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Spirit of the People

Craft-distilled mezcal from Mexico’s small producers adds an earthy sophistication to what was once considered an unrefined pleasure

By Nancy Zimmerman | Photos by Marc Malin

Deep in the densely wooded mountains of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca lies the tiny village of San Cristóbal Lachirioag, a mystical place where Zapotec Indians have lived and worked for centuries. The region is littered with tree-shrouded ruins of palenques, the primitive stills that once converted maguey (agave) into mezcal, the alcoholic drink used by the villagers’ ancestors for the spiritual ceremonies that formed a significant part of Indigenous life.

Unfortunately, much of the town’s ancient knowledge of how to create the heady quaff has long since faded, along with San Cristóbal Lachirioag’s connection to its agricultural roots. Farmers there traditionally grew corn for export, but the rewards were slim. Always a poor village, its financial fate was sealed with the passage in 1993 of the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA, as local farmers were no longer able to sell their corn at prices that could sustain the growers and their families. The hard-working villagers thus did what so many of their counterparts elsewhere were doing: they came to the United States to find work as bussers, dishwashers, and waiters so they could send money home to support their families. As some 1,400 people of working age (out of a population of around 2,200) headed north and the town emptied out, the local culture became fragmented and the people’s music, legends, spiritual beliefs, and arcane knowledge quickly lost ground.

Today, however, the culture and economy are being revived, and the key to the village’s success is mezcal. In the early 2000s, San Cristóbal native Édgar González was working in San Francisco Bay Area restaurants and bars when he began to notice that Americans, always up for enjoying the latest trends in cocktail culture, were slowly warming to the idea of mezcal as a drink one could sip, like a fine cognac or a single malt scotch. Although he had never distilled the liquor himself, he decided that producing mezcal might be a good way to employ people and give local residents a reason to return to or remain in their town. González sent some money back to his father to purchase some land where together they could begin growing agave to reestablish the craft of distilling mezcal and, along with it, the fading culture it represented.

Around the same time, Santa Fe–based winemaker and filmmaker Scott Andrews, then residing in Northern California, became interested in mezcal, not only for its growing appeal as a sophisticated sipping spirit but also for its Indigenous roots and fascinating history. Andrews has a master’s degree in visual anthropology from Temple University and the Anthropology Film Center in Santa Fe, as well as a PhD in education, anthropology, and film from Stanford University. Through The Wisdom Archive, his nonprofit organization, Andrews produces, directs, and shoots award-winning documentary films about disappearing traditional cultures and their collective knowledge. The subject of mezcal appealed to him in particular because it combined his three passions: winemaking, ethnology, and film production.

Andrews had been seeking traditional producers to supply him with mezcal that he could age himself and then sell in the US, and González was an ideal candidate because he adhered to traditional growing and distilling methods. He cooked the maguey the time-honored way in an underground oven made of stone and adobe, then crushed it with a stone wheel called a tahona that was rotated by a horse walking in a circle. González had only found limited distribution for his mezcal, which he calls TOSBA, and Andrews saw an opportunity to help. “I bought four barrels of a special blend made for me by Édgar, shipped it un-aged to Santa Fe, and then aged it in a variety of French and American oak barrels for anywhere from 18 months to more than three years,” Andrews says.

While waiting for all the necessary import and production permits to come through, Andrews spent his time collecting used barrels from makers of chardonnay, cabernet, port, sherry, bourbon, and brandy. He then broke them apart and cut them into six-inch-long sticks that he used to “age” different spirits in the bottle. Blind tastings with friends led him to the barrel choices he uses in his barrel-aging program today. Andrews works with other mezcaleros throughout Mexico as well, always traditional distillers who hew to the ancient ways, which produce a clean, unadulterated product with a tantalizing smoky, earthy quality. “People often ask what the difference is between tequila and mezcal,” he says. “In fact, all tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. The difference is that tequila, originally produced in the Mexican town of Tequila, is made exclusively from the blue agave plants that grow in several states, and the name was restricted by law to apply only to mescal produced from blue agave in those regions.”

The blue agave used for tequila, he says, is grown from baby shoots that are replanted. It’s a monoclonal product—a plant that reproduces asexually from a single cell—so it’s susceptible to insects and plagues, which often necessitates widespread spraying of pesticides and herbicides. “As with all agaves, the center, or piña, of the plant is mostly starch, which doesn’t ferment unless it’s cooked,” Andrews explains. “In the industrial world of tequila, cooking usually is done with steam produced by burning fuel oil in huge stone or stainless steel ovens, and there is no contact with wood, smoke, or the earth. It’s also usually made with commercial yeast developed in a lab and accelerants that are added to speed fermentation. By law, producers of aged tequila are allowed to add caramel for color and glycerin to improve the mouth feel,
as well as oak essence and sugar. The small producers of mezcal use none of that.”

Mezcal goes by different names throughout Mexico because in 1995, a “Mezcal Denomination of Origin” limited official mezcal production to only eight of Mexico’s 32 states and required a costly certification process that excluded many small artisanal producers. “These unregistered producers, and those outside this strictly defined region, suddenly, after 500 years, could no longer call their product mezcal,” Andrews adds. “For this reason, all our products are simply labeled as ‘Spirits Distilled From Agave, Made in Mexico.’”

Another of Andrews’ sources is mezcalero Manuel Salcedo, who distills lechuguilla agave into a brew called raicilla in the mountains above Puerto Vallarta. It has a much more herbal, mineral flavor that’s less smoky because Salcedo uses an above-ground horno that bakes without much smoke, unlike the in-ground ovens. “The herbal characteristics really come through,” Andrews says.

Andrews named his aged mezcal Doña Tules in honor of Santa Fe’s legendary saloon owner, who purchased liquor in Mexico and brought it up the Turquoise Trail to her establishment, just as Andrews does today. Although he is not legally allowed to open a tasting room for his products because they are not distilled locally—“I’m a craft ager, but not a distiller,” he explains—he does sell to select restaurants, such as Sazón, Geronimo, El Farol, and Paloma in Santa Fe. Fans who want to enjoy the mezcal at home can join Andrews’ online club, For Sipping Only.

As a means of further assisting the people who actually make the mezcal, Andrews gives 50 percent of his profits back to cultural organizations and projects in each mezcalero’s village. The other 50 percent goes to The Wisdom Archive to help fund films about disappearing traditional cultures in New Mexico and around the world.

“I want to honor the people who make this,” Andrews says. “I’m in awe of their art, and I want it to be known.”