New Mezcal Vago Labels
During the course of our travels sharing mezcal, one of the things that people comment on the most and one of our favorite talking points is our labels. Made of 100% recycled agave fiber, or begaso, they have been designed to not distract someone in any way from what is actually inside the bottle but to be a tool to provide them with as much information as possible to truly understand and appreciate what it is they are drinking. While agave paper is by no means a new idea, having a rich cultural history in Mesoamerica that extends back thousands of years, it has seen a resurgence of late, with the recent mezcal boom and the rise of the "maker culture" of the last few years. Nor by any stretch are we the only label using this ancient technique for our labels, however we truly believe the paper maker we work with, Eric Ramirez-Castellanos does an incredible job of making a simple and beautiful texture for Mezcal Vago.
Over the course of the last year, we have been fortunate enough to grow our small family to include two new mezcaleros, Don Emigdio Jarqúin Ramirez, of Miahuatlán, and Don Joel Barriga Aragón, of Tapanala. As honored as we are to be able to share the art of these incredible distillers with you all, it has led to some confusion when looking at the bottle as to exactly who's mezcal you are drinking. To help alleviate some of this confusion, we have found a solution that allows us to showcase the ability and creativity of the other artist we are able to work with: Eric. Starting this year, we are excited to announce that each producer with will have their mezcal bottled in their own proprietary color!
The dyes we will be using are 100% natural derivatives and will be organized as follows: Don Aquilino García López will retain the natural, undyed label. The original label for the Original Mezcalero; Tío Rey's will be bottled in a vibrant, Cochineal beetle-derived crimson to reflect the red/orange tint of this Iron-rich clay stills.; Don Emigdio Jarquín Ramírez´ mezcal will be bottled in a cool, light indigo color created from a concentrated tincture extracted from a local bush called añil; Don Joel Barriga Aragón´s will be bottled in a warm, earth-toned yellow hue called pericón that is derived from a local marigold of the same name.
Eric's techniques to derive these colors and crate these labels have been honed over the last two decades in the artisan community of San Augustín Etla, about 45 minutes north of downtown Oaxaca City, in the Etla Valley arm of the Valles Centrales region. He first learned these ancient techniques at a now-defunct workshop called Arte Papel Oaxaca. He spent his first ten years there exploring his creativity and teaching others, then moving on to establish his own workshop, carved into the hills about ten minutes east of Arte Papel. Over the course of the last eight years, he has grown his practice to include working with several restaurants and mezcal brands to craft menu paper and labels, as well as work on his own creative projects. He has even brought on a few apprentices to learn and carry on these traditions.
Using a technique that stretches back milenea, Eric's process actually begins at the palenque. Still-steaming begaso is scooped out of the freshly opened stills and discarded next to the palenque. This warm, spent fiber permeates the air with the rich, funky smell of agave fermentation as the mash is left to drain before it is loaded into the back of our truck and driven to be unloaded at Eric's workshop. Eric then boils the mash for two to three hours in order to further breakdown the soft starches that hold together the longer, tougher fibers called ixtle, or istle. The fiber is then cleaned by hand in order to remove any excess dirt before being loaded into a mechanical separator called a picadora. The clean fibers are then fed into a mechanical mill that mixes them with that finely shreds them and mixes them with water into a fine paste. This paste is mixed with more water in order to obtain the right texture before being loaded into a large plastic tub to be screened into sheets. This mash is vigorously stirred by hand to kick up material that has sunk to the bottom and ensure an even consistency before being lifted and formed into sheets on a large metal screen. The screen frame is left to dry for a few minutes before being transferred on to very thin wooden panels and placed between foam pads for protection before being placed into the manual press. The gargantuan metal press can handle loads of up to 100 sheets as it is manually turned in order to press the massive weight down onto the load and squeeze out as much excess water as possible. The sheets are now ready to be air-dried for 1 - 2 days to finalize the process. Once dry, the sheets are carefully peeled and stacked for transport, or painted with dye and dried again if they are going to be colored. A video of Eric explaining his process as well as samples of some of his other work can be seen below.
Working with and getting to know Eric and share his art with our friends across the globe has been one of the highlights of the past few years as we have taken a small family and grown it to include four maestro mezcaleros and a small handful of employees. We thank you for taking this journey with us and hope you will continue with us along the unbeaten path as we continue to grow and share the rich and ancient culture of Mexico.