Into the Maguey Mountains

I’m partial to Del Maguey single village mezcal. And not simply because my pal, Michael, is a partner in the company. (Though he has winced on the rare occasion he has discovered one of his competitor’s products in my liquor cabinet.) The mezcals are complex and delicious, I like the backstory, the commitment to preserving tradition, and the Ken Price labels. But I would become an even greater advocate upon traveling deep into Oaxaca with Mike, visiting two of Del Maguey’s palenques (where the mezcals are made), and meeting the men who make them.

Wild tobala agave at the Del Maguey bodega

It was a bright southern Mexico morning when the car picked up Mike and me, freshly filled up on breakfast mole and huevos, to head south out of the city and into the agave countryside. The day breaks open like an egg, the light harsh and silver as the swords of the espadin, elevation halfway to the sun and soon you are shielding your eyes. The landscape is dusty and weedy and cactusy, not the way I pictured Oaxaca, punctuated with the bursting spikes of the agave that will define our day.

Our first stop: The Del Maguey bodega in Teotitlan del Valle, where boisterous and cheerful local men fill green bottles by hand, slapping them with the brand’s distinctive colorful labels, singing along to songs on the radio as they do. Founder Ron Cooper’s dusty pick-up sits beneath a makeshift shelter, a truck that knows these roads well. “That’s Ron’s bed,” Mike says, pointing to an unadorned mattress and box spring in the upstairs of a simple brick building. There’s nothing precious about the Del Maguey bodega — it is a workshop.

*   *   *

My tour complete, I wander about the facility and surrounding dirt roads, deflecting feral dogs and large bumblebees as I examine strange flowers and nibble wild hoja santo leaves. Mike is discussing business with the bodega guys and Del Maguey guy-on-the-ground Gabe, a cool cat from Taos who speaks good Spanish and handles all sorts of stuff. Soon they call me over, I pull up a chair, they are pouring a new mezcal they are experimenting with. Mike hands me a small clay copita, the wine glass of mezcal. “Hang on to that, you’ll need it.” I take a Sharpie and mark it on the bottom: “TdV,” with a small hand-drawn agave, so when I get home I can distinguish it from all my other copitas as the one from the source.

The bodega

Excel spreadsheets saved, we depart and head south again. Some two hours into a winding road that rises and falls, shanks sharply left, crests in an espadin field and turns to dirt, we spy the Zapotec village of San Luis del Rio far off in the distance. Before we can reach the pueblo, we pull a hairpin right toward the river, and roll up to the palenque of Paciano Cruz Nolasco, master palenquero of Del Maguey’s flagship mezcal, VIDA.

There are huge vats of mashed agave capturing ambient yeasts from the air, large conical horno ovens dug into the ground, steaming stills, and piles of roasted agave piñas — the hearts of the maguey plants. I pull a honey-colored hunk from one of them and taste it. It is complex and sweet, somewhere between a long-roasted sweet potato and a caramelized pineapple, and if it wasn’t so fibrous could form the centerpiece of a dessert on a Michelin-starred menu.

Maguey mash in barrels

The stills

Roasted piñas

We are warmly greeted by Marcos, Paciano’s son, who is in charge of operations in his father’s absence. He combines Mike and me into one person: “Sean Michael! Like the wrestler.” He shows us around, discussing the palenque construction project (they are essentially doubling the size of the production facility to meet increased demand, while managing to retain the artisanal tradition of their process) with Mike and Gabe, while I snoop and take photos.

Soon, Marcos produces a hollowed gourd of fresh product he wants us to taste. Mike and Gabe fill their copitas, I have left mine in the car, so Marcos hands me the entire gourd. “That’s for you!” he smiles and laughs at the generous five or six ounces of approximate 100-proof mezcal still in the gourd. I make it through a few sips, and Marcos summons us to cross the river to visit his own personal palenque.

Marcos and his mezcal

Stigibeu at the source

My balance is compromised, and we must step across a couple dozen or so oddly shaped rocks fording a running river. A dog pushes past me midway through, I nearly tumble, but make it dry to the other side. Marcos is proud of his mezcal, a son trying to step out from the long shadow of his legendary father, and wants to know how it compares to the product across the river. His is much tastier, I assure him, although truth be told they taste pretty similar.

We raise our copitas (a vague sense of personal temperance has inspired me to retrieve mine from the car) and share the Del Maguey Zapotec toast I have recited so many times with Mike: “Stigibeu.” It feels special to be doing it here, at the source.

Eating soup at Casa Cruz Nolasco

To my astonishment, another three copitas in, I make it back across the river with dry feet. Marcos has invited us back to his house. It is less an invite, really, than an assumption. I pile in the back of his truck with one of his workers, we wind our way further along the dirt road until we reach the village, ascend a steep few switchbacks, and empty out onto the family’s open patio.

We meet his 8-year-old son, Alexander, who is fascinated by the gringos. More mezcal is poured, I ask Alexander about his age and school and so forth in my broken (shattered, actually) Spanish. Soon Marcos’ mother emerges from the old adobe kitchen (she has a new state-of-the-art-for-rural-Oaxaca kitchen, but prefers the old one) with steaming bowls of a white bean soup so comforting I instantly feel the last traces of my cold evaporating.

Marcos and Alexander

Marcos wants to show us his “apartment” located above his parents’ house. It is spacious and clean, a good place to bring a novia, he tells me with a wink. We have a last mezcal, “del estribo” (“for the stirrup”). Marcos embraces me. “You’ll be back Sean Michael, yeah?” I assure him I will. And somehow, I believe myself.

We have stayed longer than planned, and are running about two hours late to our next destination: Santa Catarina Minas. Ninety minutes later, the sun has winked out to a rust band on the horizon, the sky is darkening, as we roll up to the palenque of Luis Carlos Vasquez. Baby goats scatter and a cat makes a tortured sound from within a barn nearby.

The stills at Santa Catarina Minas

Santa Catarina Minas is less remote than San Luis del Rio, only 45 minutes from Oaxaca city and close to the other Del Maguey mezcal village of San Balthazar Chichicapa. The air is softer, the landscape lusher, the world feels more inhabited here. And the mezcal production is entirely different. Rather than the wide burro-pulled wheels used to mash the roasted maguey at San Luis del Rio, it is here done by men with heavy mallets. And the stills are made of local clay rather than copper.

Luis Carlos and his team make several of Del Maguey’s most prized mezcals — including Pechuga, named for the chicken breast that is suspended in the still for the third distillation, adding flavor and mojo along with wild apples, plums, red plantain bananas, pineapple and almonds (a sort of mole in  liquid form). Perhaps their most prized is Iberico, a mezcal made in the pechuga style, except with Spain’s legendary Iberico ham taking the place of the chicken breast.

Gabe and Luis Carlos

Had we come a day earlier, Luis Carlos informs us, we could have tasted the Iberico just out of the still. But it has already been picked up by Arturo from the bodega. He does, however, have pechuga for us to sip, as well as a mezcal made of a wild agave varietal the name of which I never quite grasped, and which will never make it to market for the small amount produced.

As we are sipping, Luis Carlos’ wife appears with some pumpkin seeds, a tray of something dark and lacquered, and a bowl of something even darker and more lacquered. These, it seems, are the fruits and Iberico ham from the previous day’s distillation. This, as it turns out, will be our dinner. And it may be the best I had on the trip. The fruit chunks are so dark as to be indistinguishable. But upon biting into any one of them, beneath the layers of caramel and smoke, you can recognize pineapple, plum, plantain, wild apple. The ham, best eaten in its silky cured state (think: prosciutto), is here rendered toothsome and sweet, while retaining its fatty hazelnut components.

Antojitos from the still at the Santa Catarina Minas palenque

Oaxacans are quick to embrace, a quality that suits me well. As we prepare to set back out into the dark, Luis Carlos takes me in a warm, fatherly hug and says some things to me in Spanish that I don’t understand, but it doesn’t matter anyway. Enough has been communicated through food and mezcal. I give a baby goat a pat on the head and climb back into the car.

Within a few minutes, we can see the lights of Oaxaca city in the distance, are soon bouncing over the topes speed bumps on the outskirts of town (“They call this ‘Topes City,'” Gabe tells us) and then back past the airport, tire shops, bars and taquerias, back into the historic center of the UNESCO World Heritage-listed city to our stylish urban hotel, still thinking of my new friends in their rustic pueblas, crafting this humble artisanal spirit the way their father and grandfathers have been for centuries. Tonight, I will sleep soundly in the warm aura of mezcal and the guileless eyes of the souls of Oaxaca.

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Andrea Cleall
    Jan 26, 2018 @ 04:13:08

    Sean, I LOVED that post. Your site would not take my comment, asked for id and finally website which it didn’t like evidently but that was so fascinating you should send it to a magazine. It’s far more interesting than most articles.

    Sent from Mail for Windows 10


  2. Trackback: Messengers of the Mezcal Gospel | skinny girls & mayonnaise

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