YOU MUST BE OF LEGAL DRINKING AGE TO ENTER.
YOU MUST BE OF LEGAL DRINKING AGE TO ENTER.
This booklet is intended to give you an introduction to spirits made in Mexico with a focus on distillates made from agave, specifically Mezcal. The information presented draws on our team’s knowledge taken from books, lectures, tastings and factory tours throughout Mexico, all in the pursuit of flavors.
We’d love to have you join us on our journey for new flavors by visiting us on Instagram, or if you’re inclined come to Oaxaca for Camp Buho! If you’d like to know more or have comments, corrections, or suggestions please send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Please enjoy responsibly.
When translated from the Aztec language of Nahuatl, the word mezcalli means “cooked agave,” derived from metl for maguey and izcalli for cooked. The word speaks to the roasted maguey hearts, which have been a food staple in Mexico for thousands of years.
The precise origin of alcohol distillation in Mexico is still a mystery. While there is widespread evidence of fermented agave beverages being produced and consumed by pre-Hispanic cultures before European contact, there are several theories as to how the distillation process arrived here. The most accepted theory is that the Spanish brought copper stills from Europe during the conquest in the sixteenth century. Another theory is that Filipinos introduced clay and wood stills when they landed in the ports of Co- lima and Jalisco in order to trade silver with the Spanish. A third theory is that indige- nous Mexicans created their own distillation process long before the Spanish arrived.
Whatever the true origin story of Mezcal might be, it is clear that the knowledge and tools for making this spirit quickly migrated throughout Mexico in the seventeenth century. And, since producers could only utilize the methods and ingredients provided by their region and culture, every village developed their own recipe, system, and in turn, reputation, creating the great diversity of agave spirits that we enjoy today.
The words agave and maguey both refer to the cactus-like plant from which Mezcal is produced and they can be used interchangeably. These plants are part of a vast botanic family scientifically known as agavaceae. There are approximately 330 species of agave and Mexico is home to some 75% of them.
The maguey plant has played a central role in indigeneous Mexican culture for over 10,000 years. The plant and its fibers have been used to make clothing, shoes, soap, medicine, firewood, construction materials and, above all, food and beverages.
Unfortunately, for various cultural and economic reasons, most of these traditional uses are dying out. The exception is the production and sale of Mezcal, which is an increasingly important economic activity in some regions. However, this is not without its own notable side effects as the intensive use and harvesting of the agave plant have put species at risk with the omnipresent threat of extinction looming over the Mezcal economy. For centuries the making of mezcal was a family tradition and was only sold on a small scale, usually within the producer’s village. But, in the last 10 years as the demand for and production of Mezcal has exploded, so have various problems related to the exploitation of agave, which has endangered biodiversity and the health of the mezcalero ecosystems.
Without maguey, Mezcal can not exist. Thus, we must be mindful of the quality and the quantity that we plant now as it will leave a crucial legacy upon which the future of mezcal production will be built.
A view of 9 Points Mountain, or Nueve Puntos, taken from the Hornos field of Cultivated A. Angustifolia, or Espadin, in Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca
T.J. Steele was traveling through Oaxaca researching his farm-to-table Mexican restaurant concept when he met the Jimenez Mendez family in 2007. T.J. fell in love with their traditional recipe mezcal, dating back to 1880, and El Buho Mezcal was born. Led by their oldest son Jose Isaac and only daughter Beatriz, these fifth-generation mezcaleros have worked diligently to build their operation from a single factory in 2010 to four discrete palenques in 2020. Alongside their mother Elsa, father Octavio and younger brother Luyo, the Jimenez Mendez family continues to produce their delicious Espadin mezcal that was awarded “Best in Mezcal Category” at the 2017 Spirits of Mexico competition in Texas.
Since the beginning, El Buho has made a conscious effort to build a sustainable company with consistent product that is made with small batches. This starts in the field by planting agave, tending the field and ultimately harvesting agave to make mezcal. The second step is to bottle a consistent, high-quality product. We achieve this by making sure that we start with high quality agave with quiote to run through the artesanal mezcal making process. Once distilled, we combine small batches of Espadin into a 5,000-liter stainless steel tank and let the distillate rest for four to six months prior to bottling. This helps concentrate flavor and provides a more consistent product from batch to batch. We use the same technique across all of our varietals. Look for the “Lot” number on your bottle to see if you can taste the difference in batches. This appreciation will help celebrate and protect the beautiful tradition of mezcal.
Pictured: Patriarch Octavio Jimenez Monterroza harvests an Espadin at sunrise. He is a true master in the fields, where he spends most of his time focused on planting, tending and harvesting healthy agave.
Above is a 10-ton oven at the Don Isaac Distillery in Santiago Matatlan, Oaxaca. Of note in this photograph is the teamwork needed to produce mezcal
A beautiful quiote of A. Marmorata
Pictured above with wide, fat leaves are A. Marmorata, or Tepeztate.
The longer, skinnier agave shown are A. Karwinskii, or Cuishe.
In the bottom right are A. Agustifolia, or Espadin.
Pictured above are agaves from the El Buho field Copita, including A. Lyobaa, A. Potatorum with a budding quiote and an A. Karwinskii with a quiote in full bloom.
Out of the ~250 species of agave found in Mexico, 119 are microendemic. This means that they grow in areas smaller than 30,000 km2. Variables such as climate, soil and even specific pollinators can lead to a unique evolutionary path; there are some agave so specific that they grow only on a single mountain!
It is estimated that 30 species are commonly used nationwide in the distillation of alcoholic beverages. The agaves used by mezcaleros to make Mezcal or, magueys mezcaleros, are mainly found in western, central and southern Mexico.
Although a complete inventory has not been made, at least 10 wild species and numerous cultivated varieties are used for making mezcal in Oaxaca. Cultivated Agaves can be found almost anywhere from countryside roads to orchards to lands that have been eroded over time with nothing else growing there. You’ll even find some planted in rows and used as living fences!
Some species of the plant used to make food, drinks and textiles have been maintained and manipulated by humans for centuries, making them morphologically different and difficult to identify taxonomically. For these, we know only the common names.
Reproduction of agave can happen in two different ways: sexual, which produces seeds, and asexual, which produces clones called hijuelos and bulbilos. Both are important for a thriving ecosystem.
The sexual method is propagated by numerous animals (bats, hummingbirds, bees, tlacuaches, et al) which diversifies the population while also making adaptation possible; and the asexual method maintains genetic information within an environment.
With the mezcal industry currently in a period of expansive growth, many previously untouched environments have been deforested and Espadín hijuelos have been planted as an intensive agriculture monocrop. These clones grow from the root and are a natural, fast and inexpensive way to obtain maguey plants for making mezcal (opposed to letting the plant flower and go to seed). The downside with this method is that a field of genetically identical plants is exponentially more vulnerable to pests and diseases than a genetically diverse crop.
A. Potatorum which locals call Tobala Chino, or the “curly” Tobala.
In the flat areas of the El Buho field Copita we do have some Espadin hijuelos, but what excites us the most is growing new agave from seed. This begins in the rainy season of each year as the agaves start to form their quiotes. This is our cue to search out the strongest and healthiest plants of each variety and let them flower. In turn, the flowers are pollinated by the native fauna inhabiting the area and mature to form seed.
The seed grows within the fruit pod of the plant, and when these pods dry out they crack open, expelling the seed. We try to harvest the quiotes before the seeds come out of their capsules to help us collect as many seeds as possible, and sprout them inside our agave nursery.
We then nurture the agave anywhere from two to four years, depending on the variety. When they are strong enough to be transplanted, we move them back into our fields where they spend the rest of their lives in their intended ecosystem. Years later, when the new plants are ready to grow quiotes of their own, some will be harvested to make mezcal under the original recipe of the Jimenez Mendez family palenque, while others will be taken to make more seed and continue the agave cycle.
The way in which we farm agave is a critical component when we speak about the future of mezcal but it is not the only one. Perhaps just as important is the preservation of the traditional methods in which Mezcal is made. The way in which yeast and bacteria is nurtured in a natural fermentation process is just as responsible for the flavors and aromas expressed in Mezcal as the type of agave used, if not more so. Any given Mezcal is the culmination of not just harvested maguey hearts but also mashing techniques, firewood, the type materials used in the oven, the containers in which fermentation happens, and the distillation cuts. Every step is important and subtle changes in
the details can make a huge difference in the final product. Over time, unique family recipes have set the standard for taste and feel when speaking of specific mezcales in a region. Without inherited traditions, this rich and complex Mezcal world would not exist.
Regrettably, some mezcal brands are willingly sacrificing quality in order to make and sell large quantities of their product. We do not want to see Master Mezcleros replaced by chemical engineers and traditional palenques replaced with industrial factories in pursuit of profits. El Buho aims for sustainable tradition.
Agave Karwinskii seeds, baby agaves at Copita field greenhouse February 2020 – Oaxaca, Mexico.
El Buho, Spanish for “the Owl”, is revered in Mexican culture as the spiritual link between the living and the dead, carrying souls from the living world to the after life.
During one of T.J.’s first visits to the factory Betty gave him a carved owl trinket. T.J. later asked his tattoo artist, Thomas Hooper, to create an icon based on that owl.
Thomas agreed to create the icon in exchange for a meal prepared by T.J. and the classic logo was born. Now El Buho carries Mexico’s revered 400-year-old distilled spirit tradition to a world of unfamiliar consumers. Enjoy mezcal’s storied, unique and sophisticated tradition in a glass of El Buho.