On the Trail

Mezcal 101: The Story of Don Amado

David Driscoll

In order to understand the story of Don Amado mezcal and the you have to start with the source: the mountains of Santa Catarina Minas. To get there from the distillery you have to cross a small river and head east towards the horizon. After a bit of a hike you'll come to an expansive agave field with rows of budding espadín sprouting in orderly rows. It was in this field that we began to understand how special this place is to Bonifacio Arellanes Robles—the man who owns half of Real de Mina distillery. He is the eleventh generation of distillers in his family and his story began many years ago, on this very mountainside more than 4,000 feet above sea level.

Boni's ancestors began distilling mezcal in clay pots using outdoor ovens to roast the agave right next to this area from where they were harvested. He remembers tending to the ovens as a child and the scorched earth still remains from where the operation once took place. Back then, his great-grandfather would put the distilled mezcal into a pot, strap it on his back, and hike the thirty miles north to Oaxaca de Juárez where he would sell his spirit for thirty centavos a liter. At the river, just a few meters from the ancient distillation site, an old stone bridge remains; built by his first family members to populate the area. 

After crossing the water (using the bridge and attempting not to fall to our death), we headed up the other side of the valley to where Boni continues to cultivate agave in a much less orderly fashion. He also plants trees nearby which he uses for wood to burn the still fire at the distillery. All of the lumber used for distillation is self-sustained. Even though they somewhat exist here as well, the perfectly-parallel rows of shiny agave in Jalisco are a bit of a joke in Oaxaca. Boni's family never believed in agave farms; they preferred to plant them here or there, in which ever spot seemed reasonable. If you look closely at the hillside you can see the small plants poking their way from in-between the weeds. The competition for nutrients with the wild grass actually forces the agave to struggle for survival, leading to better sugar levels within the piña. This is the same strategy enacted by vintners looking to make wine. 

The Real de Mina distillery was built by Boni's father and grandfather with two clay pot stills and a roasting pit located outside. Up until 2006, when Jake and Jose decided to partner with the family, the mezcal was only sold locally within the village; there was never any serious commercial production. Jake has known the Arellanes family since 1988 when he began studying mezcal as a teenager in region and visiting different producers all over Oaxaca. The spirits of Santa Catarina Minas were his favorite, and ten years later he thought about turning those mezcales into a business. Jose and Jake (from ArteNOM Tequila) began helping the distillery financially in 1995; sending money to help with repairs in the infrastructure.

Jake and Jose's ownership and financial dedication to the distillery marks a huge contrast from other mezcal brands sold in America who simply contract their production. Many expressions found today in the states are simply purchased from the locals (for a very inexpensive price), repackaged, and sold in boutique stores with authentic-looking labels (for a not-so-inexpensive price). I have a lot of respect for the dedication these guys have shown to Boni and his family, as well as the development of the region. The relationship is so strong that several of Boni's children have gone to Oakland over the last decade and lived with Jake and his family. This is not merely a capitalistic opportunity for Jake and Jose; it's become part of who they are as people. Jake's passion for Mexican cultural is part of what drew me to him four years ago. Our mutual love of the country and its people is part of what bonds us as close friends today.

After the agave is harvested, it is hacked into large chunks by machete and thrown into a pit lined with large stones placed over hot coals. The pile of piñas is covered with a mound of leftover fibers from the previously-spent agave and then topped with a large canvas tarp to keep the heat in. When the sugars have been sufficiently concentrated, the agave is fed through a custom-designed shredder (a proud personal accomplishment of Jake's) that was engineered to efficiently breakdown the tough, fibrous pulp without stripped the meat of desirable sugars. While the old burro y tajona is the more rustic and romantic way to crush agave—the round stone wheel drawn in a circle by a horse or donkey—it results in a greater loss of precious azucar.

Despite the traditional roasting of the agaves in an open pit, Don Amado is one of my favorite mezcales simply because it isn't all that smoky. It's a flavorful, graceful, nuanced spirit that always places the inherent flavors of the agave above the need for power or vigor. These three higher-end expressions are living proof of that synopsis; they're complex, ethereal, and delicately-detailed spirits that truly encompass what top shelf mezcal has to offer. We've long carried the standard Rusticodistilled from the classic spadín agave, but we've just recently received three of the the more exotic expressions. The Pechuga is one of my favorites. Whereas "pechuga" usually refers to the chicken or turkey breast added to the distillation process to provide oils and fats, owner Jake Lustig has never been a fan of decomposing meats. Instead, he uses a combination of locally-sourced wild apples, wild apricots, stubby bananas, along with walnuts, cloves, cinnamon, and market-bought spices, the result is something in between mezcal and gin. The flavor of the agave is never compromised, but rather heightened and brightened by the addition of fruit and spice. Absolutely delicious! It's almost like mezcal gin.

"Largo" which means "long" in Spanish is how the folks refer to "Karwinskii" or "cuishe" agave in Santa Catarina Minas, where the distillery is located. Cuishe is known for its exotic and subtle complexity of flavors, a plant-like note bolstered by a nuanced spiciness and mild roasted finish. The finish of the Don Amado Largo is a symphony of sweet agave pulp, baking spices, and mild vegetal goodness. It tastes expensive. Arroqueño refers to another species of wild agave. The arroqueño plants are gathered, roasted, and distilled in ceramic and bamboo pot stills, resulting in a slightly smoky and earthy distillate. The aromas are incredibly complex, almost meaty, but the distillate is 100% pure grace; a long and meandering road of picante spice, pepper, and chili. There are few mezcales on the market with this level of depth for under $100. 

The best part is that we're buying these mezcales directly from the family that produces them, working with with people who we trust and love. That relationship goes a long way in the booze business. It's what makes going out on the trail worthwhile.

-David Driscoll