A shelf of liquor bottles is a cosmic mystery. No matter how much you know about food and drink, you will never know the story behind every last bottle. We often forget, sitting below rows of glass, sipping or slugging, that each bottle has a story, a tale of people and places, some combination of sun, plants, wind, and water.
Recently, I found myself considering a bottle.
Clear glass. Shaped like a wide can of tennis balls. Tiny glass circles mounded from the glass at precise intervals, dappling the curvature, warping the light, and opening clandestine portals to the bottle's story.
One entry point to that story: The rounded glass bumps were made to match those found on an ancient Zapotec cup dug up from a tomb in Oaxaca. At Monte Albán, a site of old temples, the circle-bumped cup of an early Mesoamerican king was discovered.
The 92- or 90-proof mezcal in the circle-clad bottle also comes from Oaxaca. It is a bottle of Mezcal Carreño, owned by the Carreño family — mezcal-makers since 1904. Now in its fourth generation, the family mezcal has just has expanded due to the efforts of Ivan Carreño (a member of that fourth generation) — born in Oaxaca Valley, raised in the Valley of the Sun.
Against the grain, Mezcal Carreño is an artisan mezcal brand starting U.S. distribution not in California or New York, but metro Phoenix. Ivan and business partner and longtime friend Abel Arriaga have been converting local chefs and bartenders via backyard tastings.
“Mezcal” refers to a range of agave-based spirits. Tequila is a specific kind of mezcal like a square is a specific kind of rectangle. As Champagne is wine made by certain methods using chardonnay grapes in Champagne, France, tequila is mezcal made by certain methods using blue agave in Jalisco, Mexico. It is a highly regulated agave-based spirit, a sub-category of mezcal with global recognition.
Mezcal is more open-ended. It can be made in other parts of Mexico, from wild or farmed agave, from dozens and dozens of agave species. (“Within mezcal’s umbrella, underneath, there’s 30 to 40 different types of agave,” Ivan says.) Mezcal has the potential for stunning range. Most entry-level mezcals fall well short, blowing this great potential by planting smoke bombs near your tonsils. Good artisan mezcals snake-charm the smoke, letting other flavors dance.
An artisan distiller, Mezcal Carreño makes sipping mezcals from many kinds of agave.
“When people say mezcal, it’s almost like wine,” says Ivan. “You need to then dive in to what kind of plant you’re drinking. Most common is espadín. A lot of introductory people are drinking it in cocktails, which is great ‘cause that’s the gateway to enjoying different types and some of your more artisanal ones."
As viognier, nebbiolo, and other grape varietals are to wine, agave varietals are to mezcal.
“When you go down to Oaxaca, these plants grow everywhere,” Ivan says of agave species. “You see them on the sides of highways. You’ll go into this mountainous range, and you’ll see tons of them everywhere. They grow naturally, and so they propagate all over the place.”
His family uses wild agave from communal lands in Oaxaca and agave that naturally grows on family lands in the region. At the 10-acre Mezcal Carreño HQ in Oaxaca, a hacienda that dates to 1844, the mezcal-making process begins with unearthing agave as just as it blooms and cutting off its leaves. For most of a week, agave hearts then roast in a covered pit over rocks or bricks. They rest for a few days before getting pulped on a 3,000-pound tahona (stone wheel).
Next, mashed agave ferments in the open air. Fire and a copper alembic then fuel a two-day distillation. And then the folks at the Carreño family central hacienda — now home to a newborn 1,500-liter batch of mezcal — can go out and harvest the next round of agave.
Lorena Carreño is the doyenne who oversees operations. She is Ivan's aunt and a sommelier. With her team in the Oaxaca Valley, she makes single-varietal mezcals and blends.
One Mezcal Carreño offering uses wild Tobalá agave that takes 10 to 15 years to fully mature. Another uses wild Tobasiche, which takes 12 to 14. A third uses Tepeztate, a varietal that can take a quarter of a century to peak, longer than a soccer player. A fourth and fantastically eye-opening mezcal, Ensemble 7, blends seven kinds of agave. It corresponds to the seven sisters of the Carreño third generation.
There is a lot of lore behind these smooth-sipping mezcals, which can taste floral, peppery, mineral-like, and whirl your palate in all kinds of wondrous directions. For example, mezcal production began on the hacienda when Ivan’s great-grandfather let an enterprising stranger harvest his agave, so long as his grandfather got half the profit from whatever the stranger was doing (making mezcal).
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There are stories about educated women struggling to join the work force or stay at home on the hacienda, about mezcal shots at Oaxacan weddings, about Arriaga deciding to go all in on the mezcal business while sipping some in a Cancun eatery shaking in a tropical storm to the notes of a saxophone.
You can sense these stories through a sip, access an idea of them through the sight of the bottle on the bar shelf. So next time you’re sitting on a round stool with your elbows up, think about the tales behind bottles like this one, about how amazing it is that they've been gathered in one place.
And if you see a clear glass bottle with circular bumps at even intervals, you may want to ask for a pour.
Find Mezcal Carreño at Centrico, CRUjiente Tacos, Honor Amongst Thieves, Devils Liquor in Tempe, Peoria Artisan Brewery & Gastropub, and about two dozen other places. For a complete list, see the Mezcal Carreño website.