For the people of Oaxaca, Mexico, mezcal is “la bebida de los dioses” — the drink of the gods.
“Mezcal is sacred,” says fourth-generation mezcal producer Eduardo ‘Lalo’ Ángeles Carreño. He wants one thing to be very clear to anyone who consumes it: no matter the cache it carries, mezcal is not a trend.
On an arid morning earlier this October, Lalo greeted me in plaid pajamas at the entrance of his palenque in Santa Catarina Minas, a small town just an hour south of Oaxaca City. As I made my way up the driveway, smoke gently rose from the furnace next to his house, thickening the air with an aroma of scorched agave stocks, known as piñas. It was my second time meeting Lalo — the first time was in January of 2017. The Ángeles family is known as “the mezcal superstars” of Oaxaca, as they have used the traditional process for distilling mezcal since 1978.
Lalo paused his work to show me the adobe where he and his staff produce small-batch mezcal. He then taught me how to drink the spirit properly — sipped slowly, straight, and held in the mouth between sips so to be diluted with saliva, savored, then swallowed. It was smoky, yet sweet. Strong, with a delicious burn. The maguey plant, from which mezcal is distilled, is a member of Mexico’s extensive family of agaves. The smoky flavor comes from the heart of the plant, known as the piña. Piñas are roasted in a stone pit over a wood fire for almost a week. Once removed, their juices can be extracted, fermented, and distilled. Large companies have since modified these steps to last only two days using machinery, since the complexities of the traditional process cannot accommodate the climbing demand for mezcal worldwide. The sugars fail to reach full concentration, resulting in a lower quality product.
“Mezcal is an essential part of our country,” said Lalo. “It’s the farmer’s drink, and although corn has always been number one in all of Central America, mezcal was always second.” According to Toltec legend, the culture of mezcal and the maguey plant constitutes heritage, wisdom, and indigenous mythology. Patécatl and Mayahuel — the god and goddess of the maguey — represent the plant itself, deified. Patécatl discovered the ocpatli root, which expedites the fermentation process. Thus, his name translates as “the one from the land of medicine.” Mayahuel represents the fertility and nutrience of the maguey, regarded by Oaxacans as “the mother plant” because of its wide range of medicinal properties and uses.
The exchange of mezcal between small-batch distillers and the neighboring families with whom they maintain relationships is intimate, humble, and fairly exclusive. Oaxacans never buy labeled mezcal. They rely on their local supplier to pay a regular visit, selling by the liter from the trunk of a truck. Many farmers in Oaxaca uphold the tradition of consuming mezcal three times a day — once in the morning to clarify the senses and cleanse the gums, once in the afternoon for the same effect, and again at night to relax the body. Since the first evidence of mezcal’s distillation over 2,000 years ago, mothers have used it to numb babies’ gums when they are teething. Aguamiel is scraped from maguey leaves to treat back aches, sprains, and blows to the body. The ashes of magueys post-roast are used to treat those who suffer from stomach swelling, which is common for anyone who has dedicated their life to physical labor. Ixtle (the Otomi word for maguey fiber) is used to make twine and cloth. Raw maguey fibers are used for building adobe walls at smaller distilleries. “Nothing goes to waste in Mexico,” said Lalo.
The plant’s wealth of properties did not go unnoticed by the Spaniards, following their conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1519. Francisco Hernández, doctor to Philip II of Spain, was immediately drawn to its medicinal properties, employing them to treat multiple members of the crown. The Spaniards, however, disapproved of the tradition of mezcal consumption. Drunkenness was punished with death, as part of the crown’s strategy to decimate the Aztec society. This only encouraged mezcal consumers to form an underground alliance, despite the consequences. Those who had been persecuted by the Spanish crown sought refuge in speakeasy-like bars, where no representative of authority was allowed entry. There, depression was shared and processed over drinks. Although alcoholism plagued Mexico long before colonial times and continues to worsen, such establishments were some of the only places of salvation for the vanquished.
“Mezcal is the first thing that is offered at every wedding, every baptism, at any party,” said Lalo. His family’s company, Real Minero, is renowned for producing the most premium labels in Oaxaca. Lalo has assisted his father, Don Lorenzo, on their farm since his teens. His mother, Doña Florentina, bottles the mezcal, while his sister Graciela manages the company. They continue to employ horses for labor and clay pots for distillation, following the traditional process. The unparalleled quality of their mezcal is the result of this age-old approach. The Spaniards replaced the use of clay with copper during the Inquisition, while today’s largest mezcal companies (such as Monte Alban Mezcal) have since replaced horses with machinery.
The traditional copa (cup) of mezcal can be found at any mezcaleria in New York, but more often than not, the spirit’s rich flavor is simply shaken into a cocktail. Its lure entered the North American market in the late 90’s, and was embraced by the industry as a “new and cache” mixology concept. As a result, the mezcal cocktail fad in the United States exists within a bubble that is entirely foreign to Oaxacans. “When it comes to the [United States], the point isn’t to change the understanding of mezcal, because there is no understanding of mezcal in the first place,” said Lalo. It was Mexico’s third-largest alcoholic export in 2016 behind beer and tequila, generating more than $26 million, according to Mexico’s Department of Agriculture. Although the spike has brought business to small towns in the Mezquital Valley that were desperate for an economic boost, it has in turn placed an urgent call on the industry for sustainability reform. Mass-production has forced the use of younger magueyes, despite the quality of a mezcal depending on the full maturation of a plant, which can take between 7 and 25 years.
Over the past two years, Lalo has attended multiple sustainability conventions hosted by large corporations and private investors from all ends of the globe, who he refers to as “the mafia.” At almost every convention, he is the only farmer in the room. In order to bottle, sell, or import, a producer’s equipment and process must be routinely evaluated to insure that they follow the Appellation of Origin, enforced by Mexico’s Department of Agriculture in 1995. Therefore, the effort to produce and market it as a premium product outside of Mexico has a relatively short history. Lalo finds it frustrating that these parameters, deeming a mezcal as “certifiably authentic” or otherwise, were arrived upon without input from farmers, who are required to pay a fee in order to obtain certification. “Those who bring in money are the ones creating the guidelines for how to ‘properly’ practice a tradition that belongs to us, not to them,” he said. “Big producers need qualified workers with the right intentions, some education, and pride in what they’re doing.”
Last year, close to 80% of the industry’s profit was pocketed by companies like Pernod Ricard and Zignum (a Mexican company originally founded by a Coca Cola bottler), many of which have begun to buy out small producers, for whom land reforestation and waste management is first priority. For those who have simply purchased the torch, using natural forms of insecticide and conserving endangered types of maguey comes second to supplying the market. “That, to us, as farmers and as Mexicans, is an insult,” said Lalo.
Lack of consciousness about the sanctity of mezcal within Mexico has diluted its roots as well. Oaxaca has long been one of Mexico’s most impoverished states — in Santiago Matatlán, known as the “motherland” of mezcal production, a majority of liquid waste from scorched magueyes is emptied into the Santiago River. The excess acid pollutes the water, killing the fish and plantlife. Much of Oaxaca City’s outskirts are home to the oldest family-owned distilleries, best known as palenques. Because the necessary funding for proper waste management is entirely out of reach for small-scale operations such as these, increased demand has subsequently led to increased water pollution and destruction of land.
Having studied agronomy in the late 90’s, Lalo has closely observed how Oaxaca’s farmers have been impacted by the Green Revolution that preceded him. Chemical insecticides became an integral part of crop production in Mexico after their debut in the 40’s, making the prospect of a system reset unfathomable for old-school farmers. Lalo admits that he does not have the resources to ignite a revolution beyond Santa Catarina Minas — regardless, he wants to strengthen his own community using education. He believes that in order to solve the sustainability issues that have accumulated in recent years, producers must return to the old process. He plans to return to the school where he studied agronomy and facilitate a dialogue amongst students on how to rescue the old system and reclaim the magic of mezcal.
Luckily, he’s not the only member of a dying breed of sustainability-conscious producers — local-approved company Los Danzantes staffed by Oaxaca natives, all of whom are familiar with the nature of the maguey plant and the unpredictability of Oaxaca’s climate, so their solutions are ahead of the curve. With financial support from the company, the Ocotlan Valley’s University of Cioppino has employed a small team of students, biologists, and agricultural engineers to clone rare types of maguey that are on the verge of extinction, in an effort to conserve and reproduce them. “We are using a method called ‘micro-processing’,” says conservation specialist Jair Juan López, who has served as director of the project since its genesis two years ago. Because of the maguey plant’s extraordinarily long lifespan, it will be at least another 5 years until López can assess the project’s impact. “We’re trying to adapt the rare types so that when they’re transplanted from the greenhouse to the field, they survive.”
Moving forward, Northern American mezcal enthusiasts can act as allies in the effort to restore the spirit’s roots by learning, educating, supporting smaller operations, and drinking it straight.
Quotes from Eduardo ‘Lalo’ Ángeles Carreño have been translated from Spanish to English.