Modern Oaxacan Mezcal Distillers: Dispelling the Myth of Rural Conservatism

By: Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D. of Mezcal Educational Tours

Residents of villages, and to a lesser extent towns, throughout Canada, the United States, and Mexico, in many respects tend to fit an oft-perceived mold of rural conservatism. However when considering those in the mezcal distillation industry in the southern state of Oaxaca, a trending towards innovative practices appears to be taking hold. Lobster pechuga and cannabis infused/distilled espadín are just the tip of the iceberg, the latter perhaps already “old hat” in the eyes of some. 

In August, 2022, a client who had contacted me for a day of exploring ancestral (clay) and artisanal (copper) production techniques, and just as importantly to embark upon buying opportunities, emailed me that he was particularly interested in “visiting more of the mezcaleros / mezcaleras that are more experimental or innovative.” That got me to ponder my preconceived notions of conservatism amongst palenqueros (as they’re commonly known in Oaxaca).

Greg from Mezcal For Life and Alvin Starkman, Author at the palenque of Felix Ángeles Arellanes

True, there are Oaxacan agave distillers who continue to resist change, in some cases at the behest of brand owners, and their followers who fashion themselves purists. But change is in the wind, buoyed (1) by the more progressive palenqueros, (2) by those who may be conservative but understand the financial benefit of thinking just a little outside-of-the-box, (3) by the more entrepreneurial brand owners, and (4) by those distillers simply not afraid to experiment and are unphased by those who might launch tirades in their direction. And from what I have gleaned certainly over the past decade, the consuming public has made it worthwhile for palenqueros to continue to push the envelope. In every case of which I am aware, the distillers have ignored the naysayers in favor of bringing new products and techniques to market. This has paid dividends; increased sales have accrued to the financial benefit of the families of palenqueros and their fellow villagers, and their reputations have received a shot in the arm

The one and only qualification to the forgoing two positives in the area of techniques, has been when those who have traditionally distilled in copper alembics have tried their hand at clay. And I am certainly not aware of anyone who has made the effort to augment their clay offerings with copper. Why would they even try? 

In these cases of trying to distill in clay from a copper family tradition, I imagine that the impetus has been being to then be able to put the word “ancestral” on their labels. Unfortunately, I have not been impressed with the mezcal of those who have attempted the transition.

Silverio García with wife Epifania and family, emptying rocks from horno, Rancho Blanco Guilá

Silverio García with wife Epifania and family, emptying rocks from horno, Rancho Blanco Guilá

But both the late Everardo García (San Pablo Villa de Mitla) and Don Lencho García and his son Silverio (Rancho Blanco Güilá) have successfully developed hybrids of copper and clay, each having come from a recent copper background. When I’ve done comparative tastings with clients, the hybrids have always won out over the pure copper! I didn’t get a chance to ask Everardo why he decided upon the new type of still and how he arrived at determining which parts should be clay and which copper (obviously the condenser would remain copper), but Silverio explained the family’s initial experiment to me. When his father started out with Silverio’s grandfather more than a half century ago, the family lacked resources to buy a complete copper alembic. So they adapted, using an inverted clay pot as the upper copper bell, and for the connecting copper tube they used a length of quiote (flower stalk). The bottom pot and the serpentine, both copper, remained the same. The foregoing two cases are examples of the palenqueros, and no others egging them on, being innovative, albeit Don Lencho and son having copied a family tradition long lost --- until now. 

Another case of palenquero innovativeness is found in Rodolfo López Sosa (San Juan del Río). He, likely having come across something similar in another state, has become more efficient in the baking process, thus enabling him to either pass on savings by keeping his price per liter a little lower than would otherwise be the case, or increasing his profit margin by saving time and labor. When emptying his oven, he no longer has to lift out the rocks to remove the charcoal and place more firewood. How is that possible, one might ask. He has created a basement or tunnel beneath the below-ground earthen oven, with an entranceway easily sealed with bricks. After each bake he simply walks down a few steps, opens the makeshift doorway, removes the charred wood, and replaces it with new. 

His rather unconventional practices also extend to filling his fermentation vats, and more significantly how he achieves diversity in his range of mezcal products. His village is indeed noted for the quality of the agave distillate produced there, mainly using Agave angustifolia Haw (espadín). Don Rodolfo is not averse to distilling the agave with a varied range of fruits and herbs in order to provide prospective and existing clients with a broad selection of products from which to choose. Otherwise, there would be espad{in and little more except for the odd small batch of tobalá or cuily (Agave marmorata). Curiously, he is one of the few if not the only palenquero with whom I am acquainted who does a pechuga with fowl protein (pechuga de guajolote) and no fruits or herbs. However, he is always willing to deviate from that format, as I have learned first hand.

Several years ago I asked Don Rodolfo to distill a batch of pechuga de guajolote with maple syrup. No problem. Then another, then a further pechuga using fresh lychees. As long as one pays for the end product, many palenqueros will give it a shot. The lychee didn’t turn out as I had hoped, and I can’t in good conscience even give it away as Christmas gifts, but that’s not his issue, and he likely doesn’t even know of my disappointment. But we’re at it again, turkey breast with honey having proved to be a winner, and as soon as I get more maple syrup, more of that first recipe Don Rodolfo distilled. 

The problem for me is I always feel obliged to buy whatever is produced, the result turning out to be 50 – 60 liters minimum. But others have figured out a solution; both palenqueros and their export patrons.

Celso Martínez, Santiago Matatlán

Celso Martínez, Santiago Matatlán 

Celso Martínez (Santiago Matatlán) produces in copper for his own brand (La Jicarita) and for a couple of export brands owned by others (Nacional and Dangerous Don). British citizen Thea Cumming wanted Don Celso to help her to develop a quality non-sugary coffee mezcal. After umpteen tries with coffee alone, and coffee with other ingredients, and playing around with various ABVs, they found the recipe for success, Ms. Cumming of course with the final word, as always. But upon achieving success with her signature coffee mezcal, she decided that it would be a worthwhile effort to consider distilling with other natural ingredients thrown into the mix, rather than coffee. She purchased a small copper alembic so that Don Celso would not have to make a large amount, and Thea would not end up in my own personal predicament. Both together, and Don Celso of his own initiative, have produced several different agave distillates using a broad range of flowers, herbs and fruits, there being no bounds. All that Don Celso needed with that little push, a chance to see the potential of mezcal distilled with more than agave. All this goes far beyond infusing with larvae (mezcal de gusano) or siete hierbas (seven herbs).

Estela Hernández testing ABV, San Baltazar Chichicapam 

Estela Hernández testing ABV, San Baltazar Chichicapam

Did someone say weed? Infusing with cannabis is nothing new. Victoria Ramírez (San Baltazar Chichicapam) tells me that in her village the distillate with marijuana added has traditionally been used topically to alleviate muscle aches, much in the same way as using mezcal infused with scorpions. But when 9 – 10 years ago I suggested to daughter Estela that the family once again make that very mezcal, she asked why. “If you make it, the Americans will buy it,” was my retort. But now, as the laws surrounding consumption and even sale of cannabis are relaxing in Mexico, with fully legal recreational consumption right around the corner, a whole new breed is being born, those who are, rather than infusing, actually distilling with it.

Artemio García (also a musician), San Dionisio Ocotepec

Artemio García (also a musician), San Dionisio Ocotepec

When I first began exploring palenques in Oaxaca some three decades ago, that was unheard of. But now many palenqueros are sourcing weed and including it in the second distillation, even though to my knowledge the psychotropic effect is non-existent, the THC dissipating with condensation. But the aroma and flavor is what attracts the consumer. Many imbibers like me in particular no longer yearn to get high, but enjoy that reminder of past decades toking with friends while passing joints as we sat around on the floor in a circle. The most flavorful cannabis distillate I have encountered is made by Artemio García (San Dionisio Ocotepec), with honorable mention going to Rosario Ángeles (Santa Catarina Minas).

Rosario Ángeles, Santa Catarina Minas

Rosario Ángeles, Santa Catarina Minas

Rosario’s youth, and the fact that she is not from a mezcal-making family, with no father, uncle or grandfather telling her what she can and cannot do, has brought her to the cutting edge of Oaxacan agave distillation. In fact she has constructed a 20-liter clay pot still for her experimentation. Her chocolate mezcal is exquisite. And she is the one with whom I have been working distilling with lobster, and an assortment of select fruits and herbs which we have varied from batch to batch. Her willingness to deviate from tradition is refreshing. And when I arrived at her Palenque the morning of the most recent lobster distillation with a bottle of Lakeview Cellars’ Niagara Peninsula VQA Vidal Icewine in hand to pour into the clay pot, she didn’t flinch. Now that’s being progressive!

Felix Ángeles Arellanes (with fruit from distilling pechuga), Santa Catarina Minas

Felix Ángeles Arellanes (with fruit from distilling pechuga), Santa Catarina Minas

In the same village of Santa Catarina Minas from which Rosario hails, lives one of the grand maestros of olla de barro (clay pot) distillation, Felix Ángeles Arellanes. Don Felix boasts about 20 (likely more these days) different expressions of agave distillate, including five pechugas. While village tradition dictates using particular fruits and herbs, Don Felix is not afraid to give his hand at the more unusual, using whatever strikes his fancy. Nor does he shy away from distilling his pechugas using different species of agave. He currently is offering pechugas using espadín, tobasiche, tobalá, arroqueño and even tepeztate. When he first began using tepeztate, typically one of the more expensive agave distillates offered throughout the state, I questioned whether anyone would spend that kind of money on a liter of mezcal purchased directly from the producer. I was sorely (and now as it turns out embarrassingly) wrong. His vegan pechuga, as I term it, first distilled in July, 2022, includes spaghetti squash, corn, pineapple and panela; even my wife, who doesn’t drink mezcal, will tolerate it. She begrudgingly admits she actually likes it.

Mural of the Late Juan Hernández, commissioned by his family for their palenque (Desde la Eternidad), Santiago Matatlán

Mural of the Late Juan Hernández, commissioned by his family for their palenque (Desde la Eternidad), Santiago Matatlán

And when an export client (Doña Vega mezcal) asked the late Juan Hernández (Santiago Matatlán) to distill a sample batch with pineapple and celery, Don Juan complied with the request. While that expression failed to make a final cut for Doña Vega, the brand has gone on to considerable success, now with daughter Lidia Hernández at the helm of the family’s mezcal production. That little push from Doña Vega to think outside-of-the-box was all that attorney Lidia needed. She, like so many of the others, is now distilling with a plethora of added ingredients; one expression with watermelon, another with fig and cinnamon, etc., etc., etc. And she now has a mezcal infused with 14 herbs.

 Lidia Hernández (with the author), Santiago Matatlán

Lidia Hernández (with the author), Santiago Matatlán

Some infusions and distillates which include more than agave, are designed for the WOW factor and little more. What comes to mind is that snake-infused espadín I purchased a decade ago for just that reason. It’s here in my home somewhere, but for the life of me I don’t know where I hid it, though likely very well so I would never be tempted to try it again. In my opinion it’s nothing more than a gimmick. On the other hand, my most recent acquisition has been a mezcal distilled with chicatanas (flying ants, a seasonal delicacy in Oaxaca). The palenquero owns a new restaurant in an upscale neighborhood in the city of Oaxaca, and with this concoction undoubtedly patrons will pay handsomely for the opportunity to include a 1.5 ounce pour alongside their meals. The difference with this particular agave distillate as compared to the snake infused, is that the flavor does reveal a pleasant hint of chicatana. Why this producer with this ingredient? Clearly, he’s a Oaxacan entrepreneur willing to risk his hand in the ever-so-fleeting and difficult restaurant industry. If anything will contribute to his success, it will be this particular mezcal, which will lead him to consider using all other fashion of unique natural additives in distillation and likely for infusing. 

There are indeed palenqueros, and in fact entire villages known for mezcal production, where conservatism still reigns. It’s rather interesting that there can be a village personality characterized by staunch resistance to change which extends to ingredients, means of production and tools employed in mezcal production. And while I have witnessed material advancements in distiller palenques and to a lesser extent lifestyles, I attribute this to no more than the current mezcal boom. By contrast, in each and every case where names have been noted above, growth and improvement have been palpable. And yes, it results in both an amelioration of economic lot, and improved self-worth of the palenqueros, extending to their family members. I’ve noted the influence of brand owners, progressive personalities, and those simply willing to adopt the advice of others. Yes, there will continue to be the detractors, but hopefully some will begin to see the light and experiment on their own, sampling whatever becomes available to them, with an open mind. If the palenqueros they worship are willing to take that first step, so should they. It can only improve the Oaxaca agave distillate industry, across the board.

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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