This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in January 2016.
Legend has it that Mayahuel, the female divinity associated with the maguey plant (agave) was a woman who had 400 breasts, and due to her fertility, the gods turned her into an agave plant.
Mezcal is having a big moment these days, with niche brands filling the market with high-quality product and a supply and demand that's off the charts. But from your lips to the glass, much of the artistry and the stories of the people who are making it are often lost. I recently had the luck of meeting artisan mezcal makers Bertha, Reyna, and Sósima in Oaxaca—masters who've been perfecting the art of making the plant-based alcohol, from harvest to distilling, since they were children. As we sipped on mezcal after mezcal, they told me their stories.
At 59-years-old, Bertha Vazquez is a master mezcal maker who's been making the stuff since a little girl out of necessity.
"If the corn harvest wasn't enough, we would produce mezcal," she explains. Vasquez learned the secrets to making mezcal from her grandparents but didn't start producing her own until her husband's sudden death, when she had to look after her five children and went full throttle on production.
Vasquez, however, confesses that after all these years of hard work, her body is very tired. The hardest part is "the cutting" and loading of the cart (for which a man she refers to as "Mocito" helps her alongside his donkey). These days, she and her daughter-in-law work together to produce anywhere from 175 to 200 liters of mezcal per month, depending on what type of agave is used. In San Baltazar, Chichicapa, Oaxaca, the region where Vasquez makes her mezcal, agave varieties like espadín, tobasiche, tobalá, are abundant, and the "mexicanita" and cuishe, too, but their diversity is decreasing. With teary red eyes from the smoke that takes place during production, Bertha explains, "there used to be a lot more agave before people from San Luis came in to buy it."
Mezcal heals almost everything, or at least that's what the working hands of Vasquez believe. If you've got a cold, she instructs, "smell it." And if you've eaten something greasy or have an upset stomach, "drink it." For her, rubbing it all over your body isn't a bad idea, either.
"I feel good that women are in this world of agave. We have to carve our own space. Some people in the industry might speak badly about a woman working amongst men, but I am respected here. Not going to school forced me into doing this, and there's nothing else for me out there," she explains.
Reyna honors her name (queen), and is happy, honest, comedic, and says it like it is. She has two kids but never married and doesn't need to: she inherited the strength from her grandfather, Ignacio Sanchez, "a man of good build," who took care of her until his death. He's also the one who taught her all the mezcal secrets she uses to make some of the best stuff around.
The yield of her product is only enough for her to get by, but doesn't make much profit. She feels that it's not really a business, but a way to survive without help from the government.
In her hometown, Lachiguizo, Miahuatlán, tepextate agave—one of the most labor-intensive species to harvest, in part, because it takes 30 years to ripen—tobasiche, arroqueño, jabalí and biliá, grow. The biliá is unique, because "it's an agave that only grows in the countryside and it's hard to come by. My grandfather had fields where he grew those but they are finished," she explains.
At 50, Reyna doesn't feel her age. "Making mezcal is a job that you don't do alone, but you do very carefully. Ovens are lit up in a funeral-like ritual." For this sacred liquid, every element is of significance: the plant, the stone, the water, and the hands that make it. They all influence the flavor. For the master distiller, she believes that if "it comes out right, then it's a work of nature."
Sosima Olivera is proud of where she comes from.
A third generation mezcal master from San Miguel Suchixtepec, Olivera's grandfather and her father brought Sosima and her six brothers into the world of making mezcal from a young age, teaching her to stir boiling pots and tasting batches to determine if the product was ready. Olivera believes that the mezcal producer works the hardest and makes the least because most of the profits go to middlemen. "Sadly, government policies benefit from big business over artisanal producers."
She's proud of her chontal ancestry—the indigenous people of Oaxaca—and explains that her people are a peaceful and united group that continues to make mezcal in the traditional approach: not only for drinking, but to sustainably cultivate the plant for future generations to come.
Heirloom agaves like chuparosa and gavilan are grown in her region, but are rare varieties that grow at a turtle's pace. It's going to require an ongoing planting process and upkeep to ensure that these plants don't become extinct. They also grow chato, jabalí and mexicano, which is native to the region. "This is the first year that we've planted lote de chato so we can have them closer to us and not have to travel one kilometer just to get to one," she explains.
Olivera's family doesn't live off of the yield from their mezcal, but it complements their corn and bean harvests. She laments the arrival of GMOs in recent years and the threat of mining companies, which are slowly taking over the space in her town. "If they take away our land, what will we do?"
Nowadays, mezcal is not only sipped with love, but with great respect. (Most of the time). Or at least that's how I try to get close to it: each sip describes the landscape and the hard work of the lives that make every drop possible.