For a half century if not longer, the state of Oaxaca has been known for its mezcal, in the US, and to a lesser extent further abroad. The region’s pre-Hispanic ruins, colonial architecture, cuisine and craft villages have been noted in travelogues and guide books for some time; but recently the iconic Mexican spirit has taken center stage, and hence the arrival of mezcal tourism. It has gripped Oaxaca, and along with it, a revival of the chango mezcalero.
Chango mezcalero is a clay receptacle in the shape of a monkey, generally a liter in size or smaller. Traditionally, and arguably dating back to the mid-1800s, it was used as a bottle to market and sell mezcal. It was a natural, since the primate has been associated with drunkenness for eons. In the second of three articles authored by the writer, its history was dated to the 1930s based on uncovering a chango mold dated July 12, 1938, owned by the late Juventino Nieto of the Oaxacan town of San Bartolo Coyotepec. In a cardboard box alongside it was a somewhat larger undated chango mold of the same vintage. Don Juventino was the husband of the late Doña Rosa Real of black pottery fame. However, an alternate theory of the inventor of the chango, from the same village, has been put forward by members of his family.
Many of the old chango mezcaleros found today have written on the back, Recuerdo de Oaxaca (souvenir of Oaxaca), some have a couple’s first names on one side or the other (celebrating their marriage), and most but not all are multi-color, painted with the gloss in various stages of decline.
For the past couple of decades, and likely longer, vintage chango mezcaleros have become highly collectible, mainly by Americans interested in one or more of Mexican folk art, non-human primate imagery, and mezcal and its associated appurtenances. “Old” clay monkey bottles are available on ebay, and on other websites specializing in the purchase and sale of vintage Mexicana and what are otherwise known as “smalls” from Mexico and the southwest US. Prices can be as low and $50 and as high as $500 USD.
It’s very difficult to discern whether or not a chango mezcalero was indeed made in the 1930s or earlier as some are represented. Antique dealers and aficionados know best how to date collectibles. Most in the general public, however, do not have a clue, and if it looks old to them, it is.
There are currently at least three pottery workshops in the town of Santiago Matatlán which have been producing chango mezcaleros for decades, and continuing to date. Matatlán is known as the world capital of mezcal, boasting the globe’s highest number of artisanal (and at least somewhat industrialized if not more so) small family owned and operated distilleries, or palenques as the traditional ones are locally known. Some of these contemporary changos are upright, others are sitting on a log, and all are formed with the monkey in different poses. Until recently, if the changos were painted, and most of the time they were, they were glossy. The older ones, both tucked away gathering dust in the back of a palenque, and in local purchasers’ homes having been used, often show nice wear.
As of early 2016, or thereabouts, vintage looking changos have begun to appear in the marketplace in Oaxaca. They have been spotted in at least one antique shop and one mezcalería. The coloring and patina is matte, and exquisite. There are at least two sizes. Most likely they are coming from the same workshop, using the same or similar molds as the shiny bottles, as is easily borne out by anyone who places the old and the new vintage side by side.
It is not suggested that the retailers noted above are motivated by misleading or defrauding the buying public, despite the fact that some are for sale in an antique store. On the contrary, of those found in the latter outlet, some but not all are marked with the date 2015.
Visitors to Oaxaca and elsewhere in Mexico, collectors surfing the net, and retail shoppers in the US and further abroad , should all be vigilant, and not be misled by the outward look of years of use. Oaxaca’s chango mezcalero has now come of age as a much more popular collectible than previously. Congratulations are indeed in order to the workshop which has identified the market.
About the Author:
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (http://www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). Alvin has been collecting chango mezcaleros for the past decade. He has been a permanent resident of Oaxaca since 2004.
[In early November of 2014, San Antonio resident and neighbor, Germán González, joined us at our home office. That evening, he brought his full array of Tequila Uno (T1)–Ultra Fino, Selecto, Excepcional, Tequila Estelar, along with the much acclaimed ultra-aged Tears of Llorona.
In a more relaxed atmosphere and without his signature Panama hat and guayabera, Germán guided us through a tasting of each of his offerings while sharing his wit, wisdom, and knowledge.]
“To send light into the darkness of men’s hearts–such is the duty of the artist.”–Robert Schumann
What strikes you first about Germán González is his intense modesty when he discusses his vast accomplishments. Secondly, it’s realizing the level of genius he possesses as a Master Distiller. Thirdly, you are awed by the depth of his artistry.
Distilling what was arguable some of the finest tequila available in the
spirits market in the past with his historic family brand, Chinaco, today Germán humbly pours us proper amounts from his own equally lauded labels, T1 (Tequila Uno) and Tears of Llorona, and teaches us his trademark “toast from the heart.”
Taking his branded Riedel Ouverture tequila glass held at the stem, Germán places it over his heart and says, “salúd, from the heart.” He then reaches out to each of us and, instead of touching at the rim of the fragile vessels, he turns his glass almost sideways and boldly tags the bowls sounding a lyrical crystal clang.
Afterwards, he lovingly looks at the platinum liquid inside his stemmed glass and says, “This tequila is amazing,” as if surprised that it turned out so well.
Coming from a family that played an integral part in both Mexico’s and Tequila’s sweeping history [you can read more about his family history here], Germán González is at once inspired by his past and firmly focused on his future.
A gentleman farmer by trade and a romantic at heart, Germán literally learned his profession from the ground up under the watchful eye of his father, Guillermo, a lawyer and politician.
At eighteen, Germán permanently moved to the family ranchos in Tamaulipas by himself instead of attending university. For several years, he spent intensive weekends learning about the land from Don Guillermo, growing agaves, chiles, corn, soybeans and raising cattle. He felt privileged and grateful to have his father as his instructor and mentor.
Don Guillermo also purposely kept him away from the La Gonzaleña distillery until he felt Germán was ready for the responsibility.
After several years of piloting Chinaco to unprecedented heights, creative differences with his older brothers caused Germán to seek a new distillery from where he could challenge himself to distill even greater tequila.
Luckily, his lifelong friend and owner of La Tequileña (NOM 1146) Enrique Fonseca, himself a celebrated tequilero, most recently with his Fuenteseca brand, literally gave him the keys to his distillery and allowed Germán to pursue his dream of producing the ultimate expressions of tequila that have ever been realized.
At the same time, Germán uprooted his family and moved to San Antonio, Texas in 2007 to learn about the liquor distribution system and also to study the fickle American palate. He officially launched Tequila Uno in 2009.
Germán memorized two very important principles from his father where tequila was concerned–
That the quality of the agave will always assure favorable results and consistency. That’s why he insists on using estate grown agave from a single plot of land or grove (huerta), and…
Used scotch whisky barrels are the secret to capturing just the right balance when resting tequila.
He deliberately employs the used barrels to take only the rough edges off of the Selecto when resting for his Excepcional. Germán believes that this practice results in a more traditional reposado.
“It’s how reposados should taste–not like añejos,” Germán declares.
Then, he boldly adds, “I don’t care about the color, I care about the flavor.”
The Meaning of Mature
Germán believes the maturity of blue agave has nothing to do with the plant’s brix (sugar content) or age. He judges the maturity of agave by its look and feel.
He prefers using agave from Atotonilco, in the highlands of Jalisco, since he determined that they produce a close flavor profile to agave from Tamaulipas, and thus, compliment each other.
He had blended highlands agave with those from Tamaulipas when in charge of Chinaco during its second resurgence. At that time, La Gonzaleña didn’t have enough agave in reserve as it had in its heyday.
Inside the Mind of An Artist
“The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.” –Michelangelo
Behaving more like a painter or chef–hands on, using all of his senses–Germán González has in mind exactly what he wants Tequila Uno and Tears of Llorona to taste like and what effect he wants to attain with each expression.
He knows that flavor profile exists within the plant and the resulting juice, just like Michaelangelo knew that inside each slab of marble was a statue waiting to be released.
Germán distills Tequila Uno to set the flavors free!
Chemistry vs. Alchemy
“Tones sound, and roar and storm about me until I have set them down in notes.”–Ludwig van Beethoven
Unless prompted, Germán never talks about the numbers, the chemistry or science of distillation like famed Master Distillers Carlos Camarena (Tapatío), Marko Karakasevic (Charbay), or Melkon Khosrovian (Ixa Tequila by Greenbar) have been known to do. In fact, those were Germán’s worst subjects in high school.
Much like a mezcalero (mezcal distiller) does when producing mezcal, he uses his senses to tell him what alcohol by volume (ABV) his tequila should have to achieve the desired flavor and aroma. The numbers then become minor details in the entire scope of things. He allows the formation and density of the lingering bubbles (perlas) in his glass to be his signposts that he has succeeded.
Balance Is Everything
Germán asserts that alcohol in tequila is not just about getting drunk. He describes it as a necessary element in any tequila’s flavor profile. In fact, he contends that mezcals, by and large, should be distilled at 45% ABV or higher to achieve its balance and to acquire its unique flavor profiles.
The key is finding the balance between the ABV and other elements of the highlands agave to bring about the nuances Germán demands for T1. That’s why Selecto is at one measure of ABV and Ultra Fino is at another. It has allowed him to produce two types of tequila for different
The novice just beginning to explore tequila (Ultra Fino), and the collector or connoisseur (Selecto, Excepcional, Estelar) with more discerning tastes. We encountered this technique at our tasting of Roca Patrón. González has perfected this method into his own signature art form.
Germán González shares his global desires for T1.
Composer, artist, distiller–Germán González has elevated tequila into what it has always aspired to be–
A spirit worthy of the attention and appreciation of the masses throughout the world.
Whatever Germán’s next composition, be assured that it, too, will be a work of art, from his heart to yours.
On the wall of The Pastry War, a world renowned mezcalería and restaurant in the heart of Houston, TX, this chalkboard message proudly explains why owners, outspoken agave advocates Bobby Heugel and Alba Huerta, staunchly refuse to serve tequilas and mezcals produced with a diffuser.
In their view, it’s a battle between traditional methods of tequila [and mezcal] production which yields “delicious tequila [or mezcal],” versus more cost-conscious methods adopted by distilleries that produce “a shitty version of tequila [or mezcal].”
Let’s look more closely at this cursed contraption.
Using only hot water and sulfuric acid to extract up to 98%-99% of the sugars from raw, uncooked agave, the resultant tequila, as described by noted agave lover, Fortaleza tequila brand ambassador and blogger, Khyrs Maxwell, in his detailed instructional post, There May Be Too Much Agave in Your Tequila or Mezcal tastes like…
“…what I would consider to have a chemical/medicinal taste–sometimes slight, sometimes overbearing flavor profile that always seems to overshadow the beauty of the agave.”
He further states that it “tastes very much like vodka” and has coined the term “AgaVodka.”
“So if you come across a tequila or mezcal made with a difusor, the only way that there can be “notes of cooked agave” is by adding that flavor during the finishing process. They can add “notes of cooked agave?” Why, yes. Yes they can…I’ve seen and smelled the additive. It does exist.”
Maxwell’s statement above excludes the use of authorized additives to blanco (unaged) tequila, of course.
As of December 2012, such practices have been outlawed by the CRT in its normas (rules and regulations governing the production of tequila). It remains to be seen how well it will be enforced, however, so your pricey, Fruit Loop scented blanco may still be safe for a year or two until inventories are depleted.
Spanish diffuser manufacturer, Tomsa Destil, offers a closer look at the mega-masher and its process, which seem to go hand-in-hand with column distillation.
The site mentions that they have installed 12 diffusers for use in agave processing, but makes no mention of their clients, nor if sulfuric acid to extract sugars from agave is also needed.
While controversy swirls around the use of a diffuser, most educated tequila aficionados understand that it is not illegal to do so. In fact, its application was accepted by the CRT some time ago.
As we mentioned in item #5 of our Craft Tequila Gauntlet, diffuser use by a distillery is a closely guarded secret even though it is a fairly large piece of machinery to try to hide. There is a stigma attached to it, with most distilleries that have one completely denying that any of their star brands are processed with it.
While most of the Tequila Industry’s heavy hitters are known to possess diffusers, many also own regular shredders, autoclaves and even stone ovens. Ask any major brand owner whose tequila is produced at these maquiladoras (large production facilities that churn out juice for contracted brands) whether they are a by-product of a diffuser, and they vehemently deny it.
The historic tequila maker initially implemented the super shredder during the last great agave crisis of the late 90s. Years later, it was taken to task by an organized group of key concerned mixologists and tequila supporters who refused to use Herradura in their cocktails or to include it in their bar menus due to a drastic change in its original flavor profile and quality. Herradura finally succumbed and stopped using it for that label.
In the following screen captures of a Twitter chat from May 1, 2014, Ruben Aceves, Casa Herradura’s Director of International Brand Development, admits that the diffuser is now only used for their Antiguo, El Jimador, and Pepe Lopez brands.
Destilería Leyros, producers of their flagship brand, Tequila Don Fermin and many others, bills itself as a model for modern and efficient tequila making.
It was proudly represented that way even in the wildly popular Spanish language telenovelaDestilando Amor, where it stood in for the then fictional Destilería Montalvo.
Enrique Legorreta Carranco, one of the owners of Leyros, agreed to answer some of our questions and to try to help dispel the myths and mysteries surrounding the diffuser.
“I am aware about the controversy of using difusor [Spanish spelling] in the tequila process. Here are some key factors and benefits of the process in order to be firm with the press:
“In fact, there is nothing to hide and we are willing to receive tequila bloggers, media or people from Tequila Aficionado in order to know first hand this innovative and ecological process.”
“The difusor extracts the agave juice first of all, followed by the cooking of the agave juice to extract the agave sugars. This cooked agave juice is called the agua miel. In traditional process they first cooked the agave followed by the agave juice extraction. We obviously need to cook the agave juice in order to get its sugars in order to be able to be fermentated (biological process where sugar turns into alcohol).”
[We’ll note that Sr. Legorreta took issue with the portrayal of the tastes and essences of tequilas produced with a diffuser as described by some bloggers, believing them to be too subjective.]
“This process gives to the taster a more herbal, clean and citric experience. Also this process is more efficient and as a result gives a tequila with better standards in methanol, aldehydes and other compounds not desired because at high levels produces hangovers.”
Traditional Process vs. Modern Technology
“We respect a lot [the] traditional process. The only thing we believe is that the consumer has the last word to choose between one tequila flavor from another.
“There are people that prefer the traditional strong flavor from tequila. Other people are preferring tequilas [that are] more pure, citric with subtle notes of fresh agave like if you are smelling [the] agave and [the] land.”
Reiterating what was demonstrated in the videos above, Sr. Legorreta explains…
“A difusor process uses less than 50% of energy, and less than 60% of water used in traditional processes to produce same quantities of liters. Additional to this [at the] Leyros Distillery we recycle the bagasse that we get in the last phase of the difusor. All this with our completely self-sufficient green boiler is fueled with bagasse from our own mill.”
About That Stigma…
“About why many distilleries denied they have a difusor, I can guess without knowing a reason from first hand–that is because traditional process with ovens sounds more romantic than the technology of a difusor.”
“In fact, a lot of distilleries focus their marketing efforts around traditional processes. I guess this is working. If not, I [suppose] they would be focusing more in the tasting notes of the final product.”
Indeed, Destilería Leyros’ website and videos play on the romance using a smattering of phrases as, “It tastes like countryside, like fire in your blood,” and “Like a passionate kiss, the Taste of Mexico.”
A New Style
In much the same manner as importers, brand owners, and maestro tequileros defend
(and advertise in their marketing materials!) the use of additives in their aged tequilas (“finished and polished”), Sr. Legorreta asserts that juice made with a diffuser is simply another style of tequila.
“The essence of tequila is the agave, and both processes distill agave, just in different ways. There are some people that love traditions [and] there are others that like to innovate and improve things.”
Just as Leyros’ website and videos “invites you to taste and compare, and then let your palate decide which tequila you’d rather raise in a toast,” Sr. Legorreta concludes:
“At the end of the day, or the end of the history, [it] is the consumer [who] chooses their tequila without a bias in the information.”
Some Truths to Consider
The Leyros videos above claim to use machinery as a way to “considerably reduce the risk of injury” to the people on their workforce. Yet, as Maxwell points out…
“Not only is the difusor a way to pump out product, it also uses a very small labor force. As more distilleries use the difusor, there will be less jobs available to those, who for hundreds of years, have built towns and created families by working in the agave distillate industry. So what happens to the unemployed? …do they leave for the US to become illegal immigrants? Or do they work for the narcos?”
At the risk of being redundant, it bears repeating what noted agave ethno-botanist, Ana Valenzuela said about the diffuser here…
“…to prohibit the use of diffusers (in hydrolysis of agave juices) that takes the “soul” (the flavor of baked agave) out of our native distillates, singular in the world for its complexities of aromas and flavors.”
In conclusion, if current figures are correct, exports of tequila rose 16% to US$568 million in the first six months of 2014, compared to the same period last year. It is expected that China will import 10 million liters of tequila in the next 5 years.
Where will Mexico find enough agave to serve their thirsty customers?
These guys know where.
Turning A Blind Eye
On September 4, 2014, dozens of mezcaleros (mezcal producers) dumped 200 liters of mezcal onto the streets of Oaxaca City in protest for their government’s lack of support against tequileros from Jalisco who are allegedly raiding tons of espadín and other maguey (agave), the prime ingredient in mezcal, to produce tequila.
In the process, say Maestros del Mezcal Tradiciónal del Estado de Oaxaca (a trade association) 15 of the 32 varieties of maguey native to Oaxaca are in danger of becoming extinct.
Thanks to these transnational maguey marauders, the burgeoning mezcal industry’s days are numbered, it seems.
If indeed a diffuser strips away the agave’s regional characteristics leaving behind a more citric, vodka-like, cookie cutter flavor profile that easily lends itself to clandestine adulteration, over distillation and multiple barrel blendings, then what’s to keep these pirate tequileros from pilfering agave from outside the requisite growing states and using a diffuser to crank out “tequila?”
These days, filling orders to emerging world markets is more important than the blatant disregard for the Denomination of Origin.