Rustic Modernism: A New Age for Mexican Spirits

Can a category of spirits defined by an intense bond with tradition innovate without abandoning authenticity? Nils Bernstein explores the developing relationship between history and modernity in Mexican spirits.

There is little that is more romantic to tequila lovers than the image of a sombrero-clad ranchero standing proud in an infinite grid of agave plants. Tequila brands’ packaging—often typified by scenes with valiant horses, overgrown cacti and long-ago fonts—seeks to telegraph a sense of rusticity, and their websites walk us tirelessly through a process we’re assured has been virtually unchanged for centuries.

These images are so embedded that the industry has, in some ways, become beholden to them, demanding the question: Why do we so value rusticity in Mexican spirits when we embrace technological advances in, say, Bordeaux, single-malt Scotch, vodka filtration and rum aging?  “Why,” asks Bertha González-Nieves of Casa Dragones, “does tequila have to be made by donkeys towing a stone wheel?”

Casa Dragones is an example of a small-batch agave spirits producer that wears its modernity proudly, using elaborate customized water-purification, distillation and filtration systems to extract what González-Nieves believes is the truest agave flavor. Creamy and elegant, with little bite but lots of character, it questions whether romantic, age-old production techniques are a prerequisite for high-quality agave spirits.

In a general sense, tequila and mezcal are made by harvesting certain varieties of agave plants (which take a minimum of seven years to mature), cooking the hearts (called piñas for their resemblance to giant pineapples), crushing them and fermenting and distilling the extracted juice. The process is unique among major spirits in that the entire long-lived plant is sacrificed to the bottle. From a wine perspective, just imagine the desirability of a bottle made from grapes that took a decade to ripen on a vine.

As with winemaking, agave distillation has never been static. Over the years, animal hides and clay fermentation pots were replaced by wooden barrels and plastic buckts, stone crushing wheels (tahonas) by mills, clay stills by copper and steel and fire pits by massive steam ovens. At what point does modernization become tradition? And what is the balance between increased demand and eschewing industrialization?

“Tradition is the form through which a people’s identity reveals itself, but it is ever-prone to being co-opted and turned into empty lip service,” he says. “If it is to avoid being characterized as just dance shows and exotic drinks for tourists, if it hopes to remain relevant and vital to people’s lives, it must retain its flexibility. Tradition is only as good as its ability to reinvent—and thus, reassert—itself.”

The questions are especially timely given the now common use among large-scale tequila producers of diffusers, machines that skip the whole step of roasting the piñas and instead process raw agave with hot water to extract the starchy juice, which is then cooked down into fermentable sugars. Some producers who have adopted the practice—such as Sauza and Herradura—defend its use, though an analogy could be made to making marinara sauce by simply boiling tomato juice.

But what about less divisive advances?

Tomas Estes, who launched Ocho Tequila in 2012, has been working with tequila since the 1970s and was recently given the title “Tequila Ambassador to the European Union” by the Mexican government in acknowledgement of his work. He isn’t necessarily sold that different cooking or crushing techniques are better or worse. “What’s important is that the piñas cook slowly and consistently, and I’ve never proven to myself that tahona-made tequilas have more flavor,” he says. “But most of the newer ‘innovations,’ like diffusers, seem not to add flavor but to take it away.”

It would seem, then, that the issue is less about modernization than mass production. In the spirits market, consistency and “smoothness” are considered paramount, but in the case of agave spirits pursuing those goals often means sacrificing some of the plant’s intrinsic character and variability.

“I spent 19 years tasting Burgundy, and really got into the idea of terroir,” says Estes of Ocho’s genesis. “I wanted to make a tequila with the most concentration and complexity, because that’s what I look for in a wine. At the time, people were into the differences between lowland and highland tequilas, and I asked Carlos [Camarena, his partner and master distiller], can we go further and do single-ranch tequilas? He said, ‘be careful, they’ll each be really different’ and I thought, ‘Eureka!'” Each Ocho batch is made exclusively from agaves from one specific field, with the field and production year noted on each bottle.

In the mezcal world, terroir has been a selling point in the U.S. since the mid-1990s, when Ron Cooper started importing mezcals from small Oaxacan producers under the Del Maguey label. He trademarked the term “single-village mezcal”—a savvy move given that the term can apply to most small producers (among mezcals available in the U.S., the village where it was produced is usually noted on the bottle).

Jonathan Barbieri, proprietor of Pierde Almas mezcal, sees the variability of traditional mezcal as its greatest strength, inconvenient though it may be. New labels have to be printed for each bottling of Pierde Almas since the alcohol content always shifts slightly—the maestro mezcalero decides what is ideal for each distillation, rather than diluting to a uniform level—and a host of environmental factors can result in very different taste profiles from batch to batch.

A resident of Oaxaca for almost 30 years, Barbieri sees the conflation of rusticity and authenticity not as gringo condescension, but—at least in rural Oaxaca—part of the ongoing response to the Spanish Conquest that began in 1519, and its implied marginalization of indigenous traditions. “In much of Oaxaca, the Conquest has never even been acknowledged, much less accepted,” he says. “It’s regarded as a continuing struggle, an unfinished work in process. The humble activity of lifelong resistance, simmering in an economically stratified rural Mexico, inextricably links rusticity to authenticity.”

Still, Barbieri is innovating as well, not just with demanding environmental and cultural sustainability initiatives, but products like PA+9, a “mezcal gin” made by infusing gin botanicals in a mezcal base, and the Conejo, where a rabbit saddle hangs in the still with fruits and spices, replacing turkey or chicken breast as in the traditional pechuga style. He’s now developing a glass version of the jícara, the hollowed gourd used as a drinking vessel for mezcal.

“Tradition is the form through which a people’s identity reveals itself, but it is ever-prone to being co-opted and turned into empty lip service,” he says. “If it is to avoid being characterized as just dance shows and exotic drinks for tourists, if it hopes to remain relevant and vital to people’s lives, it must retain its flexibility. Tradition is only as good as its ability to reinvent—and thus, reassert—itself.”

Graham Graham, one of the partners behind Seattle’s Mezcalería Oaxaca—one of the largest temples to mezcal and Oaxacan cuisine in the country—agrees. “I’ve been visiting palenques for 30 years and seen the subtle, inevitable changes—maybe it’s a garden hose versus a carved wooden trough, maybe a wood chipper converted to shred agave,” says Graham, when asked how he’s seen mezcal evolve. “We idealize the patina as authenticity, but in reality it’s about the hand of the master and the terroir. If you’re making it thoughtfully and in small quantities, neither are necessarily incompatible with the evolution of modern production.”

Graham points to Enrique Jiménez of Fidencio Mezcal, who comes from a long line of traditional mezcaleros but has a chemical engineering degree and a rebellious streak. Fidencio makes mezcals both “clásico” and “sin humo” (without smoke), steaming the agave as a comparative exercise. While many mezcal brands exploit the trademark smokiness as a marketing tool, Jiménez implicitly asks whether authentic mezcals need have smoke at all.

In Tequila, Estes cites Carlos’s brother Felipe Camarena as someone innovating to improve both quality and environmental awareness. At his Destileria El Pandillo, his ovens inject steam from both above and below for more even cooking, a custom-built steamroller crushes the piñas, and he experiments with water from both streams and captured rain. “There is always room for improvement and advances; this has happened for centuries,” says Estes.

Mexico has a long tradition of revolution, and history and progress are deeply intertwined in the culture. In the U.S., our increased understanding of the nuances and dynamism of Mexican food and drink has taken us from frozen margaritas and overstuffed burritos to a truer view of the country. Through that lens, Casa Dragones is no less “authentic” a representation of modern-day Mexico than the backyard mezcal maker.

“Authenticity isn’t one thing,” says Graham. “I recently met a family who generations before had hollowed out a log to use for agave fermentation, further back than anyone could remember. When that log is gone, that particular mezcal is gone. With that said, the family would certainly adapt and continue distilling in another manner. Is this still authentic? I believe that change is the only constant.”