Smoke In The Valley: Reflections of a Mezcal Apprentice
A Three Part Series
By: Nicholas Priedite
– Chapter Two –
One Month in San Luis del Rio
As Gabe and I drove into San Luis del Rio on a long dirt road we were surrounded by the staggered mountains, lined with a patchwork of wild and cultivated agave. It was large, regal, and much vaster than I had expected. There was an air of calmness, the agave were positioned on every mountainside, constantly watching, vigilant and stoic. I was in their land now, a visitor to an area not run by man, but by this noble plant. Mind you, these plants get upwards of six feet in height and have spines sharper than your mother’s sewing machine. Let’s just say they command respect.
Although I was going to be staying in Paciano’s home, I was really going to be spending my time with his son, Marcos Cruz Mendez. I had met Marcos a few days before, a very warm and friendly man. Though rebellious, he is strong and loyal. He spoke some English and had been to the US so we were able to find some common ground and humor quickly. I should say, he is not shy to trade colorful banter, and I found comfort in that.
The pueblo is small, dug in and hanging on a mountainside tucked comfortably within the valley. You could ride a motorcycle through it in a few minutes, despite burro cross traffic. Most homes are built with cement, tank water on every roof, and had electricity. Although there is a basic internet connection, my phone was disabled and offline from the first day on. I felt this would be the best way to savor every minute of my stay. To be honest, I was sick of it anyways. Adios.
Marcos’ house is jointed with his mothers and fathers’ larger home where most of the other family lived. I enjoy the connectedness of the family, something that I had not experienced in my youth growing up in the States. Meals normally being shared together, neighbors of the pueblo greet frequently as they pass; a very tight sense of community is felt immediately and throughout my stay. I was quickly identified by the members of the pueblo, being a 6’ 4” American, and was swiftly and aptly named, “GUERO!” (Pale Guy!). Continually heard it echo throughout the village as I rode around, to and from the palenque.
On my first afternoon in the pueblo I had a quick introduction to the palenque and some of the guys that worked there for Marcos. There were seven of them: Marcos, Israel, Marcos V, Mauro, Lupillo, Felipe, and Carlos. The space and procedures reminded me very much of a kitchen or bar, mise en place, organization, and hierarchy all there to some varying degree. Granted, now we are talking about guys swinging razor sharp machetes rather than kitchen knives, 350 liter stills rather than stockpots, and 10-foot earthen charcoal pits rather than convection ovens. Even certain individuals executed certain tasks, second pass distillation for example, handled by only a few, just as a pastry chef handles the delicate desserts. Here, Marcos is the head chef, and me, a hungry dishwasher.
Everyone had their own distinct personalities.
Israel and Marcos: brothers, wild agave harvesters, maniacs, fun, but family men, extremely hard working, and keen to the fine details of mezcal production. Expect them to bring back a few iguanas shot that morning to be grilled or cooked in a caldo (soup) for lunch.
Mauro: young, energetic, sex driven, jokester, and a night owl. He would mainly run the bagazo (agave mash) stills, sometimes five or six at a time, a ball of energy.
Lupillo: calm, compassionate, intelligent, a musician. He was the scientist and researcher of the group, knew the technical terms of mezcal and the legal procedures and processes. He now works for the mezcal regulation administration, the Consejo Regulador de Mezcal.
Felipe: aka Sargento. The gentle giant, built like a bear, he was efficient and clean with his work, was always on time and never left a job unfinished. As steady and loyal a worker you could have.
Carlos: aka Guero. This was confusing for a second as we shared a nickname because he was light skinned, like me. He was the oldest of the group but worked like an ox. He has a hunched posture, but I’ve watched him chop, shovel, mill, and load five tinas (fermentation tanks) in a day, easily a few thousands pounds of agave, by himself.
And of course, Marcos Cruz Mendez, the jefe, my closest friend and mentor. He can do any job in the palenque with his eyes closed and a hand tied behind his back. He had been making artisanal mezcal since he could walk. He had told stories to me of how Paciano would wake him up early as a small kid to gather agave with burros, most of the agave weighing more than him. He was a natural, a complete product of his environment. Mezcal was in his blood. He was firm but fair, and knew how to have a good time. Ni modos chato.
On my first assessment of the palenque I was immediately drawn to one specific feature of it, the wood fired stills, large concrete, sometimes adobe structures meant to hold the 350 liter copper pot stills and its amendments. And beneath them, deep and hollow fireboxes, where leña (firewood) is added to burn and maintain a hot enough temperature to boil, evaporate, and ultimately distill mezcal.
It was late in the evening, Marcos and I had already been sampling the mezcal fresh off of the still as he taught me how to load the leña into the firebox, feeling the turbante (condenser arm) above the still to gauge the right temperature. As I hunched over to add more wood to the firebox I stopped and began to laugh to myself. This position I was in, buckled over a roaring fire, wood ready in my hand, the heat of the flame burning my knuckles, my eyes watering diving deep into the coals. I had been here before, many times. The food I cook, the smoker I cook on, I feed it the same way, in the same position, wood, fire, and temperature. I was immediately transported to a place rooted in my own DNA. I was comfortable here in this position, it is what I have trained myself to do for years, and here I am, 2,000 miles away in the mountains of Mexico in the same damn stance.
The Still and the fire
Here’s the point I remind you of the parallels and all that cosmic shit I said before, but you know what, this was real, a real moment that proved to me how connected we are through not only food and beverage, but also our craft and cultures. I was here to work. And I was here to serve others in doing so. And that’s exactly what I did, every day. From the first day to the last I had my hands on some sort of mezcal production. Everything from harvesting agave, staging roasts, unloading roasts, chopping raw and cooked agave with both machete and axe, milling agave, filling fermentation tanks or tinas, manipulating the mash, loading copper stills, firing a first distillation of bagazo, filling and firing a second distillation pass of shishe (first distillate), cutting with tails, checking proof with perlas (pearls/bubbles), and all the labor in between. These guys work hard, and they wanted to see what I was made of.