An overview of the Palenque project, the best craft agave spirits


17 giugno 2024

The brainchild of Luca Gargano, the Palenque project involves six producers from the state of Oaxaca led by Hector Vazquez, and focuses on the quality and history of a craft spirit with an ancient tradition and deep roots in the local culture.

The Palenque Spirits Project started in 2018, when Velier president Luca Gargano discovered the work of six agave spirit producers in the State of Oaxaca, Mexico. The first Palenqueros release showcased the fruit of their labor and put their faces on the label for the first time.

In 2024 the Palenqueros series makes a big comeback with 5 producers involved and 8 spirits selected.

As for Clairin, the discovery of the Maestros Palenqueros is a real treasure that spotlights the hidden keepers of one of the last truly artisanal spirits and their history rooted in a thousand-year-old native culture.

a bit of history

Agave farming in Mexico dates back 10,000 years, and the practice of distillation is also quite ancient, certainly dating back well before the Spanish conquest of 1521. There is no single agave spirit and there are many more besides mezcal and tequila – think for example of raicilla and sotol. Remarkably, around 1950 tequila was still called mezcal wine, and the name mezcal mostly referred to the cooked agave plants sold in street markets.

Among these spirits, tequila obtained the designation of origin already in the 1960s while mezcal had to wait until 2004. The process began back in 1994, but unfortunately, it hasn't been very beneficial to small producers and failed to place emphasis on the importance of protecting the ecosystem and Oaxaca's cultural traditions. 

The most relevant aspect in the production process of these spirits is the long time required for agave plants to reach maturity: the earliest takes 7 years, with some wild varieties such as Tepextate needing as long as 25-30 years. Agave clearly takes too long to mature for a mainstream product. It's also clear that sipping a glass of agave spirit means savoring a long natural history carrying the memory of the ecosystem that nurtured it. For this reason, it's essential to support projects helping producers follow their organic agave farming traditions, promoting their wellbeing and favorable working conditions and ensuring high-quality products.

Enter Hector Vazquez, the project coordinator in Oaxaca.

The Maestros Palenqueros

The producers all come from different villages in the state of Oaxaca and can therefore help us draw a map of this terroir, its agave species and natural growth conditions. Their approach is strictly artisanal, and the few modern changes they made to their production practices are all aimed at preserving the quality of the soil, in keeping with their own traditional recipe.

The Palenqueros project is key to preserve the quality of artisanal agave spirits and it’s already achieving significant results. One of these is gradually helping these craftsmen turn into real entrepreneurs in the industry, but by far the most important concerns the natural ecosystem. Human activities are gradually transforming the landscape of Oaxaca from wild to agricultural, with a drastic reduction in the number of wild agave plants. The craftsmen involved in the project also preserve the different production cycles of Mexican food, growing plants such as corn, beans, pumpkins and quelites between the rows of agave plants. The use of no chemical fertilizers coupled with financial support ensure a sustainable balance.

Journalist Marco Zucchetti traveled with us to the land of the Maestros, and wrote about it here.

ALBERTO ORTIZ Y ONOFRE ORTIZ

Where: Bramaderos, Miahuatlán de Porfirio Díaz, Oaxaca.

Who: Alberto is a fourth-generation and Onofre a fifth-generation palenquero.

Their recipes include mixing different agave varieties according to an ancient practice. Together with Don Valente, Alberto is the best at creating the mezcla with a very distinctive style.

The quality of their agave spirit derives largely from the uniqueness of the region's distinctive orange soil, which gives the liquor its remarkable mineral strength.

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VALENTE GARCÍA

Where: Santa Maria La Pila, Miahuatlán de Porfirio Díaz, Oaxaca.

Who: Don Valente was a fourth-generation palenquero. 

A great distiller, he brought home his children who had emigrated to the United States and accumulated years of experience at Alipús. They are the fifth and sixth generation to have taken up the baton after his recent passing.

Adrián, Raúl and grandson Semeí are doing an excellent job, growing a large number of agaves with natural methods and producing a high-quality spirit.

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JUAN HERNANDEZ LUIS

Where: San Pedro Taviche, Ocotlàn, Oaxaca.

Who: Juan Hernandez Luis is an experienced fifth-generation apalenquero.

Due to health problems, he is currently handing the business off to his sons Margarito, Agustin and Laurentino, although the latter had to emigrate to the United States to secure financial support.

They make a Tobaziche spirit and, with the first batch, a special edition featuring Tobaziche with Tobalá - an unusual combination.

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BALTAZAR CRUZ

Where: San Luis del Rio, Tlacolula, Oaxaca.

Who: Baltazar Cruz is a first-generation palenquero who built his empire together with his two sons, both now owners of independent Palenques. 

Baltazar is known for his entrepreneurial skills, including as a consultant on other projects in different states. He also sold his product to several successful brands.

His Palenque actively employs his sons as well as his daughters-in-law.

San Luis del Rio is renowned for the quality of its soil, favorable for growing several agave varieties including Espadín, Sierra negra, Tepextate, Mexicano, Coyote and Mexicanito.

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GREGORIO MARTÍNEZ

Where: San Baltazar Guelavila, Tlacolula, Oaxaca

Who: a second-generation producer from the Zapotec culture, Gregorio Martìnez was an amazing person who, unfortunately, passed at the end of 2023. 

Gregorio passed the baton to his son Eduardo Martìnez. The most popular spirits from these producers are made from Cuishe and Madrecuishe agave.

maguey

Oaxaca is widely known as the cradle of mezcal, and therefore the cradle of agave. For millennia this plant has been tightly linked to the peoples who lived on this land and used it for food, warmth, clothing and to drink its juice.

Maurizio Maestrelli told us all about it here.

Mexico's culinary culture

Much more than Maguey - Mexico, including Oaxaca, is also a land of colorful street markets, amazing people and authentic food. Giovanni Angelucci talks about it here.

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