pit; traditional mezcal production a la Ron Cooper and
Mezcal del Maguey
Palenque of Enrique Jiménez, showing different
style copper still
traditional Oaxaca mezcal palenques be a thing of the
The family of Enrique Jiménez has been producing mezcal
in Santiago Matatlán since the 19th century. He is
the fourth of five generations of palenqueros. While a member
of COMERCAM and indeed an exporter of mezcal to the US and
France for upwards of 20 years (under different brand names),
until 2008 Mezcal del Amigo was producing mezcal using traditional
means, in the homestead of Enriques father Isaac, along
with brother Octavio. Enrique then decided to build a new
facility in town along the side of the highway, using more
modern techniques for baking, fermenting and distilling. A
chemical engineer by training, Enrique determined that changing
his production processes would not alter the essential nature
and elements of his mezcal.
Enrique cooks his agave in a sealed brick room, running steam
through tubes beneath the piñas. Diesel is his fuel.
He is able to control temperature, and therefore adds precision
to the process in terms of being able to better calculate
when the piñas are at their optimum stage of readiness.
The agave is crushed using a beast of burden. Then the nutrients
are removed from the fiber through a washing process, so that
liquid, with only a small amount of fiber, is fermented. This
process results in subsequent steps progressing more efficiently.
Fermentation takes place in pine vats. The fermented liquid
is then pumped into the still using PVC tubing and a motor,
rather than being carried manually using pitchfork, wheelbarrow
COMERCAM states that Enriques unique multi chamber
copper still provides the equivalent to double distillation,
but Enrique distils again using a companion still, a bit different
from traditional ones. His stills are also fuelled by diesel.
He has a sophisticated water filtration system. Water quality
is an extremely important component of mezcal production,
so one cannot be critical of the filtration used by Mezcal
del Amigo and the other fábricas noted below.
Enrique loses smokiness and traditional flavor by steaming
rather than baking over firewood, although his blanco is clean
and smooth. His reposado and añejo are surprisingly
similar in terms of the flavor nuances imparted using old
Enrique runs a family business, with his wife and two daughters
assisting when necessary, such as for bottling, labelling
and packing. He also uses residents of Matatlán in
the various stages of production. His operation is more efficient
than previously, with less labor, thus adversely impacting
employment of local workers. But he receives highest grades
in a couple of categories, and on a scale of 10 never dips
The use of diesel is questionable, but does improve efficiency
and consistency of taste. In fact, there are now traditional
palenques in the more distant villages which are distilling
using propane, producing their mezcal for export as members
of COMERCAM. They are affiliated with established commercial
exporters of artisanal mezcal such as Mezcal del Maguey and
Alipus noted below.
The overall quality of Enriques mezcal ranks above that
found in most traditional palenques. Even in the days when
he was producing using the methods employed by his father
and previous generations, his quality was well above average.
Enrique has recently built a traditional facility alongside
his modern fábrica, which increases his overall ranking.
His new, old fashioned palenque is not simply for show
(as is the case with some others), but rather enables Enrique
to produce mezcal the way his father and grandfather did,
maintaining the family tradition.
For export, the new Mezcal del Amigo facility is important
in terms of being able to satisfy a non Mexican palate
by and large demanding consistency of product. Mezcal del
Amigo overall ranks reasonably high in supporting the Slow
Food mission, elevated by having extremely attractive pricing
for a COMERCAM product. Labelled and sealed for taking out
of the country, its a bargain at 150 300 pesos
for a 750 ml bottle. Industrialization of process is countered
by not only price and maintaining the integrity of product,
but by the fact that Mezcal del Amigo remains a family owned
and operated business.
Mezcal del Maguey
Ron Coopers Mezcal del Maguey ranks close to Mezcal
del Amigo, his lofty pricing and accordingly lack of accessibility
to consumers knocking him down a notch; this notwithstanding
that he has recently introduced a blanco for 180 pesos. Otherwise,
his prices range from 450 to 1300 pesos, the latter for his
Ron and Mezcal del Maguey have been the best ambassadors for
mezcal in the US, for over a decade. However, his prices in
the American marketplace, significantly higher than his domestic
prices, suggest that his products are available to nothing
less than an upper middle class American sipping public. Most
of his products, available both in Mexico and internationally,
are sold with smart wicker packaging, a wonderful marketing
tool, but nevertheless contributing to elevated prices (notwithstanding
that hes helping the manufacture of the wicker holders).
Coining the phrase Single Village Mezcal was a brilliant play
on single malt scotch. Ron does not produce a barrel-aged
product, relying on differentiation of his mezcals based on
micro-climate growing regions, variety of agave used, and
recipes employed by his producers yet tweaked by Ron personally.
Mezcal del Maguey is not a producer of mezcal, but Ron appears
to know the business as well as any Oaxacan. In 1995 he began
working with traditional village palenqueros, to produce his
mezcal. He now works with six small scale palenqueros, four
of which have been with him from the outset. He ensures that
only traditional methods are used, which elevates his ranking
in terms of clean production and sustainability. He points
to the positive impact he and his partner Pancho Martínez
have had on many lives and villages, such as contributing
to the arrival of potable water, more substantial home construction,
and making it possible for youths to pursue higher education
which otherwise would not have been attainable.
It costs dearly to employ approximately 10 people aside from
the actual producers in the villages, maintain organic certification
(his current label is grandfathered into one of the two programs),
and market a high quality product internationally. But Mezcal
del Maguey comes about as close as a non producer of
mezcal can get to furthering the Slow Food mission
if only more people had an opportunity to buy his premium
products. Ron says that for years he had wanted to provide
an affordable and mixable mezcal, and hence his 180 peso entry
level VIDA. VIDA is an average mezcal, now representing 45%
of the total volume that Mezcal del Maguey sells annually.
By promoting VIDA while marketing outside of North America,
Ron may be detracting from his status as mezcals best
ambassador to the world.
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