In 2018 we travelled to Oaxaca in search of a traditional producer of Mezcal in order to live and work with them. A collaboration partner deep in their traditions but open minded enough for potential innovative alterations. After a fair amount of trials we found Rodolfo who's son operates the family's mezcal farm (Palenque).
Rodolfo, the village's English teacher, is a smart man who draws his water from miles away from a spring that he bought so that he can operate his production isolated up on the mountain rather than having to produce down at the moist river alongside everyone else. Because they live in the nearby village they only have a dirt floor bedroom at the Palenque. This was Benedict’s headquarters throughout the collaboration, accompanied by the farm's dog mal perito (bad dog) and some chicken.
The following 6 weeks, after receiving permission from the village town hall, we spent harvesting wild agave with about 20 men and a few donkeys. The days started scouting desired agaves in the desert from top of the hills. Then cutting paths through the bushes with machetes so that the donkey could reach them. Then the harvesting starts. The tepextate has a defence mechanism when cutting the leaves. When cut they squirt a white liquid (saponins) which can blind a person and when in contact with the skin it causes badly infected pimples like ulcers. Triple clothing was necessary working in the hot deserts days.
Only the heart (piña) of the agave is used whereas the leaves contain too high pectin levels which would result in methanol.
Sustainability isn’t a big issue in Mexico even though it should. An agave accumulates energy and nutrients, in the case of a tepextate 25-35 years, before it can grow a blossoming tree (cuiote) from its heart from the accumulated sugars within. The main reason why wild agaves are usually harvested underaged is so that they don’t grow the tree in the first place, which, in the local mainstream point of view, would take away sugar (i.e. yield) away from the heart. So, often, when the tree begins to sprout, it is cut off immediately. Sadly, due to pure greed, it even happens that not even the sprouting time is awaited, which wouldn’t enable reproduction, but at least the maximum alcohol yield. With such aggressive harvesting and without the cuiotes, these varieties don't have a bright future in the wild. All these years later we now know that no tepextate is in sight within a 4 hour accessible radius.
In Südtirol we have learned from fermenting and distilling fruit that the ratio between fermentable sugar to the fruit's weight plays a major role in the flavour intensity of the derived distillate as the derived ethanol is merely the soluble of the fruit's inherent aromas. In short, the less ethanol, the more flavour per litre of alcohol. Our innovative contribution to this collaboration was to only harvest agave with a fully grown cuiote. This way we not only work sustainably but also lose sugars to the growing tree and benefit from its extra maturity.
By using a wood chipper parallel to crushing the agave after the cooking process in an earth oven we have surprisingly almost made up lost yield. Traditionally the agave is only grinded by hand or a milling stone pulled by a horse or donkey (these are engraved in the mezcal board’s guidelines and dictate, amongst other things, whether you can decorate your mezcal as artisanal or even ancestral). This causes big chunks of cooked agave ending up in the fermenter which still contain sugars and flavours. Microbes can't access the sugars within and so they end up lost in the dump. We had the idea to look for a wood chipper in the nearby village with which we shredded the agave into tiny pieces before milling it by horse and stone to create a thoroughly creamy mash.
The fermentation was 100% spontaneous. A vast culture of yeasts and bacteria engaged resulting in these incredibly complex esters and fermentation by-products which underwent further flavour through chemical reactions within the stills . Directly wood fired copper pot stills were used in a double distillation. We have distilled fairly slowly with bold cuts to achieve a maximum of chemical reactions and flavour harvesting.
Traditionally, mezcales have minimal smoke due to the agaves being cooked in the earth pits. Modern industrial processes (like in Tequila) involve steam and are thus not smokey. Therefore some smaller producers started to make their artisanal mezcales smokier than before in order to differentiate their product from the industrial ones. However, the heavy smoke, in our opinion, stands in the way of the complex flavours which result from the agave variety in combination with natural fermentation. Our batches are classics.
We have harvested exclusively the agave varieties tepextate, tobalá, jabalí and madrecuishe. We have cooked, fermented and distilled each variety separately to present their unique flavours. Jabalí and madrecuishe we have combined in each step due to their small amounts.
It took us four years with the help of Alejandro Aispuro to export the total of 300 litres that we've produced over these six weeks. We have harvested a total of 20 tonnes, employed half the village and have proven to the world that one can sustainably produce without big losses. We've been very fortunate to have Alejandro on our side. Alejandro and Benedict know each other since their time in Edinburgh where both were studying brewing and distilling. Otherwise it would have been hard to handle the ‘bureaucracy’ in Mexico in order to export this very special destilado de agave.
Each label is an individual woodcut print on cotton paper signed and numbered by the Oaxacan artist Marcos Lucero. One for the 70cl bottle and one for the 35cl bottle. The individual colours then differentiate the agave variety (Tepextate = black, Tobalá = pink, Ensamble = blue). Depicted in the art is the agave with the fully grown cuiote.
100% Tepextate Silvestre 70cl, Single Palenque Destilado de Agave, 2018 Vintage
Single Palenque Destilado de Agave
Distilled in San Juan del Rio, Oaxaca
Palenque Jose Rodolfo
100% Tepextate Silvestre, Joven, 57.8%vol
2018 Vintage | Bottled 2021
Still Strength/ Unfiltered
Limited to 160 bottles
We recommend opening the bottle seal with a knife.