Mezcalaria contains a few color plates). It stands at the other end of the spectrum from the monolingual coffee table book Mezcal, Nuestra Esencia and is far more comprehensive than the English portion of Oaxaca, Tierra de Maguey y Mezcal.

Torrentera’s passion for mezcal rings loud and clear.  In discussions with him and in the course of hearing him hold guidecourt, he has repeatedly indicated that it’s crucial that more aficionados of alcoholic beverages taste and appreciate all that mezcal has to offer.   That’s his motivation for writing, speaking, and exposing the public to mezcal in his Oaxaca mezcaleria, In Situ. The spirit, paraphrasing his viewpoint, leaves its main rival tequila behind in its wake, primarily because of the numerous varieties of agave which can be transformed into mezcal, the broad range of growing regions and corresponding micro-climates, and the diversity of production methods currently employed,  the totality yielding a plethora of flavor nuances which tequila cannot match.

His treatise, on the other hand, to some extent does his raison d´être a disservice. He is overly critical of mezcal that is not to his liking.  For example, in the Prologue to this first English edition (don’t let the poor and at time incomprehensible translation of the Prologue dissuade an otherwise prospective purchaser; the balance of the book is well translated) Torrentera writes of mezcal with more than or less than 45 – 50% alcohol by volume:  “above that graduation [sic] the flavors of mezcal are lost and there is more intoxication; if it is below this one cannot appreciate the organoleptic qualities of the beverage.”  He also writes that unaged or blanco is the best way to appreciate mezcal.  He continues that in his estimation “cocktails are the fanciest manner to degrade mezcal.”

Indeed, I regularly drink one particular mezcal at 63%, which is exquisite, and numerous other mezcales in the 52% – 55% range which my drinking partners and I enjoy; we appreciate flavor nuances without becoming overly intoxicated.  At the other end of the spectrum, a recent entry into the commercial mezcal market, produced in Matatlán, Oaxaca, is 37%.  The owners of the brand held well over 50 blind taste testings in Mexico City, including mezcales of less percentage alcohol, of greater potency, and of popular high end designer labels; 37% won out by a wide margin.  In the first year of production it shipped 16,000 bottles of 37% alcohol by volume to the domestic market only; not bad for a mezcal lacking organoleptic qualities.

Regarding the blanco/reposado/añejo issue, why not encourage novices to try it all and decide for themselves?  Why dissuade drinkers of Lagavulin, or better yet Glenmorange sherry or burgundy cask scotch from experimenting with mezcal aged in barrels from French wine or Kentucky bourbon?  While I appreciate Torrentera’s zeal and his belief, his dogmatism may very well serve to restrict sales of mezcal and inhibit valiant efforts to find convertees.  Many spirits aficionados might prefer a mezcal which he does not recommend.  Furthermore, if mixologists and creative bartenders can increase sales and market mezcal through mixing mezcal cocktails, isn’t that what the Maestro wants?

Torrentera’s reflections are otherwise sound and should find broad agreement with readers, be they mezcal or tequila aficionados or novices, or those who are otherwise followers of the industry.  I’ve often expressed his point that far too many exporters and large scale producers are padding their bank accounts at the expense of campesino growers and owners of small distilleries, the mom and pop “palenques” as they’re termed in the state of Oaxaca.  He laments the regulatory direction mezcal appears to be heading, and pleads for change in the NOM (Norma Oficial Mexicana) and for a better and more discerning and detailed system of classification.  He warns of mezcal heading in the direction of tequila in terms of homogenization.

Torrentera’s work is the most comprehensive and detailed endeavor available in English, which combines and synthesizes literature about agave (historical uses and cultural importance), pulque (within global context of fermented beverages) and mezcal (as one of a number of early distilled drinks). He appropriately criticizes, mainly in the Prologue, academic studies which have provisionally concluded, using a bastardized form of scientific method, the existence of distillation in pre-Hispanic times.

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The author shines in his compiling, extensively drawing from, and quoting diverse bodies of work; scholarly, historical anecdotal, as well as both secular and religious Conquest era laws and decrees.  His bibliography is impressive.  He correctly cites inconsistencies in and difficulties interpreting some of the centuries old references, allowing the reader to reach his own conclusions.  If a criticism must be proffered, occasionally it is difficult to discern when he is quoting versus using his own words.  But this is likely an issue with editing and printing than fault of Torrentera. At times he does neglect to indicate dates and sources, making it hard to determine precisely how much is independent research.  Footnotes would have helped in this regard, and also would have made it easier for the reader to go to the original source material.

Torrentera vacillates between seemingly attempting to write in an academic manner, and inserting intra-chapter headings and content which would appear to be attempts at humor.  To his credit, however, the difference is easily discernible, and accordingly the reader should have no difficulty distinguishing fact from lightheartedness.

Mezcalaria, Cultura del Mezcal, The Cult of Mezcal, is an important and extremely comprehensive body of work.  It should be read by everyone with an interest in agave, mezcal (or tequila) and / or pulque.  Torrentera is to be congratulated for compiling an excellent multidisciplinary reference text which no other writer to date has been able to do.

Alvin Starkman

alvin starkman, mezcal, Mezcalaria,The Cult of MezcalAlvin Starkman has been an aficionado of mezcal and pulque for more than 20 years.  A resident of Oaxaca, Alvin frequently takes visitors to the state into the outlying regions of the central valleys to teach them about mezcal, including different production methods, flavor nuances and the use of diverse agave species. He owns and operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca.  Alvin has written extensively about mezcal and pulque.  He is the author of Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market:  Unrivaled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances.

 

Read more articles by Alvin Starkman at MexConnect.

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