In Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca, the Gutierrez family has been making mezcal the traditional way for more that 70 years. Ignacio Gutierrez, known to his family as Don Nacho, followed in his father, grandfather and great grandfather’s footsteps in becoming a maestro mezcalero. He began helping at the family’s palenque as a child, learning the process quickly. By the time he was a teenager, Don Nacho was an expert.
“Almost all of us started helping our parents at the age of six or seven years old,” Don Nacho says. “Little by little, I learned how to grow and harvest maguey and the best techniques for making mezcal. By the time I was 12, I was considered a maestro mezcalero.”
Now in his 60s, Don Nacho has continued his family business, teaching his son, Chino, to make mezcal. After years of making the spirit for other companies, the family decided to start their own brand, Mezcal Meztlán, in 2017. In June 2023, the brand debuted in the U.S. with six expressions available.
Don Nacho is involved in every aspect of making Meztlán – from planting and caring for the maguey fields to tasting the final product. Don Nacho grows six species of maguey: espadín, tepextate, jabalí, cuishe, and tobalá. Each one requires special care and many years to mature so it can be used for making mezcal.
“An espadín maguey takes around six or seven years to mature,” he says. “But it depends on how you care for it, maintain it, clean it, and loosen the soil. If you don’t maintain it, it can be there for ten years before it matures. Wild maguey like tobalá, tepextate, and cuishe takes more time to mature. Cuishe mezcal takes about 12 years, but it could be 11 or 13 years. It’s like a person.”
Once the plant is mature, Don Nacho and his team of chalanes – the palenque and field workers – start production. The first step is to harvest the heart of the maguey, called a piña due to its resemblance to a pineapple. The chalanes do this by cutting the leaves off the plant until only the piña remains.
Don Nacho follows the traditional process, cooking the piñas in a dug-out pit over hot coals then crushing them using a tahona, a large stone wheel pulled by one of their beloved horses, Moro and Mixteco. Once crushed, the pulp or mosto is placed into wooden tanks and covered with water to ferment for at least 7 days.
The sugar content of a batch of mezcal determines when fermentation is complete. Many newer mezcal makers use a refractometer to measure these levels, but Don Nacho uses the traditional method of sound.
“The piña grounds are placed in a wood tank to ferment,” he says. “During fermentation, the liquid bubbles, and I can tell a batch is ready for distillation when it no longer makes that bubbling sound. This method almost coincides with the devices the engineers use.”
Mezcal is a twice-distilled spirit; each distillation takes up to five hours to yield 100 liters. Don Nacho uses copper stills which hold between 250 and 300 liters. In total, one pot of mezcal will be distilled for about 30 hours before it is bottled. The whole process – from harvesting the maguey to bottling the mezcal – can take between eight and 20 days.
“Making a bottle of espadín mezcal takes about eight days,” Don Nacho says. “Wild maguey, however, requires more time. Because it has less sugar, it doesn’t ferment as quickly as espadín. A batch can take anywhere from 10 to 20 days to be ready for bottling.”
While Don Nacho’s expertise helps to make a great bottle of mezcal, he also believes that the spirit absorbs the energy of its maker. Producing mezcal is a labor of love, and truly delicious batches will reflect that.
“We can have two batches of mezcal made with the same maguey and water, but they can taste different,” he says. “I think that the flavor changes because of the energy of the mezcalero. If he’s cheerful, the mezcal reflects that. If a chalan was grumpy when he harvested the maguey, the finished product reflects that too.”
Each expression of Meztlán reflects not just the distinct characteristics of the various agaves, but also the terroir of the famed producing region of Santiago Matatlán. Don Nacho intends to use his knowledge to create more mezcal iterations while staying true to tradition, including an ancestral mezcal fermented in clay pots in which he is currently working.
These outstanding mezcales are available in Mexico and the U.S. through select retailers.