Oh man, just back from Oaxaca over MLK weekend and I am brimming with excitement and enthusiasm for what I learned, experienced and drank! I tried rare mezcals, traveled to palenques that I had never been to, ate more chapolines (grasshoppers), tried cicada salt (like sal de gusano but made with cicadas instead), and learned more nuances about the world of mezcal. One of the great pleasures of my favorite beverage is that there is always more to be discovered, and this trip, like the many before it, delivered yet again.
We had a great time, but were basically drinking mezcal (hey, this is important research I am doing!) from about 11am onward each day until the wee hours of of the morning. Sound like fun? You bet it was! (Shout out to my crew of Mike, Chris, Mario and Chris who were there in lock step with me).
I’ve been thinking about this and there is so much to share with my mezcal people (that’s you) that I barely know where to begin. So I decided to do a few posts instead of one looonnnnngggggg one. So this one is about our trip to the palenque of Eric Hernandez where Ilegal Mezcal is made, which was beautiful, educational, and first class in every way.
We arrived in Oaxaca on Thursday night, dropped our bags and headed out to In Situ to meet John Rexer, founder of Ilegal Mezcal, for our briefing on the next day’s activities. It went something like this: “You guys ready? You have shoes? Have you read Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal!? OK you are good to go.” He may have left out the Holy Smoke part. In fact, maybe I made the whole thing up. Who can remember? We were drinking mezcal!
John is a passionate brand owner who fell in love with mezcal – the product and the tradition – while living in Mexico in the early 2000s. Later after he started a mezcal bar in Guatemala, he realized he could not find any mezcal locally. So he and his conspirators started smuggling it across the border to stock his bar. At first it was a few bottles, but it soon turned into a full fledged Pirates of the Caribbean operation. John has many funny stories about these early years of Ilegal, and they get better the more he drinks (John, have another!).
As for In Situ, if you have not been or have not heard, it is the best mezcaleria in the world with over 150 different bottles, each carefully curated by the owners, Ulises and Sandra. Unfortunately, they were out of town for the weekend and the barman discharged us way too early into the Oaxaca night. He was closing up, and we had only bought a bottle each and were preparing to do more tasting and more damage. But he unceremoniously kicked us out – Ulises would have had the good sense to keep us drinking and keep us buying (plus I think he may actually like us). So till next time In Situ…
The Ilegal Palenque
Ilegal is one of my favorite brands. I love their products – a beautiful espadin joven with light smoke and hints of lemon peel, a butterscotchy reposado, and a transcendent anejo. Some mezcal purists mistakenly look past Ilegal due to their aged mezcals – man is that a mistake. I have long argued that aged mezcals expand the market and bring in people that otherwise may not be initially enamored with a powerful joven. And Ilegal’s reposado and anejo are amazing spirits by any measure. By the way, Ilegal also has the best edgy guerrilla marketing and are not afraid to take a stand! They amuse me.
So after a night at In Situ, the next day we met the van promptly an hour after the appointed time for our trip out to Eric Hernandez’s palenque. Eric, who produces Ilegal, is a fourth generation mezcalero who is also an engineer – an important fact which comes into play here. Eric also holds the distinction of being the first certified producer: he has NOM number 1 (“O01X” on the back of your Ilegal bottle).
Having been to many palenques in the past, I know Ilegal to be one of the most respected and innovative distilleries in Oaxaca. Now this is “mezcal innovative”, not “tequila innovative”. There are no hydraulic lifts, large machines, column stills, hardhats, guys named Joey, conveyor belts, or people with hair nets and rubber booties. There is an earthen roasting pit, a tahona, an angry horse, wooden fermentation tanks, three copper stills, fruit trees, humming birds, a shrine, and an atmosphere ripe with smoke and roasted agave. This is mezcal baby.
His palenque is mid-size (think basketball court compared to some that are more like a squash court), very well kept and clean, and has a few extravagances like a small bottling room that can fill four bottles at a time.
Eric is deeply committed to the traditional production process of mezcal, but he has made a few engineering tweaks to the artisanal process. He also has pictures around the palenque of his grandfather in the 1930s serving mezcal from wooden barrels, which is interesting because some claim there is no tradition of aging mezcal, only tequila. Were those barrels simply for storage? Were they for purposeful aging? I don’t know but they are there.
He gave us a tour of the property starting with the earthen pit. It was fully loaded and had been baking for 3 days already. You reach down and feel the dirt mound and it is warm (so cool for a mezcal nerd!). Eric’s pit is the first example of where some of his engineering has been applied. He has built a pit that has a sub chamber below the main pit – he lights the fire there. This has the effect of creating less direct heat on the pinas and leads to a less smoky mezcal, which in my view is a signature of Eric’s mezcals. The indirect fire also allows for a permanent rock structure on which to pile the pinas. In most mezcal pits, the rocks have to be replaced every few firings because they simply start cracking, breaking and disintegrating as they are sitting right on the flames. In this pit, the rocks last a really long time which saves labor and river rocks. The design of the oven, which produces a more radiant heat, allows him to use less wood, a good thing in my view given the substantial deforestation in Oaxaca.
Another example of Eric applying his engineering skills to the production process is how he has made small adjustments to his copper stills. Pictured below is one of the stills he uses for the second distillation. Over time as a still ages, tiny flecks of metal will make their way into the distillation – it frequently evidences itself as sediment in a bottle of mezcal. As you may be able to see in this picture, there are 2 clamps attached to the vapor tube of the still which brings a small electrical charge to the vapors and extracts any potential metal flakes. Who thinks of this stuff? I don’t know if he developed this concept himself or read it in a book, but either way, it’s pretty cool.
After our palenque tour, it was time to do some eating and drinking! While lunch was scheduled for 1:00pm it was now about 4:00pm and we were starving (as a general rule of Oaxaca palenques, you can add 3 hours to any time estimates). But it was all worth the wait. Eric laid out a spread of beef, pork, chorizo, avocados, onions, salsa, and much more, which was all to be wrapped up in delicious homemade tortillas. But wait, that’s not all…
Eric also put out the Ilegal line plus a line of silvestre mezcals that he sells locally under a separate label. Plus he had a bartender whipping up some yummy cocktails! We felt special. We felt pampered.
So we ate and drank and listened to some music too. John had brought a few musicians along, who kept it lively and added to the positive vibe all around.
I found that all of Eric’s mezcals have a beautiful consistency. As his signature is one of light smoke, the flavor of the individual agaves shines through brilliantly. His espadin is light and fresh with citrus and roasted agave. The wild tepeztate under his local line is perfectly herbal and not overpowering. He had an ensemble made with seven agaves that had great balance that I couldn’t stop drinking. And the list goes on. All fantastic and oh so drinkable.
All in all, what a memorable day. John and Eric were generous hosts with great hospitality, great food, and amazing mezcals. I look forward to my next visit!
Next Post Coming Soon: My visit to the Real Minero palenque. Super cool!
My daughter and I traveled to Oaxaca for El Dia de Los Muertos %in October/November 2011 and were driven to the illegal mezcal facility outside of town. This was my first taste of mezcal and I totally fell in love with it and I also believe that the illegal brand is the best I’ve ever tasted and I’ve had probably 15-20 different brands.
I made up a recipe of fresh pineapple, lime juice, ice, and mezcal using a Vitamix. It becomes “frothy but then the froth separates and I wonder if there’s a way to keep it together and thought of trying maybe some powdered meringue. Any ideas on that?
The above recipe with cilantro sounds fabulous. My favorite though is straight up in a glass.
Thanks for the note. I am not a mixologist by any means so I am probably not the right person to answer your question. But a lot of bartenders use egg whites to hold drinks together. You could try it?
And I agree Ilegal is excellent! There are many good mezcals around $40 and this is certainly one of them!
Another plant central to Oaxaca s exploding food scene is the agave, which has taken the world by storm in the last few years with the mezcal s increasing popularity. Often touted as tequila s smokier cousin, this particular agave distillate, which is native to the state, is produced differently and on a much smaller-scale.
Hi, Excellent article!! I just want to let you know that if you are in Mexico, you can buy online Chromium and Maria de Agave Mezcal (www.pomoteca.com). These Mezcales are also produced by Eric, the same producer of Illegal Mezcal.
Yes, I am totally down with that and have some of both! Thanks for reminding me as I should have put it in the article.
In fact, they are MIstique Chromium and María de Agave Mezcales, I did not mention the complete name of the former¡¡ 🙂
Just got back from Tulum, Mexico and missed the opportunity to snag a good bottle of mezcal. The truth I didn’t know much about it and had been turned off by the worm as I felt it was too gimmicky. At the duty free airport, that was where I learned about a bit about the beauty of this pieces of art. Since then I have been obsessed in finding the right first bottle for me.
This was where I ran into your website. BTW, I read a few other as well, but yours is stellar! Thanks for sharing all your passion with us all. I have one question though as I set my heart on Ilegal Mezcal. Should I go with Anejo or Reposado?
Sorry for the slow reply. You really cannot go wrong with either Ilegal repo or anejo, but if you are relatively new to mezcal, go for the anejo…..it’s transcendent….
Well, I have to weigh in on Blanco Agave spirits. The true essence lies in adorned mescal. Es verdad?
Craig, you think the true essence lies in a repo or anejo?
That should have been ‘unadorned’, as in no pinche barrels…
A well-made Blanco Agave spirit is tantalizing to the pallet. But, since people drink with their eyes, perhaps a slight or greater tint fools them into thinking the particular beverage is better. Check out the current status of ‘White’ or ‘Clear Whiskey…
Heard great things about this bar and crew while in Oaxaca! Glad they are living up to the hype. 🙂
Great article on the Ilegal palenque .
I first had mezcal over the 4th of July 2013 weekend in San Antonio Texas at the Rio Rio Cantina . I had never seen mezcal anywhere before and was intrigued to try something new and different. I asked the waiter for a recommendation and he brought me an Illegal Joven which I thoroughly enjoyed . Later in the meal he brought me a drink of the El Tinieblo Reposado which had been incorrectly poured by the bartender . I accepted it greedily and I was now hooked on mezcal.
Having moved from the Bluegrass to the Prarie, I converted from bourbon to mezcal . Soon after I found Mezcal PHD and am now a fan of the site as well as the liquid .
Plug : I am a confirmed purchaser and reader of Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! .
Best wishes and salud
K D Kearney
Love the plug and the note! Give me an Amazon review on the book if you have time.
Super cool on the bourbon to mezcal conversion. So much to explore, right? I am not a fan of the El Tinieblo Repo or anejo. They almost taste like some additive was introduced to me. Maybe you have moved on from there but if it got you hooked on mezcal, then that is great!
You are due for a Oaxaca trip. Pretty easy to get to from Texas! Thanks for writing in.
Hello Mezcal PhD
One thing I appreciate in your book, blog and comments is that you give your opinions straight from the hip, directly but not rudely . They are well founded points but are always complemented by your de gustibus non est disputandem approach realizing that others might have an equally valid yet contrary POV. YOU might not drink it, and you would advise against something, but you never belittle the other person .
You have been a huge help to me in my mezcal meanderings and agave experiments . Because of you I have sampled several sotols ( didn’t know what it was until I read your work ) and true artisan tequilas ( loved the Tapatio tequila 110 , Ocho was OK, bought Fortaleza but haven’t tried it yet) .
I still like and drink the Ilegal Joven . Never had the El Tinieblo since that fateful day in San Antonio. I like Sombra, Del Maguey Chichicapa, Alipus San Baltasar, Vago Ensemble de Barro, Xicaru and others who deserve mention here but won’t get it . I will confess to liking Real de Jalpa as a summertime inexpensive back porch drink . While it claims to be mezcal it is more like a tequila .
Keep up the good work and thanks for your contributions to the world of mezcal .
K D Kearney
When I die, Can you give the eulogy?
God between us an all harm .
So are we saying Jaime does not belive Eric is the No1 certified palenque??
Are we taking about Jaime Muñoz from Danzantes and so very recently COMERCAM treasurer? or who is this Jaime? Cause this guy is friend and shareholder of Hipocrates, what it now seems to be a company (CRM) trying to control all in the mezcal world? WTH is wrong with you false prophets!!!
It is not about believes but about facts.
I do not know Jaime and his email gives me no more information. If it is Jaime from Danzantes, that may explain an agenda. Jaime, would you like to tell us who you are?
I hope you are not calling me a false prophet? I am just retelling the story as I have heard it and it is factual that Eric has NOM 01. And I am happy to hear more information if anyone has it. But again, this is all making a mountain out of a mole hill. Maybe this is a big deal in Oaxaca and I have stepped into a pile of sh*t…..
Ok, Jaime!! Who might you be? What’s your agenda?
All this time I’ve been using sal de gusano only to learn now that it should be sal de guano… so I guess I need to start digging around bat caves for my salt…. Here in Huatulco again on the Oaxacan coast. Was in my favorite bar the other night and met Clint Bell and his wife…. they’re just down from Oaxaca with 19 bottles of liquid gold. We toasted you. Thanks for the fun article about one of my favorite mezcals.
Toasted me? In Oaxaca? Wow. Nice. Thanks so much! I look forward to finding your favorite bar someday on the Oaxaca coast and toasting you right back. As for sal de guana…..not so sure!
Yeah… read the first paragraph of your post…. guess I’ll have to start looking for bat caves. Take care!
Thanks, John… All this time I’ve been using sal de gusano… and apparently should have been using sal de guano. I’ll start hunting for it… Down here in Huatulco on the Oaxacan coast now… Drinking in my favorite bar the other evening ran into Clint & Mona Bell… They were just back from Oaxaca with 19 bottles of liquid sunshine. We tipped a few to your good health. Thanks for writing about Illegal… their reposado is one of my all-time favorites.
As always…well written and I gotta get back down there. BTW–I’m working with the producers of Whiskey Del Bac. I just returned from doing some tastings with a few well known venues in SF…Trick Dog etc. Everyone remarked on the similarity to an Agave spirit of the Clear expression. (the malt is smoked using velvet mesquite wood). Someday maybe we can figure out the Agave nose connection. Keep those posts comin…
Super cool! As you know, much of the wood involved in mezcal (for the roasting pits and to heat the stills) is mesquite. So I guess it is not too surprising but pretty neat. Thanks for the note Craig!
Ilegal’s añejo was my gateway drug into the Jovens and reposados. It’s caramel, vanilla and smoothness made me fall in love with the category. And by the way, paired with a square of high quality dark chocolate just takes it to a sinful new level.
Yeah baby. I like the sound of that!
“first certified producer…O01X” Are your 100% certain on that fact? I know when it comes to tequila the lower the NOM really doesn’t really mean much. Great story otherwise
100% sure. It is well known that Eric Hernandez was one of the leaders of the COMERCAM (now CRM) certification process. He, like many, believed that mezcal had to be regulated and certified to be legitimized. So he was at the front of the line when certification became official in 2005. Sounds like you know the tequila story better than me, but that’s the way it went down in mezcal! Fair question though so thanks for writing in…..
Can you tell me why you posted this?
sorry wrong link. don’t see illegal or eric h on list http://www.dof.gob.mx/nota_detalle.php?codigo=4883475&fecha=12/06/1997
This is NOM 70 from 1994. The certification process did not start until 2005. I don’t know where he was in 1994 (other than a pretty young 4th generation mezcalero), so he may have been in the “Magueyeros ASSOCIATION OF OAXACA” at this time, or maybe not.
The certification process was a natural flow out of the 1994 NOM but it took forever to get together. I have no doubt there were many individuals who were a driving force in bringing this to fruition, but Eric was one of them by the time it got there. And so as I said, he was first in line for NOM 01. I was not there either! But I have heard this from plenty of people around the mezcal world. I will be sure to get some details next time I see Eric. Hope this helps.
Hipocrates said this O01X doesn’t necessarily mean it was the first to be certified so….?
So we both know what the flip-side of that argument is. Jaime, I am sensing an agenda here so maybe you should tell us what it is?? Do you not like Eric? Do you think that someone else should be considered to be the first certified producer? There is some reason you are sending me links to the 1994 NOM 70 document and asking Hipocrates (head of CRM for those of you who may be wondering) who was first. And making a mountain out of a mole hill. What’s up?
It sounds like we are leaving the blogosphere and heading into a documentary. I think you should lead the effort! If you have an alternate narrative to mine, I am all ears and would love to hear it! For me, it’s pretty simple: he has NOM O01X and many have told me that he got that because he was a driving force in the certification process. Plus he makes killer mezcals! What more do I need???!!
Indeed a wonderful trip….very fortunate for the gang and I to be hanging out with the PhD in Oaxaca and getting true VIP treatment at the palenques throughout the region!
Do you think I asked enough questions?? (to my readers: I drove my friends crazy with my relentless questions! Another reason why lunch was always 3 hours late!).
As much as I’m dying to make a trip out there, I don’t see it happening soon. At least I can experience Oaxaca vicariously through your travels and connections.
Thanks for posting – I look forward to the rest of the series!
You will get there someday if you want to! It really is a great experience to see it all for yourself and see the pride with which mezcal is produced. Thanks for contributing!