Mezcal de Pechuga in Oaxaca: Past, Present and Future

A Note From The Editor

What you are about to embark on is an educational piece through the lens of Alvin Starkman. With his depth of knowledge, first hand experience, educational background, willingness to contribute to the mezcal industry, and give back to the agave communities, you will get lost in Alvin's philosophical writings about mezcal. His likes do not come around very often. So when given the chance to publish some of his writing, we said "heck yes." I have personally spent entire days pouring over all of his articles dating back to 2014.

In relation to this article, I had the pleasure of tasting some of some of the lobster pechuga mentioned and without pause, I'd give it a standing ovation.

If you are interested in flipping your mezcal world upside down and want to learn more about pechugas, then this article is for you. We hope you enjoy it. 

Sincerely,

Greg Rutkowski, President
Mezcal For Life

***

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

There is archival evidence emanating from certain parts of Mexico suggesting that the origins of mezcal de pechuga date to the 1800s. About 15 years ago I decided to seek to uncover its beginnings in the state of Oaxaca, in part through taking oral histories of elderly palenqueros. I obtained the most detailed enumeration during or about 2011, when interviewing the then 92-year-old (now deceased) Isaac Jiménez, a resident of Santiago Matatlán. While his senses of sight and sound were by then failing, his memory remained sharp, as he recounted his understanding of the origins, while seated in his favorite rocking chair. 

The Oaxacan Origins of Mezcal de Pechuga

Mezcal Pechuga Chicken Oaxaca

Photo from Oaxaca Mezcal Tours.

“When you ask me about the history of mezcal de pechuga, I’m sorry, but I can’t take you back any further than about 1930,” he apologizes, then continues, “when Ramón Sánchez arrived in Matatlán with his family.” Doubtless, there are several theories and legends, at least as many as exist regarding the first time a Oaxacan released a gusano into a glass of mezcal. But given that Don Isaac’s family’s history in the region dated to 1870 when is grandfather arrived in Santiago Matatlán, I’ll take his recollection as both accurate, detailed and representative of one of if not the earliest tracing of the history of mezcal de pechuga in Oaxaca. 

“I was about 10 years old, so it must have been around 1930 when Ramón Sánchez put down roots in town, apparently coming from Río Seco, or at least that’s what he told everyone,” recalls Don Isaac.  At that time Río Seco would have been days away from Santiago Matatlán, whether by foot or beast of burden.  It’s near the junction of the now districts of Tlacolula, Ejutla and Miahuatlán, agave growing country; so residents of Río Seco also made mezcal.  

“Then in 1938, a fellow by the name of Chuy Razgado came to Matatlán,” Don Isaac continues.  “One day he showed up at Hacienda Los Lope where I was playing with my band-mates.”

In Oaxaca, as in other parts of Mexico, there has been a longstanding tradition of playing band, woodwind and percussion instruments, proficiency beginning at a young age.  The youthful Isaac learned to play alto saxophone, eventually becoming a member of a band.  He and his fellow musicians occasionally played at Hacienda Los Lope which was owned by a family of Spanish aristocrats. 

The day that Razgado attended at the Hacienda, he had no instrument in hand.  But he asked if he could hang out with Isaac and his fellow musicians and somehow contribute.  The band rejected the overture since at that time there was no indication as to how he could help. And so eventually, after subsequent failed attempts to integrate into the community, Razgado disappeared.

Preparing Pechuga at Mezcal Rambha

Preparing Pechuga at Mezcal Rambha

One day Isaac and his mother, Felipa Arrazola, traveled to Mitla to buy provisions, and they came across Razgado.  Isaac had now become an accepted part of the region’s music scene. He and his mother had to stay in Mitla for at least an overnight because of the distance they had to travel to get there. It was easy for them to find lodging. That first evening, Isaac and his mother by chance encountered Razgado drinking in a cantina and playing music; but not just any music.  He was playing bottles; glass bottles of different sizes, shapes and neck openings, thus yielding different sounds.  He used both his breath and a makeshift drumstick to create different sounds.  He was playing melodies reminiscent of the music of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, near Oaxaca’s Pacific coast. The still youthful Isaac became thoroughly impressed. 

At the end of the set Isaac and his mother seized the opportunity to speak to Razgado, Isaac now clearly humbled by someone it had become clear to him was a multi-facet talent, whom he and the other band members had rejected weeks earlier.  At the time Isaac was learning how to read music.  In the course of discussion with Razgado he realized that he was in the company of a true maestro, a musician who played more than just bottles.  Isaac recognized that an opportunity existed for him to further his own musical skills while at the same time have someone in town, Matatlán that is, who could tutor others. Razgado accepted the invitation to return to Matatlán, and there began to teach and to play, not only bottles, but also guitar, trumpet, sax and a couple of other traditional instruments. 

Ramón Sánchez quickly learned about Chuy Razgado and the work he was doing within the Matatlán community of musicians. He decided to throw a special reception in Chuy’s honor.  During the festivities Sánchez presented Razgado with a large bottle of mezcal de pechuga.  Others at the event also imbibed the pechuga, many for the first time.  Prior to this occasion, while Sánchez had shared his pechuga with some, no one really took notice of the unique flavor nuance, and if they did, they didn’t ask about it. The cat was out of the bag, and mezcal de pechuga was born, at least for broad public consumption.  Perhaps more importantly, it had become elevated to the status of a spirit for special occasions. 

No one knows for sure if villagers in Río Seco had earlier been making mezcal de pechuga, if Sánchez was the only palenquero with such a recipe, or if it was first prepared by him in fact after his arrival in Matatlán.  We do know two things:  since the honor of receiving mezcal de pechuga was first bestowed upon Razgado, pechuga has been served in many Oaxacan towns and villages at special fiestas; and, there are several formulations of the spirit.

Lobsters for Lobster Pechuga

Epilogue to Chuy Razgado & Ramón Sánchez

In 1940 General Lázaro Cárdenas traveled to Mitla.  While there were still no paved roads in or leading to the village, General Cárdenas nevertheless traveled there, to inaugurate the arrival of electricity. It would take another 19 years for electric lines to get to Santiago Matatlán.

By then Razgado had become well-known and a highly respected musician in both Matatlán and Mitla. The mayor of Mitla invited him to play for General Cárdenas during one of the celebratory dinners.  Razgado did not dress up to perform.  He played a brief first set.  No one applauded.  For the second set he was part of a trio, and at its conclusion a bit of praise was bestowed upon the group.  For the third and final set Razgado led the local philharmonic orchestra in four songs, decked out in formalwear, a suit traditionally worn by band leaders.  General Cárdenas called him to the box where he and the other dignitaries were seated, to congratulate him.  Perhaps the clothes provided the inspiration for an exceptional concluding performance.  Razgado was known to throw back a few, so perhaps by evening’s end mild inebriation had contributed to his excellence.

Three or four months later Chuy Razgado once again disappeared, this time never to return to the region.  Word has it that he died in the Mixe district of Oaxaca. 

Ramón Sánchez continued to make small batches of mezcal, including pechuga, for his own use and to provide to others who had become aficionados and / or wanted it for fiestas.  None of his progeny became palenqueros. During that era there was a pervading perception that making mezcal was not a dignified trade, much the same as leading the life of a musician.  In the case of Don Isaac, he paid little if any attention to public sentiment, and continued to excel at both vocations. 

Mezcal de Pechuga in (Oaxaca) Mexico Today

According to Enrique Jiménez, son of Don Isaac, a chemical engineer and palenquero who over the decades has produced mezcal under his own label as well as for a number of export brands, authentic mezcal de pechuga is produced by placing a specified amount of chopped seasonal fruit in the copper still along with double distilled mezcal (thus in preparation for a third distillation), with a full chicken or turkey breast hanging inside the apparatus in the upper copper hollow chamber. If the breast is used without fruit or other additions, it is still rightfully considered mezcal de pechuga; and if herbs and / or spices are added, with or without fruit it is still considered the real deal.  If no protein is used, the spirit is more properly considered mezcal afrutado. If protein is omitted from the formulation, while the spice and / or fruitiness will surely prevail, the spirit may lack a certain nose and in some cases finish, created by the foul; and also lack the subtle alteration in the viscosity.

Lobster Pechuga Collaboration with Alvin Starkman

Lobster Pechuga Collaboration with Rambha Mezcal and Alvin Starkman

Very few palenqueros with whom I am acquainted use only a poultry protein (breast, entire bird, or parts thereof). One such maestro is Rodolfo López Sosa of San Juan del Río. Since the village is known for almost exclusively mezcal made with espadín, Don Rodolfo long ago in an effort to provide aficionados with different flavor profiles, began making his pechuga. For the same reason he also makes agave distillates using specific fruits and herbs without the protein. But for the asking he’ll adapt his preferences to those of anyone with a particular recipe in mind. 

A palenquero in the state of Michoacán uses chicken breasts, deer meat, and a selection of spices, the recipe closely guarded by his wife. Today, in part driven by the recent “mezcal boom” and the plethora of brand owners vying for an increase in market share of sales, one finds pechugas made with different meat protein sources such as iguana, rabbit, ham, beef brisket, and the list goes on, with no bounds as to what additional fruits and herbs are placed in the lower pot of the copper alembic or clay pot (olla de barro). And while most use only espadín as the base mezcal, Felix Arellanes of Santa Catarina Minas is currently making five different pechugas, each with a different agave distillate base. Some distillers deviate from espadín if, for example, the palenquero has on hand a great deal of mezcal nade with a different agave. 

I have found that if mezcal de pechuga is made using the distillate from the first pass through rather than after the second distillation, the final flavor and quality remain essentially the same. Some reject doing so stating that the loss of alcohol between first and second is much higher than between second and third, and thus yield goes down and the pechuga ingredients could be deemed as partially “wasted.” The Late Aquilino García of Candelaria Yegolé made his elote mezcal adding the toasted mezcal-soaked corn kernels to the third distillation. Then a while after he began distilling for Mezcal Vago, its owners decided that there was not enough of a discernible difference if the corn was added for the second distillation. Of course corn costs less than meat or fruit.

Lobster Pechuga Mezcal Oaxaca

All variations of pechuga which employ a meat protein continue to be served today at many rite of passage celebrations in Oaxaca such as weddings, quince años, baptisms, significant birthday and anniversary celebrations, and so on – a tradition enduring since the days of Chuy Razgado and Ramón Sánchez, if not earlier. 

Since many readers are likely tourists who may consider buying “pechuga” which is an amber color, appearing as reposado or añejo, a word of caution is in order.  A mezcal de pechuga is being marketed, at minimum in the city of Oaxaca and central valleys not produced based on the foregoing. One variety of mezcal marketed as pechuga is simply mezcal blanco (clear, unaged) with a piece of either sugar cane or baked agave having been inserted into the bottle before sealing.  Another consists of mezcal blanco which has been infused with fruit and / or herbs and spices, then filtered before bottling. Whether chicken, turkey or any other meat has been used in the distillation process is doubtful, regardless of representation. In my opinion this type of product should not be labeled as mezcal de pechuga unless the label also explains how it is made, or the vendor states the process to every purchaser.

The foregoing is meant to provide merely an introduction to mezcal de pechuga.  There is an endless variety of recipes.  Both palenqueros and their exporter entrepreneurs will likely continue to experiment, a goal being to create a more taste-worthy product than the competition.  To be fair, there’s also more altruistic motivation, spirit as artful formulation. In my case, I have formulated mezcal de pechuga recipes and had palenqueros make them for me and for broader sale, using lychee, using honey, using maple syrup, and even using lobster as the protein. 

Questions which remain unanswered, at least to the fullest extent, as to precisely why, where and when that first palenquero in Oaxaca decided that using something in addition to baked agave – in particular breast of chicken or turkey – would make for a spirit pleasing to the palate.

Alvin Starkman Mezcal Educational Tours Oaxaca

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (mezcaleducationaltours.com). He is the author of Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market: Unrivaled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances (Third Expanded Edition with Portraits), all illustrations by professional photographer Spike Mafford.

 

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