First Artisanal Henequén Mezcal in the US Market

Erstwhile Mezcal is the first and only mezcal importer to launch an artisanal Henequén mezcal in the US market.

This rare distillation, made from cultivated Henequén piñas, is a small-batch limited edition of only 397 liters (about 500 bottles total). Master mezcalero Juan Hernández Méndez (one of our partner mezcaleros based in Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca) made this for his personal collection, and kept it there until his recent decision to transfer ownership to Erstwhile.

We jumped at the opportunity, and are so thrilled to introduce Henequén to mezcal lovers all over the world.

Henequén, an agave plant native to the Yucatán Peninsula, once ruled and transformed the region’s economy to such an extent that it came to be known as “green gold”.  It is not native to, and thus rarely seen in, Oaxaca and other mezcal-producing regions of Mexico.

Valued for its fiber since pre-Hispanic times, Henequén has been used to make, among other things, twine, hammocks, sacks, baskets and thick ropes for mooring ships.  The first written account documenting the use of Henequén fiber in Yucatán (for making ropes and other naval tools) dates back to as early as 1783, in a report by José María Lanz, the Spanish-Mexican mathematician, engineer and cartographer, during his employment by the Spanish Royal Navy.

Henequén takes five to seven years to mature.  A tough and resilient plant, it is adapted to survive in arid climates with little water, and reproduces without being cultivated. Its sword-shaped leaves grow out of thick, prominent trunks that can reach as tall as four to five feet. ​

The lot of piñas that made our Henequén was originally bound for Jalisco, apparently intended as some sort of industrial mezcal (or possibly faux tequila?!) experiment.  However, the piñas were so tough that they broke the shredder, and had to be sent back.  Somewhere along the way, our partner mezcalero Juan Hernández Méndez intercepted and purchased this lot of henequén.  Henequén may be tough, but ultimately no match for Juan’s moxie and stone mill!

I will never forget the first time I tasted our Henequén.  We were visiting Juan and his wife Hortensia at their home, feasting on simple-but-so-delicious quesillo quesadillas fresh from their comal, and being regaled with copita after copita of mezcal, each of which was made from a different species of wild agave and delightful in its own right.

The Henequén did not appear until toward the end.  Through the open door, a rainstorm raged outside over Carretera Internacional (arguably the Main Street of Santiago Matatlán) while we basked in the warmth and pleasure of the Hernándezes’ hospitality.  Juan brought out the Henequén and poured copitas quietly, without much fanfare.

That flavor.  It struck me fast and direct, like a quiet thunderbolt.  Fresh and green. Unabashedly, joyfully verdant.  Mineral and saline notes, evoking wet earth, clay, and atole.  And the smell of rain in the fresh country air.  Slightly spicy, with a surprising finish of tingly numbness that lingers on the tongue and reminds me of Sichuan peppercorns.

 

Juan Hernández Méndez: Master Mezcalero

Hortensia and Juan Hernández, circa March 2018, in front of the tinas (fermentation vats) at their family palenque in Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca.

 

It was love at first sip.

I had never heard of this agave species before.  So I set forth to learn all I could, and find myself down an unexpected rabbit hole of discovery.

 

An illustration of Henequén (Agave Fourcroydes) published in 1918. Source: Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, London., vol. 144 [= ser. 4, vol. 14]: Tab. 8746 – [1].

An illustration of Henequén (Agave Fourcroydes) published in 1918. Source: Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, London., vol. 144 [= ser. 4, vol. 14]: Tab. 8746 – [1].

I learned that Henequén, not native to Oaxaca, is a hardy plant that grows wild in the Yucatán Peninsula’s rocky limestone terrain and thrives with virtually no water or fertilization.

This plant has been used for its fiber since pre-Hispanic times, eventually playing such a prominent role in the region’s socioeconomic history that it came to be known as the “green gold” of Yucatán.

The ruling class of European descent in Yucatán grew fabulously rich from their Henequén plantations, evidence of which you can still see today in the grand haciendas that line the Paseo de Montejo boulevard in Merida, the capital of Yucatán.

I learned about the abuse that Mayan workers experienced on these Henequén plantations, about the clash between the Mayans’ defense of their communal lands against the ruling class’s push for private land ownership, eventually escalating into the Caste War of the Yucatán (1847 – 1901).

So when I drink Henequén now, I think about the spunk and resilience of this plant, and of the Mayans who harvested it under the Yucatán sun over a hundred years ago.  I think about the injustice of the reality they lived in, the dark underbelly of the socioeconomic conditions in which “green gold” came to be.

I love that about mezcal.  That it is full of portals to history and knowledge, open to anyone who is curious to learn.  That the experience of tasting even one expression is never static, but always evolving and gaining complexity over time.

 

Yuan Ji

Co-Founder of Erstwhile Mezcal