In the midst of our enjoyment of her father’s company, Graciela arrives, heralded by the slam of an iron door that penetrates the same wall as the gate by which we entered. She is all about business, shaking each of our hands firmly and repeating each of our names to herself and to us to be sure she has them correct. She will use them through the tour, earnestly at first but then later in a more intimate, joking manner. As she is beautiful, with thick, unruly hair parted in the center and held fast at the nape of her neck, I imagine we all wish she would cross the line toward flirtation, but she will not. Instead, she pokes fun at us. Describing the process of distillation quite clinically, she finishes and with feigned somber interest asks, “Don’t you agree, Chris?” who seems to miss the Spanish. I don’t know why this is funny, but it is. Graciela stands still a moment with an indulgent gaze aimed toward Chris, who is a perfectly impassive straight man.
We enjoy the peaceful afternoon, being guided about by Graciela in her form-fitting blue jeans tucked into work boots and a loose women’s work shirt with a white flower pattern on a navy back-drop. At one point, she insists that I stand an enormous largo piña upright and position myself beside it, feigning profound curiosity as to which object may be taller. The tour is great fun not only because the large artisanal facility is well maintained and produces great spirits that we are fortunate enough to taste at various stages of production, but also because of the visit’s tone. Professional but warm, she tells us a bit more about the family. Her father has no formal education, but out of his seven children, five of them went to university. I ask her why Lalo left to distill on his own and she answers impenetrably, “I believe this is what Eduardo prefers.”
On these trips to Oaxaca, I am left contemplating what is the greater context that mezcal will come to occupy. These are savage beauties compared to the other spirits I traffic, but mezcal is being brought indoors. Its ascension to a greater scale is inescapable, but what I would hope for is that it is presided over by the likes of the Carreños, with their passion for agriculture and their ancestry that connects them to the provenance of these spirits. They advocate for the advancement of the category but also for their families and their village; the two are inseparable: from Lalo, once mayor of Santa Catarina, whose facility is crawling with children and affectionate relatives and will take us to meet his neighbor, who produces a tiny amount of mezcal fermented in leather and insists we buy it from the man at the price he sets—a far cry from asking us to sign a nondisclosure agreement—to Graciela who now invites us into the tasting parlor at Real Minero. We taste five or six spirits of her choosing. Each label is marked with a decisive color, which I note and ask her, for example, why is it the blend of espadín, largo, tripon (one of my favorites), and barril (another of them) bears a label that has a rusty, bloody color. I am delighted when she replies that tasting mezcal makes her think of colors. Oh, how I agree.
This sanguine, clay color is what’s conjured when she tastes this mixture. I’m sure I am impressionable, but I do concur with her choice of color.
We enjoy the cool, late afternoon light, occupied by the dirt and pollen of this fertile property, as it penetrates the high windows to the tasting room. I am pleased with my company and feel an easing of the chronic tension between my shoulder blades that I only become aware of by its passing. “Well, Graciela,” I say. “What am I looking for in this arroqueño?”
Graciela turns the corners of her mouth up slightly, and replies flatly, “Well, Tadeo, I can’t speak to what you’re looking for, but I can tell you what you might find.”
Reprinted with permission from By the Smoke and the Smell: My Search for the Rare & Sublime on the Spirits Trail by Thad Vogler, copyright © 2017. Published Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.