By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
While women have always played an important part in making mezcal, the iconic Mexican agave distillate that is almost entirely produced in the state of Oaxaca, tradition has dictated that it is men who actively learn the trade, using a family recipe passed down from generation to generation with little if any deviation. And so when a young woman, not from a mezcal-making family, dives headfirst into the industry, we must take notice.
Twenty-nine-year-old Rosario Ángeles is not constrained by family tradition. While she hails from Santa Catarina Minas, the self-proclaimed “cradle of mezcal,” her parents are tomato farmers, and her siblings are similarly not involved with the industry; not growing the succulent, nor harvesting, baking, crushing, fermenting nor distilling … nada.
It’s not that Rosario is unique in that she is a female distiller. Indeed, there are other women who have learned the profession from family members integrally involved in the business. Where she differs is that she has not been compelled to carry on a longstanding family tradition, doing it just as fathers and grandfathers carried forward a centuries-old way of doing things. On the contrary, Rosario had to read, and more importantly, learn from the few in her village willing to tutor a woman in the idiosyncrasies of ancestral mezcal production.
More significantly, being bright and inquisitive, Rosario had always been an outside-of-the-box thinker. She spent several months in California, not picking grapes, but rather as an au pair girl. And she has taught English in downtown Oaxaca, having obtained a degree in linguistics. But mezcal became her calling. She had become intrigued by the processes employed by her neighbors, and admired what they were doing. However, Rosario has already leapt ahead of most of her fellow villagers, despite having been distilling for less than two years.
I often teach about the myriad of diverse influences impacting every batch of mezcal in a different way: terroir and changing climatic conditions from year to year; variability in the wood used to cook in that sealed in-ground chamber over several days and the impossibility of evenly baking every agave piña (agave heart); the differences in molds forming on the piñas from time to time; the ever-changing quality of the air borne yeasts and of the water from wells, rivers and mountain springs needed in fermentation; and the skill sets involved in distillation, including the impacts of small changes in equipment employed. It’s almost impossible to isolate one impact from another. And who would ever think of even trying, almost all palenqueros having been schooled in the one and only “right way,” since literally childhood?
Rosario is not held back, nor confined, and her innate tendency to experiment and push the bounds of a tradition she didn’t know have never been reined in, by anyone. And so she continually looks to improve upon her craft.
One way has been to examine the effect of isolating a single impact from the rest. The mad scientist does something, I would argue, akin to a medical specialist’s differential diagnosis. She looks for the best answer which will hopefully lead to the optimum outcome. Rosario has now done it three times.
In each case Rosario has kept all but one impact uniform: the same bake, the same means of crushing, the same wooden fermentation vats, the same clay pot stills fueled by the same type of firewood, and the same means by which she achieves a particular ABV (alcohol by volume). And there are several other constants she aims to maintain.
The first experiment was comparing water sources used to add to the baked, honey-sweet crushed agave sub-species known locally as tobasiche. She used well water for half, and river water for the rest. The mezcal using river water yielded a mezcal a little sweeter. For the second, she used a different varietal of agave, cuixe, and allowed half the batch to sit, baked, for six days prior to crushing, watching particular molds form atop. For the other half she waited two weeks prior to crushing. In this case, Rosario and I each had a different opinion regarding our preference, yet both of us acknowledged a subtle difference. And finally, she has decided to evaluate the more or less common belief that using a copper, rather than stainless steel, condenser yields a significantly better mezcal. In this case tepeztate was the species of agave used for the experiment. And yes, this time she threw tradition to the wind; we both agreed that while there was merely a slight though detectable difference in the character of each resultant agave distillate, each was of exceptional quality. So much for the wisdom of the men who know better after decades of production.
I predict that within a further three or so years, Rosario will have achieved a range of mezcals the quality of which will equal, and in some cases, surpass the agave distillates of her fellow villagers with a heritage dating back generations. Most mezcal aficionados I have taken to visit Rosario’s distillery believe she is already there, and some have opined that yes, Rosario’s stable of mezcal expressions is better and more balanced than those steeped in the tradition.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).
Photo: Andrea Johnson Photography