How a New Upscale Day Dawned for Mexico's Ancient Firewater
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As with Tequila, the concept of a superpremium mescal was pioneered by foreigners. In 1995, two California importers--Pamela Hunter, who runs a public relations agency, and Carl Doumani, then co-owner of Stags' Leap Winery--began marketing their Encantado brand across the United States at $40 a bottle.
"It has a smoky taste, far more complex than Tequila," says Hunter. The business, sociology and politics of mescal, as Hunter and Doumani have discovered, are also a good deal more complex. Mescal production is concentrated in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, and the 4.5 million-liter annual total there amounts to only about 5 percent of Tequila output. Mescal is produced by 160 small distilleries, called palenques. The producers, or mezcaleros, are organized into associations whose leaders often mix politics and business. Unlike Tequila, there are no Normas, or government regulations, to encourage at least minimal standards of quality.
Thus, it took perseverance by Hunter and Doumani to fashion a superpremium mescal business. They met local university professors who introduced them to mezcaleros and association leaders. After tasting scores of mescal brands, they picked out 29 palenques grouped under a single association of mezcaleros.
Mescal from these distilleries was mixed and sampled by Doumani, Hunter and a team of American and Mexican experts. When the blend was deemed sublime, most was bottled as Encantado and some was set aside as a tasting reference for future production. "We wanted to emphasize Encantado's purity," says Hunter. "So, we made it a clear liquid in a transparent bottle. And of course, we eliminated the worm from the bottle."
Initially, some 10,000 cases were imported into the United States. Despite rave reviews in trade publications and encouragement from owners of prominent Mexican restaurant, sales stagnated. In the United States, Doumani and Hunter have expressed dissatisfaction with their distributors, and in Mexico they have encountered friction with Valeriano Martínez, the leader of the mezcaleros who produce Encantado. "We haven't sold as quickly as we hoped," says Hunter. "It's turned out to be a very steep learning curve."
For my own course on mescal, I traveled recently to Oaxaca where I linked up with Javier Toledo, a university professor and mescal enthusiast who often lends his services to Encantado. We spent a day crisscrossing the region around Oaxaca City in search of potential future suppliers for Encantado and to trace the growing local expansion of the mescal business.
We begin the day at Oaxaca City's La Merced Market, with a huge breakfast. "Mescal is best tasted in the morning cool and we'll need a full stomach," explains Professor Toledo.
Our first stop is a 40-minute drive south, in Santa Catarina Minas, a rural village. There, Bonifacio Arellanes, 41, owns one of the oldest and largest palenques, a distillery in continuous use by his family for seven generations. Not much has changed over all those years. Don Bonifacio purchases most of his maguey agave cores, or piñas, from his neighbors and relatives. He bakes them in his backyard, in a stone-lined oven pit six feet deep and with a 40-foot diameter.
The caramel-colored piñas are removed, crushed and shredded by a mule-powered grindstone (or, if it's working, a small electric shredder). The liquid is fermented in open 1,500-liter wooden vats. Then it is poured into large ceramic bowls topped by copper coils and heated by charcoal for a double distillation. The entire process takes about a month and employs up to 40 people.
Don Bonifacio serves us the freshly made, 110-proof brew in a wood bowl and offers the usual mescal toast: "Para todo mal, mezcal--para todo bien también." ("For anything bad, mescal--and for anything good, as well.") The good news is that the drink has a wonderfully light and fruity taste. The bad news for Toledo, who was hoping to eventually woo him over to Encantado, is that Don Bonifacio has already signed a contract with another American company.
We spend the rest of the morning visiting mescal stands and restaurants along the highway southeast of Oaxaca City. Busloads of American, Canadian and European tourists descend at the most upscale of these outlets, owned by Beneva, another superpremium mescal producer. Inside the restaurant and in its backyard, the tourists can see rows of agave plants and a working replica of a palenque--the entire mescal production cycle. As they depart, they can take home mescal at prices ranging up to $60 a bottle.
We end the day at the bottling plant used by Encantado on the outskirts of Oaxaca City. Valeriano Martínez, the mezcalero leader, seems to have cooled on his Californian associates, whom he blames for slow sales back in the United States.
Back in his office, he explains that his association of mezcaleros are producing their own mescal under the name of Mixtlan, which they are hoping to sell in the United States at $10 a bottle, despite their commitment to Encantado. He offers a couple of shot glasses. "Now tell me: How does it compare to Encantado?" he asks. After a day spent imbibing, oh, a dozen shots of mescal, I can look him in the eye and honestly confess: "At this point, it all tastes the same."