What if I told you one of the most popular mezcal tour guides in Oaxaca, Mexico was a retired lawyer from Canada? Well, it’s true and his name is Alvin Starkman. He is well-respected in the mezcal community and has a stellar TripAdvisor rating. Ever since Jonny, our friends, and I got into mezcal we kept hearing the name Alvin Starkman. He was writing blogs in favor of aged mezcals.. and even worm mezcals. Blasphemy! Well, we better meet this guy and mezcal-splain some things, right?
Our crew of four booked a day with Alvin during our spring 2018 trip to Oaxaca. Alvin has a few different vehicle options to accommodate groups of different sizes. He also brings a trunk-load of empty 1 liter glass bottles; they fill up quickly. Did I mention that Alvin drives you to palenques? Book in advance. Alvin offers a few standard mezcal tour routes outside of Oaxaca City like Santiago Matatlan but we had a few ideas of our own – he was game.
Santa Catarina Minas is a magical place and we enjoyed our 2017 visit so much that we wanted to return – this time to visit Eduardo aka “Lalo” of the legendary Angeles family. Unfortunately, when we arrived that morning Lalo wasn’t there. A palenque tour without Lalo didn’t sound fun so we vowed to return on a future date. Thankfully, Alvin had a backup plan.. a different Maestro Angeles! Felix Angeles is another well-known mezcalero in Minas, however it is not known exactly how his Angeles name is connected to Lalo and the Real Minero Angeles families; it is a common family name in the region. At any rate, we drove a few minutes down the road and arrived at Felix’s palenque.
Santa Catarina Minas: Felix Angeles
Felix has a small palenque next to his home in Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca. His palenque is right across the street from a huge field of agaves owned by Real Minero along with a sign to prove it – almost like an advertisement for the tour groups that Alvin brings through. Like the majority of the mezcaleros in the area, Felix distills in small clay pots. He had a number of cooked agaves resting near the stills when we arrived. These agaves were growing mold and would be crushed soon. As Alvin himself wrote in a post about this mezcalero:
Felix Ángeles Arellanes is one of a dying breed of palenqueros who continues to make mezcal with virtually no hint of modernity, maintaining as much tradition as possible.
After a short tour of the palenque, it was barely 10am and we tasted through about 10 different expressions of mezcal. There were many single-varietals along with some interesting ensambles like one made with agaves Madrecuixe, Tepeztate, Mexicano, and Tobaziche. One of the most interesting mezcals Felix had for sale was a pechuga made with agave Tobaziche, not agave Espadin as you might expect. When asked what gave him that idea, Felix just said he had a lot of that agave available so he did it. Felix also let us taste some of the fruit “aftermath” of a pechuga distillation which is almost like fruit jelly. After making some tough choices, we all purchased a few liters of his tasty mezcal and piled into Alvin’s SUV to head out to our next stop, Miahuatlán.
The road to Miahuatlán
Miahuatlán, Oaxaca has always been one of our favorite mezcal-producing regions but we had never visited before. Maestros like Don Beto Ortiz (Marca Negra, Papadiablo, etc.), Emigdio Jarquín Ramirez (Mezcaloteca, Mezcal Vago), Don Valente Angel (Alipús, Mezcalero), and others produce mezcal in this area which is in the southern part of the Sierra Sur Region of Oaxaca. Some say the mineral-rich groundwater is the secret ingredient to the delicious mezcal produced in the area. We had a bit of a journey ahead of us so we made a pitstop on the way to our next palenque. Where did we stop? A roadside palenque of course!
This wasn’t your average lemonade stand. We got out of Alvin’s SUV in La Cañada San Guillermo, Miahuatlán and walked up a small hill to find a few men distilling with a copper refrescador. This small operation did not have much of a rooftop and the sun added to the heat coming from the still. We walked back to the plastic fold-up table by the road to try some of the mezcals; they were produced by Javier Vanegas Garcia. After a round of generous samples, we decided that we needed to save our pesos (and room in the car) for our next stop.
Given we weren’t going to buy anything I wanted to tip them for the free tastes they gave us. My tip was kindly refused so I decided to buy a bottle of their agave Mexicano mezcal which came in an old Bacardi bottle. This “gratuity” which was exchanged for a liter of agave Mexicano mezcal was less than $20 USD and made my mind race about exported mezcal prices. Is the markup really just the cost of certification, exporting, importing, retail markup, etc? Are mezcaleros getting ripped off? Maybe a little of both. Maybe Alvin knows.
As we drove for the next 90 minutes or so we all talked with Alvin. Besides tours, he often does brand consulting and product sourcing. Alvin said a man once contacted him about starting a brand but this individual was afraid of visiting Mexico based on what he had seen on the news. That’s where Alvin draws the line in terms of collaboration; he stresses the importance of visiting (or living in) Oaxaca and meeting the mezcaleros and their families. He has a “rising tides lift all boats” philosophy about the mezcal economy which is fair but others argue the industry is heading in the wrong direction. Alvin has worked with many brands you might recognize. You can read more about some of these brands in a post he published on Mezcal Reviews: Branding Mezcal for Export from (Oaxaca) Mexico: The Starkman Factor.
Miahuatlán: Reyna Sanchez
That afternoon, our goal was to visit a mezcalero that wasn’t quite as high-profile as others from Miahuatlán but was equally talented. At the time, this mezcalero did not have anything that had been sold outside of Mexico; in fact, much of their mezcal was mostly sold directly from the palenque yet they still managed to become “mezcal famous”. In fact, this person wasn’t really a mezcalero at all, she’s a maestra mezcalera and her name is Reina Sanchez.
In the spring of 2017 we visited Mezcaleria Cuish in Oaxaca City and tasted an amazing agave Tepeztate mezcal distilled by Reina. It was so good I grabbed a 750ml for about $40 USD. After that we kept seeing her name more on hand labeled bottles posted on social media. We noticed her mezcal was also sold at a few bars and restaurants in Oaxaca City. A few months before our trip we had asked Alvin about visiting Reina and he said he couldn’t promise anything but we could try.
After a long drive down a dirt road we arrived at Reina’s around lunchtime. She was running around and preparing lunch with some family members. We were asked to sit down and make ourselves at home. Plastic pitchers full of mezcal were placed on the table and we were encouraged to help ourselves; it was a bit overwhelming. As we settled in and had a delicious and unexpected meal, Reina walked around the table, pouring mezcal and making sure everyone had enough food. She was continuously occupied with something to do and hardly sat down for lunch. After eating and making introductions, we checked out the palenque area and visited her agave nursery before heading back to the outdoor dining table to relax.
When it came time to purchase mezcal we all wanted some of her agave Tepeztate mezcal; it was extremely vegetal and had the region’s signature minerality with a citrus perfume finish. We went into a bedroom lit by a single dangling lightbulb. Random items were stacked on the nearby bed. Of course, most of us were focused on the giant plastic containers of mezcal in one corner of the room. We used plastic hoses to funnel mezcal from the containers into our glass bottles. Her incredible mezcal was inexpensive as it usually is when you purchase directly from the maker. As of 2019, bottles of her mezcal can be found in New York City liquor stores for over $100 USD each.
It was a bit hard to communicate with Reina but it was an enlightening experience to be an observer at her home. I was surprised that her popular status as mezcalera had not secured her more than the meager conditions in which she and her family were living. I wondered how it would feel to buy her mezcal in the United States, maybe I could order a bottle online with my laptop or put some $20+ pours on my credit card at a hip mezcaleria. Would that benefit her and her family? As we headed out, we left money for lunch bid our farewells.
After getting back onto the main road we made our final palenque stop in Rancho Tecolote, Miahuatlán to try some mezcal from Juan Díaz, a producer that Alvin really liked. As we walked towards the house a group of dogs approached us and announced our arrival to the neighborhood. Juan wasn’t home but his wife greeted us. She had some mezcal stored in their hay shed to let us try. Both the Espadin and Tobala were fantastic and we gathered our remaining pesos to purchase some of each. After the brief interaction, we hit the road. Oaxaca City was a little over two hours away and the sun was falling to the horizon.
Back to Oaxaca City
I wish I had stayed awake for the entire ride home and obtained as much mezcal knowledge as possible from Alvin, but that did not happen. I definitely took a power nap – another reason to hire Alvin and not worry about driving yourself. You might be asking.. isn’t he retired? He is retired in a way but he’s not the type of guy to sit on the couch. Alvin and his wife have been retired and living in Oaxaca for over 10 years. The Starkmans do many things to stay active and involved with his Oaxacan community. All of the proceeds from his mezcal tours go to a Oaxacan medical student’s room, board, and education expenses which is really neat.
If you enjoyed this post and want to learn more about Alvin, I recommend you check out some of his popular blog posts:
- How to Choose a Mezcal Tour in Oaxaca Mexico
- Buyer Beware: Demand Responsible Mezcals
- Ron Cooper & Del Maguey: Selling Isn’t Always Selling Out
As we got dropped after a long day, we unloaded our bounty of mezcals. It was the first time we had hired a mezcal tour guide and it was completely worth it. For our upcoming 2019 Oaxaca trip, we booked another tour with a local guide. This time, we will fulfill our pledge and return to Santa Catarina Minas to visit Lalo Angeles with Instagram megastar and popular guide Oaxacking AKA Omar Alonso. Stay tuned for that story in a future post.