Women In The Bacanora Industry: Adriana Torres

Women In The Bacanora Industry: Adriana Torres https://wp.me/p3u1xi-5OU

We first encountered Adriana Torres through Novel Spirits Collection, the US importer of her flagship bacanora brand, Pascola Bacanora.

The more we heard about her from Connie and Mel Abert, the owners of Novel Spirits, the more intrigued we became with her background.

You can read about her herculean efforts to revitalize Sonora, Mexico’s once thriving bacanora industry in her own words here.

Launching what we hope to be the first in a long list of Bacanora Boss Ladies, we induct Adriana Torres into our gallery of Women In the Tequila/Mezcal/Bacanora Industry series.

What follows are her answers to our customary handful of questions.

[Editor’s note:  For the convenience of our interviewee and our Spanish speaking audience, this article is in both English and Spanish.]


 TA:  How would you describe your experiences as a woman in a primarily male dominated industry?  (What are the challenges you face when dealing with the male dominated Tequila/Mezcal/Bacanora Industries?)

(¿Cómo describiría sus experiencias como una mujer de alto rango en su posición en una industria dominada principalmente masculina?)

AT:  My experiences were difficult, primarily because when we began, we were the first to formalize a female owned company in the bacanora industry.

But, truthfully, in all this time, I’ve received lots of support from great men in the industry.

Women In The Bacanora Industry: Adriana Torres https://wp.me/p3u1xi-5OU

(Dificiles, principalmente porque cuando yo inicie en la industria del Bacanora, fuimos de las primeras en formalizarnos y era de mujeres.

Pero la verdad he que en todo este tiempo he recibido muchísimo apoyo por parte de grandes hombres relacionados con la industria.)

[Tweet “Stop looking at Bacanora as just another source for profits.  Value what it really stands for.”]

TA:  How have you been able to change things within the Tequila/Mezcal/Bacanora Industries?

(¿Cómo han sido capaces de cambiar las cosas dentro de su industria?)

AT:  The truth is, just doing the work.

Doing things right and being loyal to our principles and values.  Being consistent in what we say and do.

And, above all else, taking care of the little details.

(La verdad, solo con trabajo, haciendo las cosas bien y siendo leal a nuestros principios y valores. Ser coherentes en lo que se dice y se hace, y sobre todo cuidando los pequeños detalles.)

 TA:  What do you see as the future of women working within the Tequila/Mezcal/Bacanora Industries?

(¿Qué ves como el futuro de las mujeres que trabajan en la industria del Tequila, Mezcal o Bacanora?)

AT:  We’re growing.

It’s been 12 years since I became involved in this industry and my company was the only one that considered [employed] women.

Over time, many more businesses have incorporated women intoWomen In The Bacanora Industry: Adriana Torres https://wp.me/p3u1xi-5OU their processes [like] wives and daughters, as well as contracting women in the areas of design, management and sales.

We ourselves will be working with female vinateras (bacanora distillers).  The wife of one of our producers will begin to distill one of our own brands.

(Vamos en crecimiento, hace 12 años que me incorpore a esta industria mi empresa era la única que consideraba mujeres, al paso del tiempo varias de las empresas han ido incorporando mujeres dentro de sus procesos, a las esposas, las hijas, contratando mujeres en el área de diseño, gestión y ventas.

Incluso nosotras empezaremos a trabajar con mujeres vinateras, la esposa de uno de nuestros productores empezara a producir una de nuestras marcas.)

 TA:  What facets of the Tequila/Mezcal/Bacanora Industries would you like to see change?

(¿Qué cosas gustaría cambiado? )

AT:  To stop looking at the [bacanora] industry as just another source for profits.

We should value what the industry really stands for.

That bacanora won’t become like tequila or mezcal, but continues being an exclusive product, based on supply and not demand.

That bacanora truly becomes a driving force for the economy, the environment, and the culture of Sonora, Mexico and the world.

That is what we are striving for.

(Dejar de ver la industria como una Fuente de ingresos unicamente, valorar todo lo que la industria realmente representa, que el Bacanora no sea como el tequila ni el mescal, que siga siendo un product exclusivo, basado en la oferta y no la demanda, que realmente el bacanora se convierta en un motor de la economia, medio ambiente y cultura de Sonora, Mexico y el mundo.

Nosotros en eso estamos trabajando.)

TA:  Do you approve of how Tequila/Mezcal brands are currently marketing themselves?

(Esta Ud de acuerdo con la comercialización de marcas de tequilas o mezcales, hoy en dia?)

AT:  Of course!

They are ancestral distillates that represent us.  They are spirits with the flavor of Mexico from distinct regions of the country.

We must preserve the tradition.

(Claro, son destilados ancestrales, que nos representan. Son bebidas espirituosas con sabor a Mexico, de las distintas regiones del país.

Necesitamos conservar la tradicion.)

TA:  Is there anything you’d like to say to women who may be contemplating entering and working in the Tequila/Mezcal/Bacanora Industries in one form or another?

(¿Existe algo que le gustaría decir a las mujeres que pueden estar contemplando entrar y trabajar en la industria del Tequila, Mezcal o Bacanora en una forma u otra?)

AT:  We need to work in a united way.  We should care for the tradition, history, and culture of Sonora.

We should guarantee quality products, and motivate our producers to make their products like we care for our families.

Bacanora is a noble spirit.  It is a product that would allow us to recuperate many lost aspects in our state, from social, cultural, economic and environmental.

I invite them to conscientiously participate in the development of the industry.  That Bacanora achieves for Sonora what Tequila is for Jalisco, and Mezcal is for Oaxaca.

Women In The Bacanora Industry: Adriana Torres https://wp.me/p3u1xi-5OU

(Necesitamos trabajar de manera unida, debemos cuidar la tradición, la historia y la cultura de Sonora. Debemos garantizar productos de calidad, debemos motivar a nuestros productores a que realicen su producto como nosotras cuidamos a nuestras familias. El bacanora es un producto noble, un producto que nos puede permitir recuperar muchos aspectos perdidos en nuestro estado, desde aspectos sociales, culturales, económicos como los de medio ambiente.

Las invito a participar de una manera consiente en el desarrollo de la industria, lograr que el Bacanora se convierta para Sonora, en lo que el Tequila es para Jalisco y el Mezcal para Oaxaca.)

[Tweet “Son bebidas espirituosas con sabor a Mexico. Necesitamos conservar la tradicion.”]


Learn all about tequila from field to glass and then get paid to share your love of agave spirits with others! Buy Them Both Now!

Mezcal’s High Tide Raising Economy in Oaxaca

Mezcal's High Tide Raising Economy in Oaxaca https://wp.me/p3u1xi-5OdBy Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

On a recent warm, sunny afternoon, for the first time that I can recall, there was a lineup leading outside the front door at CATOSA bottle distributor in the Oaxaca city suburb of Los Volcanes. Everyone was waiting to place orders for bottles destined to be filled with mezcal, the iconic Mexican agave spirit. The numbers of both office staff and warehouse personnel had indeed been increasing over the past couple of years. But now, even with a good complement, there was trouble keeping up.

The more direct and obvious impacts of the surge in mezcal tourism for the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca certainly are the dramatic increase in sales of the spirit, and the filling of hotel and other lodging style accommodations, and restaurants, for those who visit the city to learn, buy and export; in both cases even during times of the year when visitor numbers are traditionally low. But the recent effect of mezcal on the economy of the state, not only for the capital and central valleys but also for the coastal resorts, runs much broader and deeper.

Mezcal's High Tide Raising Economy in Oaxaca https://wp.me/p3u1xi-5OdPart of the problem was that because of a dramatic spike in sales, CATOSA was short of inventory from a particular bottle manufacturer outside of the state of Oaxaca, and so customers had to ponder, at least on a provisional basis, what size and shape to buy. And then there was the issue of which top to use, again temporarily, for the bottles actually in supply; natural or artificial cork, wood, plastic, metal, color, and, whether or not plastic sleeves to shrink wrap the stopper should be used, required or not.

These were not even the large commercial clients who would regularly order significant quantities for domestic and export mezcal sales. They were small scale distillers with equally modest retail outlets alongside their palenques, owners of city mezcalerías, bars and restaurants which would buy agave distillate in bulk and then retail by the shot or in 750 ml or smaller sealed bottles, as well as individuals planning to gift the spirit with a personalized one-time label, as a token memory of a family rite of passage celebration (wedding, quince años, baptism, etc.).

Mezcal's High Tide Raising Economy in Oaxaca https://wp.me/p3u1xi-5OdRelated to the increase in bottle sales are the paper and printing industries, and the graphic design and related art vocations, each business competing for new opportunities to work with entrepreneurs both developing brand recognition and expanding market reach. The handmade paper factories a short drive outside the city of Oaxaca as well as downtown and suburban printers, have noted a sharp increase in client numbers and in sales for existing mezcal enterprises. But there is more.

Oaxaca has traditionally been a veritable wasteland for those interested in acquiring antiques and collectibles. But now there is value perceived in anything even remotely related to agave, mezcal and pulque: old wooden mallets used for crushing baked agave in preparation for fermenting; cracked clay distillation pots which can still be used as planters; the shell of the fully tapped majestic Agave Americana which is also used as an adorning planter; ancient rusted laminated metal condensers, an integral part of ancestral distillation; vintage postcards portraying distillation or harvesting aguamiel which when exposed to environmental bacterial becomes pulque; iron implements used in cutting agave from the field such koas; metal tools used to scrape the inside of agaves so as to induce the seepage of aguamiel into the well, and; vintage clay pots known as cántaros, used in decades past for storing and transporting mezcal.  There is of course the most highly collectible of them all, the clay vessel in the shape of a monkey, chango mezcalero, dating to the 1930s and used to market and boost mezcal sales.  While it is a stretch to suggest that collectors now visit Oaxaca for the principal purpose of acquiring antiques, those whose interest have been piqued by agave and its cultural importance over millennia, now find a new reason to spend more time, and money, in the state.


Mezcal's High Tide Raising Economy in Oaxaca https://wp.me/p3u1xi-5Od


Mezcal's High Tide Raising Economy in Oaxaca https://wp.me/p3u1xi-5Od

It’s not only the collectors of vintage who are making a pilgrimage to Oaxaca in search of anything old and related to agave.

Entrepreneurs are finding ways to benefit by selling online.  Their clients are both collectors, and owners of American bars, mezcalerías and Mexican restaurants with a healthy complement of mezcal. Often the latter visit Oaxaca to both learn about mezcal, and to return to their home cities with paraphernalia to adorn their establishments. Their numbers include American bars and restaurants in Seattle, Portland, Carmel, Dallas, Houston, Austin, Baltimore, D.C., Chicago and New York, with cities in Canada slow on the update yet gradually catching on. They also converge on Oaxaca from a broad range of cities throughout Mexico.

Success has come relatively effortless for such retailers. Almost to a number, at least in the case of American establishments, their owners in due course make return visits to Oaxaca, now with their staff.  Selling mezcal is much easier if your employees have been here and learned first-hand about artisanal production.  There is a newfound passion, unattainable through merely reading articles and books or watching YouTube videos. And so the numbers visiting Oaxaca are literally increasing exponentially.

Some mezcal brands are offering incentives to bars by giving comps:  “if you buy 25 cases of our mezcal, we’ll provide a free trip to Oaxaca for two of your premier bartenders.”  And it works.

Mezcal's High Tide Raising Economy in Oaxaca https://wp.me/p3u1xi-5Od

Antique and vintage items are not the only class of collectible being retailed in Oaxaca and earmarked for mezcal aficionados.  Not since the tourism boom which began in the 1960s with hippies converging upon Oaxaca in search of the magic mushroom, have craftspeople begun to think outside-of-the-box. Thanks to mezcal we now have more than the typical blouses hand-embroidered with flowers, wool rugs woven with motifs representative of the Mitla archaeological site, carved wooden figures (alebrijes) with dragons, and traditional designs on clay pots and figurines in terra cotta, barro negro and green glaze.

Mezcal's High Tide Raising Economy in Oaxaca https://wp.me/p3u1xi-5Od

Just walk into higher end downtown Oaxaca retail outlets like La Mano Mágica or Mis Mezcales, or saunter through any of the umpteen craft shops and indoor marketplaces. Agave and mezcal are now well-represented, whereas only a decade ago it was “same old same old.” Craftspeople and their retailers are now in a position to double and even triple sales by marketing anything related to mezcal and agave. We can easily find contemporary changos; drinking vessels for spirits in hand-blown glass or in clay fashioned with raised agave leaves; ceramic water and pulque serving pitchers again with agave; hand woven agave table runners, coasters and bottle carriers; carved wooden boxes, bar stools, sofas and more, all with the succulent whittled into the wood; jimador stone carvings; linen shirts with embroidered agave; silver agave earrings; etc., etc. etc.  Whether a novice with merely a passing interest, or an ardent mezcal aficionado, it’s almost impossible to resist buying just something, anything relating to mezcal, pulque or agave, regardless of your taste, level of sophistication, or budget. Just as the vintage, the contemporary is finding a place adorning American bars, restaurants and mezcalerías.

And, mezcal tourism is immune to the usual vagaries impacting travelers to Oaxaca. Those who typically visit to experience the state’s renowned cuisine, pristine beaches, archaeology, more traditional crafts, museums, vibrant marketplaces, the capital’s café-lined zócalo, and colonial architecture, change or cancel plans based on a media reports, typically making unwarranted decisions. Oaxaca’s economic fortunes are appropriated described in terms of extreme peaks and valleys:  the 2006 civil unrest, the Mexican swine flu, the US economic crisis, the warring drug gangs, zika, and then the next report which is undoubtedly just around the corner. Most people forget a short while after each, and then there is another reminder to not visit Oaxaca. But those who come for mezcal appear to be a different breed of visitor. They take the media and their home country state department cautions with a grain of salt, and/or do their own more directed and detailed investigation. They come, and they spend.

New markets for mezcal and consequently opportunities for its export are rapidly opening around the globe. And so there is a resultant dramatic influx of visitors.  Aficionados and entrepreneurs alike from Germany, Italy, the UK, South Africa, and Central and South American, are now picking up mezcal on their radar screens. At least into the foreseeable future, industry growth and the concomitant economic opportunities for Oaxaca will continue to surge.

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


Learn all about tequila from field to glass and then get paid to share your love of agave spirits with others! Buy Them Both Now!

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


Learn all about tequila from field to glass and then get paid to share your love of agave spirits with others! Buy Them Both Now!

Men In Mezcal: Douglas French

[Tweet “Pioneer Mezcalero, Doug French of @ScorpionMezcal shares his story.”]

Men In Mezcal: Douglas French http://wp.me/p3u1xi-4LfPioneer innovator, Douglas French, founder of Scorpion Mezcal kicks off a new feature on Tequila Aficionado called Men In Mezcal.

Establishing his distillery in Oaxaca in 1995, Scorpion has just celebrated its 20th anniversary as the original leader in introducing entry level mezcals to over 38 states, and globally to 16 countries.

Even before this current mezcal boom, Scorpion was often overlooked as the forerunner of producing varietal and barrel aged mezcals, while at the same time elevating its image into the “cognac of Mexico.”

Here to set the record straight–in his own words–is Douglas French of Scorpion Mezcal.

My Story

This is my story of living and working with the Zapotec peoples in Oaxaca to help build a category that has been hidden in the Sierra Madre del Sur forMen In Mezcal: Douglas French http://wp.me/p3u1xi-4Lf centuries.

It has been forsaken and beaten down by taxes and tequileros over the last century.

Now is its time to bloom as a category in the global arena.  I am a part of this movement.

I have exported 14 mezcal brands to 16 countries around the world and my import company Caballeros, Inc., is adding more brands to the portfolio to get even more mezcal into the US market.

I have worked on this project for 20 years.

Weaving The Tapestry

“To make something of quality means that you put your body and soul into it.  To create something new is an art form and an extension of oneself.”

I was a yarn and textile designer and weaver in San Francisco before I moved to Oaxaca, Mexico with my small craft mill.  I made high quality original designs of natural cotton, wool and silk fabrics for interior decorating, and some clothing.

In Mexico, my mill started to thrive until it went bankrupt as a consequence of the NAFTA Free Trade Agreement between the USA, Canada and Mexico.

Most (about 70%) of Mexico’s factories closed down because of the free trade agreement.  I was just one of many to suffer this collateral damage.

What Next?

The mezcal industry in Oaxaca has been a subsistence level business activity. Most of the producers make very small quantities and are quite poor. However, I felt that there was potential to carve out a small business.

So, I changed my career to make mezcal.  I hired Don Lupe, a Zapotec and 3rd generational maestro mezcalero to start work.

Establishing a Palenque

We set up a rudimentary palenque.

We dug a hole in the ground for the pit oven to cook the maguey.  Lupe bought a log and had it cut into a rectangular block and had it dug out for mashing with wooden mallets.

Men In Mezcal: Douglas French http://wp.me/p3u1xi-4Lf

I bought a bunch of sabino boards and Lupe sent them to the carpenter to make the fermentation vats.  I found an old 100 liter still and had a local coppersmith patch it up.  I also built a home made bottling machine.

The Small Batch Process

With this equipment Don Lupe started to make mezcal, teaching me and some of my weavers how to do it.

We were cooking the agave with oak logs in the pit.  We cooked about 3 tons at a time per batch.  I say about, because there were no scales, it was just a 3-ton truckload.

We pounded the agave with wooden mallets to make the mash that was then fermented and distilled.  A batch ended up yielding about 175 liters of mezcal.

In the beginning we cooked 1 oven load a month.  Then, we got up to 2 oven cookings a month for a maximum production of about 350 liters of mezcal a month.

I figured that 100 cases a month would be a perfect business and I could set up a hammock to relax in and watch the liquid gold drip out of my pot still.

It was looking like a great plan.

Off to Market

I set off to market to sell my mezcal.

Unfortunately no one wanted to buy.  The local buyers already had suppliers and didn’t need any more.  So the Oaxacan market was saturated with mezcal.

I decided to go back to the USA to sell it.  However no one knew what mezcal was and no one wanted to buy it.  No importer was interested in investing in it.

So with an old buddy in California, we started our own import and distribution company, Caballeros.  This way we at least had the product in the USA ready to deliver without any delays.

Still no one wanted to buy mezcal.

Worms Are for Wimps! 

I didn’t have the millions of dollars necessary to run a promotional program, so I needed something to get sales started.  I came up with the Scorpion name and a real scorpion in the bottle.

[Tweet “Worms are for wimps! @ScorpionMezcal”]

That was exciting, and it got sales going, even though very slowly.

Turning Point

I soon realized that 350 liters a month wasn’t enough for me and my partner and my employees to earn a living.  We were doomed to live in poverty unless we sold the product very expensively and abused the consumer.

I couldn’t bring myself to do that.

[Tweet “Doomed to poverty unless we abused the consumer. I couldn’t do that. @ScorpionMezcal”]

My vision had been to give the best quality mezcal that I could make at a reasonable price to the consumer.  So the solution was to make larger volumes.

So much for hanging out in the nice, comfortable hammock.

Phase 2

Men In Mezcal: Douglas French http://wp.me/p3u1xi-4LfI started phase 2 of the distillery by adding a second 350 liter copper still and then a third 500 liter copper still.  I got a motorized shredder and a bunch of fermenting tanks.

For a while, I produced more than I was selling, so I put the excess into oak barrels to start aging.  I started offering reposado and anejo mezcals to compliment the basic silver, as per my customer’s requests.

Phase 2 started to separate my palenque from the standard poverty/subsistence level indigenous artisan mezcaleros in the villages spread throughout Oaxaca.

There are 2 reasons for this:  1) the volume we were making was generating a larger cash flow and 2) we were enhancing the product with barrel aging, which the indigenous producers could not afford to do.

An old textile friend, Barbara Sweetman, decided to join in the effort and started selling mezcal full time in the USA.  She is based in New York City.  With her efforts, sales grew and I needed to produce more.

Phase 3

I started phase 3 with several bigger stainless steel stills:  one 800 liter and one 1400 liter and eventually a 1,800 liter copper finishing still.

I built a brick oven to steam cook 5,000 to 6,000 kilos at a time.  The steam cooking reduced the smoky flavor of the mezcal, and it let the agave flavors unveil themselves.

I was producing a lot and again more than I could sell.  I bought a container load of fine French oak barrels from a Bordeaux red wine producer.  This really ratcheted up the aging program.

Scorpion Mezcal samples were sent out to the Beverage Tasting Institute (BTI) and numerous competitions.


Scorpion Mezcal received a Gold 94 points rating on the basic Silver, a Gold 92Men In Mezcal: Douglas French http://wp.me/p3u1xi-4Lf on the Reposado, a 95 for the Anejo 1 Year.  Platinum 96 on the 5 year Anejo and Platinum 97 on the 7 year Anejo.  Plus, Best Mezcal from Food & Wine Magazine.

In all the other competitions, Scorpion Mezcals were awarded Golds, double Golds and a couple of Silvers.  The market reacted very well to this change and sales increased quite quickly.

Soon I had to set up phase 4 of production with more stills, fermenting tanks and bigger ovens to process more agave to be able to supply the growing demand.

Scorpion Never Bores

I have always produced more than I sell so that I was sure that I could deliver my customers’ orders on time.  The excess mezcal is put into barrels for the Reposado and Anejo mezcals.

Like anything, the repetitive process of making silver mezcal becomes tedious and boring.  Also, drinking silver mezcal is ok for entry-level drinkers, but again gets boring.

The Reposado and Anejo are always welcomed delicious variations to the basic silver mezcal.

Variety:  The Spice of Life

The aging process is always an exciting and mysterious process.

Since every barrel is different, the number of uses is different, the type of wood is different, the char is different, etc., so as a result, the flavor is always different.

[Tweet “The aging process of @ScorpionMezcal is exciting and mysterious.”]

I also discovered early on that different varietals of agave create different flavored mezcals.

So during the process of buying the agave from the indigenous agave farmers and cooperatives in different regions of Oaxaca, a fellow would pop up with a batch of a wild agave.  I would usually buy it.

I then made it into mezcal–delicious stuff!

Since I wasn’t selling it, it just sat around.  If it were a big batch, I would put some into barrels to age and become even more delicious.

Finally in 2012, I started introducing the Tobala varietal for sale, long considered the King of Agaves.

I sent samples of the Tobala to BTI and they were judged and awarded Platinum 96 rating for the Silver and a Platinum 97 rating for the Extra Anejo Tobala.

Little by little, I am designing different presentations to offer more varietals for sale.

Dispelling Myths

A long time ago, I realized that there wasn’t enough wild agave available to bring a product to market and still be able to deliver it consistently.   So in 1997, I started to plant Tobala along with the Espadin agave that I was already growing.

The existing folklore in Oaxaca says that Tobala can only grow in the wild; it cannot be cultivated.  I collected seed in the mountains and I planted some experimental plots.

Men In Mezcal: Douglas French http://wp.me/p3u1xi-4Lf

Tobala grows very well when cultivated; the folklore is not true.

I also hired an agricultural engineer to study Oaxaca’s agricultural university records on the subject.

He discovered that in the 1930s and 40s, Tobala was a standard production crop.  This was an era before the government introduced programs to establish Espandin as a monocultural crop in Oaxaca.

Scorpion’s Sustainability

To grow a plant you need seeds to start.  So I have hiked through the mountains of Oaxaca many times looking for, and sometimes finding, ripe seeding wild agave varietals and collected bulky bags of seeds to carry back to my nurseries.

I have created a seed bank of agave varietals, and maintain nurseries to grow the baby plants.  It is slow work to create a basis for commercial crop cultivation of varietal agaves.

It takes 1 to 2 years in the nursery to germinate the seeds and to get the plant large enough to be transplanted as a crop.  Then, it takes 6 to 15 years in the Oaxacan central valley, where I live, to grow the crop.

[Tweet “@ScorpionMezcal: seed banks, small plots, prevent extinction of wild agaves.”]

Of course, all of this takes money, money and more money, which is very scarce for us small artisanal mezcaleros.

We have no source of financing except or own hard-earned profits.  The only way to grow is to tighten the belt and reinvest as much of the profits as you can into growth and crops.

I now have about 50 acres growing, with 5 varietals.  Every year I harvest and every year I plant; that is the way with maguey.

Men In Mezcal: Douglas French http://wp.me/p3u1xi-4Lf

Last year I planted 5000 Barril agave plants (also called madrecuixe, verde, largo of the Karwinski family).  They take about 15 years to mature.  At my age, I have no idea if I will live long enough to see the harvest.

I also realize that my efforts are just a drop in the bucket in comparison with what is needed for the growing mezcal market.  However, it is a starting place to get this segment of the market going.

I am now presenting these small exclusive varietals under my trademark ESCORPION.

The Mother of Invention

There is currently a shortage of agave and lots of the small palenques are not distilling because there is no maguey.  I am in the same boat.

So instead of looking for an outside job, I have developed recipes to make Rum and Whiskey.  They will be launching in the USA by the end of 2016 under the SCORPION brand trademark.

Men In Mezcal: Douglas French http://wp.me/p3u1xi-4Lf

The whiskies are especially exciting, because they are made with heirloom corn.  I am using white, yellow and black corn.  Oaxaca is the origin of corn in the world and has over 2,090 varieties of corn.

Mezcal is Trending

As I write this, there are about 100 Zapotec indigenous people in Oaxacan villages who eat every day because of the business transactions that I conduct with them, their fathers, brothers, wives or children.

Things are getting a little better now that mezcal is becoming more recognized and appreciated.

I hope to continue working and building the Scorpion brand, the mezcal category, and more jobs in Oaxaca.


Learn all about tequila from field to glass and then get paid to share your love of agave spirits with others! Buy Them Both Now!

Arte del Mezcal Texas Tour with Wahaka Mezcal


On the evening of January 15, 2016, during the busy San Antonio Cocktail Conference weekend, Tequila Aficionado’s Mike Morales was invited to sit in on mezcal historian and author Ulises Torrentera’s Arte del Mezcal class and discussion.

20160115_194946As a bonus, the event was sponsored by the luscious Wahaka Mezcal brand and moderated and translated by its co-founder, Raza Zaidi.

The course, endorsed by mezcal’s regulating body, the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM), through its official document CRM/PD-069/15, would cover four main topics–

Pre-Hispanic beverages, raw material (maguey/agave), distillation and mezcal’s invention, as well as its history, myths, legends, culture and beyond.

The event was held at the intimate El Mirador Mexican restaurant and featured a delicious menu to accompany the entire line of Wahaka mezcals and Sr. 20160115_225556Torrentera’s discourse.

Ulises, considered a preeminent mezcal historian and icon, is the author of “Mezcalaria, The Cult of Mezcal,” and the owner of In Situ Mezcaleria in Oaxaca, Mexico.


Arte del Mezcal Highlights
















Introduction to Wahaka Mezcal

In the following snippet, co-founder, Raza Zaidi, introduces Wahaka’s core line of mezcals and the “one-off” creations by their maestro mezcalero, Alberto Morales.

Clay Pot Distillation

With a GoPro attached, another palenquero demonstrates the very rare method of mezcal fermentation and distillation in clay pots.

Raza later explained that such a technique was implemented because it was easily mobile and allowed movement to avoid authorities from confiscating copper stills.

The Legend of Mayahuel and the 400 Rabbits

Translated by Raza, Ulises explains what pulque is and the legend of Mayahuel and her 400 Rabbits.

Mezcal is More than the Sum of its Parts

[Tweet “@WahakaMezcal says Mezcal is More than the Sum of its Parts”]

According to Ulises, mezcal is produced using approximately 28 distinct varieties of maguey (agave), but there are many more variables that affect the final outcome.

As Raza Zaidi of Wahaka explains, mezcal is more than the sum of its parts.

Why Mezcal?

Co-founder, Raza, explains what compelled him and his partners to bring Wahaka mezcal to the world.

In whatever city you happen to be in, if you can catch Ulises Torrentera, Raza Zaidi, and the rest of the crew of Wahaka Mezcal, do so.

Your education on mezcal and mezcal production depends on it!


Learn all about tequila from field to glass and then get paid to share your love of agave spirits with others! Buy Them Both Now!

Thank GAD for Gracías A Dios Mezcal

[Long before the general public does, Tequila Aficionado Media often gets tipped off about new agave spirits brands that will be entering the market.  One such tip was for Gracías A Dios (GAD) mezcal.  We had no idea that we would bump into them during the San Antonio Cocktail Conference in mid- January, 2015.  Of course, we had to invite the co-founders to HQ to learn more about this hot mezcal label making amazing traction across the country.]


GAD To Meet You!


You can’t help but get wrapped up in the charm of Gracías A Dios mezcal.  You also can’t help but be drawn in by the infectious enthusiasm of its co-founders, Pablo López, Enrique Jimenez and Xaime Niembro.

Here, the trio introduce themselves.

Whose Idea Was It?

From a pure love of drinking mezcal, to owning a mezcalería (mezcal bar), to making lofty plans for the future, the three friends tell how their mezcal brand was born.

Invoking the Name Of GAD

The phrase, “gracias a Dios” (thank God) has been uttered by families in Mexico and throughout Latin America since the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors.

In this clip, the friends give their explanation behind the name of their mezcal.

Maestro Mezcalero de Matatlán


In the town of Santiago Matatlán, considered the world capital of mezcal in Oaxaca, lives Oscar Hernández, the force behind Gracías A Dios.  A third generation Maestro Mezcalero, or Alchemist as Enrique refers to him, he learned his craft from the young age of eight years old.

The trio discuss how they came across such a talented distiller.


Distilling from espadín agave at first, it wasn’t until Oscar met with the co-founders of Gracías A Dios, that he considered producing mezcals made from other types of agave.

Enrique and Xaime continue relating Oscar’s fascinating personal history.

Xaime expounds further on why they chose to work with Oscar Hernández, then demonstrates the purity of GAD’s specialty mezcals made from tepextate and cuixe agave.

The GAD Line Up

Pablo, Enrique and Xaime give us the rundown of Gracías A Dios’ core line, what type of barrels they use for aging, and how they decided on the proof of each of the expressions.

True Small Batches

Xaime describes the labeling plans for the Tepextate and Cuixe expressions and how they will tie in to a Texas-Oaxaca relationship.

Organic Investments

Each of Gracías A Dios’ agave expressions are certified organic.  Xaime details what investments and improvements were made to the brand’s palenque to meet those standards.

Xaime reveals what it takes to maintain GAD’s organic certification, including the innovative improvements made to the brand’s palenque that were invented by Oscar himself.

Wild Harvesting

Xaime chronicles each of GAD’s expressions and then illustrates the difficulty in harvesting wild tobalá.

Image Reboot

GAD_espadinOutside of their mezcalería, the partners had virtually no background in the
spirits sector.  Keenly aware of their limitations, they met with industry consultants for advice.

In this segment, Pablo, Enrique and Xaime recall their experience in bringing GAD to market, and how they managed to rebuild their entire initial concept and image from the bottom up.

These three amigos are the first to admit that Gracías A Dios is still a work-in-progress and are proactively solving challenges that unexpectedly crop up such as using synthetic corks versus imported ones from Portugal, and labeling special edition batches.

Love and Passion Will Take You Places

The GAD triad disclose how working together to get Gracías A Dios into the market has deeply and completely changed their lives.

GAD_shotThe partners all agree that their passion for great mezcal–long before it became trendy–is what fuels their love for GAD.

Cheers For Tomorrow

Xaime and his partners explain how their program, Cheers For Tomorrow, will tackle the Mezcal Industry’s sustainability issues and how the use of biofuel will play an important part of their palenque.

Continuing, Niembro describes how the used bagazo (solid waste) is recycled as an insulator during the roasting of agave piñas.

Sharing the Mezcal Experience


Long term plans for the group and the land surrounding their palenque include a boutique hotel, restaurant, and a complete mezcal experience for visitors.

In this snippet, the trio discuss where they see themselves in five years and spill the beans on a specially blended Mezcal Del Cura that’s in the works.

Pablo and Enrique continue the conversation by revealing GAD’s plans for replanting different types of maguey and other projects within the region of their palenque.

[Tweet ““@graciasadiosmz mission–To get small batches to the right audience.”]

Free Your Mind–And Your Taste Buds!

Team GAD divulge the one thing that they would like their audience to know about Gracías A Dios mezcal.

Pablo, Xaime, and Enrique have no intention of changing their methods create a more industrialized mezcal.  Their long term mission remains staunchly intact–

To get their small batches to the right audience who will honestly and passionately cherish and appreciate them as much as they do.

Gracías a Dios!


Learn all about tequila from field to glass and then get paid to share your love of agave spirits with others! Buy Them Both Now!

Mezcal and Dogmatism in Oaxaca: Acknowledge Other Points of View (Part 7 of 7)

el silencio cocktailDogmatism sometimes gets the better of us.  When we’re teaching about the culture of mezcal, it is sometimes very easy to exaggerate and mis-state, by finding fact where there is none.  And when we’re preaching to the uninformed, we sometimes forget that there is always fact-checking.  The uninitiated will not always take what is stated as gospel; especially when their interest in visiting Oaxaca is to learn about our spirit from a variety of sources.

Agave Madre cuisheWe must check our dogmatism at the door.  The braggarts may be building up their own reputations, but only for that fleeting moment, hour or day, until more tempered discourse in a different drinking or learning environment takes over.  Afterwards, it’s the reputation of the mezcalería which potentially suffers.

The foregoing are only a few of the instances in which blowhards in their dogmatic approach to the industry in the end do more harm than good: “X agave makes the best agave distillate; mezcal that is reduced to its ultimate consumption ABV by adding distilled or spring water rather than just the cola, is not real mezcal.” Again here, the same problem.

CopitaMapThe dramatic rise in the number of mezcalerías in Oaxaca since about 2013, is remarkable.  But without proper training of staff and taking greater care in promoting the spirit, it may all go for naught. Encourage both novices and the initiated, to experiment, read, imbibe and otherwise learn.  Don’t speak or write in absolutes, save for when there is certainty. Opine, but at the same time acknowledge other points of view. The mezcal industry in Oaxaca, and for the world, will benefit and continue its surge.


alvin starkman, Oaxaca, mezcal, Mezcal, Oaxaca, Glass, Cup, Jícaras, Clay, copita Alvin 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).


Learn all about tequila from field to glass and then get paid to share your love of agave spirits with others! Buy Them Both Now!

Barrio Café–A Tequila Oasis

[In an industry of cookie-cutter airport cantinas, it was refreshing to experience a little bit of the local flavor at Barrio Café during a recent layover at Phoenix Sky Harbor airport’s Terminal 4.]


Frequent flyers are a highly sought after target market.  Just ask any company that pays top dollar to advertise in in-flight magazines.  They’ll admit that a temporarily sequestered audience with nowhere to go (but up?) is a gold mine.

But, with security protocols being what they are now, bored and isolated travelers awaiting the next leg of their trip desperately seek to pass the time at engaging airport bars/restaurants with strong food and drink selections, and even stronger wifi.

[Tweet “#BarrioCafe is Phoenix’s original comida chingona with a tequila menu to match! @chefSILVANA.”]

What struck me most about Barrio Café, however, was that it was a tequila oasis in a sea of food court cuisine.  Coupled with an informed and educated staff, and my ears perked up.

The Original Comida Chingona of Phoenix

Chef Silvana Salcido Esparza, along with her partner, Wendy Gruber, opened the first Barrio Café in the Calle 16 neighborhood of Central Phoenix in 2002, and it quickly shot to culinary stardom.

Inspired by regional dishes from Oaxaca, Ensenada, and the Yucatán, Chef 0514151503Silvana transforms them with a French twist to create, as it reads on their menu, “some seriously bad ass Mexican cuisine.”

Chef Silvana’s acknowledgements are as long as your arm, too!

Highlighted by an induction into the Arizona Culinary Hall of Fame in 2004, voted as one of the Top 9 Mexican Chefs by MSNBC Latino in 2010, and four James Beard award nominations in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014.

Employing local graffiti artists and muralists to illustrate and beautify each location, Barrio is notorious for attracting eclectic customers–from low riders to politicians.

 Not Your Mother’s House

Beloved and admired by Chef Silvana’s long term café employees, server Brittany Sabo proudly elaborates on this and other locations, its founders, and Barrio’s varied menu.

Help Conserve Water, Drink Tequila

The Barrio Café bar inside Terminal 4.
The Barrio Café bar inside Terminal 4.

With a tequila selection as assorted as their clientele–from the Usual Suspects to Arizona based smaller brands–their list also includes eye-opening tequila flights.

Here, Brittany reveals Chef Silvana’s future plans for a possible private label tequila.

Precioso, Hermoso, and Ready for You!

[Tweet “#BarrioCafe and @chefSILVANA makes her dishes precioso, hermoso & ready for you!”]

A snifter of 7 Leguas tequila.
A snifter of 7 Leguas tequila.

The idea of catering to short term secluded audiences hasn’t escaped big name tequila companies.  But, that warm cozy feeling of being welcomed into a neighborhood bar and restaurant is an unexpected quality not usually found in cookie cutter cantinas.

For years, Jose Cuervo has licensed branded Taberna del Tequila bars in airports around the US.  The Blue Mesa Taco & Tequila Bar at Dallas/Ft. Worth International, has long been an Herradura (Brown-Forman) stronghold, as well.

Airline travelers eventually come and go, but a snifter of good tequila and a house taco of cochinita pibil at the Barrio Café in Terminal 4 could very easily make you miss your connecting flight.


Learn all about tequila from field to glass and then get paid to share your love of agave spirits with others! Buy Them Both Now!

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.”

[Tweet “Alvin Starkman explores the recent growth of the Mezcal industry and its sustainability”]

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.

[Tweet “Mezcal Production in Oaxaca – More Mezcal is on the Way! by Alvin Starkman”]



[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.


Learn all about tequila from field to glass and then get paid to share your love of agave spirits with others! Buy Them Both Now!

The Montelobos Mezcal Project

[After The San Antonio Cocktail Conference held in January, 2015, Tequila Aficionado Media caught up with Dr. Iván Saldaña, producer of the upstart mezcal, Montelobos, a partnership project with the makers of Milagro tequila.  A featured speaker during the conference, here’s our in-depth discussion held at the bar of the lavish Westin Riverwalk Hotel.]

La Anatomia del Mezcal

Iván Saldaña (Photo courtesy of David Suro)
Iván Saldaña (Photo courtesy of David Suro)

In Dr. Iván Saldaña’s nifty little primer, The Anatomy Of Mezcal–which, by the way, belongs in every serious agave students’ reference library–he goes to great lengths to demystify maguey (agave) and mezcal in a concise and easy-to-understand fashion. As an introduction into the fundamentals of mezcal, the book covers it all, from what it is to how it’s processed.  Saldaña also defines the differences of artisanal mezcals distilled in palenques and haciendas from those using industrial methods. The latter is a situation currently being hotly contested inside the Mezcal Industry as it tries to cope with its alarming expansion without repeating the mistakes made by the Tequila Industry while still in its infancy. [Tweet “The Anatomy Of Mezcal belongs in every serious agave students’ reference library”]

A Double PhD.

Montelobos_ABVFrom his research, Saldaña asserts that the maguey plant efficiently evolves when affected by environmental stress.  It is precisely the plant’s adaptability to extreme conditions that makes it not only a versatile prime material for tequila and mezcal production, but also gives it its unique flavors and aromas that set it apart from other spirits. The same could be said about Iván’s versatility as a passionate scientist, researcher, environmentalist and mezcal developer who prefers to be challenged to come up with unique solutions. Here, Dr. Saldaña elaborates on his academic background leading to his PhD. In this segment, Iván recounts how his wine and spirits experience working for global distiller, Pernod Ricard, led to a craving to create something more intrinsically fulfilling.

My Way


Taking a lesson from Frank Sinatra, Iván explains what it was like to compose a mezcal like Montelobos without following any commercial guidelines.

Montelobos Explained

Iván has been quoted as insisting that “Mezcal is too often dominated by either an excessive smokiness or inopportune proportions.”  In his quest for the perfectly balanced mezcal, he concentrated on bringing forth Montelobos’ sweeter notes, along with citrus and smoke using cultivated espadin. 006The successful result garnered Montelobos a double gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2013. Not wanting to create a single faceted mezcal, or replicating an old family recipe, Dr. Saldaña further breaks down Montelobos’ complexities. [Tweet “Montelobos Mezcal: double gold winner at 2013 San Francisco World Spirits Competition”]

The Value of Innovation

Dr. Saldaña produced his mezcal under the guidance of fifth generation Maestro Mezcalero, Don Abel López Mateos, but still believed in exploration and experimentation when designing its unique flavor profile.  Coupled with innovation, Iván contends that Montelobos is not about science, but about passion. [Tweet “Montelobos’ unique flavor profile may puzzle some.”]

43.2 ABV

Montelobos_label   Iván explains how he arrived at the perfect 43.2% (86.4 proof) alcohol by volume to achieve the flavors and aromas unique to Montelobos.    


Agave_MontelobosNot only vigilant on creating Montelobos his way, Dr. Saldaña was also concerned about its environmental footprint on Oaxaca where it is distilled. Montelobos uses only organic, commercially grown espadin, certified so by certifying agency, Certimex.  Iván also makes sure that the wood used in roasting the espadin comes from a sustainable source. [Tweet “Sustainable: Montelobos uses only organic, commercially grown espadin”]

The Universe Within the Universe

Dr. Iván Saldaña’s expedition into the anatomy of mezcal is by no means over. He confessed to having an urge to distill other variations of Montelobos that would emphasize additional flavors and aromas often hidden in traditional mezcal flavor profiles. For the time being, he prefers to continue to examine and discover the world within the world of mezcal. [Tweet “Discover the world within the world of @Montelobos Mezcal”]


Learn all about tequila from field to glass and then get paid to share your love of agave spirits with others! Buy Them Both Now!