Ninety-one-year-old Isaac Jiménez Arrazola has been producing mezcal in Santiago Matatlán all his life, just like his father and grandfather before him, his sons Enrique and Octavio, and now his grandchildren. The town has a colorful history, and a pride in being one of the oldest colonial settlements in the country. It was founded in 1525, only a few years after Cortés arrived in Mexico. But the crowning glory of Matatlán has been its status as world capital for the production of mezcal. In fact by 1980 the dusty one-horse-town had about 360 palenques or mezcal factories, each producing about 2,800 liters monthly.
“All of my children,” Don Isaac emphasizes, “from when they were very young, the boys and girls alike, learned all the steps; preparing the fields and tending the maguey, watching out for infestations, harvesting, and the process in the palenque. And my wife Juana would be in charge and do everything when I was either on the road selling, or playing in the band. You know I’m a musician as well, just like my grandfather Fidencio. He was a master violinist.”
Fidencio Jiménez Romero was born in Ejutla de Crespo in 1870. As a young adult, towards the turn of the century he moved to Matalán to become the family’s first generation of palenquero. He and his son both learned to distill mezcal the old fashioned way, using clay pots for receptacles, and carriso (tall river reed, similar in appearance and functionality to bamboo) as the tubing required for the cooling and condensation processes. It wasn’t until grandson Isaac’s generation that copper was introduced into the town. That was in 1935. From then through the 1940s copper revolutionized the means of production.
The family patriarch recalls that using clay pots for transporting had its definite downside, being fragile and at times dangerous. So when the opportunity arose to transport in latas de mantequa (large tins in which lard was then sold), he seized the opportunity. And then with the arrival of plastic containers which were even larger, a further change occurred. By about 1943, with the Pan-American highway having almost opened up through to Oaxaca, imported oak barrels began to appear. Don Isaac saw a chance to transport even larger quantities. He recounts:
“In those days we never thought about aging. We used the barrels because they were big, and I could fit 12 – 14 of them on my truck, to go on my sales routes to towns and villages on the coast and in the mountains. It would take about a month to sell everything I had, so that was the longest time mezcal would be allowed to age – until I was sold out and could return home with a truckload of empty barrels. But when I realized I was losing a lot of mezcal due to barrel swelling and evaporation, I went back to plastic. I just couldn’t afford to sell from the barrel.”
Throughout the 1950s business was good, with national markets opening up as a result of improved highways. The family put its modest profits to work by purchasing additional tracts of land for growing agave. In 1957 they moved operations into the current family homestead.
When asked to be town mayor (el presidente municipal) in 1966, Don Isaac of course couldn’t refuse the three year post, even though it was an unpaid position. It was an honor, and considered part of tequio, one’s moral obligation to the community. Finances were strained, but with the assistance of the family, business continued, and in fact thrived.
By the 1980s, the Jiménez family had begun to barrel-age, bottle and export. The family realized that it could command a higher price in the marketplace by producing a smoother product with a different, and often more pleasing flavor imparted through barreling. This more than made up for shrinkage.
Isaac’s two sons’ fates had been sealed. Octavio had less of an interest in academics than some of his siblings who went on to complete university and indeed teach. Although he attended high school, he was more interested in working the fields and in the palenque. Brother Enrique completed his secondary school education, and then entered university in Oaxaca, obtaining a degree in industrial chemical engineering. During his college years he would spend the week in Oaxaca, and then Friday afternoon his father would pick him up and bring him home to Matatlán. There he would work at the family business, putting his newly-learned expertise to work, bringing welcomed innovation to certain aspects of production.
By 1993 Don Isaac and his sons had their own domestic brand, Mezcal del Maestro (now known as Mezcal del Amigo). The family’s mezcal met with success in both Europe and the US.
Five well-established types of mezcal in production using agave espadín gave the Jiménez family a measure of security. With Octavio and Enrique now at the helm, a few years ago the family made a bold decision to move into the 21st century.
Brother Enrique has been at the cutting edge of innovative techniques for baking agave, and its fermentation and distillation. This has both enhanced quality control and enabled the family to market a whole new range of tastes while at the same time continuing to use primarily agave espadín, which today still remains the most common type of maguey used to produce mezcal. At the same time the family has been able to preserve key parts of the centuries old production methods – stone-crushing the caramelized maguey using horsepower, fermenting in pine vats, and distilling using a clay-brick oven.
Matatlán remains a small town with the paved Pan-American highway running through it, mezcal fábricas and expendios (outlets) on both sides of the road, extending perhaps a mile. Fields of agave under cultivation blanket the rolling hills in each direction. But turn off the highway and step back in time by visiting the Jiménez family compound. Watch mezcal being made as it was in the early 1900s, when Fidencio Jiménez Romero was teaching everything he knew to his youthful grandson, Isaac. Just ask anyone in town how to get to Don Isaac’s, where you’ll meet Octavio and Enrique Jiménez, and yes, their children, the fifth generation of palenquero.