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.

 

At Erstwhile Mezcal, we select each and every one of our partner mezcaleros with care and passion, committing our brand and reputation only after countless tastings and feeling a personal connection. Case in point: the Hernándezes based in Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca, a family we are proud to call our friends and partners.

The legacy and craft of artisanal mezcal production have deep roots in the Hernández family.  Master mezcalero Juan Hernández Méndez and his wife Hortensia Hernández Martínez both come from multi-generation families of master mezcaleros.  Taking into account their children Valente and Lidia, the youngest generation working in the family business, there has been at least five generations of mezcaleros on Hortensia’s side of the family, and four generations on Juan’s side.

The Hernándezes take great pride in the fact that mezcal is a family business.  Lidia, the second eldest daughter, chose to return to the family business after graduating from law school and has played a key role in cementing Erstwhile Mezcal’s partnership and friendship with her family.  Valente, the son, is a master mezcalero in his own right and will no doubt take the helm of his own palenque some day.

The Hernándezes’ palenque feels like home to me.  With its magnificent panoramic view of straight proud rows of cultivated maguey, silhouette of gently rolling hills in the horizon, and smoky aroma of roasting maguey fluttering in the cool morning air, this place can take on an almost transcendental quality in its raw, unadorned beauty.  I have so many fond memories of time spent here: feeling my heart expand upon seeing boxes full of Erstwhile bottles for the very first time, in person; dancing like a maniac until the wee hours of the morning on the same ground where maguey is cut and roasted to make our mezcal; joining Lidia at the bouquet toss of her brother Valente’s wedding, and single-handedly catching one rose from the bouquet ….  The list goes on and on.  And what happened to the rest of that bouquet remains a mystery to this day.

 

Juan Hernández Méndez: Master Mezcalero

Master mezcalero Juan Hernández Méndez, one of Erstwhile Mezcal’s partner mezcaleros, proudly surveys his land. This crop of Espadin was about 2-3 years away from harvest, when this photo was taken in May 2018.

 

In addition to the Espadin, Cuishe and a little Tobalá that they cultivate on the grounds of their palenque, the Hernándezes also cultivate two fields of Espadin in the hills nearby.  As of May 2018, the Espadin plants growing in these fields are about 2-3 years away from harvest.

The Hernándezes make small-batch artisanal mezcals with copper stills. Their stills yield about 280 liters per distillation at maximum capacity.  Of course, the exact volume of each distillation varies depending on the exact amount of roasted and fermented agave loaded into the stills.

In addition to cultivated Espadin, they make some excellent mezcals with wild agave varietals. Check out, for example, the fascinating story on our Henequén mezcal from Juan Hernández’s personal collection.

In very broad brushstrokes, a typical distillation at the Hernándezes’ palenque looks something like the following:

  • 1 day to find and buy agave pinas to make mezcal with, possibly somewhere in the Central Valley of Oaxaca.
  • Prep the oven by lighting a fire in the earthen oven pit on the grounds of their palenque.  After lining the oven with stones, the fire continues to smolder underneath and the smoke needs to dissipate sufficiently before loading agave into the oven.

 

 

  • Freshly cut agave piñas are loaded into the oven, and covered with plastic tarps.

 

  • 4 days of roasting agave over a low, steady stone fire in the oven.

 

  • 1 day for the roasted agave to cool down, after being removed from the oven.
  • 5 days for grounding the roasted agave pinas in a stone mill.
  • 3 days of fermenting the roasted and ground agave, now with water added, in wooden vats.
  • Load the fermented agave mixture—agave fiber, liquid and everything – into copper stills for distillation.
  • 3 hours for distillation # 1.
  • 3 hours for distillation # 2.

 

Erstwhile Mezcal’s flagship product line in the United States features six excellent mezcals created by the Hernández family, four of which were made with wild varietals of agave. We cannot wait for you to try them and tell us what you think.

 

Yuan Ji

Co-Founder of Erstwhile Mezcal