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 mezcaleroes. Taking into account their children Valente and Lidia, the youngest generation working in the family business, there has been at least 5 generations of mezcaleroes on Hortensia’s side of the family, and 4 generations on Juan’s side.
The Hernándezes live in Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca. They take great pride in the fact that mezcal is a family business, and rightfully so. Lidia, the eldest Hernández 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 of Juan and Hortensia who is a master mezcalero in his own right, is getting married in August 2018 and will no doubt take the helm of his own palenque someday.
The Hernándezes’ palenque, with its magnificent panoramic view of straight proud rows of maguey growing on their land, silhouette of gently rolling hills in the horizon, and smoky aroma of roasting maguey fluttering in the cool morning air, can take on an almost transcendental quality in its raw, unadorned beauty. In addition to the Espadín, Cuishe and a little Tobala cultivated on the grounds of their palenque, the Hernandezes also cultivate two fields of Espadín in the hills nearby. As of May 2018, the Espadín plants growing 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 Espadín, they make some excellent mezcals with wild agave varietals. Case in point: check out 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 pinas 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.
Check out Erstwhile Mezcal’s blog post about master mezcalero Juan Hernández Méndez for more photos and stories!