Ed Draves, The Buffalo Mezcalero, Visits Wahaka Mezcal

I’d like to introduce you to Ed Draves, the newest member to Dave Miller’s Mexico.  Ed comes to us with over 20 years in the wine industry.  I met Ed a couple of years ago when he served with me in Oaxaca.  We soon learned that we had a similar passion for quality spirits.

Soon I had Ed traveling with me to palenques and of course trying mezcal.  I then asked Ed if he would be able to be, in a sense, our mezcal guy… tasting, reviewing and helping get the word out to the United States about this wonderful spirit.

Here is Ed’s first of what I hope will be many columns here at Dave Miller’s Mexico.

Fine, handcrafted mezcal is a growing category in the spirits industry. One of the best is Wahaka Mezcal, made by the Alberto Morales family of San Dionisio Ocotepec, Oaxaca, Mexico, master mezcaleros for 5 generations.On a recent trip to Oaxaca, I had the opportunity to visit, taste and meet with one of Wahaka’s mezcal aficionados, Francisco “Paco” Garcia. Among other things, Paco shared the methods for making this fine mezcal with me.Paco explained that mezcal is made from the maguey cactus, slowly roasted in an open, earthen pit filled with heated (until it is molten hot!) lava rocks that are covered with a protective layer of maguey leaves, or penca.  It is then slow roasted for a period of 4 or 5 days (depending on the weather), which is where the smoky flavor comes from.Once the maguey is roasted it is moved to an area of the distillery where it is crushed using a traditional method involving circular cantera millstone and axle pulled and turned by a horse, the way it has been done for centuries.The crushed maguey, fibers and all is then transferred by hand to oak fermentation vats where it ferments for 7-10 days (again depending on the weather).  As it naturally ferments it is very reminiscent of a red wine complete with a “cap” and bubbles.After fermentation is complete, the liquid is transferred to a small copper still (alembique) where it is distilled twice. Only the middle part of the distillate from the second distillation is of the quality to be used to make Wahaka Mezcal.

Once the mezcal is through with the second distillation, the ones finished as Joven (think blanco in tequila speak): the Ensamble, Espadín, Tobalá and Madre Cuishe are ready to be bottled on premise by hand.Wahaka also makes a delicious, smokey Reposado, aged 4 months in the oak barrels. This comes complete with the little gusano or “worm” that adds a unique flavor to the mezcal. In the words of Paco, “that flavor you can’t quite describe? It’s the gusano!”

After touring the palenque, we headed out to the field to see where the maguey grew.  My trip to the fields also opened up a deep conversation with Paco about Oaxaca’s mezcal, his personal philosophy, Mexico and the sustainability of the maguey, and by extension, mezcal.

Wahaka Mezcal is certified USDA Organic.  It is grown sustainably with a strong sense of “the land has given us mezcal, we need to treat it with kindness”.  Paco explained that although he is a businessman, he also has a love for Oaxaca’s many mezcals.He told me of great mezcals throughout the region, fine mezcals that deserve a place alongside of great spirits of the world.  My favorite quote of the day was “To understand mezcal, you must understand Mexico – to understand Mexico you have to understand mezcal.”

One thing that was driven home to me, as a “wine guy” was the sense of “terroir” or place the finished mezcal possesses. To finish up our tour, Paco took me to a large mineral spring that is fed by an underground river in his valley. The water was clean, pure, delicious and extraordinarily minerally (yes, I drank the water and it was great).  The maguey, like wine grapes, will pick up the flavors and aromas of its surroundings.  Things like the flowers, the citrus and the trees.

It was a great day at the palenque, but I soon learned there was more to come.  Paco asked if I would like to meet the authority on mezcal, his friend Ulises Torrentera.  Ulises, owner of the In Situ, one of the premier mezcalerias of Oaxaca, literally wrote the book on mezcal.

Ed Draves (the Buffalo Mezcalero) with Paco and Ulises Torrentera of In Situ

The afternoon turned into an intense seminar and tasting on “Terroir and Mezcal”- Ulises did not disclose the names of the mezcals he demonstrated – only their maguey and geography!

A “wine nerd” such as myself was in mezcal heaven. I was told some of the offerings were the fine mezcals Paco spoke of earlier in the day.  I will forever be grateful to Paco and Ulises for their teaching and hospitality.I also look forward to my return to Oaxaca in early 2014 for another round of tastings, lessons and stories to bring to you through Dave Miller’s Mexico!

For a short video of Dave interviewing me after my visit to Wahaka Mezcal, click here

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