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My mezcal-loving journey began almost 20 years ago in Playa del Carmen, Mexico courtesy of a friendly bartender at a restaurant on La Quinta Avenida. I’ve been hooked ever since (I even won a friendly media cocktail competition with mezcal - check out my Write On Rubee “Oaxacan on Sunshine” at Hilton Sedona Bell Rock with mezcal, pineapple and jalapeno!).
Mezcal has soared in popularity in recent years. Like tequila, mezcal’s flavor characteristics are derived from the agave plant, but unlike tequila, which is only sourced from the blue Weber agave in a designated region, mezcal can be made from a variety of agave plants and produced in different states of Mexico. Its production process is what creates mezcal’s distinctive smoky nuances. Traditionally, mezcal is made using techniques handed down through generations such as the hearts (piñas) of the agave cooked in hornos (earthen pit ovens) and crushed by hand or a tahona before being mixed with water and undergoing open-air fermentation.
While mezcals can be made using more industrial methods, many distilleries or palenques employ these age-old methods, including Mezcal Carreño, started in 1904 by Don Apolonio Carreño. Mezcal Carreño uses only wild agaves from the central valleys of Oaxaca and roast piñas in an horno lined with lava rocks for up to five days. The piñas are mashed using a horse or mule-pulled stone tahona wheel before fermenting in open-air wooden vats and distilled using copper alembic stills heated by a wood fire. The Carreño family is now sharing with Phoenix something that has been part of their culture for four generations. As noted on the Mezcal Carreño website:
As a cherished spirit meant to be enjoyed on special occasions, Apolonio only sipped on his homemade mezcal with his family and friends on three times a year: his birthday, the start of the planting season and the end of the harvest.
Apolonio’s son, Pedro Carreño, continued the tradition of making mezcal to share with loved ones during special occasions, but wanted his children to pursue their own dreams and experience life outside the family farm. He sent all of his 10 children to college to continue building better life for themselves. It wasn’t until 2010 when his daughter, Lorena, realized that she wanted to go back to the family roots. By this time the Carreño family’s mezcal was well-known throughout the community, and Lorena made it her mission to make it official. She certified the family’s mezcal with the Mexican Regulatory Council of the Quality of Mezcal (CRM), and Mezcal Carreño has been sold all over Mexico ever since.
Happily for us, Phoenix is the first city that this artisanal mezcal has chosen to launch its U.S. distribution, and it’s due to a special family connection. Born in Oaxaca Valley but raised in Arizona, Ivan Carreño, joined by his business partner and best friend Abel Arriaga, has been hard at work educating bartenders, restaurant owners, and spirit enthusiasts about his family’s wonderful mezcal. I’m now a fan and immensely impressed by the layers of complexity, elegance on the palate, and unique characteristics imparted by their production process and the agave plants they use. It’s exceptional mezcal, celebrating different varietals that capture the story of the spirit and its familial and cultural heritage.
I recently had a chance to sit down with Abel at CRUjiente Tacos to sample the four expressions they make: Tobalá (Agave Potatorum) , Tepeztate (Agave Marmorata), Tobasiche (Agave Karwinskii) and Ensamble 7 (a blend of seven wild agaves - Tobalá, Tobasiche, Tepeztate, Cuishe, Lumbre, Coyote and Espadín).
“Ivan has been my best friend since we were young, we went to the same high school, and he was the best man at my wedding,” explained Abel. “He was there for me when my dad passed away and we have a connection that’s really deep in terms of our bond with each other. So for us, it’s been a full circle in what we are doing. Mezcal Carreño is a family business created back in 1904. They were farmers, so would drink it during harvest, planting season, and celebrations. They’ve lived there for so many generations, it’s just part of their life. There was never a thought to commercialize it until just about nine years ago; it was just part of their culture.”
“Mezcal Carreño truly tells the story of Mezcal and its connection to the origins,” continued Abel as he poured mezcal into beautiful copitas made by Stoneware Wolf in Tucson.
Tobalá : “It’s very unique and tends to be one of the most appreciated varietals. It’s smaller than most other agaves, the size of a basketball. It has that traditional spice, but the floral and almond notes are what separates it from other mezcals. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Tobasiche: “This is another very unique species of agave. It looks like a Joshua Tree, and the heart of it looks like a log. Tobasiche is probably the most approachable because it has a little bit of that sweetness with a hint of papaya.”
Tepeztate: “This comes from a wild agave that takes 20 to 25 years to reach maturity before we harvest. It’s one of my favorites, rich and earthy.”
Ensamble 7: “The story behind this is the Carreños are a family of ten. They first had Lorena’s older sister, and then they had two boys, and her dad Pedro wanted three. Well, they proceeded to have six girls in a row. Lorena’s grandfather was the first one to make an ensamble 7 for his seven granddaughters, and Lorena re-created it to represent the seven sisters and what she remembers when she was very young. No one has an ensamble of seven that we’re aware of, and other ensembles are heavy in espadin. When we did our ensamble, we truly did it in a way that makes it different, weighing them out evenly so each part is represented. It’s balanced and very complex.
We have a special batch that will come out in the beginning of 2020. It’s going to be our cava edition. We’re aging 100 liters of Ensamble 7 in glass in the caves underneath the hacienda.”
Throughout our conversation, Abel talks about his love of Oaxacan art, culture and gastronomy and displays beautiful Oaxacan artwork from friends and family such as a colorful alebrije, and jícaras, mezcal drinking gourds (“these are hand-painted by our little brother Pedro. We have’t started selling them yet, but would love for him to work full-time for us down there on the farm”).
Wondering where you can find this wonderful mezcal? Follow them on Instagram as they share the various spots around the Valley where you can taste for yourself. For an extra-special experience, make plans to attend an exclusive paired dinner at Talavera at the Four Seasons Scottsdale resort on May 23 (details here), when Chef and James Beard award nominee Samantha Sanz will serve a Mexican feast to pair with each of the Mezcal Carreño expressions.
“The pairings of mezcal with cuisine came from a collaborative meeting with all of the chefs and management at Talavera,” said Abel. “It was fascinating to hear them break down the flavor profiles and which food would complement best. They are masters of their craft with defined palates, so it was an amazing experience just being part of the planning conversation. You could hear the passion and excitement as they threw out their ideas.”
“Food and mezcal work amazingly well together,” he continued. “Sipping on mezcal during a meal not only helps with digestion but helps to bring out the flavors of the food and nuances in spicy and savory dishes. I'm really excited for the Ceviche Tostada station. We’re pairing it with our Tepeztate mezcal to bring out the richness of the lobster and avocado. Another highlight are the moles, like the shishito mole with razor clams, and duck tamale with mole negro, to give you a new-age and traditional experience.’
To top it off, the beautiful view of the surrounding area resembles the central valleys of Oaxaca where our mezcal is distilled.”
Abel is proud of of his heartfelt and authentic introduction as he spreads the word of the family’s mezcal. "I was never trained as a sales rep or distributor. For me, it’s just what I’ve been doing for such a long time, drinking mezcal. I was built to do this. We get messages daily from people saying they love our mezcal, or they’re taking pictures of our mezcal in different spots. It makes me so happy because they’re excited. They’re connected. They’re actually not just seeing our journey, they’re on our journey.”