Cultivating culture and spirits: The untold story of a mezcal-making Mexican farmer

By Jayendrina Singha Ray, Guest columnist

I met Mr. Jesus on my way from Puerto Vallarta to the quaint town of San Sebastian in Jalisco, Mexico. “Hacienda Don Lalin”—Mr. Jesus’s Raicilla distillery—stood with an unmanicured charm, amidst the red volcanic soils of the Sierra Madre mountains. Jesus’s ruddy face, a lot like the amber Reposado he poured into our tiny tasting cups, had a rustic passion to it. This was a man who was physically connected to his craft of Mezcal making—from preparing the earth, cultivating the Agave, observing the effects of the sun and rain on the plant, estimating the sweetness in its heart, harvesting it, cooking the piña, and transforming the plant into a spirit.

Legend has it that the starchy sweetness at the core of these giant cactus-like plants, was serendipitously discovered by the Aztecs when a lightning bolt struck some Agave plants—and the burning hearts of the Agave let out a sweet aroma. For centuries, the Agave has held a spiritual, ritualistic and historical significance in Mexico. There is thus more to a bottle of Mezcal in our supermarket shelves than a price tag and a brand value. However, when I see the increasing number of Hollywood celebrity names taped onto bottles of Mezcal and Tequila, I find the essence of the drink and the histories of jimadors, artisanal Mezcal producers, and craft distillers like Mr. Jesus, overshadowed by the ethos of celebrity fame.

The glamorously designed websites of Mezcal and Tequila brands “owned” or “founded” by Hollywood celebrities—with romanticized images of and references to field hands working on acres of Agave plantations—bring to mind a famous 18th century painting by Thomas Gainsborough called Mr. and Mrs. Andrews. The painting depicts a couple posing for a portrait in their vast fenced-in estate with freshly cut crops stacked up neatly and grazing cattle in the distance. While this painting has been criticized for conveying a romanticized image of landed gentry and ownership—one absent of the unsightly presence of labor hands working in the fields, we find traces of a similar romanticism associated with land and ownership in the marketing gimmicks of Mezcal brands owned by Hollywood celebrities. Though one may argue that brands like Casamigos, Teremana, etc., bring the Mexican jimador (field worker) to the forefront, the jimador continues to remain a nameless entity—a sidekick surrounding the celebrity “owner” and “founder” of the spirit. It is the story of the celebrity and his discovery of a luxurious drink where the jimador appears as a useful prop, and the traditional knowledge of artisanal Mezcal makers goes conveniently uncited. Unfortunately, there is value in the portrayal of hard-working jimadores in these glamorized narratives—there’s value in the jimador’s labor, the traditional knowledge of the plant and spirit, alongside the romantic utility the jimador’s Mexicanness lends to the drink—“hand-picked by jimadores; cooked in traditional brick ovens; aged in oak barrels” (818 Tequila), “mixed with volcanic water” (Jaja) from the “Highlighland and Lowland appelations of Jalisco” (Cincoro) “because quality, the people, the land and legacy are what matter most” (Teremana).

People, land and legacy are crucial aspects in marketing Mezcal and Tequila. Today, both Mezcal and Tequila have denominations of origin (DOs)—meaning, these spirits can be legally made only in specific parts of Mexico. However, Sarah Bowen in her book Divided Spirits observes that small-time farmers and producers of the spirits like Tequila have been excluded from defining the authenticity, quality and traditions they want to protect, as these have been appropriated by multinational liquor companies. One wonders why celebrities find investing in Mezcal so attractive—is it only because of the gaining global demand for a uniquely flavored drink? Or is it also because the drink can be positioned as a luxury/artisanal product, which resonates with the glamorous image often associated with Hollywood? I don’t have the answer to the celebrity attraction for “finding” and “owning” Mezcal, but I do have an excerpt from a chat with Mr. Jesus to share with you—in the hope that yet another artisanal voice does not drown under the weight of celebrity brand value…

Jay: Can you tell my readers a little about yourself?

Jesus: My name is Jesus Edwardo Sanchez. I am now in San Sebastian County which is part of Jalisco state in Mexico. I am a Raicilla maker and I make Tequila too, but Raicilla is becoming a very popular drink…and Raicilla is part of the Mezcal industry.

Jay: Has this been a family farm, Mr. Jesus? How do you grow and collect agave? How long have you been doing this?

I was born close to the southern border in Chihuahua State Mexico. My grandfather is from North Mexico—from Zacatecas. They produce Mezcal there. When I was a kid, I grew up listening all about Mezcal. Now, I am in Jalisco for 20 years producing my own Raicilla —that is the name of the Mezcal in Jalisco. I am a farmer. Every year I plant about 7000 plants—called Agave. This year, we put 3000 agaves. So, every year we are trying to do plantations, because it takes 6 to 7 years to grow a plant. Though you can buy it, it’s better when you grow your own.

Jay: Can you talk about the challenges you face as a local agave farmer in a region where many farmers sell their agave to large multinational companies? How does this impact your approach to farming and producing tequila?

Jesus: It’s not a problem for me because I am a small Mezcal producer, and we are more like a craft distillery. The problem with the multinational companies is for all the huge commercial tequila makers but not for me. Of course, the price of the agave depends on a lot of these huge companies. They drive the prices. For example, right now Agave price is less high than it was two months ago. The price is going down again because a lot of people are planting Blue Agave. Blue Agave is used to make Tequila—but in this case, it is not a big problem for me or other craft distilleries because we do not do a lot of production. We do 8000-10,000 liters a year. For me, being a Raicilla maker I don’t use a lot of Blue Agave, I use more of Green Agave. Being a craft producer is different from being a commercial producer. More people are looking for organic things. Green Agave grows wild on the mountains. It’s another good point for us. I use fire wood oven; commercial producers use propane and they steam it—it’s totally different like when you are eating a commercial pizza vs. a craft pizza.

Jay: There are a lot of Hollywood celebrities coming in and putting their names on Mezcal/Tequila bottles. What do craft producers like you think about it?

It’s a lot of rich famous people coming to Mexico, looking for an opportunity to be a part of the tequila industry—it’s so easy to sell for them because they are famous. We are in a world that prefers to buy a good brand because that brand belongs to a famous guy/famous actor or actress—but right here for people like me, it’s not really good—because I am the maker—I am putting my heart in my alcohol. Somebody else with fame is still not the maker!

Jay: Tell me a little about the world of craft distillers like you. Do you have any contests?

Jesus: We are Raicilla and Mezcal makers. We are part of the State beverage. Yes, we do contests. There’s a World Spirits Contest for small craft distilleries. It’s interesting because the commercial makers are not allowed to compete there. I had the opportunity to be one of the winners in one of the spirit contests in Europe—in Paris, France. I won a gold medal. It’s quite something! You’re not expecting to be one of the winners—but when you win you feel good because you are working hard. You arrive at this after you make so many mistakes. The only way to learn is when you do mistakes and finally when you win a gold medal, it is something unique.

Jay: Mr. Jesus what year was this? Did you travel to France or did they send somebody to Jalisco? What kind of liquor did you send?

This was in 2021. Remember in 2020-2021, we had the terrible Covid, so we could not go, so the Mexican govt sometimes they give you flight tickets or pay for hotel or something—you pay the rest—but this time, it was not possible because of Covid. We paid 6000 pesos to send a couple of bottles to the contest—it wasn’t too easy because of Covid situation and no money, but we won a medal! We felt good about it. We sent Raicilla —41% alcohol. The contest is a distillation contest. And it was straight smoky Raicilla.

Jay: Your Mezcal carries both your mother and father’s last names. Is it common for people to have both the mother and the father’s name in Mexico?

It is not only Mexico—but probably all of Latin America or Central America. We use a couple of last names of mother and father. Sometimes, we use a Church-given middle name. For example, my entire name is “Jesus Eduardo Sanchez Enrique.” “Sanchez” is papa’s last name, “Enrique” is mamma’s last name.

Jay: Can you share some of your favorite recipes with Mezcal for an authentic Mexican touch?

For meat, like on the steaks—at the final moment of your grill, you put a little Mezcal on top of your Ribeye or T-bone. Then you flame it with a lighter—it tastes really good. I take my tangerine orange liqueur and mix it with Chinese soy sauce over Chicken breast or salmon. Using boiled garlic, black pepper, bay leaves, cilantro, basil, ginger, green onions, Sereno pepper for cooking these are excellent!

Jay: How can someone identify a good mezcal?

Color is important. For Tequila makers, we do 3-4 different ones—we do the silver tequila which has never been aged (Tequila Blanco)—when you see the bottle—the liquid has to be very clean and clear. Aged tequila like Reposado is a little amber colored and darker as it spends more time in the cask—it is aged in oak barrels. You pay more money for the darker one with all the flavors. The moment you do a little sipping and smell it, it should smell very clean, taste smooth. Always wait for the aftertaste because sometimes the first impression is good, but later the actual taste—you start feeling other flavors. The tasting process is important like for wine or whiskey. When it’s a good tequila and you drink more see how the next day feels. If you wake up thirsty and tired, it’s fine, but you should not wake up sick! Good tequila is like a good Bourbon or Scotch.

Jay: What would you like to tell my readers in the US about Mexico and life in general?

Jesus: There are Mexicans who were born in United States—so probably are half Mexicans, but they want to learn about it too—because when your dad or grandpa is 100% Mexican, you want to learn about the Mexican culture. We have an old culture—we have the Aztecs—they have been here before the Spain people came to Mexico. They had clay distilleries. Not stainless steel or copper! There’s Mexican spirits like Mezcal and Tequila; there are the famous mariachi musicians with their instruments; the Charros or Mexican cowboys and Charrerías—it is something beautiful that shows Mexican tradition.

Jay: Do you have a message for my readers?

Jesus: Loving your job is the only way to grow. Doing everything with your heart is the only way to do it.

Dr. Jayendrina “Jay” Singha Ray’s research interests include postcolonial studies, spatial literary studies, British literature, and rhetoric and composition. Prior to teaching in the U.S., she worked as an editor with Routledge and taught English at colleges in India. She is a resident of Kirkland, Washington.

Dr. Jayendrina Singha Ray’s research interests include postcolonial studies, spatial literary studies, British literature, and rhetoric and composition. Prior to teaching in the U.S., she worked as an editor with Routledge and taught English at colleges in India. She is a resident of Kirkland, Washington.

Dr. Jayendrina Singha Ray’s research interests include postcolonial studies, spatial literary studies, British literature, and rhetoric and composition. Prior to teaching in the U.S., she worked as an editor with Routledge and taught English at colleges in India. She is a resident of Kirkland, Washington.