S-010/04-CTOB-16 Ensamble en Barro
Okay, Chicago! Y’all in the Second City have been asking, begging, and clamoring for your own special batch from Vago. You have been huge supporters for a while now and its time! The amount of enthusiasm for agave and the copitas you go put down deserve something epic. Something new. Something wild. This 70 liter blend of Coyote and Tobalá represents a new path for us at Vago and was produced in the winter of 2016 by Salomón Rey Rodriguez (Tío Rey) in Sola de Vega, Oaxaca (16°28'44.72"N 96°57'42.80"W).
As some of you may know, we have been experimenting with blending great batches of mezcal together to produce our own house blends of mezcal. Usually, we have kept these around the office for our dear friends and fellow Vagos willing to make the journey down to visit us in Oaxaca. We really think this bottling represents one of the best examples of this technique and, well, the time has come to unleash it upon the world. Specifically, you all in Chi-Town. For this gem, we took 55 liters of Tío Rey’s Coyote en Barro distilled way, wayyy back in 2014 and blended it with 15 fresh liters of his Tobalá en Barro to produce an incredibly sweet, rich 70 liter batch of 79%/21% mezcla at 50.08% ABV.
Alright Y’all. This is where we get deep into it. All the info you can handle.
The Tobalá for this batch was made from a 131 wild harvested piñas, weighing 1,285 kilograms that were harvested on February 18th from the Velatobe parcel, west of Gulerá, Santa Maria Sola de Vega. They were roasted over three days from February 20th to February 23rd and crushed the next day. Dry fermentation lasted for two days before 840 liters of spring water were added on February 26th and alcoholic fermentation lasted for 3 days; total fermentation time was 5 days. The entire volume of 2,691 liters of tepache underwent first distillation on February 29th, producing 130 liters of xixe at 26.2% ABV. Second distillation, or rectificación took place on March 3rd, producing 82 liters of mezcal at 49.4% ABV. So for those that wonder about loss of yield, you are looking at 2,691 liters of tepache losing over 95% during the first distillation. The xixe then lost another 37% during second distillation. This means a final yield of only 3%!
Now, we wish we had more info on this dusty batch of Coyote that we have used in this batch, but it was distilled back in 2014 and those records have been lost to the annals of time because, well, mezcal. Rest assured, it is a gem in its’ own right.
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.
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.
Agave Potatorum, or Tobalá are some of the most prized mezcal agaves in existence. Their small, basketball-sized pinas have a very high starch content and produce very light, sweet & floral mezcales. Unfortunately, the plants scarcity and high demand as well as inability to reproduce clonally have combined to severely threaten the sustainability of this variety. Young children often scour the rocky slopes under the shade of oak trees to harvest under-sized tobalas to bring to mezcaleros knowing they can still fetch top dollar. Their small yield and limited availability combine to drive the price. They are also notoriously difficult to cultivate, adding the labor of wild harvesting into their price. As a result of this increasing scarcity, Mezcal Vago is actively working to remove wild harvested Tobalá from our supply stream. We are also actively planting thousands of Tobalá seeds throughout the year.
These plants look similar to a. Cupreata, with which they share genes, but are comparatively small. Typically, they grow to a diameter of 3 – 4 ft and a meter tall, however they can get substantially bigger. Their leaves are very wide and spade like, with a gray/green color. They range extends between Puebla and Oaxaca at elevations between 4,000 and 7,500 feet, where they grow in pine and scrub oak forests with rocky soil, typically beneath the shade of large trees. The natural range of Tobalá can be seen in the map below.
*Image taken from CONABIO website.
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. Sola de Vega has the most diversity of agave in Oaxaca and therefore the world. 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.
Mezcla - A blend of different batches of finished mezcales
Rectifiicación - The refining of xixe or ordinario through a second distillation.
Tepache - A low-alcohol mixture of agave juice, fiber and water. Tepache typically has an ABV of ~4-8%.
Xixe - The local term for first-run distillate. Sometimes referred to as “ordinario.”
CONABIO. Agave, Mezcales, y Biodiversidad. A. americana. http://www.biodiversidad.gob.mx/usos/mezcales/A_americana.html
CONABIO. Agave, Mezcales, y Biodiversidad. A. potatorum. http://www.biodiversidad.gob.mx/usos/mezcales/A_potatorum.html
Gentry. Agave of Continental North America. The University of Arizona Press. Tucson. 2004