In wine – most wine, at least - place is identity. The wine reveals its origins, as the soil, the climate, and the geography all conspire to assert themselves in the bottle through the medium of the grape. The winemaker’s hand is also evident, but ideally he or she is only guiding what nature has done into its liquid form. So when a name - of a region, of a village, of an individual vineyard – appears on the label, it tells you something about the wine inside. Few other consumable, man-made products can so clearly and specifically reflect where they grew, but the Del Maguey company has added a new one to the list: Mezcal.
Long relegated to a lowly position as a frat party shot drink, mezcal and its subcategory tequila have joined the ranks of spirits capable of incredible depth and complexity alongside the great cognacs and single-malt scotches of the world. Most of the producers to achieve super-premium status are tequilas, but Del Maguey’s Single Village Mezcals stand right up there with them. Each of their products does indeed come from a single village and has a singular identity that speaks of its home.
Wandering Through Oaxaca
Ron Cooper, the President of Del Maguey, is an artist, and is deeply involved with the art and history of the Southwest United States and Mexico. In 1990 he made a three-month trip to Oaxaca. He had three different projects planned, one of which was to create a set of 50 hand-blown glass bottles, each featuring the profile of the Aztec god Ometotchli, who represents the myriad forms of intoxication. These were to be filled with great mezcal, so when not creating Ron wandered through Oaxaca with an eye out for deserving spirits. After a few trips down dirt roads to isolated villages he realized he had discovered some very special drinks.
When the time came to return to his home in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico, Ron loaded up his truck with his artwork and a dozen or so liters of mezcal to bring back and share with friends, only to be told at the border that one liter was the maximum limit under U.S. Customs law. This spurred Ron into entering the spirits business, because he felt certain that mezcal of this quality deserved to be shared more broadly.
From the Maguey
The product that Ron is so keen about is a distillate of the maguey (ma-gay) plant, also known as the agave. “Agave” is a Greek word meaning “noble” and was introduced by scientists to describe the species about 100 years ago (The Pre-Conquest name was “Metl.”). Whereas tequila is made exclusively from the blue agave, and can only be produced in the five Mexican states adjoining Jalisco, mezcal can be made from a number of different magueys throughout the country; the company’s name, appropriately, means “from the Maguey.” Del Maguey’s farmers harvest the plants when they are between seven and ten years old. Removing the leaves, they slowly roast the hearts (called “piñas” for their resemblance to pineapples) of the plants in an earthen pit for several days, covering them with palm-fiber mats, maguey fibers, and soil. Then, after resting in the shade for a week, the piñas are ground to a mash by horse-driven stone mills. The mash is transferred to large wooden vats and the only other ingredient, water (about 5%), is added. This then ferments for a month.
After fermentation, the palenquero (distiller) distills the liquor twice in wood-fired stills of copper or clay. The finished mezcal is not diluted as many other spirits are; if this were scotch we would say it’s a “cask-strength” product – proofing in the high 90s. Production is very limited (3,200 bottles a year for each village) because of the artisanal nature of production and a commitment to sustainable agriculture; since the maguey plant requires a long time to reach maturity long-term planning in this regard is essential. In fact, when tequila made its great jump in popularity several years back, many producers encountered a shortage in their most important ingredient. The Del Maguey Mezcals are entirely organic, being made exclusively from the maguey plant, without additives, and all these factors together place Del Maguey Single Village Mezcals in the high-end category, ranging from $36 to $200 in the store.
From Village to Village
As the wines of Nuits-St. George differ from those of Gevrey-Chambertin, so does the mezcal of San Luis del Rio from that of Chichicapa. At the moment Del Maguey produces four mezcals in their primary line, all of which were introduced in 1995 and ’96. Chichicapa is a village located at 7,000 feet above sea level in a valley separated from Oaxaca by a mountain range – about 4 hours away by car. Their mezcal has a lighter nose than some, with notes of lemon curd and lime. The complexity grows throughout each sip, filling out in the palate until smoky flavors blended with mint and chocolate on the finish. The Chichicapa and the San Luis del Rio were the company’s first releases. The nose on the latter is a complex blend of clove, smoke, lemon, and kumquat, and is followed by a creamy palate and a clean, sweet finish. The village is a similar distance from Oaxaca, in a hot, narrow valley, and the mezcal there is made exclusively from the Espadin (sword) maguey.
Santo Domingo Albarradas is at an even higher elevation – 8,500 feet above sea level – and the tropical surroundings, reminiscent of Hawaii, are tempered by pine trees and morning mists. Here Espiridion Morales Luis and his son Juan make a mezcal that evokes the surroundings with a citrusy nose supported by tropical fruits and spicy flavors. The finish is dry and warm. The only transportation out from the village is by burro, which adds another difficulty to production.
Del Maguey’s fourth mezcal, Minero, is made in the village of Santa Catarina Minas by another family of palenqueros, Florencio Carlos Sarmiento and his two sons. Their stills are made of clay and bamboo instead of the usual copper, and add a distinctive complexity to the liquor, which shows aromas of figs, baked apples, and vanilla, with floral overtones. Caramel and clove on the palate unfold into a long, sweet finish. A small portion of Minero was also used to create Pechuga, a special 2003 vintage mezcal. To make Pechuga, the palenquero puts some Minero back into the still for a third distillation, along with a variety of fruits – pineapples, plantains, mountain plums, etc. – as well as uncooked rice, almonds, and hazelnuts. Then a whole skinless chicken breast, heavily rinsed to remove any grease, is suspended inside the still; it serves to balance the fruit flavors. This special, third distillation yields a clear and delicate mezcal with aromas of light herbs, baked fruits, and lemon. The chicken flavor does come through, subtly, along with a slight briny note and some smokiness. Production is limited to 100-200 liters each year, as it can only be made in autumn when the necessary fruits are available.
A second new product which uses another mezcal – in this case, the San Luis del Rio – as a base is the Crema de Mezcal. By mixing 20% unfermented maguey honey back into the mezcal the palenqueros have lowered the alcohol and boosted the sweetness to create a luscious alternative to dessert wines. A nose of pears and vanilla becomes more tropical on the palate while flavors of roasted nuts emerge. Each sip wraps up in a cloud and smoke and orange rind with just the right acidity for a clean finish.
A last, limited production mezcal is Tobalá. Normally all of its production is consumed during a fiesta for the town’s patron saint, but Del Maguey convinced the village to make an extra portion in 2003 for a special bottling. The maguey plants used are wild and much smaller than normal because they grow inside narrow, high-altitude canyons under oak trees - like truffles - without as much sunlight as other plants receive; it takes about eight piñas to match one piña from magueys grown elsewhere. All of this creates a wonderfully complex drink: pear, guava, and spices on the nose blossom into mango and cinnamon and finally resolve in a smoke and white pepper finish. It’s no wonder that the villagers normally finish it all themselves.
Wrapping It Up
This distinctive and beautiful product is matched by distinctive and beautiful packaging. Los Angeles artist Ken Price (www.kenprice.com) creates the watercolors which are used for all of the artwork on the labels. Additionally the women of the villages of San Luis Amatlan and San Pedro Amatlan have adapted their basketweaving skills to create handwoven palm fiber bottle covers. Each mezcal receives a different design, based on traditional Zapotec or Mixtec Indian designs. It takes one woman one day to weave each one.
This one extra touch, which many might say is superfluous to the actual product, has created 200 jobs in areas that lack other significant industries, and is an example of Del Maguey’s commitment to the people behind their product. The company funds sustainable replanting of the agave plants as well as for other ecologically-friendly agricultural programs and community health care. They have created jobs that provide a reliable income where before incomes were sporadic, and their non-profit organization supports the indigenous communities of the area. They pay above the industry standard, and each village producer, weaving cooperative, and key administrative employee has a percentage of ownership in the company. With Del Maguey Ron Cooper has gone far beyond his original goal of bringing back some great mezcal for friends. As an artist he seems to have appreciated how the quality of a product is related to the hearts and community of the producers and is determined to foster this relationship for the benefit of all.