Ask the bartender: A last mezcal toast to Oaxaca
Sean Kenyon knows how to pour out both drinks and advice. A third-generation bar man with 25 years behind the bar, he is a student of cocktail history, a United States Bartenders Guild-certified Spirits Professional and a BAR Ready graduate of the prestigious Beverage Alcohol Resource Program. You can often find him behind the bar at Euclid Hall and here most weeks, where he'll answer your questions. But right now, he's in Oaxaca, and you can read the first , second and third installments of his travel diary here.
Day 4: Chichicapa and Santa Catarina Minas.
The dogs were at it again overnight, and the rooster, which I have named "Cocky," was right on cue at 4 a.m. Still, we managed to stay in bed until 7 a.m., ate breakfast together and then headed down to meet Ron at the bodega. Even though it was only 8:30 a.m, Pancho, Ron's partner at Del Maguey, and the guys were already up and bottling.
This morning we were in for a real treat:
Ron had mezcals from many villages that he has been working with. and we were able to try all of them. They were made from many varieties of maguey, including one that was a blend of Tobalá, Tepestate and Tobasiche. There were also Mexicano, Barril, Arroqeño and Cirial mezcals, from places like San Pedro Taviche and San Pedro Teozacoalco. Gable Erenzo of Tuthilltown (maker of Hudson whiskeys) had also sent Ron rye and bourbon barrels. and he'd aged some DM mezcals in them. We tasted both barrel finishes and compared notes.
By the time we had done all of that, we were running about two hours late -- and well-fueled. So we loaded up the cars and headed out to Chichicapa.
The ride to Chichicapa was much shorter than the previous days' drives, and it was mostly highway. After about an hour, we arrived at the roadside palenque. The palenquero, Faustino, was there to greet us, along with his son Maximino. Unlike the makers of tequila, which have specialized people for each step of the process (jimadors harvest agave, another person crushes agave, yet another ferments and distills), the palenqueros who craft mezcal do everything.They plant (with the moon phases -- they were biodynamic before the term was created), harvest, crush and distill.
As Ron's e-mail signature says: "Pre-Green, Pre-Organic, Pre-Fair-Trade. It's not a trend, it's a consciousness." In other words, these are not catch phrases, or a means to market a product; they're a way of life.
Faustino had just received a new fermenting tank and was happy to show it off, as well as show off his palenque. Like Paciano, he demonstrated his method of determining the ABV with a carizo (bamboo-like straw) and a jicara (half-shell gourd).
After our short tour, we gathered around the molino (the Oaxacan equivalent of the tahona, the stone wheel used to crush agave) and had several toasts with DM Chichicapa, the amazingly bold, smoky mezcal that Faustino crafts in his humble palenque. It is traditional for the host to start a toast by drawing a cross on the ground with mezcal from his cup and saying "Stigibeu" -- a Zapotec word that roughly means "to the lifeforce that is around us." He then looks everyone in the eyes and one of the guests will reply "Bakeen," which basically means "Drink!!!"
Throughout the trip, Ron's business partner and longtime friend, Pancho, was with us. He speaks both Spanish and Zapotec, and was able to translate for us because Spanish is a second language for the villagers of Chichicapa; Zapotec is their native language and they prefer to speak it. Faustino spoke about all of the new people coming to his village from the United States, looking for someone to make mezcal for them. He told us that they can try, but they will never be Ron Cooper. They will never be accepted in their community like Ron has been.
Faustino's love and reverence for Ron and Pancho was evident. Faustino told us of his history, and how his son Max would carry on making Chichicapa some day.
This is a common theme amongst the palenqueros...legacy, and the importance of family carrying on their life's work. Max had gone to university, but had returned to follow in his father's footsteps as a maker of excellent mezcal. He is getting married in November; Faustino invited us all. Even though we had just met, we were friends of Ron and Pancho, so to him that meant we were all friends as well. (Steve, his family, Danny and I are all going to that wedding.) Faustino invited us to meet the rest of his family and eat at his home, but we had to pass, because we were already two hours behind schedule.
We headed up the road to Santa Catarina Minas (SCR) to meet Florencio, maker of Del Maguey Minero and Pechuga. The climate in Chichicapa and SCR is more tropical and humid; we arrived mid-afternoon and it was extremely hot.
Florencio was waiting for us at the palenque. He is the oldest of Del Maguey's producers; Ron says that he has been telling him he is 79 for the last five years. Florencio is adamant that his mezcal be made in the same way it has been made for hundreds of years.
I thought we'd seen some rustic palenques, but Florencio's made them all seem modern. He still employs the use of clay stills or ollas (oy-yas) with bamboo tubing, whereas all of the other producers were using copper. He also crushed the maguey with large bats called bates (ba-tays) rather than the molinos that the others used. And his mezcal, Minero, is distinct as a result. Florencio also makes Del Maguey Pechuga, a rare (and very expensive) ceremonial mezcal that is only produced in December and January to celebrate the harvest. To make pechuga (which means breast), it starts with the already double-distilled Minero and a third distillation is added. Almonds, plums, apples, plantains, pineapples, anise and cinnamon bark are added to the still; a raw, skinless, bone-in chicken breast (washed in running water for three hours to remove all grease) is suspended in the air within the still. The breast is added to create balance and to prevent the mezcal from being too fruity, and the result is lightly fruity, leaning towards citrus, herbal with some mild salinity. Brilliant.
After a tour of the palenque, we walked over to Florencio's home, where his daughters, Marilu and Ema, were waiting with an amazing lunch of green mole with roasted pork, fresh corn tortillas and fried tortillas. We also drank many toasts with Minero and Pechuga. After lunch, we said our thanks and goodbyes and headed down the road about a mile to see Florencio's son, Luis Carlos, at his palenque.
Luis Carlos is the mastermind behind the Arroqueño Minas that we had on our first night; he also makes Pechuga and Minero. Like his father, he uses an olla -- but as evidenced by his Arroqueño, he is more of an innovator. We crushed agave with him, using the bates (he made us all look slow and lazy), and he served us more Minero, Arroqueño and Pechuga. He also put out a nice spread of fruits, nuts, homemade cheese and cusanos (fried red worms) that were salty and delicious. Luis Carlos was an amazing host and definitely (and righteously) proud of his mezcal and Palenque.
We had dinner reservations in Oaxaca and we wanted to stop at the market to pick up some mementos of our trip, so Pancho rounded us all up and we headed out.
Our dinner together was great. Good food, better conversation and much mezcal was consumed. I couldn't help but reflect on what an incredibly profound effect this trip had on my way of thinking -- and my liver. To see such passion, pride and tradition all executed with a casual elegance by the palenqueros had me awed and extremely content.
I'm now back in Denver, counting the days to my next visit in November.
I will leave you with a traditional saying that was scribbled on the stills in San Luis del Rio.
"Para todo mal mezcal, para todo bien tambien" -- for everything bad there is mezcal, for everything good as well.
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