Two Women in Oaxaca, Mexico.

8/23/18 -

I never got to meet Don Lorenzo Angeles Mondoza, but I had the great pleasure of meeting his daughter, Graciela Angeles Carreño, and being invited to a celebration of Don Lorenzo's life and work at the Real Minero palenque (distillery) a few weeks ago. A day of remembering, a feast, a wild dance party all rolled into one, Graciela was the consummate host, speaking directly from the stage to every single one of the hundred or so people who showed up and thanking them for coming, remarking on what those people mean to her, her family, and most importantly to the legacy of what Don Lorenzo built. Graciela is carrying on her father's immense work and running operations at Real Minero, while her brother Edgar has taken over distilling, and together they are pushing the brand to an incredibly bright future as a leader in the mezcal category. Keeping in the historic tradition of the town of Santa Caterina Minas, all the mezcales made here are distilled in clay pot stills; much more sensitive and time-consuming than the copper alembics used in other parts of Oaxaca. But while the distillation is done in a very traditional manner, everything else at Real Minero is about investing in the future.

The nursery operation, located close to the palenque, is the most extensive I have seen in Oaxaca. Real Minero has hundreds of thousands of agave in the ground, not only for use in the distillation of mezcal, but also to preserve the botanical and cultural diversity and tradition of Mexico. With the emergence of mezcal as a major spirits category in the world, there is a big threat of over-harvesting wild agave of various species; some of which take decades to reach maturity. A big goal of the nursery is to rescue and preserve these wild plants, and propagate them for future generations. The nursery doesn't only function as a tool for the distillation at Real Minero, but also to give back to communities all over Oaxaca, and to be a source for research and knowledge to help all mezcaleros and growers. To achieve that goal, Graciela employs horticulturist Isaac Arianes, and biologist, Matias Dominguez who work together to ensure the plants are viable, with genetic diversity and variability. To ensure this, everything planted is propagated from seeds instead of clones, and much of Matias's work is to ensure biodiversity on the property to entice pollinaters such as bats, birds and butterflies to thrive. Every single agave plant has a registry, and is tracked from the nursery to the field to the distillation process. No fertilizers or herbicides are used, though Isaac has come up with an concoction of chile, onion, garlic, oregano, pepper, cinnamon, and vinegar as an organic pesticide for the baby agave. Pretty delicious as a snack as well.

Along with the nursery, Graciela is flying a flag for the community of Santa Catetrina Minas. As one of the first people from the town to graduate from college, she is intent on creating opportunities for young people from the area. In the past few years she has invested in building a library, and providing educational seminars for the town. She is also fiercely protective of the brand her father built, ensuring ownership as well as the image of the brand is controlled by her and her family. Real Minero mezcales are expensive, but she makes sure that both the family, as well as everyone who works for the brand is fairly compensated. In a time where more and more mezcal brands are being bought out by large liquor conglomerates, this feels incredibly important, a way to show mezcal producers can participate in the global beverage economy on their own terms. 

Señora Berta Vasquez lives in a blue house on the corner, in the small town of San Baltazar Chichicapam. She's been distilling mezcal for close to half a century, helping her father in the fields and in the palenque since the age of 10. When he passed away at a young age, she was forced to take up the mantle of the family business. She later married a fellow mezcalero from town, and when her husband also passed, she was once again distilling alone to provide for her family. Currently her 10-year-old grandson, Antonio, is helping her with every step of the process, learning, carrying on the family tradition. During our visit, Antonio was incredibly proud to demonstrate to us how much he knew, pouring mezcal, cheekily butting into his grandmother's conversation, and showing us around the various processes of the palenque. I'd love to return in a decade and see what he's up to.

Berta's production is miniscule compared to some of the larger palenques in the towns surrounding Chichicapam. She farms a few small plots of Espadin, has a tiny nursury operation in her daughter's front yard, and shares a palenque on the outskirts of town with several other producers. Her mezcales are uncertified (no one from the Consejo Regulador, the governing body of mezcal, comes to verify them) and the batches are oftentimes limited to one or two hundred liters. She sells mostly to the town, as her family has done for generations, and occasionally a restaurant or bar in Oaxaca or Mexico City will buy something from her to bottle under their own labels. Her mezcal is available for the first time in the States under the Rezpiral label, and we are incredibly happy to be able to offer some at the store.

-Oskar Kostecki


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