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The Making of Mezcal

Photographer Brian L. Frank takes the Light L16 inside a traditional Mexican distillery in the mountains of Oaxaca.

Story by Light December 20th, 2017

by brian l. frank


Mezcal, Mexico’s ancient spirit, is steeped in tradition. As the eldest spirit in North America, its production dates back hundreds of years to the Spanish conquest. History has everything to do with mezcal's unique smoky taste—its rich, bold flavors and earthy notes have been passed down from generation to generation.

Based in the small town of Santiago Matatlán outside of Oaxaca City, the Jiménez family has been making mezcal ever since they can remember. Inheriting a traditional palenque, or primitive distillery, the family lives and breathes this smoky alcohol—quite literally.

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All mezcal starts with agave plants. There are many different varieties of agave plants that can be mixed together to make mezcal, but the Jiménez family generally uses wild kinds of agave like tobala or tepextate. These tend to have the best flavor profiles. They are also the most difficult agave to harvest because they can take anywhere from 15 to 40 years to grow.

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The Jiménez family hires a team of jimadores, or workers, to hunt wild agave in the mountains of Oaxaca. These men look for a tall stem-like bloom protruding from its center, like the one in photo below. Unlike other plants, agave flowers only once in its lifetime, giving harvesters a brief window to gather the crop.

The hills surrounding the Hierve el Agua waterfall are filled with wild agave plants.

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Not all tobala agave they harvest is completely wild, though. For years, the Jiménez have planted the seeds found in these wild agave so that the agave will repopulate and continue to provide the family with its precious resources for years to come.

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When an agave plant is ripe for harvesting, workers chop off the plant’s paddles with machetes and transport the remaining piñas, or hearts, back to the farm using donkeys. At the palenque, another word for traditional distillery, jimadores chop up the hearts and smoke them in large, dirt pits for several days.

The smoking process is one of the main differences between tequila and mezcal. Modern tequila is typically steam-cooked in a large industrial oven, while mezcal is smoked in the ground. The Jiménez family has passed down their rustic mezcal traditions from generation to generation, fine-tuning their method over the last 500 years.

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Once it’s finished smoking, the burnt piñas are then smashed into a pulp with a heavy grinding wheel, like the one you see in the background above.

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Traditionally, a horse pulls the stone wheel, or tahona, around a circular pen, crushing agave hearts into an earthy mash, known as mosto.

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The mixture is then poured into large pine barrels to begin the fermentation process. A week later, the barrels contain a form of agave beer.

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Next, mezcaleros boil the fermented mash in large copper and clay-brick stills, separating out the alcohol from the agave.

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This final distillation process is often repeated two or three times, depending on the type of mezcal.

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Every part of the agave plant is utilized in this ancient process—even to seal the still for the next round.

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A worker stokes the fire for the stills.

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He stirs the distilled mezcal, making sure all the agave has been separated.

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Though making mezcal can be labor intensive, the Jiménez family prefers to keep the scale of their business small. María Elsa Méndez Juárez is the family matriarch, running both the household and the family business. She holds regular mezcal tastings and is responsible for the packing and shipping of their main label, Don Isaac.

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Maria’s husband, Octavio, learned this extensive process from his father and is now the family’s Master mezcalero. He teaches his son about these artisanal methods so that his family’s traditions can continue to live on.

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Before I got into photography, I used to bartend at a mezcal and tequila bar. I’ve always been fascinated by the process of making alcohol and for years worked in breweries and distilleries, learning the trade. Photographing this family craft has always been a therapeutic thing for me, in part because I love mezcal and in part because the smokey process makes for such interesting pictures.

Several years ago, the Jiménez and I, along with another friend of mine, started a new mezcal label called Mezcal Capital. It’s now sold and bottled in the U.S.

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About brian l. frank

A San Francisco native, Brian has worked on social documentary projects across the Americas, focusing on cultural identity, social inequality, violence, worker's rights, and the environment. His work has been recognized with numerous awards from national and international press organizations.

Footnote: All photos captured with the Light L16 camera.
Oaxaca, Mexico