Mezcal has been made in Mexico for hundreds of years. It is similar to tequila, but it is made from the maguey plant, whereas tequila is made from the agave plant. These plants are similar, but tequila is also more refined than mezcal, and a different production process means that mezcal has a more smokey flavor.
Also, the production of mezcal in Mexico is mostly by small scale producers, many of whom are unlicensed and produce only for the local population. The process at these small distilleries is still similar to the way it was 200 years ago, using methods that have been passed from generation to generation.
It was one of these traditional producers that we visited yesterday. We drove up into the mountains, and then took a single lane road down into a beautiful valley in the middle of nowhere.
This area is simply gorgeous.
All of us arriving and being greeted by the owner, Jesus Lupian.
Jesus owns this ranch, and the land that stretches approximately 5 kms back into the valley. He has about 100 head of cattle, as well as the mezcal operation. This land has been in his family for longer than he knows, and so has the mezcal operation. Jesus has been making mezcal for over 40 years, and his father made it here before him.
Ruth and Sue beside a large maguey plant.
The process begins by harvesting the plant, some of which can weigh 100 pounds. They cut the leaves and roots off, and use only the heart (called the piña) to make the mezcal. The hearts are then cooked for three full days in a huge in ground pit made of lava rocks.
The big lava pit for cooking the heart of the maguey plant.
The piña's are then mashed or ground. For hundreds of years this was done by a stone wheel turned by a horse or mule. And it wasn't that long ago that this operation started using more mechanical methods to mash the piña's. But, they still had the old stone wheel.
The big stone grinding wheel.
The mash is then put into another pit, and covered and left to ferment.
The liquid is then separated from the mash and further boiled and distilled. This part I found fascinating because the distillery and boiling setup was probably exactly the same as it was 100 years ago, and using the same equipment!
There are 6 of these stills. That is actually water that you see draining into the bowl on the top. That is part of the cooling process so that the boiling alcohol below doesn't simply evaporate. There is a large wood fire burning below the stills.
The finished product then drips from the spigot on the side of the still and into the pretty container.
The used up mash is fed to the cows. Jesus says they produce better milk that way!
I think we overheard Jesus saying that he produced 580 litres of mezcal last year. He sells it to locals for 150 pesos ($11.40) per litre. Several of the campers bought a bottle. He just poured it off into an empty Coke bottle! True moonshine!
Jesus' wife pouring off some mezcal to sell to the campers.
Besides making quality mezcal, Jesus is a great host! He and his wife and daughter insisted on feeding us, making tamales and chorizo sausage and tacos. And of course there was all the free samples of mezcal!
Jesus' wife doing some cooking for us.
The people who brought us up here have a cabana in the hills near the distillery. After we said goodbye to Jesus and his family and thanked them for their hospitality, we visited the cabana. What a gorgeous spot, with a beautiful view.
And so it was, another great day at Hacienda Contreras. We are sad to be leaving here this morning, but we will return again. We're headed for Lake Patzcuaro, about 200 kms (124 miles) east of here. But it's a slow two lane road to get there, probably at least a 4 hour drive. Maybe we'll find somewhere to stop for the night along the way! Stay tuned...