Billows of steam drift through the early morning sunlight that streams into the Real Minero mezcal distillery. Graciela Angeles Carreño watches as young men clear away the layers of earth and cloth that have encased six tons of agave hearts in the pit oven for the last several days. The air fills with the scent of burnt sugar as the cooked hearts are placed on pallets to dry before they’re chopped and mashed for fermentation.
Spend only a day in Oaxaca, Mexico’s mezcal country, and you’ll realize how deeply ingrained this spirit and its production are in the communities where it’s made. From the planting of the agave to the clay pot distillation, every aspect of mezcal speaks to long-held traditions and generations of custom and ritual.
But that doesn’t mean everything has stayed the same.
“My grandmother wasn’t allowed in the distillery,” says Graciela, Real Minero’s general manager and co-owner. “A woman in the distillery at that time was considered a catastrophe. [They believed] the pots would break, the maguey wouldn’t cook; it was a curse to be a woman then. To me, being a woman isn’t a curse—but I live in a world where I’m allowed in the distillery.”
For generations, both sides of her family have made and sold mezcal, which is fast becoming one of Mexico’s most popular exports. Once produced in the illegal stills of Oaxaca’s hardscrabble backcountry, the spirit is now a delicacy sought by connoisseurs around the world.
Women have always had an important role in the business, albeit a supplementary one: rising before dawn to walk to nearby towns under cover of darkness, bottles of homemade mezcal tucked into shawls and skirts to keep los de alcoholes (the liquor police) from confiscating them before they could be sold. But as mezcal’s popularity has risen over the past decade, women have stepped to the forefront of this time-honored industry.
“I do what my grandmother did but within a modern context,” Graciela says. “My grandmother went out to sell; I go out to sell. My grandmother administrated; I administrate.”
She isn’t peddling liquor door to door, however. Graciela is the manager of an 8,000-liter-a-year business that employs 16 people, seven of them women. When she first took over her parents’ mezcal business, she was 22, heavily pregnant, and just finishing college. Her parents had been in a serious car accident, and she suddenly found herself responsible for the business and her two younger siblings, who had yet to graduate high school.
After her parents recovered, Graciela stepped back from the leadership role, in part to pursue a PhD in rural development, but she returned in 2008. Eight years later, when her father suddenly died of cancer, she took the wheel, steering Real Minero into the next leg of its journey. Now, the brand is producing one of Oaxaca’s most beloved artisanal mezcals, winning accolades in the U.S., Germany, and at home. And aside from worrying about the success of her company, Graciela has spent a lot of time thinking about how she can improve the lives of women like her.
“I think one of the things missing for women in the world of mezcal is to have a network of support, not just for selling—that’s easy to fix—but for the other parts,” she says, noting the emotional conflicts between family and work responsibilities, the threat of violence that women here face, and the reality that these master mezcaleras (mezcal makers) often aren’t welcome in this hyper-masculine world.
Still, women are now excelling at this craft, combining new techniques with ancient know-how to create complicated, exquisite spirits. “Now we’re learning clinical analysis,” says Sósima Olivera Aguilar, part of the cooperative Tres Colibrí, which produces FaneKantsini mezcal in Sola de Vega, Oaxaca. “You know if [the mezcal] has furfural, methanol, ethanol, dry matter, everything. Traditionally, when we made [mezcal] we weren’t worried about that, nor could we have imagined those tests.”
She pours me a taste of her barril mezcal, made from barril agave, which takes 15 to 20 years to mature. It’s sweet, almost citric, with a burst of herbal alcohol and a leathery aftertaste. “There was a deeper knowledge before; it was based on listening, observing,” she continues. “Making mezcal requires all five senses: how the alcohol falls, the sound it makes, the perlas [bubbles]. You learned by observing. That was mezcal for us.”
Sósima comes from her own long line of mezcaleros, and she is keeping the tradition going with her extended family and her two daughters, who often accompany her in the distillery. “We are the new generation now,” she says. “It’s up to us to create a path for the women to come, so that it’s a little less difficult for them than it was for us.”
Because of trailblazers like Graciela and Sósima, Rosario Ángeles Vásquez managed to open her own distillery, Mezcal Rambhà, last year. While she launched during the pandemic, her initial struggle wasn’t with a lockdown or a dearth of tourists, but rather fighting her family and community for entrance into the world of mezcal.
“I don’t come from a mezcal family, so I started from zero,” she says, sipping a glass of her tepeztate mezcal and gazing across at the brown creviced hills in the distance. Mesquite trees stand out amid dried prairie grass that hasn’t seen moisture since the end of last year’s rainy season. “The idea [of the distillery] came to me because I loved mezcal, loved the process. [It was] difficult, going up against my family. I wanted to advance, and they did everything to stand in my way.”
She was told repeatedly that she was a fool, that she was too unprepared, too young, too female. She remained undeterred. For months, she observed and studied other distillers, until she at last made her first 48.5-proof blend of espadín and tobasiche agaves. “The more times you hear that you can’t do something, the more you start to believe it,” she says. “I prefer not to listen, and move forward. Now I feel really good, satisfied. The people that come here really like the place and really like the mezcal.”
Working 20 miles to the east, Lidia Hernández Hernández is another fresh-faced young woman making mezcal for the first time. Her distillery, Desde la Eternidad, sits alongside the highway that snakes through Santiago Matatlán, one of the region’s most famous mezcal towns, home to established brands such as Gracias a Dios and El Jolgorio. A law school graduate, she took over her family’s distillery in September of last year, when her father, Juan Hernández Méndez, died of COVID at the age of 56. Petite and shy-smiled, she may seem fragile, but after a year of running the business, she has steely eyes.
“I order maguey, and they won’t bring it to me because they don’t believe that I am going to buy it,” she says as she shows me the massive copper stills behind her storefront. “Or sometimes I need to hire people when we are cooking agave, and [the men] don’t want to work with me because they don’t want to be told what to do by a woman.”
While Lidia’s father was still alive, one religious neighbor even told her that she should be careful not to take work from “the man of the house.” But the elder Hernández couldn’t be bothered with that kind of commentary; he painstakingly trained her in the family trade.
“Even more than a good person, he was a good father,” she says. “He was always very demanding. If he wouldn’t have been, we would have never learned to confront life from the time we were young.”
Stories of loss like hers are common among the mezcaleras. Berta Vásquez and Juanita Hernández were both orphaned at a young age and grew up living with extended family. Both had husbands who were mezcaleros who passed away, leaving them in charge of the family business.
Juanita had her three sons to help her, and since she was overseeing one of the town’s first established mezcal brands, El Rey Zapoteco, she was more or less accepted. “At least no one has ever said anything to my face,” she says with a laugh. “But let them say what they want—I feel good, I feel useful, I’m happy working with my sons.”
Berta, meanwhile, was running the Palenque el Torito distillery with her son following the death of her husband, but then he passed away as well. For the last 11 years, she has been working alongside her daughters and granddaughters. A Zapoteca woman living in an isolated area, she often faced abuse from the men in her community and those who rent the distillery when the family needs extra money.
“Before, I cried day and night from the criticisms,” she recalls, offering me a piece of sweet, cooked agave to chew on. “But we have to move forward for our children. I’m here, I’m not criticizing anyone. I’m working because I have to.”
Now, each of these women is adding a grain of sand for the next who comes along. Lidia trains her younger sister in the methods she learned from her father. Graciela helps her female staff, including two sisters, further their education and build their own homes. Berta supports her daughter and granddaughters.
“It’s about a certain attitude toward life,” Sósima says. “I could sit and cry because so–and–so told me that I don’t know how to make mezcal, but I’m not going to pay attention to him. I know what I know, and I am going to make what I make.”
The trailblazing mezcaleras also remain deeply connected to what the spirit means to the families and communities of Oaxaca. They don’t make the watered-down, industrial stuff that’s found on the shelves of many stores; rather, they maintain traditional methods, caring for the local environment, investing in biodiversity, and prioritizing their people.
“We have a history, a flavor, a tradition that we must defend,” Sósima says. “That is the richness of mezcal.”
Meet the Mezcaleras
For tours and tastings at these distilleries, it’s best to call ahead and make an appointment.
firstname.lastname@example.org; +52 951 520 6139
+52 951 221 3498
email@example.com; +52 951 257 7453
Desde la Eternidad
firstname.lastname@example.org; +52 951 364 6507
El Rey Zapoteco
email@example.com; +52 951 518 3020
Palenque El Torito
+52 951 417 4966
Another great place to get a mezcal overview is Mis Mezcales, a shop in Oaxaca City owned by expert Omar Trejo. (He also has a location in Mexico City.)
Reforma 52B, Col. Centro; +52 55 8435 9284; mismezcales.mx