Learning from Mezcal Masters.
Pablo with his traditional mallet
"My seven-year-old son knows more about mezcal than anyone you see over there." Leo Hernandez, our teacher and companion for the day, sipped at his cup of mezcal and tightened his grip on his son as he casually waved off his workers. His point was clear -- mezcal is a family business.
At Leo’s palenque (mezcal distillery) and agave farm, a large group of workers harvested, split, and placed many agave piñas (heart of the maguey) in a circle around a large smoking fire, the source of mezcal’s distinct smoky flavor. Leo greeted me and handed me a cup of some of his finest mezcal. The accompanying journalists pressed to ask their questions, but Leo wasn’t having it. Instead, he focused his attention on carefully pouring cup after cup of his mezcal from a nineteen-liter glass basin (he has only seen a few shatter in his life).
His mien was that of an artist, with tangible pride in his work, his product. He wanted everybody there, workers, journalists, family and friends, to sample his mezcal. Much like a musician searches for ears and opinions, Leo wanted taste-buds and thoughts. Relaxed and indirect, he was not pushing this on anyone. There was no marketing, no back-slapping, no “Hey, have you tried my mezcal? Pretty good huh?” Rather, his efforts added to the easy going atmosphere on top of this large hill of his.
His wife and some of his staff were preparing meat to barbecue as his son ran around playing, the line between work and play blurred.
Leo has received numerous offers to sell his fertile hill, but never even considered because Leo is his land. The seven days a week of physical and mental exertion isn’t work for Leo; it’s life. And it’s family. Leo’s great great grandfather started the Hernandez mezcal dynasty and when asked about the future, he simply whistled to his son, Juanito, who trotted over.
Matured in glass
Leo with his apprentice
Pablo accepting his celebrity status
Pablo Arellanes would agree that mezcal is family. Pablo, a spry 68, represents the older generation yet exhibited equivalent levels of enthusiasm towards his product as the younger two I saw that day.
Pablo graciously greeted us as we arrived at his palenque, but with a weak handshake (he couldn’t curl his fingers around my hand) that was at odds with his otherwise vigorous bearing. I later learned his almost immobile thumbs were due to his preference for an ancient form of mezcal production which involves using a large wooden mallet to press the maguey prior to fermentation.
Pablo captivated me and the journalists with his words. As an agriculture student in upstate New York, I’ve gone on plenty of farm tours where the farmer talks about his/her life work and passion while his/her audience kicks at the dirt and stares off.
The opposite was true here. We were entirely engaged as Pablo showed us his palenque and process, and finally presented us three different mezcals, (marteño, espadín and tepeztate) “tasting” with us each time.
With the important work done, Pablo became less the teacher and indulged the celebrity status with which we treated him, proudly offering to pose for more photos. He gave me a final, unwrapped hand shake and I was on my way.
I spent a day with three different generations of mezcaleros at work. Pure passion on their end translates into genuine and well-earned respect among the lucky observers, and lucky for everyone else, into some of the most delicious mezcals in the world.