The young Mazatec boy’s doubting glare was all the challenge I needed to crawl headfirst through the front door of the 5,000-year-old, scorpion-infested stone hut. And I use the term “door” lightly: the creeping expanse of trees and vines reclaimed the structure long ago, leaving nothing more than a small opening the size of a storm drain.
This was just one of many indigenous huts hidden in the forest above Jose Luis Carrera’s tiny trapiche—the local term for a family-run aguardiente distillery—that we’d gone in search of. As we trudged between structures, the canopy would occasionally break to reveal the mountain below, its bottom half a flowing skirt of sugarcane that danced gleefully in the humid breeze. Carrera, clad in an Arby’s T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan, “If it doesn’t have meat, it isn’t a sandwich,” drifted in front of us. I turned around to the boy and asked him a question in broken Spanish; he replied with a blank stare and whistled after Carrera. The indigenous Mazatec Indians, many of whom don’t speak Spanish at all, have a sublanguage that consists of whistled patterns, which allows them to communicate at distances up to 1,750 meters away, uniting family members working in dense sugarcane fields on various slopes.
Earlier that morning we’d departed Oaxaca City for a five-hour drive here, to Oaxaca’s cloud forest, in the decaying Ford F-250 truck that Judah Kuper, of Mezcal Vago, had driven down to Mexico years ago as a vago—a term that translates, roughly, to “beach bum.” Hours later, we began climbing the arid, western slopes of the Sierra Mazateca, watching the dusty villages below disappear. The combination of Mexico’s notorious topes (speed bumps on steroids) and the road’s aggressive switchbacks made most of the gang queasy, so we pulled over at a roadside stand for cups of pulque, freshly fermented from one of the many agaves scattered across the cliffs. We tossed them back like pros and crossed over the top of the range.
Once we cleared the pass, the landscape gave way to rock escarpments blanketed in lush, green moss—the once-abundant agaves replaced by authoritative trees that shaded our travel for most of the remaining journey. Soon, tiny colorful roofs dotted the landscape like a mismatched quilt, stitched into the landscape by the adjacent rainbow. Each burst of color marked the home of a small family who almost certainly grew bananas, coffee and sugarcane.
The Spaniards first brought sugarcane to the Gulf Coast of Mexico—another five-hour drive east—in the 17th century; over the next 100 years, sugarcane production, and therefore rum, proliferated along Mexico’s eastern coast. By the 1900s, the British were running massive sugarcane plantations in Michoacán and Sinaloa. And in the 1930s, Bacardi opened distilleries in both Mexico and Puerto Rico to sustain growth of the rum business. Despite this incredible history, since the 1980s, Mexican rum has been consumed most frequently as the undesirable 49 percent in blended mixto tequilas, swirling in frozen Margarita machines destined for Tex-Mex chains. In a spirits world where everything from China’s ancient baijiu to Bolivia’s signani are part of the national conversation, Mexican rum, or aguardiente, represents one of the few remaining frontiers.
Once beyond the pass, we crossed into Huautla de Jiménez, the mysterious town made famous by former J.P. Morgan Vice President Robert Gordon Wasson’s 1957 Life magazine article, which chronicled, for the first time, the area’s traditional sweat lodges and local hallucinogenic mushrooms. Soon after, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan and a flock of migratory hippies descended on the community of about 30,000 people. Today, a new wave of tourists has come for salvia, a mint-like plant that also has psychoactive properties. But we’d arrived in search of a different vice.
As a roadside trapiche came into view, Kuper abruptly hit the brakes and shoved us out of the truck. We were greeted by a middle-aged Mazatec woman dressed in a colorful handmade dress, flanked by the meanest dogs I’d met in Mexico (which is saying something). The dogs—capable guards against traveling thieves—were chained as close as possible to the sugarcane mill, which is often a family’s most valuable asset, costing the equivalent of around $6,000 a piece; this jewel lies on what we would describe as a skinny shoulder carved into a country road. Behind the mill, the cliff dropped off sharply, concealing acres of sugarcane from passing drivers.
In Latin America, aguardiente generally refers to rural spirits made by local families from fermentable resources, most commonly sugarcane. Here, in eastern Oaxaca, it’s made exclusively from crushing sugarcane, gathering the extracted juice, allowing it to ferment and distilling it. That’s it. It is one of the purest distillates I’ve ever tasted, and I’ve been to nearly 300 distilleries on five continents.
We tumbled out of the car and went through the classic ritual of acting like we are intruding, while knowing strangers are almost always welcome in Mexico. Soon we were inside the family’s house, which was positioned on a slightly wider portion of the roadside only four yards from the trapiche. There, the woman poured us different versions of the family’s aguardiente until we were buying the typical recycled Coke bottles of hooch, and writing the name of the aguardientero on them with a Sharpie marker that some experienced mezcal journeyman wisely remembered to bring along for this exact purpose. I’ve done this on countless visits to Oaxaca in search of mezcal, but there’s no palenque, or mezcal distillery, anywhere in this region—only what Kuper estimates are hundreds of the aguardienteros making pressed sugarcane rum in the Oaxacan mountains.
With so many producers, it seems unfathomable that Oaxacan rum would be so obscure today, but even Kuper’s first encounter with a refined version of aguardiente was pure luck. He remembers driving a batch of Mezcal Vago down from their distillery in Candelaria Yegolé and seeing a “Mexican hippie hitchhiking.” He decided to pick him up. After explaining the stock they were transporting and the Vago story, the hitchhiker produced a bottle of aguardiente from his bag. “As soon as he pulled the cork,” says Kuper, “I knew it was something special.” Over the next couple years, he began collecting expressions of aguardiente and seeking out distillers in what he identified as Oaxaca’s two primary rum-producing regions: the Sierra Mazateca mountains and the Sierra Norte mountains, another seven-hour drive southeast from Huautla.
By late afternoon, we’d made it to Carrera’s own trapiche, which was organized below a rusty tin roof, supported by surprisingly stable tree branches lashed together, leaving tails of rope with unfamiliar tools fastened to them. Donkeys loaded with sugarcane approached the southern portion of the distillery and unloaded their burdens to working relatives who press the juice. The fresh liquid was collected in a dented steel container linked to a hose that ran to one of four wooden tanks, where a continuous cycle of wild fermentation would take place.
The noise from the mill was deafening, but when it finally stopped, I could literally hear the fizz of the fermentation in the tank and the crackling of the fire just past the fermentation vats at the heart of the distillery. There were two squat still columns protruding from the earth with active flames below them—each fed by a narrow corridor cut into the soil from the backside of the grounds. Around each still were massive piles of the leftover, pressed cane fibers, which were also used to feed the flames. The aguardiente was then collected from the stills on the northern portion of the site, completing an entirely linear, gravity-flow progression of the sugarcane from raw material to spirit.
Distilling at Paranubes
Those familiar with Carrera’s aguardiente, which is bottled as rum under the Paranubes label, have referred to it as a “Mexican agricole” of sorts, a comparison to notable rums from the island of Martinique, which are also distilled exclusively from fresh-pressed cane juice. But the comparison falls short. Carrera’s spirit has the deep, heavy backbone of esters usually only found in Jamaican expressions, balanced by a fresh cane flavor from the four varietals of sugarcane he uses, all of which are grown without fertilizers or pesticides. There’s a specific funk, too—a truffle-like finish that almost begs you to make a cliché mushroom comparison. (My theory is that this comes from the use of the regional Tepehuaje tree’s bark, which floats in the fermentation tanks and serves as a fermentation starter—literally the only additive that touches the entire process.)
Carrera’s aguardiente is unique to this specific region, process and Carrera himself. As the first expressions of fresh-pressed sugarcane rums from Mexico begin entering the U.S. market, these comparisons are inevitable, but they do little to represent the breadth of singular flavor profiles and terroir expressions under the umbrella of “Mexican rum.” Travel to Michoacán and make the mistake of calling charanda “a regional rum,” like I did recently, and countless Purépechans will defend the ancestry of this sugarcane spirit, which has its own D.O., or “Denominación de Origen.” Assume Jalisco is the Land of Tequila and you’ll miss the countless aguardienteros hiding in the shadows of today’s massive tequila distilleries. Even the states of Veracruz, Chiapas, Colima, Tabasco, Puebla, Morelos, Nayarit and Hidalgo all have their own aguardientes, distilled by skilled maestros who are making rum according to traditions passed down through generations. Over the past decade, the world has earnestly acknowledged mezcal’s ancestry, but it’s clear that we’ve also somehow overlooked aguardiente, and Mexico’s other great sugarcane distillates, too, despite their comparable craftsmanship and singularity.
As we pulled out of Carrera’s rocky driveway on our way back to Oaxaca City, I looked out the crammed backseat window at the largest uninterrupted field of sugarcane I’d ever seen. Apparently it was once used by drug traffickers as an airstrip for planes headed to the U.S., decades before giving way to today’s endless waves of cane tops. Beyond the green sea, pillars of smoke climbed into the sky where the clouds had broken. I caught the eye of one older man holding a cluster of sugarcane. He smiled and waved at me before disappearing back into the field, the stalks closing behind him like a curtain.