Paciano Cruz Nolasco is as an iconic legend and one of the greatest mezcal producers the world will ever know. His mezcals are a reflection of his character as well as his village of San Luis Del Rio; both dry and sweet, well proofed, who flow like the river; warm, digestible, agreeable, strong, and resilient.
Despite the relative inaccessibility of the village, San Luis del Rio is a mezcal production hub. The 500 villagers who call it home are all deeply tied to the land, their agave fields planted on the high, dry sloping hills that frame the community. This is the Red Ant river basin, where the drier desert climate in the hills above the village transforms to a tropical one below; where water provides life. Here the town’s palenques produce mezcal at unmatched levels to any other community in Oaxaca and, in turn, the world.
Paciano Cruz Nolasco is as an iconic legend and one of the greatest mezcal producers the world will ever know. He makes Vida and was one of the first to produce for Del Maguey. He has battled drought, floods, market crashes, his own family’s immigration and return home, and an agave thorn pierced through his eye that nearly took his sight.
With a confident grin he will inform you his mind is like a computer, and with a flex of his bicep he will remind you that he built his ongoing legacy through grit and toil. Today, his son Marcos is a vital part of the family tradition. His mezcals are a reflection of his and his village’s character; both dry and sweet, well proofed, who flow like the river; warm, digestible, agreeable, strong, and resilient. A testament to generations of campesino and mezcalero labor and geographical serendipity. A vibrant, Zapotec elixir.
With a steadfast dedication to the artisanal process, the villagers of San Balthazar Chichicapam clearly identify themselves as a mezcal producing community. No one exemplifies the essence of this mezcal culture more than humble and stoic Zapotec Palenquero Faustino Garcia Vasquez. His countenance, underneath his famous and handsome mustache, never changes; always happy to receive visitors and offer them “calientitos,” hot mezcal fresh off the still.
The village of San Balthazar Chichicapam sits in the San Dionisio River basin, framed in a broad valley offset by steep and low-lying hills lined with oak and pine trees. Apart from the paved highway that traverses the outskirts of its borders the village remains untouched by time. Oxen, cattle, goats and sheep are shepherded along the roadway and one can hear conversations among locals in their native Zapotec dialect. The village church like so many reminders of a not-so-ancient past, was built with the same stones on the former foundations of Zapotec temples. A tall, wide tree stands in the courtyard. Before mass, the men who attend all hang their hats on the trees branches before entering to worship. Details like these set Chichicapa apart.
With a steadfast dedication to the artisanal process, Chichicapa villagers clearly identify themselves as a mezcal producing community. No one exemplifies the essence of this mezcal culture more so than Faustino Garcia Vasquez, who, with quiet determination, has been producing mezcal for Del Maguey for twenty-five years. Working alongside him is his son, Max. We often marvel about terroir in mezcal and the hand of the maker. In Faustino’s hands 12-15 ton roasts of maguey tranform into a consistent, manageable, multi-dimensional elixir that awakens the senses. His countenance, underneath his famous and handsome mustache, never changes. Always happy to receive visitors and offer them calientitos, hot mezcal fresh off the still, to impart on the spot that his craft takes no shortcuts, he is a humble and stoic Zapotec Palenquero.
Santa Catarina Minas identifies as the Cradle of Mezcal. It is a lofty title, but one fairly earned due to the extensive mezcal and maguey culture that can be traced back as far as the early Spanish occupation. Village maestro Luis Carlos is truly a master of his craft, someone who has toiled through the backbreaking work of cultivating and harvesting maguey, and then producing it through the rigorous ancestral production method, without ever losing his sense of humor.
Santa Catarina Minas identifies as the Cradle of Mezcal. It is a lofty title, but one fairly earned due to the extensive mezcal and maguey culture that can be traced back as far as the early Spanish occupation. Fiercely proud, competitive, and resourceful, the Mezcaleros in the region never adopted nor adapted to the allure of the copper stills popularized by the Spanish invaders. Rather they integrated a particular set of tools into their repertoire that today is celebrated and recognized as ancestral mezcal production. Heavy wooden bats that crush the cooked agave by hand, and small, clay pot stills that impart a special mineral quality on every finished batch.
Del Maguey celebrates its relationship with Minas through Florencio Sarmiento Carlos, who passed away in 2017. Florencio produced mezcal for over 60 years and found a way to channel many of life’s frustrations into a beautiful, complex spirit. He passed his knowledge on to his son Luis Carlos Vasquez, who, upon turning 60, was immediately recognized by the CRM as a cultural treasure of mezcal; this marked the first father and son to be recognized as such. Luis Carlos is truly a master of his craft, someone who has toiled through the backbreaking work of cultivating and harvesting maguey, and then producing it through the rigorous ancestral method, without ever losing his sense of humor. Often sporting a sharp wide brimmed hat, Luis has a knack for remembering faces and never forgetting a joke. His palenque and farm are always buzzing; the whinny of a burro, the bleating of goats, the crow of a rooster, the sound of massive maguey hearts being chopped to size by machete or wooden mallet, the crackle of the fire in his cozy corner of Oaxaca. And the vista from his land is like his personality; wide open, colorful, wild.
Nestled on the mountainside, enveloped in clouds, Santo Domingo Albarradas sits above the Tesechoacan River. Here wild agaves, principally tobala and cuishe, grow in plenty and a small number of families produce mezcal. One of those families is headed by Espiridion Morales Luis, his radiant smile and constant optimism reflected in his mezcal. It is a bright, uplifting spirit. To share a copita with Espiridion and the family is a joy. No one ever stops laughing.
Nestled on the mountainside in a sharp valley, Santo Domingo Albarradas sits above the Tesechoacan River in the Sierra Norte region, a short steep climb from higher conifer growing terrain. The village, church and municipal court are enveloped in clouds and moisture in the wet season. Various wild agaves, principally tobala and cuishe, and other endemic plants and flowers grow in plenty. Waterfalls and caves mark the end of one corner of the valley, while on the other end, a small number of families produce mezcal.
One of those families is headed by Espiridion Morales Luis, the producer responsible for Del Maguey’s SDA Espadin. Espiridion, or Lefty, lost the fingers on his right hand in an accident. He has raised a family of palenqueros, where his two sons Juan and Armando run most of the production these days. Even his daughters, Ester, Nicolasa, and Imelda, have played a leading role in roasting, fermenting and distillation.
As a teenager Esdpiridion won a cow in a contest, and with great vision sold it to purchase a copper still. Next to his home he created a tiny palenque, surrounded by banana trees. There, with no electricity, the ambitious young Espiridion produced a few batches of mezcal a year to sell in the Tlacolula market. Today, his new larger palenque has solar electricity and the home in which he was born has been expanded to house three generations. Espiridion and his wife Rosa have raised the most wonderful family imaginable. His life success all stems from his his radiant smile and constant optimism. His mezcal is a reflection of his character as well. It is a bright, uplifting spirit. To share a copita with Espiridion and the family is a joy. No one ever stops laughing.
Santa Maria Albarradas is one of the most magical places to drink mezcal in the world. The manatial spring water imparts distinctive flavors in the fermentation. Rogelio Martinez Cruz is the master distiller from Santa Maria who first sold Tobala to Del Maguey in 1996. Rogelio and his family love to host groups, and if there is dancing music playing in the palenque or in a social setting, Rogelio is the first person to grab a pretty partner.
Santa Maria Albarradas is the last Zapotec speaking village on the highway that leads to the Mixe region of Oaxaca. Geographically in the majestic Sierra Norte, there is long history of mezcal production through the harvest of endemic wild agave species in the territory. In Spanish, the towering cliff overlooking the pueblo is named Mt. Tobala and the first Tobala ever exported from Mexico came from the region. Rogelio Martinez Cruz is the master distiller who first sold Tobala to Del Maguey in 1996. Wild Tepextate, Espadin, Cuixe, and Jabali are also all produced here.
Rogelio stages the orderly and time-consuming operation in his small palenque with astounding finesse. The environment they are produced in, surrounded by fruit trees and rose bushes, and the long roasts, impart a flavor in its style and terroir that is unmatched through other distillation techniques. Fog, wind, sunshine, heavy rains; the region takes a beating while the wild agave’s sugars flourish at elevation, beneath the shade of oak and pine trees. The manatial spring water imparts distinctive flavors in the fermentation. Sta. Maria is one of the most magical places to drink mezcal in the world. Rogelio and his family love to host groups, and if there is dancing music playing in the palenque or in a social setting, Rogelio is the first person to grab a pretty partner. Big shout out to Macho the horse, who understands that life is a grind but there is also plenty of time to rest and get your munch on.
A narrow dirt road rides over sheer mountainous rockface connecting the village of Las Milpas to the outside world. Anastasio Luis went from a life led in the fields planting corn, beans, squash, to becoming a master distiller for the Del Maguey family. Anastasio is always ready to smile and laugh because he learned long ago to always look for silver linings. Ron Cooper likes to say that he did not even have to try the mezcal to know it would be special, because Anastasio’s persona exudes quality.
In Las Milpas a small stream runs a few hundred meters at the base of a long hill providing water for the residents. A narrow dirt road rides over sheer mountainous rockface as its pathway leads to the municipal capital of the region, San Dionisio Ocotepec. Apart from a life led in the fields planting corn, beans, squash, Anastasio Luis produced mezcal neighboring small palenques for years, bartering to use the space in exchange for a portion of the mezcal he produced. To support his family, he would set off by foot on the 10 km dirt path to San Dionisio, crossing over the top of the mountain overlooking the valley, and dropping down to town, where there was public transportation to customers in Tlacolula and Teotitlan. One of Anastasio’s friends in Teotitlan del Valle was Gaspar Lazo, a neighbor of the Del Maguey bodega. Ron Cooper likes to say that when they met he did not even have to try the mezcal to know it would be special, because Anastasio’s persona exudes quality.
Anastasio has a powerful presence about him. He is always ready to smile and laugh because he learned long ago in the hard life he has led to look for silver linings. Once Del Maguey committed to work with them, Anastacio and the boys were off and running. They built a palenque, carved their horno out of pure rock, started planting maguey, and began producing within six months. Come fog, wind, rain, or drought and long hot days, Anastasio and his sons produce wonderful expressions of espadin and field blends, that include tepeztate, tobala, and mexicano. They come from the cornfields of Las Milpas and they channel their rugged optimism into their craft.
Life has not always been peaceful in San Pedro Teozacoalco, but when sipping on mezcal in a palenque with a small library, surrounded by birdsong and majestic maguey, it’s certainly hard to imagine that Fernando Caballero Cruz has not found peace. Del Maguey has the honor to curate a papalome expression from Teozacoalco through our relationship with Fernando, a.k.a. El Bigote (The Moustache). Beneath his black cowboy hat and sharp, darting eyes, lies what can best be described as a Sam Elliott, movie star persona.
The Mixteca Alta region has a multi-millennial history of settlement, conquest, and conflict. An interesting juxtaposition to the gratifying sense of calm and serenity that washes over the village of San Pedro Teozacoalco upon arrival. Perhaps the remoteness adds to this sense of calm; it takes nearly four hours to reach the village from Oaxaca City, on not terribly pleasant roads. Yet there it is, sitting at the base of a high valley, green foliage and colorful flowers on every corner. And of course papalome, a beautiful maguey in shape and stature, named after the nahuatl word for butterfly.
Del Maguey has the honor to curate a papalome expression from Teozacoalco through our relationship with Fernando Caballero Cruz, El Bigote. El Bigote, The Moustache, wears his moniker well. Beneath his black cowboy hat and sharp, darting eyes, lies what can only be described as a Sam Elliott, movie star quality moustache. Stepping into the workspace where he crafts his mezcal is different than other palenques. There is a couch, and a curated bookcase. Nothing is out of place. In the act of transforming tons of agave through firepower, horsepower, and manpower into a consumable product, floors and surrounding areas are not always easy to keep maintained. And most do a splendid job keeping things tidy. But Fernando keeps his place especially spotless. He harvests his wild papalome in the hills above the village, and with his son Fernando Jr. they make a few batches a year. The terroir in this expression is unmistakable, the yeasts in the area always produce distinguishable lactic notes. Life has not always been peaceful in the area, history can attest to that, but when sipping on papalome in a palenque with a small library, surrounded by birdsong, flowers, and majestic maguey, it certainly is hard to imagine that Fernando El Bigote has not found peace.
Reaching the village of San Jose Rio Minas requires traversing high mountains on narrow and jagged dirt roads. Simply arriving at the palenque of master distiller Roberto Guiterrez is something out of a mezcal fairy tale. On the outskirts of the village, where the pavement stops, the only access to Roberto’s home is via a foot bridge over the raging river below. Here, Roberto and sons hand mash agave in hollowed out tree trunks and transform their agave into a delicious spirit, indicative of the region and his exuberant, brimming personality.
The village of San Jose Rio Minas can be reached by at least three different routes from Oaxaca, but, in the Mixteca Alta, it takes over five hours to make the trip. Traversing high mountains on narrow and jagged dirt roads is obligatory before one drops down into another unique river valley that is especially well suited for agriculture. Arroqueño and Espadin fields dotted with vibrant pink flowers are accompanied by rows of corn, beans, and squash. The temperate climate and roaring river that cuts around the village lays a humid foundation for many tropical trees to grow, chief among them, high sprawling mango trees. Here in his small, ancestral style palenque, Roberto Gutierrez has produced espadin and arroqueño for Del Maguey for the past twelve years.
Simply arriving at the palenque is something out of a mezcal fairy tale. On the outskirts of the village, where the pavement stops, the only access to Roberto’s home is via a foot bridge over the river made out of chain link fencing. Harboring images of Indiana Jones’ rope bridge exploits, visitors follow Roberto’s confident gait across the swinging span, the rapid waters thrashing below. It is quite thrilling. From there a narrow, overgrown path passes through the family home he shared with his departed wife and down to the palenque, perched above the flowing river. Here, Roberto and sons hand mash agave in hollowed out tree trunks and transform their agave into a delicious spirit, indicative of the region and his exuberant, brimming personality.
Dry brush, izote palms, and maguey papalote line the dusty, dry dead-end road that leads to San Pablo Ameyaltepec. Sometime after the French occupation of Mexico a rustic version of French continuous distillation methods, that requires great patience, caught hold in San Pablo; a single batch taking up to twenty hours. During this lengthy process the Tobon family members, who collectively produce for Del Maguey, discuss the wild history of the region, including how hard prohibition was for the elder generation, who had to run through the hills like outlaws carrying their hot stills so as not to be caught by the authorities.
Dry brush, Izote palms, and maguey papalote line the dusty, dry dead-end road that leads to San Pablo Ameyaltepec in the southwestern corner of Puebla State, the Mixteca Poblana. No one passes through San Pablo. It is the last stop on this particular road. Deep in a basin valley below high ridges lined with similar arid flora lies the small village, with its Catholic church’s dome and steeple dominating the skyline. There is long history in the region of persecution of the popoloca indigenous tribes, ancient cave paintings that reveal insight into ancestors that occupied the area thousands of years ago, and a treasure trove of prehistoric fossils that have delighted archeologists since the dawn of the 19th century.
Sometime after the French occupation of Mexico around the 1860’s a rustic version of continuous distillation reminiscent of methods utilized in France, caught hold in San Pablo.
The use of the reflux style still and the unique flavors of the papalote and pizora agave harvested in the foothills has created a singular relationship with Tobon family members in the pueblo who collectively produce for Del Maguey. This continuous distillation method is quite a sight to behold, and it requires patience to distill a single batch for 16-20 hours. During the long distillation many topics arise, including how hard prohibition was for the elder generation, running through the hills like outlaws carrying their hot stills so as not to be caught by the authorities. Mezcal was not highly valued here until quite recently. The Tobon’s are no longer moonshiners. They are part of the Mezcal Denomination of Origen and proud to have continued the traditions of their grandfathers to see a more prospective future for their craft. We raise our copitas to Papalote de Puebla!