In the runup to 2nd Viva Agave festival from 20 – 25 March, 2019, we continue with our series featuring some of the people behind the books, brands and the bars involved in spreading the agave love throughout France. If you read my review of Mezcal, l’Esprit du Mexique, you might recognize the name of Domingo Garcia, one of its co-authors.
Domingo isn’t just a writer but a highly qualified researcher and consultant in the world of agave. He has some impressive qualifications that make him a man worth listening to when it comes to these spirits. Not only does he have PhD in sociology, EHESS but is also an assistant-professor in Latin American Studies at Université de Lille in France. He’s an Associate member at Centre européen de sociologie et de science politique and a member of the National System of Researchers (SNI-CONACYT) of Mexico since 2013. He took the time to answer our questions in great detail. So, settle in for a good read and meet….
Domingo Garcia, author, mezcal researcher & agave spirits consultant
Describe your role in the world of Agave?
I am a smuggler of ideas. As sociologist, I study agave spirits from a social science perspective. Nevertheless, I also work in organoleptic properties linked to terroir. Sensorial properties are due to natural factors (land, climate, flora) and human factors (production process). Terroir embodies the place and the taste. I believed that this aspect is the point of departure to understand beverages like mezcal.
From this position, I try to offer a better knowledge of agave spirits in France and in Mexico. My work permits me to rethink the commodity chain in order to guarantee the sustainability of the mezcal production.
Based in this understanding, I try to make producers and consumers aware of the risks of the pressures of the market on the communities, the ecology and the diversity of the species of agave. Today, we can’t discard a certain risk of “ecocide”, in other words, an ecological catastrophe. It is important to understand that mezcal production, in an artisanal way, has its own limits. And it is important to be conscious of this phenomenon. That is why I propose to take some actions to preserve this type of economy and lifestyle, for instance:
- regulate the mezcal chain
- recover the agroecological practices of the past like polyculture
- plant different species of agave to increase genetic diversity and thus, protect agave plants against insects, bacteria or diseases
- set a floor price for raw material, the agave plants
- set agave exploitation quotas
- set seasons for harvesting the agaves
- set legal and decent wages for workers
- set honest and reasonable contract between vintage distillers and distributors
- prevent for the risks of transnationalization of the hole chain
- prepare and organize the producers to face big economic groups and challenges
- advise the producers of legal and economic risks
- train the producers in ecological treatments
- encourage reforestation programs of endemic agave and trees
The goal of these measures is to prevent shortages and the perverse cycle of overproduction and scarcity, created by the actual legislation. In this point I agree with my colleague Sarah Bowen: the DO (designation of origin) for mezcal has success to guarantee Mexico’s right and exclusivity to produce mezcal in the world, and to market the product internationally. Yet, the DO for mezcal has failed to protect the producers (maestros mezcaleros) or to promote rural development. It is well known that the rules tend to favor the big producers who have a hegemonic position in the market, thus reinforcing their power. This power can be translated in terms of market force, cost efficiency or setting advantageous rules.
Indirectly, my published work also offers mezcal lovers a deep insight into the mezcal world, its aromas, flavors and history. Alcohol is not only a support of flavor, but also a support of history and culture!
In other words, my work offers an overview of mezcal to international audiences and explains the product and mezcal’s background, its uniqueness. My work also offers the opportunity to Mexicans to understand and embrace mezcal as their national drink, or more accurately, as their national spirit. Remember that mezcal was not a source of national pride until recent years. In fact, this spirit was demonized for ethnic (indigenous beverage), social (booze for poor people) and economic reasons (for many years mezcal was a labor enhancer). Globalization offers mezcal the opportunity to be appreciated by international consumers, and ironically, globalization offers also the opportunity to Mexican consumers to assume their legacy and to appreciate their own national spirit. Through a combination of circumstances, mezcal is nowadays Mexicans’ drink of choice.
Moreover, after studying mezcal for several years, I arrived at the conclusion that mezcal is the quintessence of Mexican culture. If I consider mezcal as a synthesis of Mexico it is because this beverage represents, more than any other, the history of this country, and also, the social relations among Mexicans since the genesis of what is now Mexico (at least since the early 16th Century). It is useless to try to understand mezcal without understanding first Mexican history. In other words, if you are not interested in Mexico’s history, you cannot understand what mezcal really is. A cultural and social background is necessary to go beyond folklorist or essentialist approaches.
For me, mezcal is Mexico’s enfant terrible. It seems to me that this metaphor illustrates perfectly well the nature of the product, its essence and its historical legitimacy in regard to other products (i.e. tequila). Mezcal is an extraordinary example of cultural syncretism. Contrary to what many people say, mezcal is not an indigenous beverage, but a mestizo beverage! Mezcal translates the particular cultural hybridization taken place in this country. Moreover, mezcal is a response for international demand of cosmopolitanism. In this respect, and after the transnationalization of the tequila chain, mezcal embodies better than any other product, Mexican identity (mexicanidad).
Furthermore, I have a deep relation with mezcal. Please don’t get me wrong. I am talking about mezcal as a national drink, linked to history, society and culture. Mezcal allows me the perfect occasion to study the history of the country where I was born and allows me to reconnect with Mexico’s national soul and identity. For instance, my mezcal research shows that mezcal, as well as my own family, came from the process that Tim Mitchell called ranchificación, in other words the small properties that appeared after the fragmentation of the haciendas (large state or plantation). I tried to explain some of these aspects in my second book, Mezcal, l’enfant terrible du Mexique (the first scholar book entirely dedicated to the study of mezcal): I wanted to present Mexico’s social and cultural history through the prism of mezcal.
What is your favorite agave spirit?
Mezcal is the generic name for agave distillates. So, if you are trying to ask me, which is my favorite mezcal, I might say that I have several favorite mezcals. Personally, I classify them by regions of production, by terroirs.
I don’t think it is very useful to classify mezcals only by agave’s species. Unfortunately, many people get confused with all this, specially when they talk of varietals… some of these persons are also those responsible for attributing flavor to agave’s species only (forgetting the natural and cultural factors). By the way, please remember that the correct thing to do is to talk of species of agave, not varietals. In any event, flavor in agave spirits comes from three factors: agae species, terroir and practices of production (human and natural factors). Indeed, based upon UNESCO’s definition, terroir is social construction based in these aspects.
Saying this, my favorite mezcals from the south of Mexico, Oaxaca specifically, is ancestral mezcal distilled in ollas de barro (clay pot still), which you can find only in very few places like Sola de Vega, Santa Catarina Minas, but also in Jayacatlán and Ixcatlán (the former is fermented in clay pots and the later, in rawhide vats). From the north of Mexico, I adore the mezcal from San Luis Potosí, distilled with the campanilla system, a very rustic technology, and one of the best rated. Unfortunately, this mezcal is disappearing. As I was born in Mexico’s northeast region, I can not forget to mention the mezcal from Nuevo Leon, my home State. As pulque (a fermented beverage made of the fermented sap of the agave plant) is used to start up the fermentation process, this mezcal has a unique flavor. I was pleased to learn that René Redzepi of NOMA also appreciate this mezcal as well, and apparently it is also one of his favorites mezcals!
From the west, I like “Tuxca” and ancient mezcals from Jalisco, like Chacolo, an independent mezcal producer. By the way, the owner of Chacolo, mezcal master Don Macario Partida, considers his own product as a “Tuxca” as well. I guess because his mezcal shares the same methods of production as “Tuxca” (Zapotitlán de Vadillo is nearby a small town called Tuxcacuesco,). For me, both mezcals embody perfectly well the taste of this prominent land of spirits, Jalisco. You can neatly perceive its vegetal and white pepper flavor, the spirit of the former “wine mezcal of Tequila” (vino mezcal de Tequila), in other words, 19th Century tequila. From Jalisco I can also mention the raicilla (“little root”, is the name given to this particular mezcal as a stratagem to avoid taxes), whose methods of production reminds us the Asian origins of mezcal (Filipino still and coconut wine). Please note that producers of this family of mezcals are working hard to obtain their own DO, and they most probably succeed soon.
From the northwest, bacanora is definitely my favorite, but mezcals from Durango are outstanding, I really love these mezcals. For me, Durango’s mezcals are definitely in the top of the list. Moreover, the sensorial qualities of mezcals from Durango are scientifically proven by chromatography analyses! If producers of this State do things properly, Durango has an extraordinary terroir to become the next “Napa Valley of mezcal” in the years to come.
Moreover, what I appreciate above all, are mezcals from independent producers and cooperatives. I really enjoy mezcals distributed by “mezcal dignifiers” like “Nación de las verdes matas” created by my friend Luis Loya. He is doing an amazing job with some “bouilleurs de cru” (vintage distillers) in many places of Mexico, basically in the north of the country (Sonora, Durango, San Luis Potosí, Nuevo Léon). Hiss project is, in many regards, unique and precious. His repertoire of mezcals is one the most impressives in Mexico, in terms of quality and diversity. Without doubt, “Nación de las verdes matas” collection is, in my opinion, the most complex and sophisticated in Mexico. In addition, Luis’s project professes a deep connection with terroir and people, promoting rural development, fair prices and protection of traditional knowledge. These mezcals are only for true connoisseurs.
Other interesting projects obviously exist. For instance: Mezcal Rajabule (now available in Switzerland and France, so far) led by Raíces Soltecas, a small cooperative of peasants from Oaxaca; Sansekan, another cooperative from Guerrero, and one of the pioneers in mezcal production (created with Catarina’s Illsley help, a Mexican biologist and researcher, who has since passed away unfortunately); Mezcal Cuish led by Félix Hernández Monterroza is a great project, and his repertoire of mezcal is overwhelming; Almamezcalera of Erick Rodriguez is very interesting, he protects and promotes the most incredible mezcals from all over Mexico; Mezonte from Jalisco created by Pedro Jiménez Gurría is doing an amazing work in Jalisco, and his repertoire of mezcals is splendid; Maestros del Mezcal, a project led by Rion Toal, based in Oaxaca, is another example of an honest and admirable job with independent producers and fair price policy; Mezcal La Neta, led by Niki Nakazawa and Max Rosestock is a new project that goes in the same direction, they have an authentic ethical perspective and a true development goals for local communities and peasants; Archivo Maguey created by Jesús “Chucho” Espina it is worthy of respect. Chucho has done a great job in the classification of mezcals from the north of Oaxaca, more precisely, the Northwest of Oaxaca (Mixteca Alta); and his subtle palate and sensorial knowledge are legendary and very sophisticated; last but not least, Lalocura proyect led by Eduardo Angeles is an extraordinary mezcal, as the whole agro-ecological philosophy behind his mezcal production.
Some commercial brands are doing a good job also. Koch El Mezcal has a real ethical and human philosophy in the mezcal business. Certainly, there are some others brands that share these values. However, it is difficult to know who is doing business with true ethical principles. Unfortunately, it is more common to hear about unethical practices. Nevertheless, bad practices are apparently disappearing. Let’s cross our fingers!
However, I can’t forget to mention Ron Cooper, who did magnificent work. It is thanks to Ron’s work that mezcal has been resuscitated in a certain way. The work he accomplished is invaluable for the entire mezcal world. We should not forget either all the efforts of Cornelio Pérez, Marco Ochoa, Ulises Torrentera and so many others, including Jaime Muñoz from Danzantes. All of them played, in the very beginning, a very important role that many people don’t know or unfortunately forget. The introduction of the double distillation, a recent innovation in many places (many peasant introduced the double distillation 10 or 20 years ago), played a pivotal role. Remember, there are no records in the archives of mezcal in Oaxaca before the late 18th Century, as my colleague Paulina Machuca suggests in her recent book. The new sanitary parameters and chemical compliances are also fundamental to explain mezcal renaissance.
The most prominent role in mezcal’s contemporary resurgence is perhaps, the intense cultural activity, including gastronomy, of the State of Oaxaca. Just to honor some names, let’s talk about Francisco Toledo, Guillermo Olguín, Leonardo da Jandra, Alejandro Magallanes, Coletivo Lapiztola, etc. And some of the more creative chefs of Mexico: Alejandro Ruiz, Enrique Olvera, Luis Arrellano and Rodolfo Castellanos. Their talent helped indirectly to reintroduce mezcal to Mexicans and foreigners who visited Mexico, and helped spread the news, creating a magical aura around the mezcal… All these uncoordinated efforts help to give back to mezcal its credentials as a noble spirit.
What’s the one thing you think everyone should know about your favorite agave spirit?
The process or methods of production, the historical background, the specification of the terroir, but above all, the name of the maestro mezcalero (mezcal master) who produces each mezcal! Don’t forget: mezcal is “liquid art”, an artisanal product. It is impossible to dissociate it from its maker. What every consumer should know about this spirit is the huge effort necessary to produce a liter of mezcal. I am not talking only of the human effort, but also the social, ecological and agricultural ones. It takes so much time to produce so little mezcal that at least, every consumer should take into consideration these aspects before they sip a mezcal.
Where is your favorite place to drink it?
Which is my favorite place to drink mezcal? At my place with my friends! I have some very rare bottles of mezcals, I guess it is hard to find such mezcals in Europe!
Ok, I know what we are talking about… Well, in Mexico City, I love Bósforo; this tiny bar is for me the best place in the world to drink some very rare mezcals with friends or alone… in this place you always end up talking with your neighbor. In Oaxaca, I enjoy particularly discovering some mezcals in In Situ, in company of the honorable, Ulises Torrentera, a true “mezcal curator”. According to my colleague, friend and mezcal expert, Ana Valezuela, a mezcal curator contributes to a better comprehension of mezcal through published books, films, documentaries, taxonomy catalogues, etc. Mezcal curators are also those persons who constitute a liquid patrimony of mezcal with detailed information of the origin, procedures, etc., and accept to share with the community and critics this information. To become a mezcal curator a long education is needed. It is hard to learn the true qualifications that distinguish an authentic mezcal from an inauthentic one, a legitimate mezcal form illegitimate agave distillate.
However, what I enjoy the most, is to catch a bus and go on foot to the microdistilleries, called palenques, vinaterías, fábricas, tabernas (the name depends in the regions), and drink some mezcals as soon as they are distilled, directly from the still, warm mezcal… listening to the most incredible stories of ghost and witches, murders or some other local stories of jealousy and conflicts between towns. This is why speaking Spanish is so useful in the world of mezcal! As long as you know how to read between the lines… or, more precisely, to understand between the words in a phrase! Mezcal is also the temporal gateway to these towns and its magic, its surrealist reality, hidden in the daily and ordinary life. Mezcal allows you to meet some of the most extraordinary people. The kind of people and realities you can only find in Juan Rulfo’s novels….
For many people, mezcal is associated with truth production. Many mezcal drinkers, even now, seek to transcend meanings of ugliness and pain. Some others are just interested in escapism or the cathartic effect produced by the spirit. Mezcal is also a way increase the intensity of temporal consciousness. For many epicurean consumers, mezcal is a time killer, because it pushes you to live the present, every second, as it was the last of your life. For some people, mezcal offers the possibility of subversion, while for others, its consumption leads to redemption. During colonial times, mezcal worked as a remedy for post-conquest stress disorders and traumas: a sort of social and temporal healer. And in some places, it still is… But more commonly, mezcal consumption is a sensorial quest, in other words, a way to search intensity, explore emotions and feelings… new and original time-wraping, as well as new meanings of life. To quote Mitchell’s admirable work, mezcal drinkers “seek to extract more beauty and pleasure from beauty and pleasure”; this is, a desire of ecstasy. Globalization offers this possibility to many people around the world. It seems that Mexicans are pleased with this idea. Why not! After all, Mexicans are known for being generous. Besides that, mezcal knows nor barriers or walls!
Anyway, if you are trying to ask me, which is for me the best mezcal? I believed that the best mezcal is the one given to you. This is the best way to appreciate a true mezcal, in the company of the maker or the person who offers you some mezcal as a gift. It can happen in the more surrealistic way, in the middle of nowhere, in a random place, with strangers, on the hot sunny day… out of a plastic container. It has happened to me so many times! And it still happens out there in the countryside… I invite people to go there and try. It is easier than many people think. I am truly grateful to every single person that gave me a bottle of mezcal. Moreover, I am grateful to people who share this incredible spirit with me, a source of pride for Mexicans.
Talking about bars or spots, I really enjoyed having a mezcal in Piedra Lumbre, the most incredible speakeasy of Mexico’s southeast. Unfortunately this place once owned by my friend Fer Arce, a local photographer, is now closed. But, you never know, it might reopen again, one day….
What is your favorite cocktail with it?
I really enjoy a cocktail made by Fernando “Fer” Loza from a bar called Aloha in Oaxaca (a small speakeasy, perhaps the only one in Oaxaca nowadays), prepared with hierba santa (a local herb used in regional gastronomy); a very interesting discovery. But I forgot the name. Probably you can ask him.
Otherwise, I enjoy personalized cocktails, like the one I’ve once sipped in Little Red Door (in Paris). God only knows what it was and who prepared that unique cocktail, but it tasted like true mezcal, but in a western style. Well, I guess that the more simple, the better. In France we used to say: l’élégance est dans la simplicité (elegance is simplicity).
There is a place in Oaxaca where local mixologists prepare the most amazing cocktails based in “herbolaria prehispánica” (prehispanic science of herbs) called Hierba Blanca (with José Yánez, Chucho Espina, co-owns this place as well; Chucho is a true connoisseur and proud oaxaqueño that I deeply respect). Moreover, this is another example of local resistance to cultural imperialism, because at the same time, this cocktail bar offers an alternative to western style cocktails made with mezcal. I like this idea, because mezcal is also, in the words of Michel de Certeau, a form of “adaptive resistance”, that appears during the emergence of the Mexican nation and the collapse, in the aftermath of the conquest and the pre-colonial order that set the bases of what we now call “Modern Mexico”.
I would like to say that, if mezcal is relevant from a sociohistorical perspective, is in part because of the fact this beverage appears since the very beginning of the colonial period and expands constantly during the construction of Mexico as a nation state. From a certain point of view, mezcal can be considered a stronger vernacular expression of Mexican culture than many other national symbols in Mexico! During the painful construction of Mexico a nation, mezcal helped to heal psychological and physical trauma due to wars, destruction and confrontation between antagonist groups divided by religion, ethnic differences and social class struggle. And doing so, mezcal participates to redefine Mexican identity and social cohesion.
In terms of social cohesion and identity mezcal is key element for many communities. Nevertheless, mezcal is not only important because peasants celebrate weddings and births with it. Historically, mezcal’s ritual and social significance resides precisely in the capacity to help us (Mexicans, and non-Mexicans as well) to celebrate life, to celebrate the existence of group, the belonging to a group in our ephemeral passage through earth…. It is funny (peculiar) to find rediscover the very first social characteristic of mezcal: a survivor’s drink. Maybe you can think about life and the joy of living the next time you sip a mezcal.
I would like to end saying the drinking responsibly is the key to enjoying mezcal and its true nature. In regard to people that produce this spirit, their efforts and time, please treat mezcal, and your own body, with respect.
Thanks, Domingo! See you at Viva Agave!
You can see our other mini-interviews here. And, if you want to read more about agave, I wrote a series of agave related articles in the runup to the first agave first festival, so you can take a deeper dive into tequila, mezcal and more.