it’s very real

Pioneers like Estéban Garibi who brought raicilla out of the boonies did it from love of product, of human beings doing serious work with deep roots, of the culture which raicilla so perfectly represents. All great distilled spirits once had similar origins but have now been greatly contaminated (strong word) by being commoditized. It’s happening to mezcal as we write, and the irony is this: by providing a livelihood to these scarce remnants of a wonderful kind of human endeavor, we introduce what will make most, if not all, of it disappear.

The deep appeal of artisanal mezcal and raicilla is that they speak directly to humans longing to live a deeper and more authentic life. You can taste this deep authenticity in a great mezcal, both 1. its origins in a complex long-lived plant drawing its sustenance from soil, water, sun, and 2. its essence in an evocative process, an access created by human beings who are in tune with that essence and who live and work within a culture which shares that sustenance. These are things disappearing from the modern world, and we miss them.

The rest of this is about ancestral production of raicilla, with photographs taken by Linda Newton during Ansley Coale’s visit some years ago to the palenque of Don Luis Contreras in a small village in the Sierra Madre Occidental. We thank Esteban Garibi for this opportunity to visit one of the distillers of La Venenosa.

Contreras distills wild agave inaequedens. He fire-pit roasts them in the smallest pit oven (horno) I’ve ever seen. Roasting converts the agave carbohydrates into sugars. You’ve done this when you roast an ear of corn.

Contreras cuts the roasted agaves into small pieces and crushes them in this wooden trough (canoa), using a long wooden pounder (mazo). It’s hard work and it takes several days. This releases the juices and breaks down the solids to make the roasted agave accessible to yeasts.

The crushed agaves ferment in a concrete rectangular vat (tina): the yeasts are wild, and are not always the same. Wild yeasts make distillates a little feral, more intense than the ones you

can buy. Zoom in to see how fibrous the stuff is. Yeasts love the nooks and crannies resulting from this hand-crushing, and reward you with a more complete, thus richer and more complex fermentation.

Here’s a diagram of a clay potstill (thanks to Polly Jimenez, Prensa Press, and James Schroeder). You fill the bottom pot, which is enclosed in masonry, with fermented agaves, both the fibers and the liquid, and build a fire underneath.

A close-up of two bottom pots. You can see the fibrous liquid. There’s clay around the top of the pots so you can seal the gap when you put the condensing chamber on top.

Contreras and his wife are wheelbarrowing the fermented agave over to the still. He’s pouring the liquids into the bottom pots.

Now he’s putting in handsful of the fibrous solids. Tequila and cheap industrial mezcal leave the solids out, walking away from all the rich vegetal complexity

The upper clay condensing chamber is open at top and bottom. Contreras’s wife is sealing the gap at the bottom with wet clay.

Here’s the clay condensing chamber in place. On top is a copper saucer for the water used to condense the steam that will rise out of the bottom pot.

Tending the fire. The wood is split into small pieces so that Contreras can create a constant heat, huge for control/quality of distillation. This is one place where the modern way (propane) is an improvement

As the fire heats the fermented agave in the bottom pot, steam rises into the upper condensing chamber. Because alcohol boils at about 170°F, the initial steam is way concentrated in alcohol and the flavors and aromas that the alcohol has absorbed, and, as the run progresses, more and more of the vapors come from the agave fluid itself.

By pouring cold water into and thus cooling the copper saucer on top of the condenser, Contreras is making the steam condense back into liquid when it hits the bottom of the saucer. Notice his concentration. All great distillers have

Drops of raicilla condensing on the bottom of the saucer drop onto a broad agave spear inside the condensing chamber and run down, through a bamboo tube in the side of the chamber, onto another agave spear and into a clay pot. It takes a few hours to do a single run.

From harvest, a batch takes up about a month. While I was there, Garibi bought a batch: 70 liters, some 93 bottles.

Here’s a cutaway. You can see the top of the liquid in the bottom pot, the cylindrical condensing chamber with a wooden drip catcher instead of the agave spear used by Contreras, and a much larger saucer on top to hold the cold water.

The basic method has not changed for more than 2000 years. The technical word for a potstill is “alambic” coming from ancient Greek through Arabic; the ancient Greek root is ambyx, meaning a saucer. Get it? = the copper dish on top of Don Luis’ still (except the Greeks turned the saucer upside down over the pot and collected drops falling from the saucer’s rim). The word ambyx came from Egypt, which is likely where the Greeks learned to distill. Contreras does more or less what some 380 BC Greek physician, or even some priest in Egypt in 1500 BC, would have done to distill an infusion for herbal medicine.

This is not “Wow look at this weird old way of doing things”.  Agaves distilled this way can be among the finest spirits being produced anywhere in the world. Hand-crushing leads to more complete fermentation; small stills make better product. The crucial part is that hand methods allow the distiller to be in total touch, at every moment, with what’s going on inside his still.

I wasn’t watching someone do his job – I was watching someone living his life. His destileria has zero modern-day alienation of labor. His time, his day, has not been turned into a commodity for hire. When he (or any of the hundreds of other back-country mezcaleros) says “I’m a distiller”, he’s not talking about his job, he’s talking about his life, and you can taste that fact in the extremely high quality, and the subtle individuality, of his raicilla.