Mission StatementDel Maguey is deeply dedicated to the biodiversity and rich cultural heritage of Oaxaca. The Single Village Bulletin will provide a first-hand look into the processes of Del Maguey and our commitment to leaving a positive impactful footprint in Oaxaca. Through interviews with palenqueros to videos of production to in-depth looks at our sustainability projects, the Bulletin will give you a clear understanding of Del Maguey's devotion to the cultures of Mexico, social responsibility, environmental responsibility and our core values.
Smoke In The Valley: Reflections of a Mezcal Apprentice
A Three Part Series
By: Nicholas Priedite
– Chapter One –
A Sense of Place
As a cook and bartender, I am naturally attracted to smell and taste, sensations of the palate. You know, coffee brewing, onions sweating, chicken roasting, bread baking, steak searing, citrus being juiced, herbs being chopped, sensations that most of us cannot deny, pure culinary hedonism. Buen Provecho. As a craftsman, I am further inspired by authenticity and technique. Yes, I’m talking about the women who have been making tortillas for thirty years, the men who have been forging cast iron for three generations, the mothers who have passed down their cake recipe to their children, my grandmother’s hands, arthritic from a lifetime of gardening, the studious sushi apprentice obsessing over rice.
Over the past five years I have found myself hunting for new flavors, sights, smells, people, and art, in a journey to discover not only new tastes, but to better understand food and beverage; what it means to its specific culture, and more precisely, what that craft means to the individual. How crazy do you have to be to love something so much that you’ll continue to perform said task for the rest of your life? Is the goal of perfection such an unattainable accomplishment that eventually all you’re left with is a confused sense of purpose?
Despite my existential musings, the moral of this story, at least, is that there are people that crazy. I worked with people who love what they do because first and foremost, it is distinctly and meditatively theirs. More importantly, it serves others. Perfection is not the goal, rather, fulfillment is found in the process, the rewards received warmly through human connection. There is beauty in humility, and, I’ve found, this beauty often manifests itself in food and in beverage. This idea crystalized for me in Oaxaca, a place drenched in culture and craft.
Mezcal and I- An Introduction
My first encounters with mezcal were brief, messy, misunderstood, and normally intoxicated. We had fun, mezcal and I, but I was definitely left feeling a bit confused. We’ve since reconnected.
In my time organizing the bar program at The Lark in Santa Barbara, I began to have a much more informed and albeit, sober, experience with mezcal, thanks in large part to Michael Gardner and Jennifer Oakley from Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal. At this point, I had done considerably more research on the category since my raucous introduction and felt comfortable discussing the spirit behind the bar. However, I still did not have a firm grasp of just how ethereal and austere it really was.
One afternoon, Jennifer sat me down to taste me through Del Maguey’s various expressions. She began pouring and explained different varietals, terroir, tasting notes, and most importantly, producers. I became enamored by its complexity. I will never forget my first sip of Don Rogelio’s Wild Tepextate, its floral ripeness, earthbound, and lined with this certain fruit component, something I had never tasted before. As I’m mulling the aromas and flavors through my head, she says it, “Banana taffy.” I lost it! Bought two bottles for the back bar on the spot. Recommending a sip to discerning customers became like a handshake between those in the know.
Until this point, I had never experienced such complexity in a distilled spirit. There were so many different flavors running across my palate, delicate yet rugged, clean but with so much depth. Call it discovery, call it love, call it timing, either way, mezcal had found me. Isn’t it funny how a few drunk and confusing nights can turn into a lifelong love affair?
My relationship with Del Maguey Partner, Michael Gardner, really solidified my connection with mezcal. Although we met through business and the bar, we have become good friends. He is someone I value as a friend and mentor. Not to mention his genuine and overall good-hearted sharp wit. Love you hermano. I have to thank him for the conversations we have had and continue to have surrounding mezcal, because they have always pivoted into overarching concepts of life, our experience of it, and who we are to become within it. And it was during these conversations with him that he had begun to dig into the true focus of what mezcal meant to him; from Del Maguey’s origins to Mexico and its people.
I continued to express my interest in the spirit, not only from a flavor and sensory standpoint, but from an orientation of craft as well.
Being a cook whose focus is barbecue; simplicity and fire have become two indoctrinated principles of what I do. I have travelled the United States meeting different barbecue chefs, understanding their craft and culture so that I could gain a better understanding in an effort to refine my own culinary skills. I may have devoured my weight in brisket and pork ribs by now. I mean, you could very well throw my greasy keister on the grill.
After learning more from Michael about the producers and the physical process of making mezcal, derived from agave, fire, and water, I began to notice some fascinating parallels between mine and their craft. Welcome to the culinary twilight zone.
I was at a certain point in my life where I was hungry to adventure, to be lost, and to discover something that could not be explained, but had to be experienced. Something wild, primitive, complex, and very much misunderstood and undiscovered, was calling me 2,000 miles away. Michael knew it and he helped steer me there.
I landed in Oaxaca City at the beginning of Dia de los Muertos, October 2019. I had been to Oaxaca before, but this was a whole new ball game. Sights, sounds, smells, energy, everything was elevated, reawakened, and seemed revitalized. The irony being that this week of celebration surrounds death. The Western, or at least Anglo, perspective of death is grim; eat, sleep, shit, pay taxes, die, and ashes; a discounted urn if you’re lucky. But in Oaxaca, the departed are celebrated, not so much mourned, but continually lived with in spirit. I’m not saying I danced and partied with some ancestors, but if there was ever a time and place in this world to live with them, this is it. It was refreshing to see tears, joy, and celebration in the face of death; something I had learned to be so decaying and absolute. It was real, and resonated within me, especially during a time when I had just lost my grandfather. I also found myself in a few situations where I had moments of clarity, of being totally present, all while experiencing my own sort of personal ego death.
I had crossed the Mexican border, into the mountains, on a journey to better understand the enigmatic and wild spirit of mezcal, but had also encountered a critical turning point in my life, a molting, similar to that of the snake, shedding the old, wearing the new, refreshed. There we go with the existentialism again. But it was true.
I was very lucky to be hosted in Oaxaca City by Gabe Bonfanti, Del Maguey’s Head of Sustainability and Misty Kalkofen, Del Maguey’s Madrina. They let me crash with them at their home, took me to a number of mercados, fiestas, panaderias, restaurantes, tiendas, and natural landmarks. They even helped set up an altar for my grandfather, a very common tradition during Dia de los Muertos, set with marigolds, bread, fruit, candles, and mezcal. I will never forget it. Even now, I can still feel him there, at that moment. I can’t thank Gabe and Misty enough for their hospitality; we shared some great experiences, and some great mezcal. Stigibeu!
Although my three years of studying Spanish in high school and seven years of filthy kitchen Spanish got me this far, my flaws were exposed deep in Mexico. Not quite as polished as I would have liked it to be. I fared well at markets and restaurants, but definitely was not ready to share a polite and concise conversation with any abuela, explaining why I didn’t have a wife yet. Aye, mijo.
Nonetheless, the plan was set. I was to spend four weeks in San Luis Del Rio, making artisanal mezcal and live with the family of Paciano Cruz Nolasco, an original Del Maguey producer for 25 years and the architect behind Vida Mezcal. I will be working with his son Marcos Cruz in his Palenque, which he had built himself. Formal language or not, I felt prepared. Everything was where it needed to be and I was ready to go. Vámonos muchachos!
Agave Management Initiatives
Environmental responsibility is one of the central tenets that anchors our impact philosophy.
Del Maguey and its mezcal producing partners participate in a variety of agave management initiatives. Each program is unique to the needs of environmental stewardship to meet growing market demand.
Agave Espadin (A. angustifolia Haw.) is the primary cultivated agave used in the mezcal industry and the Del Maguey portfolio. These agaves reproduce in three ways. Genetically diverse plants are reproduced sexually through seed pollination, via pollinators such as bees, hummingbirds, moths, bats, and opossums. Genetic clones of the mother plant reproduce asexually through rhizomes and bulbils. Rhizomes are underground offshoots that grow beside the mother plant and bulbils (pods) form on the flowering stalk of the quiote at the end of the plant’s life cycle.
Del Maguey producers and agronomists utilize all three reproduction methods to ensure genetic diversity and effective plantation management of Agave Espadin.
Wild Agave Management in Del Maguey Producing Villages
For agave that grows in the wild there are a number of different strategies employed for sustainable agave management.
Each producer within their community has to abide by local governance policies regarding their wild agave populations.
For example, in the communities of Santo Domingo Albarradas and Santa Maria Albarradas the local municipality has a strict policy that locally harvested agave must be transformed into mezcal in the village. This implies that outside parties cannot purchase agave directly for production in other areas of the state. The producers inform Del Maguey what their annual allotment of each agave will be and this dictates the maximum production of that varietal for the year. For generations, this is how the natural resource has been successfully managed.
Other producers, in San Luis del Rio, San Jose Rio Minas, San Pedro Teozacoalco and Santa Catarina Minas have their own nurseries where they cultivate wild agave expressions from seed.
Wild Agave and Tree Nursery in Teotitlan del Valle
Del Maguey is also working with local communities to have greater nursery infrastructure to grow plants from seed. In 2019, Del Maguey built a nursery in Teotitlan del Valle, where our bottling bodega and offices are located, in support of our sustainability strategies. This nursery is growing wild agave and trees from seed as part of its overall reforestation program. The nursery has a local water source and the water is distributed to the plants via solar energy water pump. Currently, Tobala, Tepeztate, Cuishe, and Espadin are being cultivated along with the trees, Guamuchil, and Red Oak.
In 2020, we delivered thousands of Tobala, Tepeztate, Madrecuishe, and Jabali seeds that are now being germinated in these nurseries.
In 2021 we will replant these saplings, first in controlled environments if they need to grow an additional year, and then in the local communities who participate in this reforestation program.
By definition, these plants are semi-wild due to the human intervention in their development. But since the survival rate of seeds grown to full maturity in the wild is not very high, 2,000:1 or so, programs like this are meant to support the rate of survival from seed to full plant maturity in their natural and wild ecosystems.
From well-planned maguey cultivation strategies to reforestation projects that address ecosystems and wild agave, our environmental mission focuses on leaving a positive, impactful footprint in the majestic Oaxacan terrain.
Zapotec Talking Dictionary Platform
Oaxaca, Mexico has a rich linguistic and cultural diversity, with 16 different indigenous language families and more than 50 different languages, a large part of which is at serious risk of disappearance. Recently, new generations access to the internet is giving presence to indigenous languages in digital spaces as part of the linguistic resistance in these communities. Access to the internet has provided a legitimate platform for these languages to be documented, shared and uploaded, which offers an authentic place to write these languages and resists the predominance of colonial languages in digital media.
The most common indigenous language spoken in Oaxaca’s mezcal producing regions is Zapotec.
In 2019 Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal committed $23,000 USD, raised through Chichicapa Boca del Cerro Mezcal Limited Edition to participate with Swarthmore College in their renowned Talking Dictionary Program, whose previous work with Zapotec can be found here: (https://talkingdictionary.swarthmore.edu/zapotecs).
A talking dictionary is an online multimedia resource (audio, video, photo, text, maps) that is constantly expanding. It is created by the community, owned by the community, and completely attributed by name to all contributors.
Spearheaded by Gabriel Bonfanti the Director of Sustainability for Del Maguey, the project will be a collaboration between the Village of San Balthazar Chichicapam and Dr. Kate Riestenberg, a linguist and specialist in the revitalization of Zapotec languages. The International Community Foundation (San Diego) and the Fundación Comunitario Oaxaca (Oaxacan Community Foundation) will handle donations and help administer the project on the ground.
Indigenous Language Revitalization
Talking dictionaries support language revitalization efforts in several ways. First, the dictionary offers a freely accessible collection of any aspect of the language that is important to the community. This is urgent, because the number of speakers of indigenous languages in almost all the indigenous communities of Oaxaca is decreasing. Even when there are still speakers, specialized knowledge integrated with the language can be lost first, for example terminology related to traditional dances or medicinal uses of plants. The talking dictionaries also serve as a didactic material for languages that do not have many pedagogical resources.
Creating a talking dictionary can offer an authentic ‘pretext’ for writing the language. This helps break the possible vicious circle in which poorly written languages are found: writers (potentially) hesitate to write in a language that has few readers and, at the same time, many speakers hesitate to learn to read a language in which there is nothing to read (Lillehaugen 2016).
The challenges presented by this type of project include how to organize digital archives, how to work in a systematic way, how to make decisions about language writing, and how to maintain long-term digital collections. Dr. Riestenberg and Swarthmore College, in collaboration with Del Maguey, will help address these challenges, because they are trained in the development of alphabets, bring the experience of having established talking dictionaries in other communities in the region, and commit to maintaining the sites on the internet in the long term, with all copyrights always belonging to the community.
15% of the donated funds have been earmarked for administrative purposes and project execution from the partnering NGO’s
25% is for specialists stipends, travel and lodging costs
10% is for food
15% is for transportation
15% is for technology goods
20% is for project continuation over the course of 2020-2021
Following Chichicapa, Del Maguey will continue to implement the Talking Dictionary with the intention to expand this program in other Del Maguey Mezcal producing villages.
Please follow along as we publish our progress and developments.
If you wish to donate to this project please visit this link at the International Community Foundation and find the Del Maguey sub-fund for Fundación Comunitario Oaxaca. Thank you very much!
Limited Edition Bottle- Del Maguey Chichicapa Boca del Cerro
In the spring of 2005, Del Maguey founder Ron Cooper and local farmers planted a hectare of young espadin in Teotitlan del Valle. Placed on ancient terraces at the step of the Zapotec village’s sacred mountain, Quie Guia Betz, or Cerro Picacho, the terraces were named Ru’u Dain in Zapotec, or Mouth of the Mountain in English, and Boca del Cerro in Castellano. In exchange for renting the land and providing the raw materials, Ron would control 50% of harvest when plants matured, and the farmers the other 50%.
Over the next ten years, the maguey espadin grew slowly, suffocated by weeds as the farmers outright neglected their care.
Compared to how espadin hearts generally develop, these did not grow to even a quarter of their average size, but their root system flourished, benefiting immensely from the long fallow soil.
When Del Maguey producer Faustino Garcia Vasquez in San Balthazar Chichicapam took a look at them he informed Ron he could make a fine mezcal with these small hearts.
True to the original 50-50 accord, Ron split the harvest with the farmer, and Faustino and son Maximino converted the entire hectare into about 800 liters of what soon became known as Del Maguey Chichicapa Boca del Cerro.
Boca del Cerro (BdC) is a wonderfully complex expression and does not taste like any other Espadin Faustino had previously made. Although it certainly exhibits his signature central valley style of quality and careful craftsmanship, it also exudes the struggle of the unkempt magueyes survival and the dry but complex terroir of Teotitlan and the Boca del Cerro climate and soil.
Limited Edition Release
In 2019, BdC was exported to the U.S. as a limited edition expression, in which 33% of the proceeds from the export sale would be channeled into a community and charity of Del Maguey’s choosing.
Boca del Cerro can still be purchased in the continental US. By supporting projects like these, it will help us to roll out more like- minded initiatives in the future.
As of February 2020, Del Maguey has raised US $23,000.
Our intention is to demonstrate transparency to our consumers as well as to all partners, participants and beneficiaries of the outlined proposal about plans, progress, even pratfalls so that mistakes are not duplicated in the future.
In the next blog post, we will describe the project and it’s current developments.
Since 2015, increased rates of deforestation have been reported in Oaxaca, rates generally attributed to 1) Mining 2) Agriculture 3) Livestock 4) Forest fires 5) Plagues and 6) Illegal logging.
Oaxaca is covered with dense forests and has some of the highest biodiversity levels of any state in Mexico. Some local communities have begun to develop sustainable forestry practices around Oaxaca. Supporting improved efforts to develop these practices with local communities is where Del Maguey is focusing its energy.
Mezcal producing regions are not always located in agave growing regions, which are not always located in timber growing regions. Nonetheless, thanks to mezcal’s global success, these regions are inextricably linked together. As a result, it is important for local and regional communities, businesses and governments to work together in managing natural resources in Oaxaca.
Following sweeping agrarian land reforms in the Mexican Revolution, Mongabay, an Environmental News Organization, reports that presently:
“Seventy-eight percent of Oaxaca is held under communal land tenure, whose communities have the legal right to decide land uses within their community. However, this right is limited as the federal government holds the mineral rights to the land and the right to regulate timber extraction.”
This unique condition in Mexico and Oaxaca makes it imperative to work at the local level on a community by community basis.
Del Maguey Reforestation
Del Maguey counts as part of its sustainability team in Mexico, Elvia Del Refugio Vasquez, a forestry professor and apiarist and Jose Mendoza Martinez, a Naturalist who manages Del Maguey’s nursery program along with Elvia. Elvia and Jose’s passion for environmental conservation reflects Del Maguey’s values and interests.
In September 2019, in collaboration with Del Maguey Maestro Mezcalero Luis Carlos Jr, Sustainability Director Gabe Bonfanti, Jose, Elvia, and three of Elvia’s forestry program students planted 500+ trees on land near the mezcal producing village of Santa Catarina Minas. They planted tree species that palenqueros/mezcaleros employ in their roasts due to their unique reproduction methods and/or growth patterns. These are huamuchil, guaje, and encino. The timing coincided with the onset of a late rainy season, and nearly all of the trees have survived.
Del Maguey’s goal is to plant thousands of trees, either directly or in collaboration with other like minded communities, businesses or programs.
In the pilot program DM organized and financed this effort in support of its sapling nursery, and the trees’ transplantation to deforested grazing land.
Our plan is to continue to support similar efforts across Oaxaca’s diverse landscapes; working with local communities to identify and plant the right type of saplings in deforested areas.
This plan will also include working with the Forestry University in Oaxaca, CEFCOR, el Centro de Educación y Capacitación Forestal to provide sapling grants, that we can transplant to bare zones.
Additionally this program will be open to our many friends in the bartender community around the world to participate and volunteer in planting trees with us and the local communities.
Volunteering is a major aspect of successful planting missions!
We are excited to continue reporting each year about new reforestation projects.
Del Maguey has taken the lead with Heifer Project International and The Pernod Ricard Foundation to extend a program named Replicando Oportunidades (Replicating Opportunities) in Del Maguey producing villages. The Replicating Opportunities project seeks “the economic and social improvement of the mezcal producing families of Oaxaca, from production, income diversification and the sustainable use of the maguey within the value chain.” The program, which began in 2016, has produced positive outcomes in the village of Sta. Ana del Rio, Oaxaca, including, but not limited to, agroecological management, food security and nutrition.
Del Maguey invited Heifer International to replicate one specific program campaign focused on food security in the villages of Santo Domingo Albarradas and Sta. Maria Albarradas. Del Maguey and Heifer International presented the program to the local municipalities and received approval to move ahead with a program that brought free range chickens, their associated infrastructure and requisite training model to over twenty families in the two small villages.
Egg Laying Hens and Infrastructure
Over the course of three months, the families received training from Heifer’s Guilibaldo Garcia in the basic handling of posture birds. The training included oversight of the design and construction of the chicken coop (minimum space 4 chickens/ m2), the equipment necessary for the chicken coop; drinking fountains, feeders, nests, hangers, windbreak curtains, and training in what kind of feed to use and how the savings would benefit each family over the egg laying span of the chickens (about 1.5 years).
Each family received twelve chickens and within three months every chicken began laying multiple eggs per day. The families were thrilled.
Pay it Forward/Pase en Cadena
A strong precept of Heifer’s principles that align with Del Maguey’s values is the idea that families who benefit from these programs are expected to pay it forward to other families.
In the case of the chickens, families came from different villages who have participated in the Replicating Opportunities Program; Sta. Ana del Rio, San Lorenzo Albarradas and Union Zapata.
When there are other families who have been identified within this program who need chickens to start their own coop, the families who received the chickens pictured will also pay it forward, in different Oaxacan villages.
We are happy to report that this particular campaign has been a success!
At any palenque you are likely to see piles of bagazo, the fibers left over after both fermentation and distillation. In reasonable quantities the vinaza (liquid by-product) and bagazo, if cooled and separated, can both serve useful purposes. The bagazo can be used as or converted into feed, fertilizer, mulch, or compost. Certain local vegetation also naturally neutralizes and even utilizes vinaza as organic nutrients. But as demand and production increases so does the amount of vinaza and bagazo. Despite the current lack of government oversight in this area, we, as some others do, feel it is our responsibility to figure out how to meet demand while managing our waste naturally, organically and sustainably.
Sustainable Solutions in San Luis del Rio
In 2018, we began working with Alejandro Montes Gonzalez and his company COAA, who have advanced experience in the formulation and resistance testing of compacted earth construction. In the case of Mezcal, Alejandro studied and assisted with the traditional adobe making techniques in Santa Catarina Minas with Graciela Angeles of Real Minero that utilizes earth, bagazo and vinaza. He also collaborated with the forward-thinking team at Sombra Mezcal to offset much of their by-product generation with a novel assembly line of adobe brick production that benefits communities in the Mixe, Santiago Matatlan and other communities in Oaxaca. This is an amazing program, and it is functioning quite well with the different brands around Matatlan who are participating.
Del Maguey needed to implement a different system in San Luis del Rio due to its remote location and limitations on the banks of the Rio Hormiga Colorada River.
Making New Land
The answer, thankfully, came from Ron Cooper, who said, “Why don’t we just build new land?” We just had to find a method that was economically and sustainably feasible.
The first iteration of new land construction in San Luis del Rio created an extension of the Palenque that measured 4.5 m in height x 16 m in length and 9 m wide. Using a formula based on the principle of 30% vinaza, 30% bagazo, 30% earth, and 10% lime, Alejandro and COAA began work on an enclosed structure that was filled with this material, a material that when tested in earthquake conditions, is more resistant than many other building materials, including cement and concrete.
This extension to Paciano’s palenque incorporated over 100 tons of bagazo, 150,000 liters of vinaza and 60 tons of earth set between prefabricated concrete walls and columns.
We sponsored a scholarship for Alejandro to continue his studies at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, where sustainable compact earth construction is a vanguard approach to land development.
In the meantime, Del Maguey has continued to build new land. Since July 2018, Del Maguey has incorporated 600 + tons of bagazo and 500,000+ liters of vinaza in this project. It has effectively created a large patio that will act as a petri dish for phyto-remediation projects, a river causeway, and the base on which another vinaza neutralizing project is underway. These combined projects will occupy all of Del Maguey’s by-product generation for years to come.
Gravity Fed Filtration
An important part of the process of neutralizing the vinazas before they can be used is regulating their pH. Alejandro helped design a simple and effective gravity fed filtration system to decant bagazo fiber and sediment from vinaza liquid. As the vinaza decants, it cools. This regulates the pH level of vinazas which is one of the most harmful aspects of releasing this organic by-product into waterways. The gravity-fed system ends in large 25,000 liter cisterns, where the liquid continues to cool. Step by step, we are constantly improving our methods to neutralize contaminating effects of this organic by-product.
We are very happy and proud to share with you the work we have done with Paciano over the past few years in San Luis del Rio. We are excited to be working with forward-thinking scientists, engineers and producers who are constantly striving to improve our practices while not compromising the tradition and culture of Mezcal. We will continue to actively pursue opportunities to use our waste in ways that will be beneficial to our producers and the communities we touch and we will continue to update the blog with our progress along the way.
In November of 2016 Del Maguey broke ground on a project to scale Paciano Cruz Nolasco’s palenque in San Luis del Rio without compromising the traditional methods of production. Throughout this project we have collaborated with Paciano and his family, scientists, engineers and architects in order to develop a facility that maintains the artisanal methods of making Mezcal while incorporating aspects of modern technology to render the operation sustainable and environmentally friendly.
Our first challenge was to meet a growing demand for Vida while maintaining the cornerstones of traditional Mezcal production. For Del Maguey that means being mindful of the following aspects of production:
- Sustainable planting, growing and hand-harvesting only completely ripe magueys
- Roasting the maguey in a conical, earthen horno on heated stones fired by wood
- Ambient natural fermentation in open top wooden tinas using only local yeasts with no inoculation or additives to enhance the process
- Distillation by hand including agave fibers in small, direct fire alembic stills
In order to scale in an artisanal manner we have replicated production by increasing infrastructure. At the completion of this latest project Paciano’s palenque in San Luis del Rio will have a total of four hornos (roasting pits), three electric molinos, 92 wooden open-top fermenters, and 18 small, 300L copper alembic stills.
For those who are fans of Paciano you will notice that with the completion of this project San Luis del Rio will be using electric molinos. As we began to scale, simple computing showed us that in order to meet the growing demands for VIDA we would need dozens of horses as well as dozens of workers for their care. Several years ago the Mexican government issued gas powered desgarradoras (shredders) to minimize this labor-intensive work. While functional and well within the norma for artisanal Mezcal production, we wanted to keep moving towards a more environmentally friendly solution.
Working with engineers, we set our sights on creating an energy efficient, clean air electric molino as an alternative to gas-powered motors and overworked horses. In addition to preventing the release of fluorocarbons, early results indicate that they may also increase yields from the maguey, decreasing the amount of raw material needed for each liter of Mezcal and lessening the stress on the burgeoning demand for agave.
Thank you so much.
We at Del Maguey are deeply honored and humbled by the overwhelming acceptance and appreciation of Mezcal VIDA by the trade since we first brought this liquid art to the world in 2010.
Ron Cooper founded Del Maguey in 1995, at least a decade before the beginning of the Mezcal Renaissance we are living in now. Since the beginning we have been dedicated to preserving the ancient culture of Mezcal by protecting the traditional methods of production that have been passed down generationally for centuries. We remain committed to making each Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal by hand in the traditional way.
In 2006, Paciano Cruz Nolasco took a trip to Chicago with Ron and while there, they visited Paciano’s son, Marcos, who was working in Indiana. Although Del Maguey had been around for over ten years, at that time only a few discerning members of the trade had come to appreciate the craft of the Del Maguey producers. While traveling, Paciano astutely recognized that the 45+ ABV was still too strong for much of the U.S. palate and suggested the development of a lower proof traditional Mezcal to introduce the beauty of the category to a wider American market. Our mission was to produce a handcrafted Mezcal using artisanal production methods that bartenders could sip, savor and enjoy in a copita, but could also be used in cocktails. What we didn’t know was that the success of this Mezcal mission would also result in economic influx and employment in San Luis del Rio that would diminish the need for community members to cross the border in search of economic opportunities as Marcos had done.
This user-friendly Mezcal we were seeking had to be true Mezcal, made traditionally, and had to represent the core values of Del Maguey. Paciano spent the next few years developing what would become Vida, a Single Village Mezcal full of flavor and acidity that is distilled to lower proof without compromising his art or traditional practices.
When Vida was launched in 2010, there were only a few of us out there trying to get people to embrace handcrafted Mezcal. Today Mezcal is reaching an ever-growing group of consumers beyond the bartenders, chefs and sommeliers who embraced this spirit years ago. If you trace the history of the growth of Mezcal globally, all roads take you to Paciano, the village of San Luis Del Río, and ultimately the launch of VIDA. It was VIDA that made Mezcal accessible, gave bartenders their chance to feature Mezcal in affordable cocktails, and led to Mezcal becoming popular enough to be acknowledged by the trade as its own category.
As the interest in Vida spread, we knew that changes would have to be made in order to scale up the production to meet its growing popularity. At the same time we remained deeply committed to maintaining quality, embracing the inherent flavors of Single Village artisanal Mezcal, and honoring the traditional methods of production and the hand of the maker, Paciano. Even as we fostered organic and sustainable growth, this growth created new challenges and dynamics to scale responsibly with conscious environmental stewardship.
Over the next several blog posts we will be sharing our journey with you. There have been challenges and frustrations and ever-expanding timelines along the way, but through our work with Paciano, Marcos and their family as well as talented scientists, academics, and engineers we have built a Palenque that is respectful of the tradition, heritage and culture of Mezcal production while addressing the sustainability issues being faced in the growing category of Mezcal. We are excited to share with you the results of our nine-year trek.
Communications with the outside world in the small maguey growing and mezcal producing community of San Luis del Rio, Oaxaca have developed at their own pace. The first telephone line was installed in one location in the village around fifteen years ago. Anyone calling for one of the pueblo’s five hundred inhabitants would call this line. The responder would take a message and ask the caller to call back in fifteen or twenty minutes. The message would then be broadcast over the village megaphone, still a staple in this, and many other Zapotec and remote villages, with ejidal or land grant privileges.
The scratchy mega phone would announce that Don or Doña (insert name here) had a phone call and if they were hearing this, could they please come to the little house, or caseta, to wait for the caller to make their second, or third, or fourth attempt at the connection.
Above: The village megaphone playing music for Asunciona, Paciano’s wife, at the crack of dawn on her birthday.
Satellite television arrived before most homes could be outfitted with their own private landline. Even still, the private lines did not have Oaxacan area codes, tapping into a system fraught with fallibility. Del Maguey’s producing partners, the family of Paciano Cruz Nolasco, went through five different phone numbers and landline variations between 2014-2018.
Nariz a Nariz
The beauty of this pockmarked version of progress entailed that all real interactions had to be done in person, or nariz a nariz (nose to nose) as Ron Cooper, Del Maguey Founder and Keeper of the Customs frequently adages.
Yet San Luis del Rio is not particularly close to what some might like to call “the action.” As the roadways have steadily improved over time, it remains a two and a half hour drive from Oaxaca de Juarez, and two hours between the Del Maguey bottling bodega in Teotitlan del Valle.
Townspeople intent on conducting their maguey cultivation or mezcal production businesses via cellular networks could catch their first whiff of a signal in the town of Totalapam, one hour from San Luis del Rio towards Oaxaca, or in the maguey growing community of Soledad Salinas, another hour in the other direction, towards the Mexican Isthmus.
As far as internet goes, the story remained the same, with brief glimmers of a breakthrough into the breathtakingly gorgeous, and signal stopping valley leading to the town. In 2017, one family managed to install a basic satellite internet system in their home. They would sell fichas, or time chips to those patient enough to wait ten or twenty minutes to pull up their email or Facebook account.
As a result, Del Maguey’s team in Mexico has spent the last few years exploring various options to learn if there were any viable technologies available to bring either telecommunications or a dependable internet service to the village.
In Teotitlan del Valle, we found success bringing competition to that village in order to convince the national communications giant that these villages deserve improved infrastructure and customer service.
Skynet-No not that one
After enough research and budgeting, we received the news from Sky Net, a rural internet provider in Oaxaca, that it would be possible to install a tower to tower radio wave signal in San Luis del Rio.
A handful of other providers had always told us that yes, it would be possible to install this type of system in the village, but due to the outlay of the valley, we would most likely have to install a series of towers, at quite a high cost, in order to deliver the signal there.
With Skynet, they explained that with one well positioned tower near the Oaxaca-Veracruz border, there was an opening created by the dip in the rolling hills above San Luis del Rio.
Installing a Signal
We set out one morning in August 2018 with machetes in hand, and made our way to the top of the hill where the receiving signal tower could be installed. It took us about three hours clawing and chopping through under and over brush, but we found the ideal spot for the tower.
From there, everything moved extremely fast. Del Maguey was already happily committed to paying the installation costs for the first twenty families who wanted internet.
The tower was installed within two weeks, and the twenty homes (including the DM Palenque) all had internet signal before the end of August. Not only that, because no telecommunications companies are working in the area, each house now has an outside line that allows them to make any phone call across North America, for free, for five minutes. Then the connection is stopped and they simply have to call back again, if need be. A lot of important conversations can be had in five minutes. Add in Whatsapp, and wifi messaging, and San Luis del Rio has access to nearly every medium afforded the rest of the state.
After a couple months of observation, the installation appears to be a success. There was always some hesitation thinking of certain negative circumstances that come with more accessibility to any kind of information, but that preoccupation has been short lived.
Access to education and information is a basic human right, one that has been denied or seriously impeded in many Oaxacan communities over time.
As a result, we are happy to have accomplished this task from the purview of social sustainability, and are looking forward to continue reporting on various other projects that are underway.
Norma Oficial Mexicana 070
In April, 2017, the Consejo Regulador de Mezcal (CRM) implemented the first revision of the Norma Oficial Mexicana 070 (NOM 070) since the inception of the Denomination of Origin of Mezcal in 1995. NOM 070 provides the compulsory standards and regulations for the category of Mezcal and since 1995 this NOM was strikingly similar to NOM 006, the equivalent regulation for the category of Tequila. The revisions to NOM 070 were first proposed in 2015 and the goal was to create a Norma created specifically for the category of Mezcal that would protect the producers while providing category designations and labeling requirements that would make information more readily available to the consumer. The announcement of the proposed revisions was then followed by a period of discussion during which there were a series of meetings that provided producers throughout the DO an opportunity to offer opinions and feedback about the proposed revisions. During this time traditional mezcal producers, including the producers of Del Maguey, organized and advocated for modifications to the proposed revisions that would protect the culture of artesanal mezcal. This organization of mezcaleros successfully advocated for the removal of restrictions on the levels of acidity, the backbone in the spirit of Mezcal. However, at the same time, lesser-known amendments were made to NOM 070 that are affecting artesanal producers throughout the Denomination of Origin of Mezcal. As a result of these amendments, over the next few months you will see an increase in the ABV of some expressions of Del Maguey and we would like to explain why.
The revision of NOM 070 resulted in new restrictions on the levels of furfural and methanol in Mezcal. Furfural and methanol contribute to the flavors and textures that we have all grown to love in traditional Mezcal. They are necessary and essential components of this beloved beverage.
Chemical components in Furfural and Methanol
Furfural is an organic compound that occurs during traditional heat treatments such as cooking, canning and jarring. During the distillation of Mezcal, furfural appears towards the colas, or tails. Previously the CRM did not regulate this compound and the TTB (Alcohol and Tax Tobacco and Trade Bureau) and FDA (Food and Drug Administration) place no limitations on levels of furfural. Methanol is an alcohol that is derived from pectin and fructan, two components that occur naturally in agave. The new restrictions that have been placed on methanol by the CRM are significantly lower than the restrictions that are in place through the TTB and the FDA.
Del Maguey had a few options to consider in order to be compliant with the new restrictions. The most common and easiest way to reduce furfural and methanol is to proof your mezcal with water. None of the Del Maguey producers have ever added water to their mezcal post distillation. Instead the bottling proof of our mezcals is obtained through a combination of the heart of the run and the first part of the colas (tails) where furfural and methanol are most prevalent. Del Maguey is a company committed to preserving traditional production practices thus to consider the addition of water to any of our mezcals is not a viable possibility for our organization.
Other alternatives for compliance would require manipulating fermentation through the addition of nutrients or inoculation with proprietary yeast strains. The Del Maguey producers are committed to open-air fermentation using ambient yeasts, so this too was not an option.
After months of investigations, the answer that would allow for us to maintain the integrity of the traditional processes of our producers while being compliant with the new regulations of the CRM is to raise the proof of a few Del Maguey expressions. By raising the proof we will be minimizing the use of colas that will enable us to meet the new requirements in regards to methanol and furfural while still maintaining the traditional processes of our producers.
You will begin to see a few Del Maguey expressions with a new ABV in the coming weeks. The first will be Chichicapa which will now be at 48%. The flavors you love will still be intact in each expression but expect a richer mouth-feel and texture. The Chichicapa you have been enjoying until now had been certified previous to the changes in NOM 070 and was in full compliance with the CRM.
Even as we make adjustments in order to comply with the Consejo, we are dedicated to bringing you mezcals of the highest quality steeped in history and tradition. We look forward to continuing to work with fellow producers within the DO to advocate for Normas that protect traditional mezcal.
If you have any questions about the choices we have made or the changes that will be taking place, please feel free to email Misty Kalkofen at email@example.com and Steve Olson at firstname.lastname@example.org
Del Maguey Donates a Pipa/Water Tanker Truck
Providing increased access to potable water in partner communities is one of Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal’s driving principles. In many of the communities we work in, there are pockets of the town or village that still lack access to a steady supply of potable water.
On May 11, 2018, Del Maguey donated a Ford F350 3500L tanker truck to the town of Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca for use in sections of the village that do not have a dedicated water supply.
Convivio con el Presidente Municipal y Sindico Municipal de Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca
This truck was presented by Del Maguey founder Ron Cooper and bottling team, to the Honorable Ayuntamiento de Teotitlan del Valle, distrito Tlacolula de Matamoros, estado de Oaxaca, Mexico, the Presidente Municipal y Sindico Municipal (periodo 2017-2019).
The Del Maguey team was greeted in the local municipality, by the municipal government council, where a formal handover of the truck and its documentation was met with gratitude and a convenio of around 60 people who sat and shared a “convenio por entrega del vehiculo.”
All parties present admired the truck, exchanged formal greetings, then sat down to a wonderful comida of cegueza; a pre-hispanic type of mole, accompanied by prickly pear cactus horchata, beer, and mezcal.
Donations of this nature are not terribly common and the atmosphere reflected the joy shared by both sides to complete the highly anticipated moment.
Del Maguey is happy to have engaged in this important endeavor whose only aim is to help the townspeople who don’t have access to potable water remain included in municipal plans for expansion.
As land is redistributed further from the traditional town center, pipas like this can be necessary parts of local government services in Zapotec communities.
Thank you to the community of Teotitlan del Valle for supporting Del Maguey and it’s efforts to keep helping in ways that are core to our principles.
To many years more!
From June-August 2017, Del Maguey accepted a request from a University student heading into his Senior Year to live and work in the family palenques where Del Maguey Vida is produced. His name is Griffin Manos. He is a bright young man with a promising future, and the desire to work hard in order to satiate his curious appetite for knowledge and experience. This is part three in a three-part email exchange between he and Ron Cooper to reveal some of the complexities and romanticism that accompanied his experience.
If there is anyone else who is curious enough to take a similar leap, opportunities like this do exist if approached properly; with curiosity, humility, respect and vigor. Thank you Griffin for taking the leap. The Del Maguey family misses you, especially our family in San Luis del Rio, and wishes you the best in 2018 as graduate school peeks around the corner.
Griffin Manos’ Response to Ron Cooper
Thanks for the thoughtful and encouraging response. You can guess that I took some time to get all my thoughts out to you, and I’m happy that you reciprocated the effort and recognize how seriously I am taking this internship.
I am also happy to read about your thoughts regarding efficiency. By all means, the most important part about production (aside from producing enough high quality spirit) is involving the people who live in town and providing a livelihood for them. I have enjoyed seeing different people filter in and out of the palenque daily, it also seems to facilitate social interactions that are valuable to all involved. Seeing someone come in the morning, empty the horno and stay in the afternoon for a beer or mezcal and chat is something that illustrates just how much of a lifestyle the work is. It is also encouraging that you see this as valuable. It is not by luck that Marcos and Paciano trust you. It’s clear that you have earned their trust and that you recognize your responsibility towards not only the family but the laborers and producers as well.
The question of reducing wheelbarrow and bucket work is a difficult one. I was originally thinking about the way brewers work, attending to tasks in the same way but not needing nearly as much hard labor. When brewers finish their conversions, the grain is separated from the wort (the unfermented and sugary wash). Marcos also separates the tepache and the bagasse before distillation, to measure the correct ratio for each to go into the ollas. The tepache is moved via bucket, and the bagasse via wheelbarrow (in Marcos’ case up the steep ramp to the ollas). To separate grain from wort, brewers use what is called a lauter-tun. In my home-brew operation, this is literally an igloo cooler with a false bottom. The cooler goes on a chair above my stock pot, and wort is able to flow through the false bottom and pool without any grain in it. The tina is responsible for an enormous amount of flavor and healthy yeast cultivation, there is no way this could change. What might be able to change, however, is how the tepache is extracted from the tina. This may look something like the water pump that is used to get river water to the tinas, with a specialized hose head that could filter out the bagasse while still transporting the tepache. As far as transporting the bagasse from the tina to the olla, gravity is definitely important. My initial thought was something like a moveable slide that could be placed on the edge of the tina, so that bagaso could be shoveled directly into either an olla or a wheelbarrow that would only have to travel a few feet, instead of up a steep ramp. A series of chutes (think simple tournament bracket) could eliminate the wheelbarrow altogether, while still requiring someone to manage the task. These could easily be attached to the underside of the palenque roof structure, to be out of the way and pulled down only when in use. I understand that this may sound a little ludicrous or even over designed, but I think there is an elegant way to implement some updates that could compliment the ingenuity that the palenques already are so full of. Keep in mind that these are also just my first thoughts on solutions might look like, and I’m sure with more time and effort more (promising) ideas would be abundant.
I have realized that design is important to me not only in distilling and brewing, but my other interests as well. It serves as a common ground, but also as one of the most rewarding parts of each of my interests. Constantly experimenting, learning, and making are what make my interests interesting. I’m thinking about looking at masters programs in Industrial Design, visiting RISD, Pratt, Parsons, and maybe Philly. I think it would compliment brewing and distilling well, and would also allow me to be in school with a specific focus compared to the liberal arts education I’m currently receiving. You have helped me immensely by letting me learn and work with the village, which has pushed me to come to encouraging conclusions about my future and opportunities ahead. I really couldn’t ask for more.
Marcos speaks English well, it is all understandable although sometimes “without salt,” meaning that there are little things left out from phrases or sentences that a native speaker wouldn’t leave out. Marcos and I converse a lot, he really enjoys learning American sayings like “join the club.” As far as my Spanish goes, I am nowhere near fluent but I am much more comfortable holding a conversation. I can definitely understand more than I can speak, and it is helpful hearing things people say in real life that I haven’t learned online or in school (chido, gabacho, etc..). I have talked to Marcos about leaving early, and he has communicated that he understands. He knows I have learned a lot, made a lifelong friend in him, and have done my share of the work as well. He also understands that there are important reasons for me to get back home with some time before school starts.
These past few days I have been able to go exploring on Marcos’ land, deep in the wilds and far from any road, as well as horseback riding on another laborer’s (Chalo “loco”) land where I was able to eat honey from a wild bees nest and also see how proud village residents are of their stake in the process. It’s amazing that everyone is involved and is able to have some land with agave or milpa somewhere in the hills. It’s also nice to know that I can rely on my Spanish to communicate with a laborer like Chalo when we take the day to see the land. I feel as though I have really been able to get a peak into what life is like for a number of people who live and work here.
I think it is possible that this internship would be helpful for others. It would be problematic to try to work with village producers without understanding crucial aspects of their daily lives, and what production looks like on a regular basis. An internship like this allows relationships and trust to form, as well as information that might not be learned during a day visit. For example, Marcos likes to talk about effort and work ethic a lot, and has mentioned how he thinks there should be someone to act as a manager while laborers work. Sometimes he gets frustrated with the hours that people work, or the breaks that they take, or even the liberties that they take with the mezcal that waits in the tambos. He takes his job seriously and is an extremely good leader. These are things I was able to see and talk to him about because of the relationship of trust that we have built over the past six weeks. An internship like this would be amazing training for anyone who would want to work with Del Maguey and closely with anyone who lives in the village.
I hope that this internship wasn’t only for my benefit, and that you can see me as a resource for any other opportunities in the future. I do feel like I have built relationships in San Luis and would enjoy continuing working with Del Maguey in the future, whatever that may look like.
Once again, I want to express my gratitude for this opportunity, and for the thoughtfulness and understanding in your correspondence with me. This summer has been invaluable to me.
Griffin C. Manos.
From June-August 2017, Del Maguey accepted a request from a University student heading into his Senior Year to live and work in the family palenques where Del Maguey Vida is produced. His name is Griffin Manos. He is a bright young man with a promising future, and the desire to work hard in order to satiate his curious appetite for knowledge and experience. This is part two of a three part email exchange between he and Ron Cooper to reveal some of the complexities and romanticism that accompanied his experience.
If there is anyone else who is curious enough to take a similar leap, opportunities like this do exist if approached properly; with curiosity, humility, respect and vigor. Thank you Griffin for taking the leap. The Del Maguey family misses you, especially our family in San Luis del Rio, and wishes you the best in 2018 as graduate school peeks around the corner.
A Letter to Griffin Manos From Ron Cooper
Griffin and Gabe,
Dateline New Orleans
No excuses but have been traveling extensively.
Griffin – I enjoyed your long letter and thorough analysis and shared with my two partners… took time for them to get back.
I know it’s hard to adjust to life in the village and the rhythm of the work in SLR. You and I are the only outsiders who have done this with Paciano and family for longer than a couple weeks.
That alone means a lot and it reveals to me your desire to get close to the process and understand it from a unique perspective, all the while achieving personal goals.
I appreciate your insights and enjoyed reading your reflections. It takes quite some time to master mezcal and no one expected you to accomplish this, this time around.
If you do decide to leave, understood. You have done a great job so far and I am pleased that it was romantic, difficult, lonely, and invigorating.
No matter where your path may lead, you will never forget how you spent the last month in San Luis del Rio, contributing as a valued laborer in the production of Vida and San Luis del Rio Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal.
First of all, these are good questions. You are working hard every day and developing an understanding for what makes Vida special.
Check out this link. Of course we value efficiency but we also value culture. We are proud that the growth of the brand and the industry gives people jobs. Paciano is able to offer employment to many people who left their homes and families behind because there was no work in San Luis.
I have looked at palenque operations and thought about how to speed up various facets of production and then realized that most steps to speed up production cause a loss of quality. This job has enabled many villagers, not only in San Luis, but throughout our producing villages, to avoid the hardships of illegal immigration, or return from an uncomfortable, foreign land where their efforts were exploited and their freedom as human beings was not recognized.
Nonetheless, your observations are important.
I am interested to see a sketch or design of the machines that could reduce wheelbarrow work. Would they use electricity? Diesel? Could they be powered by the flow of the river?
This can be immensely useful, not for eliminating labor, but complementing it. Remember we value culture as much as we value quality liquid.
It’s not a failed commitment to leave early and I understand that preparing for your future is a good reason to do so. What kind of grad program are you interested in? Is there anything we can do to help?
You did make a commitment with Marcos to stay on with your original plan.
How is his English? How is your Spanish?
The intricate complexities of making mezcal, along with this full immersion was another challenge that I hope has borne some fruit.
By all accounts your approach to this internship has been valued by everyone you have interacted with and that too means a lot, whether this helps in your future endeavors or if you are interested in pursuing more opportunities with Del Maguey.
Steve and I enjoyed meeting you and Gabe speaks highly of you as well.
Do you see this type of internship being useful to others?
From the heart of the maguey and the soul of the Village.
From June-August 2017, Del Maguey accepted a request from a University student heading into his Senior Year to live and work in the family palenques where Del Maguey Vida is produced. His name is Griffin Manos. He is a bright young man with a promising future, and the desire to work hard in order to satiate his curious appetite for knowledge and experience. This is part one in a three-part email exchange between he and Ron Cooper to reveal some of the complexities and romanticism that accompanied his extraordinary internship.
If there is anyone else who is curious enough to take a similar leap, opportunities like this do exist if approached properly; with curiosity, humility, respect and vigor. Thank you Griffin for taking the leap. The Del Maguey family misses you, especially our family in San Luis del Rio, and wishes you the best in 2018 as graduate school peeks around the corner.
A Letter To Ron Cooper
As the end of my first month of work approaches, I thought I would write to you with a check in. I feel pretty good about my adjustment into village life, and getting into the rhythm of working, eating and sleeping that Marcos and the other laborers have. Adjusting to the simplicity of the lifestyle, the remoteness of the village, and the loneliness that accompanies being a visible outsider who doesn’t speak the language has been a process, but a process that has been fulfilling and rewarding. The labor has also been rewarding, although hard and seemingly neverending. Suffice to say, my experience thus far has been a positive one that has afforded me a lot of knowledge on a truly craft process.
There is a lot that is romantic about this job, and there is a lot that is not at all romantic. I love seeing the passion that people have for raising agave or wild harvesting agave and eventually seeing it through to a world class spirit. That being said, there are definitely times where it is clear that a job is being done because the job pays, and it is being done by a person because there exists no resources to have the job be done by an efficient machine. I have been able to inhabit both of these roles, feeling intimate with the bagasse while massaging it into a tina with my hands, and feeling like a machine while throwing the chopped piñas into the molino for days at a time. There isn’t, however, a moment where I am not reminded that no matter what the job is, it is essential to producing a spirit that will be consumed all over the world. This is what making real craft spirit looks like, and I don’t think even the most well versed mezcalistas could imagine that Vida is born from a process that looks like this.
I have approached this project with goals, that change daily, which I think are important to reflect on. First off is getting accustomed to the life that the producers live. Without wifi, a pillow, hot water, or the option to continue being a vegetarian, the first days here made me feel out of place and as if it were possible that the world outside San Luis had forgotten about me. After the first week here, I felt as at home as I could be in a home that wasn’t mine. I have always liked to believe that it doesn’t take much to facilitate happiness, but this is a true illustration of how happiness can be achieved without so much of what we in the gabacho (USA) think is necessary for a fulfilling life. This is especially true when there is a vocation that can afford fulfillment and reward. This goes hand in hand with the rhythm, which I think I have also adjusted well to. Waking up early daily, finding a job to do with the laborers, coming home to eat, shower, read and sleep, or spending the day and night in Marcos’ palenque while watching the fire and dozing when possible have become rituals that will be hard to break when I end up leaving San Luis. It is essential to both feel comfortable in this lifestyle, as well as adjust to the rhythm, so that one can not only understand the way that Vida is produced by a village, but also earn the place as one of the village producers. Both of these goals have been met to my standards.
Next, is basic understanding of the processes. I feel as though I have not only been able to see all of the processes that are involved in producing this spirit, but I have been active in taking part as well. The most important to me has been watching the fire and changing the ollas, being attentive to the nature of the spirit as it changes while the run progresses, and observing the characteristics that determine which actions should be executed. That being said, even when I am doing other work, chopping piñas, filling the horno, emptying the horno, moving spent bagasse, I feel more like one of the laborers than I do a tourist or observer. This is extremely important to me, to be treated as a valuable asset instead of a tourist or burden. What is important is that I have been able to experience mezcal distillation like a laborer and catalogue that knowledge, all while feeling like a true asset to those who want to see the hard work get done. This makes me extremely happy and satisfied with my experience thus far.
Another goal I have set for myself has only really become apparent after I started working. I am afforded a lot of time to think during labor that doesn’t require excess attention. For this reason, I thought it would be helpful to think critically about the process and the design of the system. Thinking critically, as an outsider, can become dangerous so I have adopted a strict “generous orthodox” approach. This is a term that I first heard in a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell called Revisionist History. The idea is that if change is possible (generous approach), it is only by way of the traditions (orthodoxy) that make the process or system unique. As a small and traditional production facility, that runs as a business that has growth goals, I believe that this term is especially appropriate.
Some of the things I think about are spirit specific. How would the mezcal taste if it were distilled three times instead of twice? How about if only the hearts were used and not even the very heel of the spines? How about if it were filtered through charcoal after final distillation? Obviously some of these are very big changes, which may compromise the tradition that makes this craft spirit a spirit that is so widely acknowledged. But that’s the idea behind generous orthodoxy, finding the balance and testing small change using the existing system instead of designing a new one. How much can/would you want to get away with before the character is so altered that it is not the same spirit? For the most part, this is a creative exercise that has little ground in reality, but it is definitely worth thinking about as I plan on working in distilleries once I finish school, and possibly owning my own whiskey distillery one day.
Besides being critical of the spirit itself, I have also been thinking about the design of the system and the palenques. I have a basic understanding of raising agave and methods of reproduction (quiotes and pups) and the differences that cannot be ignored between these two methods from an economic and agroecological standpoint. I plan on doing more research when I have access to wifi, but already feel that it is important that I recognize the implications of farming methods of the plant, whether it is ecological, or economic (which really are not mutually exclusive by any means). One of the things I appreciate immensely is that everyone in town has some stake in mezcal, because everyone has land somewhere where their agave is being raised. Most distillers in the US are much more removed, most not growing their own grain, malting it, or even using grain (and instead using bulk bought factory spirits) to make their “craft spirit.” I appreciate the heavy involvement of so much of the town almost more than anything else about the process. It is intimate, and personal for everyone who lives here.
Beyond farming systems, I have also been thinking about the design of the Palenque, that as long as there is an opportunity for growth, the current palenque archetype should be challenged, even if that means realizing that no change is necessary or even possible to execute without changing the nature of the spirit. There are a lot of ways to explore the design of the palenque, with little risk involved as long as a generous orthodox approach is used. In this case, growth means opportunity for change that has the potential to boost efficiency in ways that don’t effect the spirit or the sacred traditional processes that are responsible for it.
Working with Marcos everyday has given me the opportunity to think critically about the system, while applying my thoughts in a way that respects the fact that Vida has been made the same way for years, and it exists the way it does only because of the processes that are responsible for its creation. To me, this is another goal met.
Whether this internship means preparing myself for more work in Mexico with the hardworking people who make mezcal, or getting insights to valuable takeaways that can be applied to American distilling practices, this opportunity has been more than priceless. I recognize that I have only scratched the surface and that it would take years to have the experience that Marcos or Paciano has. This all being said, I have to think about the fact that I am about to enter my senior year of college and this should require a considerable amount of preparation and attention.
I hope you have enjoyed reading my (long) email and that you know how much this internship means to me as a rare opportunity to become part of a truly beautiful process. I am extremely grateful that you and Gabriel have taken the time and energy to give me this opportunity. I look forward to hearing from you.
Griffin C. Manos
Biological diversity is crucial to a successful future for agave species. There are two different ways in which agave can reproduce. The first is through hijuelos, or clonal shoots, that result in plants that are genetic equivalent of the mother plant. An agave can produce multiple hijuelos each year. The second method is through a flowering stalk, or quiote. The agave used in the production of mezcal are semelparous, meaning they flower only once during their lifecycle and then they die. The agave uses all of the carbohydrates it has accumulated throughout its life to flower therefore making it unusable for the production of Mezcal. Although many species of agave can reproduce through both methods, several such as A.Cupreata, can only reproduce via the seeds that result from the quiote. The flowers of the agave plant open at night with the pollen being effective for only a few hours, therefore the primary pollinators of the agave plant are nectar-eating, or nectarivorous, bats.
When considering the importance of genetic diversity in the world of agave we need to look no further than the example of Tequila. For generations the Tequila industry has been solely utilizing hijuelos for reproduction so that every agave planted can be used in the production of Tequila. With each successive generation, the genetic diversity of the Tequilana Weber Azul has diminished leaving the plants more susceptible to disease and pestilence due to the lack of naturally occurring defenses. Infestations of pests such as the picudo bug have become more and more common resulting in agave shortages, spikes in the cost of agave and ultimately higher prices for the consumer. Additionally, the Tequila producing regions became essentially void of nectarivorous bats due to the lack of the bat’s primary food source.
Enter the Batman of Mexico, Dr Rodrigo Medellin. Dr. Medellin has partnered with the Tequila Interchange Project to study the relationship of agave farming practices and bat populations. Recognizing that there are mutual benefits to the biodiversity of the agave and the bat populations, Dr. Medellin and his students have begun a pilot program to recognize producers of agave distillates who are allowing 3-5% of their agave to reproduce through the quiote. The pilot program is in its nascent stages as Dr Medellin and his students are working to create the thorough scientific study necessary to create the guidelines for the bat friendly recognition. When the program officially launches it will initially be focused in the Tequila producing regions as that is where the most damage to biodiversity has taken place, however the goal is to eventually expand in years to come into the regions of the DO of Mezcal to encourage and recognize the continuation of the traditional farming practices of those regions.
The vistas from the palenques of Del Maguey have always been and will continue to be filled with towering quiotes. Through the traditional farming practices of their forefathers, the producers of Del Maguey are promoting a healthy future for both the agave and the Mezcal category. Biological diversity is key to confronting growing environmental concerns such as climate change. By respecting the full life cycle of the agave including the growth of the inflorescence our producers allow the plants to not only develop natural resistances, but also to naturally perpetuate the characteristics most suited to a changing environment. This diversification combined with other aspects of traditional farming such as the milpa and controlled burning, topics we will discuss in upcoming posts, reinforce the irreplaceable knowledge of Oaxaca’s rich indigenous agricultural inheritance.
In 2016, Del Maguey installed solar panels in three different palenques. The first installation was equipped in Santo Domingo Albarradas at the palenque of Espirdion Morales, and sons Juan and Armando. A crew of one electrical engineer and 3 technicians installed the 120W panel with lights and battery pack over the course of a few hours. Espiridion watched the entire installation with a look of great pride and happiness. There had previously never been an accessible way to bring electrical current from the village to his palenque, which rests over two hundred meters below the family home, and over four hundred meters from the village center.
The system works great. The one 120W panel, when fully charged, gives the three bulbs installed around 5-6 hours of light, per night. The distillation and fermentation areas are well illuminated and Espiridion, Juan and Armando are so happy that when they have to work during the night or early morning, the functionality of the whole process is more fluid.
The same was true in San Luis del Rio, in the palenques of Paciano Nolasco Cruz and his son, Marcos. Because Paciano’s palenque is much larger, Del Maguey installed two 225W panels and 8 lights. Across the river, at Marcos’ palenque, one 225W panel was installed.
We made a few adjustments in San Luis del Rio. All lights have a switch; the batteries are stronger, and protected from inclement weather in an elevated and enclosed storage cabinet.
When Paciano and Marcos’ teams distill through the night or fill fermentation tanks, just like in Santo Domingo Albarradas, the functionality of the entire process has been modernized on an ancillary level that stays true to the artisanal culture of mezcal.
All Del Maguey producing partners now have electricity in their palenques. Installing a renewable energy system was clearly the best option available and we are glad and proud to engage and share in this reciprocal benefit.
Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal has always taken a back seat to the craft of the producers that Ron Cooper, the founder of Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal, met through sheer will, circumstance and providence in the rural and overwhelmingly currency poor but culture and resource rich communities of Oaxaca State.
These producers; their customs, their liquid art, their families, communities and surrounding environment are the driving force behind all that Del Maguey does.
For thousands of years, Zapotec, Mixe, and Mixtec Indians and their ancestors have lived in isolated parts of what is now Mexico, practicing their traditional life ways. One of those ancient traditions is to use the liquid extraction of the maguey plant to create an organic and culturally unique indigenous liquor. It’s place in indigenous history in the Americas is grounded in ceremony to celebrate and enhance unique Zapotec cultural experiences. It has always been rare, difficult to access, completely distinctive, and exceptional in character and culinary adventure. In sampling this traditional liquor, People are sharing a unique, ancient, and rare experience with these traditional Peoples and their biodynamic environment.
Ron Cooper, was gifted with the experience of sharing in this ancient custom with these traditional People as an artist exploring remote Indian villages decades ago. From these isolated regions he developed close and enduring relationships with traditional Zapotec Indian families that continued to practice their time honored life ways in a changing world. Ron knew that he had found treasure in these People, and in their continued mastery of the ancient practices of their ancestors.
Our desire through this medium is to provide a deeper level of education and transparency about how Del Maguey operates, the projects that we undertake, and relationships we foster to assure that the footprint we leave behind is a positive one.
Sustainability starts with the singular producer and their ability to capture flavors unique to their families and heritage. They are, after all, the latest link in a generational chain that reaches back hundreds of years. Their culture is special, beautiful and timeless. One of its rarest expressions is in their ceremonial liquor and its related arts.
If the producers are not inspired to continue their craft, then we have failed. If their sons and daughters are not inspired to participate in some way, whether through the heavy labor that mezcal production entails, as support for their family, or at times, the achievement of personal goals that were not possible as recently as one generation ago, then we have also erred.
The environmental ecosystem is another crucial aspect of sustainability. We are often asked about our reforestation programs, forward focused maguey -replanting projects, and our ability to navigate through the complicated agrarian systems in Mexico. Without sounding overly zealous or naïve, we will use this page to provide insights into how we operate in this space as a collective of single villages that export to the world at large. Now that mezcal is heralded as a cultural gem worth protecting, we have to be remain ahead of the curve in many areas. This means that now, more than ever we must continue to learn from and with our producers, their families and communities. Above all, we are drawn to this divine spirit as many other have been and will be in the future.
Maintaining this quality through environmental stewardship is the paramount endeavor of Del Maguey. Indian community lands and labor are used today in the same time honored soils and using the same waters, woods, and techniques, as has been done for hundreds of years to continue to produce this authentic, rare, and finest of American liquors.
Once Ron developed a system to assure that taste quality and upward social mobility were staples of our mission, we have turned our gaze to other areas in which we can potentially be of service. Education, technology, access to basic needs and healthy ecosystems help define Del Maguey’s core values. Without these core values, built and fostered over twenty years of bonds with our producing partners, we would not have been able to send our roots deep, through minerals and rock and silt to survive like the almighty and sacred maguey.
Rather than seeking to exploit and industrialize these traditional masters of their vintages, Ron sought to share and develop opportunity for these Peoples to bring unique aspects of their ancient culture to the world.
Through the stories that follow we will delve into the projects that we undertake, the consciousness of action that embodies these principles, and the humble reality of an oft-quoted Oaxacan dicho, that “nadie es perfecto” If we set our roots and focus in motion we will always be able to maintain quality while supporting, and learning from the twelve (and counting) communities that we work with to bring the world Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal.