In the land of agave


of Maurizio Maestrelli 10 maggio 2024

The Mexican state of Oaxaca is the cradle of mezcal, and therefore the cradle of agave. Agave is a plant that for millennia has been closely connected to the people living in this region, who have used it for food, warmth and clothes and who have drunk its fermented or distilled juice. 

If you decide to travel to Mexico to discover what's now known as the oldest spirit in the New World – mezcal – you're sure to come back with the belief that a lifetime is not enough to really know all about it.

At fist this may sound quite depressing, but if you look at it from another perspective, it can be one of the most exciting experiences you can have in the world of spirits. The fact is that we are all used to living in a time of oversimplification, where the only alternatives are black and white and reality is trivialized when it's actually much more complex than the way it's summarized or presented. Complex, yes – but never as complex as nature.

Mezcal is the perfect embodiment of nature's huge complexity. This is because mezcal - or, more appropriately, mezcals in the plural - is first and foremost a reflection of its "mothers", the agave plants. Of course, mezcaleros or palenqueros - the mezcal master distillers - are certainly the fathers but the mothers, as it's often the case in nature, do much of the work. It follows that in order to understand, or try to understand, mezcals one must first understand agaves. Or magueys, as they are more often called in Mexico.

To do this Velier took me on a trip to the Mexican state that rightfully claims to be the cradle of mezcals and agaves - the state of Oaxaca. The capital, which gives the state its name, is basically a technicolor city, with local handicrafts made of brightly colored fabrics and terracotta and the sunlight heightening their brilliance, causing visitors to feel a kind of subtle but constant euphoria. Oaxaca is also the starting point for exploring the largely mountainous region extending towards the Sierra Sur and Sierra Norte. This is where the palenqueros part of Luca Gargano's Palenque project have their lair - craft distillers, often with rough hands and sunbaked faces, some of whom are farmers, as some agave varieties are grown, while others are foragers of wild varieties that are not easy to find, most of them a little of both.

Agave, from the Greek ἀγαυός meaning “beautiful" or “wonderful”. Considered simply as a decorative plant in Italy where it was introduced long ago, in Mexico it's definitely much more. In a word, agave is life. For millennia a spontaneously growing plant, it was known to all pre-Columbian civilizations in alphabetical order from the Aztecs to the Zapotecs. It was used as food, fibers, fuel, building material, medicine and even needles (try getting pricked by one of the long terminal spines of an Espadin agave leaf and you'll be facing your next shot with a smile on your lips). Unsurprisingly, it was elevated to deity status in Aztec mythology with the name of Mayahuel, the goddess of fertility and agave from whose breasts flowed pulque - an ancestral alcoholic beverage obtained from the fermentation of – surprise surprise – agave sap.

Moving from myth to science, let’s first clarify that agave is not a cactus but a "succulent" and belongs to the order Liliaceae, the same as the lily. The fact that it's generically grouped with succulents may seem almost offensive, given some varieties stand tall and slender as top models - but we've also seen others that are a little stocky, "curvy", as it were. 

Agaves actually include a huge number of species - some say as many as two hundred, but even Mexican experts are unsure about the exact number and we believe that even Linnaeus, the father of all serial catalogers, would have given up. Even disregarding those that are not used to make mezcal, at least for now, that still leaves over forty varieties, which makes it easy to understand the sheer number of different types of mezcal that can be obtained - and that's not considering the multiplying effect of blends. As if this amazing "color palette" a palenquero can choose from when painting their mezcal weren't enough, agave - in addition to being life as we mentioned earlier - is also land, microclimate and, unique in the world of spirits, time. This means that the same Espadin variety grown in the Sierra Sur is different from one grown miles away in the Sierra Norte. Factors like soil, slope, altitude, hours of sunshine and shade and rainfall are all different. That's easy to understand - the same is true for vineyards, sugar cane plantations and even cereal crops. 

But agave's distinctive element is time. An agave plant takes years to reach full maturity, from a minimum of five to a maximum of almost thirty. It's no exaggeration to say that palenqueros plant agaves that will be cut and harvested by their children. This is somewhat disconcerting for anyone coming from a culture as "fast" as the Western one predominantly is. Time doesn’t just affect individual varieties but individual plants as each one, though growing just a few meters from the next, has its own unique life. That life ends twice: once with the cutting of the quiote, the stem that grows out of the very heart of the plant, rising up several meters and ending with flowers and fruits, which in turn will give rise to new agaves. Cutting the quiote is essential to concentrate all of the plant's nutrients in its heart, which would otherwise be used to sustain flowers and fruits. The heart is what matters to the mezcal distiller. That brings us to the second "death" of the plant - the sturdy leaves are chopped down with a machete and the agave is pulled from the ground using a coa, a sort of spade with a round and sharp blade that severs the base of the plant, and a mazo, a mallet used to hit the coa handle. It takes both strength and method, because the agave is not a plant to easily surrender and demands time and sweat before conceding defeat - less so for smaller varieties like tobalà and coyote, a lot more when it comes to the larger agaves such as Mexicano verde or tepextate.

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There are no industrial machines for harvesting agaves. No mechanization - including for farmed varieties - just strong arms and, in the case of wild varieties, good legs and lungs, because they're not easy to find. That may be something to think about when sipping mezcal at the bar counter or sitting in your living room at home. Once the heart, called the piña, has been harvested, it needs to be taken to the distillery, where it will be placed in a large pit dug into the ground serving as an oven for the long roasting process. That's no small feat, considering a small piña like that of the Tobalà agave can weigh at least twenty kilos, a medium-sized one like Espadin about eighty and a Barril as much as one hundred and twenty. This requires having several men ready to lift the heavy weight and load it into the trucks. And that's when agave is grown on flat land, otherwise you have to use donkeys, the only animals capable of climbing up and down steep slopes pushing their way through the vegetation (it's amazing how the places where agave thrives are also teeming with several other shrubs all equipped with dagger-like thorns) and equipped with the necessary strength and patience to help man in this arduous task.

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On those Mexican days, while traveling between distilleries on dirt roads and admiring a succession of cacti and agaves from the windows while eagles and small vultures hover above our heads, most of the time under the fiery ball of the sun that reminds us how in this part of the world a wide-brimmed hat is not a fashion accessory but a vital necessity, that's when you really feel a connection with the world of mezcal which is, in fact, a whole world. A rich, complex, intriguing world, hard as the toil of the people who work in the fields, sweet as the piña when it's fresh out of the oven.

Of the five palenqueros we meet on our trip, all part of the Palenque Velier project, three are located in the Sierra Sur. The first, Juan Hernández Luis, is a fifth-generation palenquero based in the village of San Pedro Taviche. The agaves he uses for his microscopic mezcal production, no more than four or five batches a year, are 100% wild and mostly of the Tobalà, Madrecuishe and Tobaziche varieties. He forages for them by walking on narrow trails that are rarely flat, and each batch requires three or four hundred kilos of piña. A Tobalà piña weighs around twenty kilos. You do the math, but don't forget to factor in the thirteen years it takes a Tobalà agave to reach maturity. In the same area. 

A few hours' drive away is the village of Bramaderos, where father and son Alberto and Onofre Ortiz work growing Madrecuishe, Mexicano, Coyote as well as Tepextate, Bicuishe and Tobalà, in addition to the ubiquitous Espadin. Each variety - it bears repeating - has a very different ripening time, weight and, most importantly for those who have the opportunity to try the mezcal obtained from it, distinctive organoleptic qualities. The third palenquero in the Sierra Sur is located a short distance from the Ortizes – or not so short, since you need to travel around a mountain - and goes by the name of Valente García. 

and rent land for a total of around 150 hectares and something like one hundred and thirty thousand agaves including Espadin, Coyote and Arroqueño, as well as varieties we'd never seen before like Sierrudo. Arroqueño is a spectacular agave. It reaches maturity in about ten to twelve years and can yield record-breaking piñas weighing up to four hundred kilos. Cutting it down with a machete requires strength and endurance, as we had the opportunity to experience.

The Sierra Norte is home to the remaining two palenqueros. The first is Baltazar Cruz from San Luis del Rio, a man who does not go unnoticed. He is man of few words and practical gestures who seems to look right through you and smiles - just slightly, make no mistake - only when offering you his mezcal. His agaves seem to cling to an almost vertical land which, if it ever snowed here, would be more suitable as a ski slope than a farming field. If a freshly cut piña were to slip from the hands of the cortadores, the agave cutters, it would roll down the slope causing a landslide. When asked about this, Cruz did not so much as raise an eyebrow and my respect for him shot up to the level I felt as a child for Spider-Man. His Tepextate is one of the varieties that require the longest wait, over twenty years, and has a lower yield compared to other varieties like Espadin. Of course, he also grows Espadin and, not to be outdone, another as-yet-unheard-of variety - Sierra Negra.

The last palenquero in this area is Gregorio Hernández's son based in San Baltazar Guelavila. Gregorio unfortunately passed away at the end of 2023. He was survived by his father, an 83-year-old man who still goes to check how his corn is coming along and washes every day in a stream close to the distillery. In addition to Espadin, the varieties he grows include Cuishe, Madrecuishe and Coyote, the latter considered native to this area, different from the Coyote found in other areas. Same plant, different soils, and perhaps even different subspecies. Now that our trip is almost over, we realize that sometimes agave is a little like a Matryoshka doll or a set of Chinese boxes: there are different varieties, with the same variety sometimes having different names depending on the farming area and taking up different qualities depending on the habitat - although it's generally accepted that the best agaves are grown or found between one thousand and two thousand meters above sea level. As they say, to each palenquero his own agave. After a while your head might start spinning and you may find yourself relying on that Mexican saying we were taught by Hector Vazquez - our guide, guardian, patron saint and walking encyclopedia on all things mezcal: "Para todo mal, mezcal. Para todo bien, también. E si no hay remedio… un litro y medio”. No need for a translation, I think.

And so, in the end, conscious of having been given the amazing opportunity to dive into the magical, mystical world of agave and her favorite son, shake hands with authentic people, deeply connected to the land, the pace of the seasons and the passing of the years, and taste a huge variety of mezcals, all more crystal-clear than water and as different from each other as I'll ever find, I ultimately forgot the mezcals of my youth, when the only aromas seemed to be smoke and gasoline and we competed with each other to eat, with the last sip, the dead gusano at the bottom of the bottle. The gusano is a real worm, the larva of an insect called torito. It can actually damage the piña of an agave, but Mexicans prefer to eat it fried like they do with chapulines, grasshoppers, a culinary specialty of Oaxaca. But I also came back from Mexico with another realization, one I wrote about at the beginning of this story. A lifetime is not enough to say you really know everything about mezcal. But that's the beauty of it, the compelling complexity that makes you want to try yet another, different mezcal, never quite knowing what to expect.

This is what was on my mind on the last day in Oaxaca as I stroked an agave plant in the street, tracing with my finger the lines crisscrossing the whole leaf which, unsurprisingly, are called tatuaje - tattoo. A spineless agave leaf called Liso. I had never seen it before.