Thanks to the passion, care, and brain power of Lou Bank, Chicagoland has a mechanism to get involved in agave replanting efforts. Chicago's Agave Triangle features twelve spirit brands native to Mexico, ranging from mezcal, tequila, raicilla, bacanora, and sotol. The participating brands have partnered with S.A.C.R.E.D. and donated some of their special liquid and sent it to participating locations in the Logan Square neighborhood. Laika Spirits is proud to include its portfolio in Chicago's Agave Triangle: Trianon Tequila, Cruz De Fuego Mezcal, Flor Del Desierto Sotol, & Balam Raicilla.
Consumers hoping to contribute to the cause or simply sample these special Spirits of Mexico can follow this link to make a $25 contribution that will grant them access to samples of these fine spirits throughout the neighborhood. The contributions are managed by S.A.C.R.E.D, an organization that is actively Saving Agave for Culture, Recreation, Education, and Development. It is important that we recognize how increased consumption of mezcal and tequila impacts these spirits' communities of origin, namely, the people living and working there and the environment. S.A.C.R.E.D.'s projects directly address this growing issue, including water reclamation, library construction, greenhouse development, and, of course, agave replanting. Check out the projects in more detail here.
Cruz De Fuego Mezcal is an example of a successful collaboration between a diverse group of people in Mexico and the United States. We are proud to be a sponsor at this year's Lit & Luz Chicago, a festival of Language, Literature, and Art. This festival happens in Chicago and Mexico City each year, celebrating authors and artists from Mexico and the United States. If you are in attendance, enjoy our award-winning Ensamble, expertly poured by S.A.C.R.E.D. Agave and a crafted cocktail with papaya, apple, cactus, and fresh lime juice.
Learn more about the festival here: http://litluz.com
LS: What is the biggest challenge facing the mezcal industry today?
CM: With the boom that traditional mezcals are having at this moment, it is extremely important that we recognize that we need to be giving back to mother earth everything that we have taken from her. The agaves used to make mezcal can take decades before they are ready to be harvested. It’s not only about replanting agaves, but also, the wood used for cooking and distilling, a responsible and sustainable method of water usage and also very important, giving the earth a break after harvesting.
LS: What is your favorite maguey? Why?
CM: There’s an agave that grows beautifully around the Matatlan region called Cyrial. When I’m distilling with this particular species, it brings me back to my childhood. All of the aromas of this agave have every single thing that I love about mezcal. It’s a combination of nature, freshness, earthiness, flowers, and clean fresh air.
LS: Who are the mezcaleros or palenques that inspire you?
CM: More than a Mezcaleros or palenques, what inspires me are the different processes and traditions that exist to make mezcal. Every region and Maestro Mezcalero has its own and unique way of making their mezcal. One of my favorite ones, are the mezcals that are distilled in clay. It really takes a lot of hard work, knowledge, and patience. It’s a process that I have not been able to master yet, but it’s one of the reasons why I want to stay in the industry and keep learning more about this beautiful tradition.
LS: If you could tell a first-time mezcal drinker anything, what would it be?
CM: We have been living under the shadow of tequila for a long time and most people have not yet to learned the main differences between mezcal and tequila. For Cruz De Fuego, for example, this is a mezcal artesanal, so there are processes that are different than the way many tequilas are made. And, of course, the maguey. Tequila uses only one species and mezcal has so many. Once you get to understand, it will be an experience every time you drink mezcal.
LS: What makes this a unique region for mezcal production?
CM: The culture about mezcal. Matatlan, was and still is, the place where mezcal and producers sent mezcal all over the world. It is know in the Oaxaca region as the “Capital of Mezcal”. When you tell people that you are from Matatlan, they automatically assume that you are a mezcal producer. You can drive around in car on the streets and it’s hard to believe that most mezcals that are exported around the world come from this small region of the state of Oaxaca. Matatlan, it’s not only know for it’s mezcal but also for its pre-hispanic traditions, culture, festivities, pulque and cuisine. I feel very lucky and proud to grow up in this part of Mexico.
Javier Villagran is the founder of Balam, a start-up, distilled agave spirits brand hailing from Jalisco, Mexico. We’ve had the pleasure of spending time with Javier over the past year and wanted to share some of the history behind the artisanal spirit, raicilla, and his brand that arrived in the United States last month.
Laika Spirits: Tell us about your work in the distilled spirits world, Javier.
Javier Villagran: I am a Producer, Wholesaler and Promoter of handcrafted destilados de agave, or spirits distilled from agave. My main interests are preserving and rescuing the traditions of our Master Mezcaleros, to show our great products to the world.
LS: One of the destilados de agave that you work with is called raicilla. What is a raicilla?
JV: Raicilla is the Mezcal from the state of Jalisco. It is a special selection of yellow agaves growing in the coastal region. A pre-hispanic process of production is followed and it is distilled in Philippine alembics, which are traditional clay pots.
LS: Does the word raicilla have a particular meaning?
JV: It literally means “drink made of roots.” During the colonial period, distillation was prohibited so locals started calling it by a different name to hide the fact that it was a type of mezcal. A market and tradition started in that region due to the rules that attempted to ban its consumption. This is true of all the indigenous spirits of that time. Based on its illegal origins, people call it Mexican Moonshine.
LS: Did raicilla originate in Jalisco?
JV: There is knowledge that the Huichole Tribes (an indigenous culture from South México) were producing raicilla thousands of years ago in The Sierra Madre Occidental; at the north of Jalisco, Nayarit's south and bordering municipalities. The agave it is made from grows in the pacific coast of Mexico, that is why you can only find it in specific areas, allowing it to be differentiated from other mezcal.
LS: It’s interesting that the local demand for this spirit came from stepping around certain rules and restrictions. What else about the history of raicilla intrigues you.
JV: The spirit of raicillas is full of mysticism and myths.
There are many people that believe raicilla has hallucinogenic properties and it seems to be a big reason why there are tourists visiting the areas looking for it. But don’t worry! The reality is that raicillas have a high percentage of alcohol and a soft flavor and this makes it easy for people to become intoxicated. It’s just like any other distilled beverage.
LS: How is it produced?
JV: The process is Pre-Hispanic and is handmade. It´s curious because you transport yourself ancient times, you can see the agaves being transported on mules, fueling the ovens with wood, crushing the cooked agave with huge wood mallet. The fermentation is done in a hollowed-out tree; the distillation uses the clay pots with a lid and a case with water used to cool.
LS: What are the differences between both types Joven and Madurado?
JV: Joven is Blanco, or silver. Bottled after distillation. The Madurado is kept in crystal containers for as long as 3 years; preserving the purity and avoiding any external flavors (like wood or other things) to interact with the liquid. The end result is a much more rich distillate that at all times keeps the taste of the plant as the main character of the story.
LS: Why did you started Balam? And is there a particular meaning to the word.
JV: Balam means jaguar in the Mayan language.This Project was born in Mexico City in 2006. During our multiple trips to the State of Oaxaca (land of my wife) I fell in love with the mezcal, the culture behind it, and the people who see this a way of living.
LS: Do you know how many raicilla brands are for sale within Mexico?
JV: At this moment there are 20 recognized brands at CMPR (Mexican Raicilla Producers Committee)
LS: Do you know how many have been exported to the Unites States? Based on our knowledge, we believe that Balam is only the second to arrive in the US.
JV: We are very proud to announce that Balam is the second brand to be introduced (legally) into the United States. It took much hard work, as you know.
LS: We know you are an advocate of artisanal producers. Can you explain what is going on with the mezcal Industry? And how is it affecting the producers?
JV: In the last few years the “Distilled Spirits of Agave” have been in the middle of controversy. First mezcal got its appellation of origin, which should protect the Mexican industry; in reality it introduced several rules that blocked the small producers to continue with their traditions. Either they have no resources to invest in the CRM (mezcal regulator) requirements or they were just outside the regions that were designated to be part of the mezcal region. There are Mezcaleros from north to south, from east to west all around Mexico. Is clear that the described approach affected a big number of people.
In the present the industry is mainly directed by big corporations, which in some ways are departing from its original appeal. Today there is a big controversy because the people outside the mezcal denomination were selling as Distilled Spirits of Agave, but there are initiatives to control the word agave to avoid them to use it. Overall, there are new roadblocks for the smaller producers and it makes it difficult for consumers to reach these high quality, artisanal products.
I am a really big advocate of small producers and that is the reason why I started to work with raicilla (not allowed to be called mezcal). I will keep trying to protect the industry’s beauty and traditions, showing the people in Mexico and abroad what it represents.
“The roads are blocked,” Octavio said over the phone. Unwelcome news in any context...yet, when your team has been working to re-launch a new brand for the past eight months, it’s particularly unpleasant.
The roads in this story refer to the highway connecting Mexico City to Oaxaca, the mezcal region, and the brand re-launch is for Cruz De Fuego Mezcal, an artisanal mezcal from Santiago Matátlan. Cruz De Fuego is a special brand within the our small company’s Spirits of Mexico Portfolio, with the vision to curate the world’s most authentic, robust collection of Mexico’s native spirits.
Cruz De Fuego, while envisioned by Founder E. Ismael Gomez, as “more of a project than a brand,” aims to identify producers and build a network within the mezcal region that will not only provide incredible liquids to consumers (e.g., Cruz De Fuego Joven was launched last year and earned itself Double Gold Best in Class at 2015 SF World Spirits Competition!), but connect our suppliers and provide them with access to the growing markets in the United States and abroad.
While our Spirits of Mexico Portfolio includes a hand-crafted tequila and artisanal sotol and raicilla brands, the category of mezcal presents unique opportunities for brands and suppliers like ourselves to embrace their communities of origin. Oaxaca is a very interesting part of Mexico and of the 68 indigenous languages spoken, 16 of them can be heard throughout Oaxaca, according to activist Odilia Romero. This region also has unique challenges. Those following current events are aware of the ongoing tension surrounding attempted educational reform, including the violent strike that has left teachers at odds with the military police (read more: http://cnn.it/28JJKwiCopy) Feeding into various sources of political instability, are the ecological pressures that market demand for mezcal is placing on the region because unlike tequila, the agaves used to produce mezcal are not commercially farmed at the scale of Blue Weber Agave, which has sustained the tequila category for the past several decades. Many species of agave used in mezcal production can only be found in the wild, highlighting the importance of replanting initiatives, study of the region, and assessment of long-term impacts to the economy and environment.
For Cruz De Fuego, it is extremely important that we bring a product that embraces the spirit of mezcal and intentionally partnering with producers that have long-term outcomes in mind. Our next shipment currently delayed by road blockages, is being re-launched in an effort to honor the minimum 45% ABV tradition as well as the rich textile history of the region (note our fabric lables!). We will offer a 100% Espadin (45% ABV), 100% Tobala (47% ABV), and re-worked Ensamble, a blend of Espadin and Tobala (45% ABV).
Thanks to our team on the ground in Mexico, we know that Cruz De Fuego will arrive stateside in the near future. Until then, we will continue to help educate consumers about this very beautiful and complex spirit.