Smoke In The Valley: Reflections of a Mezcal Apprentice
A Three Part Series
By: Nicholas Priedite
– Chapter Three –
Finding My Rhythm
I slept in Marcos’ 2nd floor flat above the kitchen in an empty room on a petate, or a woven palm mat with a rolled poncho I had bought at a mercado as a pillow. We woke up every morning around sunrise. I kept a journal of my trip and wrote in it every day, every meal I had, every job I performed, every new mezcal I tasted, and every person I met. I wrote it all down. What I didn’t finish writing that evening I would finish in the morning on the small driveway in front of the main house as the sun warmed myself and the valley while Marcos’ mother, Asunciona, and her daughters prepared desayuno (breakfast). Always corn tortillas, fresh. Sometimes huevos, frijoles, or chicharron, and fresh salsa. I haven’t been more well fed in my life. Muchas gracias, señoras!
At sunrise, Marcos and I would then head down to the palenque, either taking the truck together or I would ride a small motorcycle down, and the work would begin.
There is a schedule that determines what work needs to be done at the palenque, and when, very similar to the organization and prep of a kitchen. Stocks, sauces, and braises need to be done before smaller tasks begin. Every day was just a bit different and was all based around the roast. My first full day working in the palenque was a roast day. Talk about hitting the ground running, no mercy. You know when a roast is coming once the earth ovens have been cleared of cooked agave from the previous roast and there is harvested agave ready to be cooked. These days require as much manpower as possible. They are time sensitive, hot, extremely smoky, and first require moving and hauling not only large cured tree trunks and river rocks the day before, but tons of split agave, stacked and piled in an organized fashion around the pit. It is an exhausting and amazing feat that is executed in the matter of a few hours. The 10-foot-deep fire pit is filled with enough wood, rocks, and agave to reach up to six feet tall. We are talking tons of material, yes tons, two thousand-pound tons, moved by hand, and all while it is roaring hot. Satan himself would be mystified. Once the roast is topped with tarps and dirt shoveled by hand, it is blessed. A cross laid down atop the smoking mound, an exercise of good fortune, fending off the evil eye. The agave left to roast for three to five days.
Now, in the immediate aftermath, it time for chelas (cold beers) and the workday is pretty much done. You could call it a half day, but the amount of energy required by every set of hands involved is deserving of taking the afternoon off. These roast days were the most challenging physically. I definitely earned my respect amongst the guys that first day. I was physically strong and fearless, mentally as well. There is a very prevalent ‘macho’ persona within Mexican men and their culture. How hard you work defines your status, I knew that had to be established up front, so when it came time to put in the work, you know damn well I jumped right in. Puro chingon.
Workflow in the Palenque
The workflow of the palenque moves in a cycle. Some of the daily jobs involved throughout the week are as follows:
The now roasted agave needs to be chopped into smaller pieces with an axe and machete. I had brought gloves, but I quickly decided now was not the time as mettle would prove my worth. Six blisters soon calloused on each hand for the first two weeks. But the hands of Marcos and company? Clean and scarred, but smooth and healthy from years of manual work.
The chopped agave then needs to be milled so that it can be fermented more efficiently. Hundreds of pounds of chopped agave shoveled by hand, then picked with a pitchfork into a wheelbarrow and carried to the large tina (wood tank) for fermentation. If done solo, the wheelbarrow is pushed up a makeshift ramp, a beat up 2×6 wooden beam propped up on the edge, to dump into the four foot tall tina. Talk about a balancing act. I definitely looked like an amateur a few times, nothing like a good laugh at the gringo.
In the tinas, the agave is then topped with water from a well that filters from the river, pumped by a hose. After a week of open-air fermentation fed by the ambient yeast of the surrounding savanna/sub tropical microclimate, it is time for distillation. This wild fermentation is a unique trait to Vida Mezcal’s signature flavor with all of the surrounding microbes unique to that space creating a quality and character completely unique to that area and terroir.
The bagazo and tepache (agave mash liquid), are shoveled out with a pitchfork into the wheelbarrow again and loaded into the tops of the 350 liter tinas. One alembic still takes roughly five to seven wheelbarrows of bagazo and roughly nine five-gallon buckets of tepache. Once the still is full, it needs to be topped with the sombrero (still hat) then sealed with masa, a dirt and clay mix, a gritty but resourceful technique that has become ancestral. The fire beneath the still is stoked and the first pass will run for six to eight hours. Every half hour I would check the fire and adding leña (fire wood) to constantly maintain the proper temperature, my BBQ senses tingling. After that first pass, the shishe (first distillate) is collected into 50-liter jugs. The spent still needs to be emptied of the cooked bagazo and tepache by pitchfork, cleaned, then filled again, but with the new shishe. Now the transformation of earth to liquid vapor, the ethereal world coming closer, I am not only witnessing but also actively participating in the birth of a spirit, something much more simple and perhaps more complex than me. There is an energy and vibration streaming through the warm mezcal as it runs out from the spout of the still. The essence of San Luis Del Rio slowly collecting in a 50L jug beneath.
This second distillation is a bit more delicate and requires a steady fire and more focused attention as to not burn the shishe. Here is where a large part of the mezcal’s identity and uniqueness is defined by the palenquero (distiller), his artistry, and his techniques. This pass is then cut, separating the puntas (heads) from the shishe (hearts) and the colas (tails), a signature decision unique to the individual, which solidifies the palenquero’s artisanal style and final product, just like the brushstroke to the painter. And here, the hand of the maker transcends from father to son. Craft, knowledge, and nuance, passed from Paciano Cruz Nolasco to Marcos Cruz Mendez.
One of the final and most memorable jobs I had before I left was to harvest wild agave in the mountains. We left early one morning around 4am. We hiked down to the palenque. When we arrived, we gathered a few machetes, a gaviota (broad, heavy coa), a mallet, a long rifle, two liters of water, headlamps, and two burros. We loaded the burros then rode up the other side of the valley into the mountains, looking for mature espadin.
After a two- hour ride we approached a mountainside of agave, tall and sharp. We tied up the burros at the bottom of the hillside and continued to hike to the agave above, machetes in hand. When we reached the agave, the sun was just rising over the valley and shone upon the pueblo. I saw smoke rising from a few small palenques that were beginning a roast that morning. The smoke from their fires continued to fill the valley below. Marcos showed me the technique to properly cut the spines with a machete, then how to cut the root from the pina with the gaviota and mallet. The hillside was steep, and the machete was sharp, the spines of the agave staring me straight in the face. It was exhilarating. It was as though the maguey knew what I was there for, but continued to stare me down, commanding respect. Once we had cleared most of the hillside we had to hike back down and collect the pinas, each weighing roughly 40-50 kg (80-100 lbs). We trimmed and cleaned them with the machete then loaded them onto the donkeys and hiked back. I may add, that the strength and reliability of donkeys may not be overlooked. These creatures are to be celebrated, for their resilience and power, although they may have an attitude at times. I believe that there is neither load too stout nor terrain too rugged for these brutes. Our trip took around nine hours. It was grueling. I would compare the skill of those harvesting wild agave to the sherpas of Nepal, completely in tune with their land, but wielding a rifle and machetes.
Those were definitely not all, but some of the jobs I had making artisanal mezcal. They require a serious amount of physical labor and manpower. There are no machines, automation, instruments, or technology helping along the way. It is pure feel; blood, sweat, and tears. I’m still impressed at how accurately and efficiently Marcos and the others were able to determine the ABV of his mezcal with a carrizo (bamboo-like reed), drawing a stream into a jicara (gourd) and seeing how the perlas on the surface would settle, telling them if its alto (high) or bajo (low).
All of this work could not be done without the teamwork of the others in the palenque. They are some of the hardest working people I have ever met, and I’m very fortunate to have worked alongside them and to now have them as friends. But all of these roads lead back to the original maker, the hands of Paciano Cruz Nolasco. A man who literally carved the road in to San Luis Del Rio with his own hands, the father to his son, Marcos Cruz Mendez, a man of his own now instilled with ethic and fervor, and a guardian to his family and culture surrounding Vida Mezcal.
Gracias y Saludos, la Familia Cruz.
Marcos and I would return from work just before sunset. I’d shower up, come back down for dinner and sit with the rest of the family at the dinner table. Marcos’ young niece and nephew, Vida and Edwin, always wanted to play around, sometimes we would walk down to the center to play basketball or have some tlayudas and tacos. I very much enjoyed that time. Although there was a slight language barrier, most of the village speaking a native Zapotec language and Spanish as a second, we were able to understand each other, and what we couldn’t communicate verbally we could say without words. I felt welcomed and cared for sincerely. I even had the opportunity to take time away from the palenque for a day to stay with the women, Asunciona, Mary Lou, Emma, Nayeli and Gloria, to learn to prepare mole negro, a culinary experience that could never be replaced. In fact, I still have some in my freezer for the upcoming holiday. The food that they prepared for me I can still taste, and from here on, will always influence the food I cook. Mole tamales and chocolate, still the best food and beverage pairing I’ve ever had. Muchas gracias, señoras.
I came to understand that this small pueblo of San Luis Del Rio has become a leader in artisanal mezcal production in the state of Oaxaca. Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal’s partnership over the years has resulted in a preservation of culture that honors the families and people who live and work there. What was more fascinating was how much mezcal Marcos is able to produce considering it is all done by hand, and the consistent quality he is able to maintain. Once again, no instruments, dials, computers, or modern technology, simply pure artisanal craft. And the whole village, every member’s hands, are stained in the production of agave and mezcal. The fathers and sons would harvest the agave and distill the mezcal in their hand-built palenques. The mothers and daughters would cook for everyone, care for the children, and maintain the home; they are the maternal figures of mezcal.
Working in the palenque was very rewarding. I learned a great amount about the process and what making artisanal mezcal truly means. It’s a humble craft, ancient, one that demands focus, attention, hard work, and skill. It is a product of its environment and of the earth. It’s ethereal, and I have a great understanding why. It is with the work and efforts of the people and their community. There is something very special about San Luis and its people. They all work to create a product that is unique and undeniably theirs, still alive in the mythical past, humbly brought to the world by Del Maguey. It’s pure, something to be cherished, and shared.
By the time I had reached the end of my stay I felt fulfilled. I had made a great friend in Marcos. We spent everyday together, we got to know each other extremely well, we laughed, cried, and managed to get into some trouble. He is still sending me embarrassing photos of our late nights in the palenque. Apparently I am a better dancer than I ever imagined. He is inspiring, someone I will continue to look up to and admire. Someone who is not only talented at what he does, but someone who is willing and crazy enough to keep doing it. And only he knows if he will ever attain perfection in his eyes, but from what I have seen, he pushes the limit and toes that line on a constant basis.
Oaxaca and Mexico will never be the same to me. I will always think of them when I think of Mexico and when I drink mezcal. Have I changed because of this trip? Of course, we are constantly changing in new ways, redefining and reshaping ourselves. My approach and philosophy to food and cuisine has become more developed and acute. The mastery of my own craft of cooking with fire means so much more to me. In the past I have felt possessed, almost out of control with my obsession with fire and food, not quite fully understanding its purpose. But, here I’ve managed to find a resonating tone within my own madness. Our insatiable appetite for creation, not perfection, in its unreserved and unique form is what makes life interesting. It translates culture, tradition, heritage, history, and a way of life. I discovered a new connection, a synapse between myself and the surrounding world, not only rewarded with new sights, sounds, flavors, and smells, but with new relationships, lifelong friends, and family. Pure mezcal has changed my life, and will continue to do so as I continue share its beauty and the beauty of craft and connectedness.
As you approach most villages in Oaxaca, a constructed arch, normally painted with the name of that village, notifies you where you have arrived. When I entered under the arch of San Luis Del Rio it read MEZCAL ES VIDA – mezcal is life. And as I departed weeks later, the same phrase peered down over my shoulders, offering a silent and sincere, “Adios”, as if it could see the transformation I had just experienced within my eyes. It was the same phrase, but now seemed to carry a different meaning. Mezcal is transcendent, mysterious, and purposeful. I believe it is one of the closest representations of our connectedness to earth and each other. For as much as you believe to understand it, you find there is much more to discover, our journey rewarded with experience, constantly becoming enriched.
Muchas gracias a Marcos y a la familia Cruz. Los extraño a todos. Todo lo que aprendí y sentí se quedará conmigo para siempre. Tu amistad significa el mundo. Ahora, mezcal corre en mi sangre y siempre recordaré a San Luis. Saludos y Stigibeu.