Mezcal connoisseurs discover Master Mezcalera Berta Vasquez

By David Cruz

While considered a sleepy town by most, San Baltazar Chichicápam lives in the heart of the Mezcal connoisseur the world over as it’s home to one, if not the best Mezcal distillers of our generation, Maestra Mezcalera Berta Vásquez. Situated thirty-something miles southeast of the capital of Oaxaca it’s by no means a long journey however, the town of Chichicápam does require a bit of leg work to get to if partaking as the locals do.

Japanese Origami in Oaxaca 

If you’re the adventurous type and decide to visit Chichicápam via public transportation, either of the three options (bus, mini coach, taxi foraneo) will drop you off in the town of Ocotlán de Morelos. After a brisk walk outside the main square, a taxi foraneo will take you the rest of the way to Chichicápam. For the uninitiated, the majority of the taxi foraneo (also known as the pesero or collectivo) fleet in Oaxaca consists of burgundy Nissan Tsurus, with a handful of Nissan Sentrans and if you’re lucky, you might even spot a VW Vento chugging along.

Tsuru is Japanese for crane, which makes sense since you have to fold like an origami crane to ride in one of them. Making a two-hour ride uncomfortable AF, as it’s common to see at least six people in there at any given time. While very uncomfortable and outright dangerous at times, as the foraneo taxis are constantly involved in freak accidents, it’s by far the fastest way to and from the surrounding towns.

Now, I feel I must disclose that my Uncle is foraneo driver and it’s probably why I trust using this mode of transportation almost exclusively when I venture out to Oaxaca’s surrounding communities. After taking a few shots of the Mezcal you have laying around and decide to head to Ocotlán via a foraneo you can catch it at the Parque del Amor bus stop. If you prefer dibs on the back-left seat, however, (trust me, it’s the best seat in that tiny car) you can catch it at the Central de Abastos taxi hub close to the yellow crossing bridge.

Please note, both El Parque del Amor and the Central de Abastos are on the rougher edges of town. While safe in most regards, diligence, and awareness of your surroundings is key to both a safe and fun trip anywhere in Oaxaca. If you don’t feel as adventurous as I do when I walk from El Centro all the way to Xoxo when I’m tipsy AF in the middle night, you can always book a private trip with Rambling Spirits. They will gladly guide you across the Central Valley with a curated selection of palenques with some of the best Mezcal Oaxaca has to offer. 

Palacio Municipal de Ocotlán de Morelos
Palacio Municipal de Ocotlán de Morelos

Friendships Begin With A Liter of Mezcal

I’ve been a devoted fan of Berta Vásquez for over six years however, due to an industrial accident a few years ago, I was unable to take long trips in tight spaces for the majority of that time. As in, I couldn’t physically fold my legs far enough to have my knees touch my chin while in a foraneo. Because of this, I relied on my Grandmother to pick up bottles of Vásquez’s Mezcal through Mezcal Cuish and it was only until last year that I was healthy enough to fold them legs and hop on a foraneo to Chichicápam. I catch two to get there.

The paleque where Vásquez distills Mezcal sits by the roadside as you come into town, blink and you’ll miss it. She wasn’t there when I arrived, the lady driving the Mototaxi gave Vásquez a call and off we went to her house. Vásquez’s home is as modest as they come, with a rolling gate serving as the front door. Considering how expense Vásquez’s Mezcal runs in the (online) retail market, her home speaks volumes of the person she is, humble. Not at all a reflection of the people, bars and retailers in L.A. that resell her Mezcal with an often condescending attitude.

She greeted me with a Tlayuda topped with black mole and house made cheese, with plenty of Mezcal to go around. I kissed all the varieties in her portfolio and instantly fell in love with her Cuixe Mezcal. During our five-hour conversation of life, traditions and where the industry of Mezcal is headed, I decided right then and there that going forward, I would place my financial support directly with the very people who produce Mezcal by buying from them directly; even if I had to travel days to get it. In hopes of supporting the communities they reside in.

As I sat in Vásquez’s kitchen savoring the bold flavors of her diverse Mezcal portfolio, I contemplated on the current state of the industry and quickly validated my decision when I recollected that a majority of commercial Mezcal labels are owned by foreigners not native to Oaxaca. Some of which keep most, if not all of the profits and seldom reinvest in our communities; I’m looking at you Mezcal Meteoro and Marca Negra. Some labels even dilute the purity of Mezcal and create a market of cheap quality Mezcal sold at stupid high-end prices that cater to a mass market. This lower quality of Mezcal in turn create a perpetual misconception of Mezcal aromas and flavors that are not synonymous with that of traditionally made Mezcal. 

— for your reference, I included a character profile of a handful of her mezcal varieties at the end of this post.

Agave Espadin en San Baltazar Chichicapam
Ex-Convento de Santo Domingo en Ocotlán de Morelos

Women’s Vital Role in The Mezcal Industry

During the 1920’s, the women of Oaxaca marked a decisive factor in the industry’s survival during Mexico’s prohibition era when Mezcal was fabricated and distributed clandestinely. Women working in the industry were known as Mezcalilleras or Mezcaleras. During prohibition, women turned to Mezcal distribution as a perfect complement to their husband’s laborious work, acting as business administrators as well as pillars of the family during the long periods of time when their husbands would go into the mountains to produce Mezcal illegally.

Palenque de Berta Vásquez
Palenque de Berta Vásquez

Up until the 1970’s, women primarily sold Mezcal door-to-door in bulk within the neighboring communities of Oaxaca. At the time, Maestra Mezcaleras or women Master Distillers were unheard of. However, in recent years and in part of the contribution of such Mezcal labels as Cuish and Mezcaloteca, whom have practically single handily cultivated a culture of promoting local distillers, more and more Maestra Mezcaleras have been gracefully represented within the industry.

Berta Vásquez has been distilling Mezcal well before my time and traditionally speaking, Mezcal production has been reserved for men, as the process of cutting Agaves and cooking them in a hearth oven is a heavy labor-intensive job. Because of this, women have not been revered as Master Mezcal producers/distillers. However, Maestra Berta Vásquez has for the last twenty-seven years surpassed this misconception. At sixty-three years of age, she continues to produce Mezcal the only way she knows, the old-fashioned way; a technique passed down to her by her Grandparents. Even at her age, she manages to take care of the majority of work herself, from growing the Agaves organically all the way to distilling the first drop of Mezcal. Thus, creating the most complex and best tasting Mezcal your lips will ever kiss. 

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⨥ MEZCAL CHARACTER PROFILE ⨥
el mezcal se toma a besos


ESPADÍN // A. Angustifolia

Aroma: fresh, humid & herbaceous
Taste: well balanced between sweet & herbaceous
Afternote: slightly earthy w/ a strong herbaceous aroma after taste

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❡ What sets the Espadín Mezcal from Maestra Berta Vásquez apart from other Espadínes is the strong fresh, humid aroma one can appreciate when opening a glass bottle filled with this Mezcal. Even without a rigorous shake of the bottle, once poured onto your whiskey tumbler or glass of choice, you’ll notice the coveted pearls this Mezcal creates around the edges of the cup. An indicator of the purity of this Mezcal. At 50% alcohol volume, I recommend drinking a cup of water before hand and wait a few minutes to clear out your palate to fully appreciate its natural aromas. This Mezcal will leave a very refreshing aftertaste. 

TOBALÁ // A. Potatorum

Aroma: earthy w/ a hint of herbs
Taste: a bouquet of spice, earth & herbs
Afternote: slightly spicy w/ a dry aroma after taste

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❡ The Tobalá Mezcal is by far the most complex in both aroma and flavor profile, as it tends to vary both in the time of day you kiss it and of course the palette of the one who kisses it. Based on my palette however, this 50% alcohol volume Mezcal tends to err on the side of earthy, spicy and a hint of a bouquet of herbs. This Mezcal tends to be the most expensive as well, as it takes the Tobalá Agave roughly thirteen to fifteen years to mature and because of its small size, tends to yield fewer liters of Mezcal compared to other Agaves. 

CUIXE // A. Karwinskii

Aroma: sweet, earthy & humid
Taste: smooth & sweet w/ a slight herbaceous note
Afternote: leaves a sweet herbaceous, humid aroma

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❡ For those wanting to dive into the world of Mezcal but aren’t fans of high yielding alcohols, I’d recommend this Mezcal to savor after you’ve kissed the Espadín Mezcal as it’s one of the sweeter ones in Vásquez’s portfolio. This being a wild variety of Agave, the Cuixe Mezcal is rare and should be treated as such when your lips kiss this exquisite Mezcal. 

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I’m a Oaxaca native and a self proclaimed Mezcal connoisseur
I believe in directly supporting the livelihood of people by purchasing local or handmade when possible

Why?

When people ask me why I’m a wedding photographer, I think of my Great Grandparents and how there’s not a single photo of when they were married in a dusty, nowhere town in Oaxaca about a hundred years ago.

I believe that no matter the culture or socio-economic status we happen to be thrown in, weddings photos however cringy or fashionable they may be, tend to epitomize the beginning of a new family. And it’s why I believe that my photography, should represent be the beginning of your family.

I Believe in Beauty Not Perfection

I’m not for everyone and I don’t fit into most of the wedding industry. To be honest, I never made the attempt to fit into the industry from the get-go. I go against the current and create work that is bright, minimal and not everyone likes it. That’s fine. Because as a creative, there’s an inherit beauty of freedom being able to say that I’m not for everyone and if a potential client is basing their decision on booking me on price alone, I’m definitely not for them. 

I don’t take orders. I work with clients, not for them. I thrive if given trust and freedom from clients, allowing me to create meaningful photographs for them. While I don’t expect anyone to be an art connoisseur because God knows I’m not one of them, I appreciate working with people who value photography as an art form and are willing to invest both time and money for it.

I ask that you take a leap of faith with me. I ask for your trust in the way I do things. Because I’m not here to make your life easier, as I may not be the easiest photographer to work with. I’m stubborn in my commitment of creating timeless, elegant, effortless and minimal photographs that require effort from both our ends to create. Helena Bonham Carter’s character in Conversation(s) with Other Woman said it best:

 “The illusion of effortlessness requires a great effort indeed.” — Woman 

My job as a photographer is to make you look your absolute best and you best believe boo I will move heaven and earth to get that done. However, you must believe in what I do and how I do it. I ask that you take the time and sit down with me to properly plan out photo session specifically, your wardrobe because it will make or break the entire session. Most importantly, I ask that you enjoy the process of working with me because yes, I might not be for everyone, but I might be for you. 

Say Hello!

I live half time out of the year between California (Palmdale to be exact) and my hometown of Oaxaca in Mexico. So I might around your neighborhood if you’re planning a destination wedding and yes, I’m always ready to travel with you.

David Cruz
☏ 213.249.1648

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