Vago’s newest Special Release allows us to explore just a small bit of the genetic diversity surrounding Santa María, Sola de Vega. Batch S-25-CBSN-15 was produced by Salomón Rey Rodriguez (Tío Rey) in Sola de Vega, Oaxaca (16°28'44.72"N 96°57'42.80"W). We bottled it as a thank you to our friends at Bi-Rite Liquors in San Francisco, California. Their focus on the people that farm and provide our food made us feel they were a great group to partner with for this release, as those same concepts tie-in so directly to our ethos as a brand.
Beyond the incredible complexity of the flavor profile, which every time we revisit continues to become one of our favorites, this batch is unique for a couple of other reasons. First, this allows us to showcase the rich diversity of Sola de Vega by utilizing three different sub-varieties of Agave Americana var. Oaxacensis. Second, it is another step along the road of post-distillation blending in order to explore the potential of this technique. For this batch, Tío Rey produced an incredible mezcla composed of, by weight, 10% Blanco, 11% Sierra Negra, & 79% Coyote.
Back in 2014, Tío Rey produced a stunning batch of 100% Coyote, a sub-variety of Agave Americana var. Oaxacensis, however we felt that though incredible this mezcal was, it was slightly high in acids on the finish. Not wanting to sacrifice this gem, we placed it in glass and stored it away in a dark corner of the Vago office in Oaxaca City for over a year. Fast forward a year, Tío Rey produced a very small batch ensamble of 47% Blanco/53% Sierra Negra, also both sub-varieties of Agave Americana var. Oaxacensis. While this mezcal was stunning in its own right, we felt that it was a little green and vegetal to be bottled just yet. With a little grace from the mezcal gods, we had the epiphany to combine the qualities of these two batches and blend them into one single mezcla. A mezcal Voltron, if you will. We took 100 liters of Coyote at 50.4% ABV and blended it with 35 liters of the Blanco/Sierra Negra that was proofed to 49.9% ABV. This was one of our first ventures into blending mezcales and we hope you all consider it a success. While some see blending as a technique to combine different flavor profiles in different distillates from different producers and places, we are taking an alternative approach. We are using different batches from the same producer to create something truly unique that we believe showcases a mezcalero’s style and nuance. We are very excited about the different possibilities for experimentation that blending could produce in the future.
Coyote is a smaller sub-variety of Agave Americana, taking only about 5 - 10 years to mature in the area surrounding Sola de Vega, rarely growing larger than 100 kilograms. Sierra Negra are significantly larger varieties that can take up to 25 years to mature. Blanco are also pretty incredible agave in that they can take up to 45 years to mature and grow to over 250 kilograms! Some of these rare agave have been members of Tio Rey’s family for three generations.
Coyote often produce darker, earthier characteristics as well as bright, vegetal notes. They often finish with notes of dry cocoa and spice. Sierra Negra can also have vegetal notes with a hint of mint in the mid-palate and finish with a very herbal profile. Blanco, while large, typically have a little bit less sugar per kilogram of agave and typically produce slightly drier flavors.
This batch was composed of a mix of wild and semi-cultivated agave harvested from the lush, sub-tropical mountainsides surrounding Tío Rey’s palenque near Santa Maria, Sola de Vega.
Agave Americana var. Oaxacensis
According to Howard Scott Gentry, Agave Americana started to appear near what could now be considered the borderlands between the United States and Mexico. They were eventually brought to the central region of Mexico by native peoples that began to cultivate them in the across the Oaxaca valley and into the sierra. Once very prevalent in mezcal production, they began to be pushed out by Agave Angustifolia as mezcaleros began to realize that Espadín has a higher sugar content and matures faster. The current geographic distribution of A. Americana var. Oaxacensis is represented in the map below by the red coloration.
*Image taken from CONABIO website.
Although Espadin has become the standard for mezcal production, being the source of ~75% of all mezcal on the market, a. Americana continues to be utilized, though be it with less frequency. The species has several sub-varieties with sufficient sugars to ferment and then distill. These sub-varieties include, but are not limited to: Arroqueño, Blanco, Cenizo, Coyote, de Castilla, Pulquero, and Sierra Negra. Tío Rey also has a spineless version locally referred to as Pelón.
The coastal moisture blowing in towards the Sierra Madre from the Pacific Ocean creates some of the richest agave diversity in the entire world. As such, Tío Rey typically produces field blends of different agave, working with the land to only utilize what is ripe.
Producer: Salomón Rey Rodriguez
Location: Sola de Vega, Oaxaca
The palenque and agave fields of Salomón Rey Rodriguez or “Tío Rey” (Uncle Rey) are located in the famous mezcal region Sola de Vega. The mezcaleros in this region distill mezcal almost exclusively using clay pots called “Olla de Barro”.
Tío Rey’s town of Gulerá is about 15 minutes up the valley and is part of the municipality Villas Sola de Vega. The lush mountain valley is a 2.5-hour drive from Oaxaca and sits at 1450 M above sea level.
Tío Rey has a great supply of spring water that flows year round and contributes to the unique flavor of his mezcals. The mineral rich soil and relatively cooler climate make for a perfect spot for growing a variety of agaves. Salomón Rey has at least 15 varieties of agave that he cultivates, including: Espadín, Coyote, Arroqueño, Mexicano, Tobalá, Sierra Negra, Madre Cuixe, Blanco, and Barril.
Sola de Vega agave maturation times:
Espadín - 7 -12 years
Mexicano - 7- 12 years
Arroqueño - 9 - 25 years
Coyote - 5 - 10 years
Sierra Negra 10 -25 Years
Tobalá - 8 - 18 Years
The palenque (distillery) is at Tío Rey’s ranch where he lives full time with his family. He built it approximately 10 years ago from parts of an older palenque that was his fathers. It moved around from nearby locations over the years. The lineage of mezcaleros in Tío Rey’s family could arguably go back thousands of years. They emigrated from the Miahuatlán region over 100 years ago due to Zapatista activity during the Mexican Revolution.
Tío Rey has never produced mezcal commercially before Mezcal Vago and produces exclusively for Mezcal Vago.
Tío Rey’s batch sizes are generally from 100 liters to 450 liters. He has two classic earthen ovens that can each hold around three tons. One oven is the normal dug out hole in the ground and lined with large river rocks and the other is dug straight into bedrock. He roasts each batch for 2 to 3 days.
The cooked agave is hand ground with wooden mallets called canoas y mazos. The roasted piñas are chopped slightly with a machete then the pieces are placed on a wooden platform and pounded with the mallets. An incredibly laborious technique but they are sure the flavor is better this way when not molested by such modern technology as a cement wheel and horse!
Tío Rey has four fermentation vats. Three are typical vats, cylindrical and made from pine. Two have a capacity of 1,200 liters and the third holds 900 liters. The fourth is made from the trunk of a large Pino Sabino (Pine tree) hollowed out in the shape of a canoe and has been in use for 90 years and holds about 900 liters!
For distillation, Tío Rey uses a series of clay pots. The clay pots are called “Olla de Barro” in Spanish. That is why Mezcal Vago refers to its mezcals that are distilled in this manner as “en Barro.” They hold about 45 liters each. Each pair of pots shares a fire. The stills are made of stacks of two pots. One that holds the mash (boiler) and has an open top, and another with an open bottom that rests on top of the first one (condenser). On the top pot there is an upside-down stainless steel bowl that water continually runs in and out of. When the heat from the mash rises and hits the cool top created by the water, condensation occurs. An agave leaf works as a large spoon to catch the dripping condensation (mezcal) and runs into a reed that flows the mezcal into the collection container.
This whole process is laborious and takes around 4 times the effort of a copper still and stone tahona method.
First distillation of a ~45 liter load of tepache takes about 3 - 4 hours and will produce about 8.5 liters of xixe that will have an ABV in the mid-20′s. The next 1.5 hours will produce ~1.5 liters of xixe that does not contain enough flavor to produce mezcal and will be redistilled later for other uses around the palenque.
A ~50 liter batch of xixe will undergo second distillation, or “rectificación” over a period of 5 - 6 hours total. The first 1-2 hours will produce about 2 liters of heads, or “puntas,” which range between ~65-70% ABV. The next 3-4 hours will produce about 15-20 liters of mezcal at a proof of ~40-65% ABV. The final 15 - 20 minutes will produce about ~2-3 liters of tails, or “colas” that are roughly 30% ABV. The puntas and colas of the rectificación will be redistilled a third time to be used around the palenque. The containers of usable mezcal will be allowed to rest for a few days before being blended into one single homogeneous batch and then rested in stainless steel or glass. Tío Rey never adds water to his mezcal post distillation. Cuts are made by taste and smell.
All of Tío Rey’s Mezcal go through a simple triple sediment filtration through tubular cellulose filters. The bottling is done by hand in the city of Oaxaca. The light filtration is the only way the mezcal is affected between how it was made on the palenque and how it ends up in the bottle.
Ensamble - A batch of mezcal that is comprised of different types of agave that undergo the entire production process as one single batch.
Mezcla - A batch of mezcal that is a mix of different finished mezcales from different agave that are blended into one single batch.
CONABIO. Agave, Mezcales, y Biodiversidad. A. americana. http://www.biodiversidad.gob.mx/usos/mezcales/A_americana.html
Gentry. Agave of Continental North America. The University of Arizona Press. Tucson. 2004