When you look at a bottle of Viejo Indecente mezcal you will see an eye staring back at you. It is the eye of an old man, staring through a keyhole. The name of this “dirty old man” mezcal was inspired by Charles Bukowski, the writer and poet. Each bottle also comes with a key tied around the neck. In this sense, we are on the outside, peering through the keyhole. You might be asking, “so what’s inside?” My answer is: some uniquely delicious mezcal.
The first time I tried Viejo Indecente mezcal was in Sydney, Australia in March 2017. Yeah mate, there is mezcal “down unda”… read our blog about it. Tio’s Cerveceria in Sydney’s CBD has an eclectic collection of mezcal and tequila. Many bottles are brought back into Australia by Tio’s staff after their regular trips to Mexico. Their bottle of Viejo Indecente Ensamble was likely one of those suitcase mezcals. The Madrecuishe-Espadin ensamble was delicious; my review mentioned that the “… flavors are bright and well-defined, fruity with a velvet spiciness.” Those agaves paired well together and to this day I haven’t seen many ensambles like it. After returning to the US, I picked up a bottle in Florida at a very reasonable price. It was very enjoyable but the bottle got a bit lost in my growing mezcal collection as time passed.
It wasn’t until the fall of 2018 that it came back with a vengeance. Jonny and I were organizing our two-year anniversary party tasting menu. We planned out 7 unique flights and one of them was The Mia What?. That flight featured three mezcals from Miahuatlan, Oaxaca. We absolutely love mezcal from that region. Bottles in our personal collection were either in “deep storage” or nearly empty. Finding Miahuatlan bottles with enough mezcal to fuel a proper tasting wasn’t easy. The Viejo Indecente Ensamble was perfect for the occasion. At that time, it was not available in Texas so it would be new to most of our friends. Long story short, the mezcal was a hit. The Miahuatlan flight was the favorite flight of the evening. Within the flight, it tied with an ensamble from Mezcal Vago’s Emigdio Jarquin which was impressive.
After that, the bottle was empty and I wondered when we would see Viejo Indecente again. In February, my vieja and I were in Mexico City for a few days. I had seen the Viejo Tepeztate on Instagram and wanted to try it. The ensamble was refined and agave-forward; a Tepeztate made by the same hands would be a treat. It was only available in Mexico at that time. Given the solid mezcal scene in CDMX, I knew we could find it somewhere.
Tepeztate in CDMX
On Valentine’s Day, we went to Pujol for lunch. The vibe and decor was quite hip. Their mezcal selection was interesting too. We noticed bottles of Almamezcalera, Sacapalabras, La Medida, Animas, and others. Then I noticed they had Viejo Indecente and from the blue/purple label I knew it was the one. I ordered it near the end of the meal and… it was good. With my Valentine sitting across from me and so much to take in at the restaurant, I wasn’t focused on the mezcal. Soon, the staff ushered us to the outdoor seating area to have coffee and dessert. After the 2+ hour meal, we both agreed it was a fun experience but not a place we needed to visit again. However, I did want to visit that Tepeztate again.
Over the next few days, we moved from museums to markets to taco stands and I kept my eyes peeled for bottle shops. I stuck my head in each one I came across. Most carried brands like 400 Conejos, Amores, and Bruxo along with some other non-export brands. After striking out, I reached out to Viejo Indecente through Instagram. They replied. One batch of Tepeztate is produced each year and has limited distribution. La Naval, La Contra, and a few other small shops in CDMX carried it. Unfortunately, we were leaving the city soon and didn’t have time to pick up a bottle. We kept talking… the Mezcal Reviews gang would be in Oaxaca in a few months. Maybe we could meet up in Oaxaca City? At this point, I still didn’t know who I was chatting with, but they were friendly and helpful. Their reply: how about a palenque tour? My bottle inquiry turned into a palenque invite which was amazing. As we boarded a plane to Puerto Vallarta, I sent the new acquaintance my WhatsApp details.
A week later back in Texas, Jonny and I sipped some of the raicilla I brought back from Puerto Vallarta. I mentioned Viejo Indecente and the palenque invitation. He remembered how the mezcal made such an impression at our anniversary party. A palenque tour would be a perfect opportunity to learn more about the brand. Jonny started Googling on his phone, “they steam the agaves?” I was surprised and asked “what?”, not sure if I heard that right. We added their bottles to Mezcal Reviews in December 2016 and had overlooked this detail. This was both intriguing and puzzling. If the agaves are not cooked in an underground pit, is it still mezcal? Yes, but is it “industrial mezcal” if more modern methods are used? The irony of this is that we tasted Viejo Indecente many times without this information… and loved it. There was no denying the quality of the spirit. Cooking is one aspect of mezcal production. What level of impact does the cooking method have on flavor? We wanted to learn more.
Steamed, Not Smoked
The world of mezcal is currently much different than tequila. In tequila land, steaming agaves in a brick oven is usually a sign of quality, non-industrial tequila. Brands like Fortaleza, Siembra Spirits, and Siete Leguas (to name a few) cook in stone/brick ovens. These tequila brands are highly-respected for rejecting autoclaves and worse, diffusers.
In May 2019 our crew sipped coffee at our Airbnb in Oaxaca City and shook off the cobwebs from the previous night. It was almost 9 a.m. and Gabriel Pacheco of Viejo Indecente would be arriving any minute to pick us up. A few minutes later, we noticed an SUV backing down our narrow alleyway. For about 10 meters, there were only a few inches of clearance on either side of the vehicle. It was Gabriel and I tell him we could have walked out to the street. This door-to-door service wasn’t necessary! “I wanted to see if I could do it,” he said. We laughed, made introductions, and got into the SUV.
We drove towards San Isidro Guishe, a small community within the district of Miahuatlán. During the drive, we learned about Gabriel’s connection to mezcal and Viejo Indecente. The brand’s website describes Gabriel as “a seasoned, Fortune 500 marketing executive”. That description might raise red flags for mezcal hipsters. What’s the saying? Don’t judge a mezcal by its bottle. Gabriel is from Mexico City and spent many years working in Colombia. He loves traveling and has been all around the world. He is a certified rescue diver and is an avid golfer. His first experiences with mezcal were many years ago. He would spend time on the Oaxacan coast and get plastic water bottles of mezcal. Like many of us, he discovered the absence of hangovers after drinking mezcal to be happy surprise.
Mezcal didn’t take hold immediately. Gabriel worked for L’Oréal, the world’s largest cosmetics company, for over a decade. He became an environmentalist and started to invest in sustainability projects. One of those projects was a mezcal operation in Oaxaca. He was an investor in what is now Viejo Indecente, but in those early days he wasn’t actively involved.
Time went by and after leaving his Fortune 500 company role, Gabriel traveled for a bit while planning his next move. He wanted to make a change but didn’t know exactly what it would be. As an investor in a mezcal brand, he decided to make the trip to Oaxaca to take a closer look at the operation. It was after that trip that Gabriel decided to go all in. The stars aligned on that trip and he decided to make a big change. He bought out most of the original investors and dedicated 100% of his energy to the brand.
Gabriel wanted to give back to Mexico and help promote his country. He knows it sounds cliché but that’s the truth. The Lucas family in Miahuatlán were the perfect partners for his mission. The Lucas family first laid claim to their agave fields in Miahuatlán over a century ago. Jose Lucas, a third generation distiller, currently oversees the family-run operation. Don Jose, who fathered 11 children, is over 70 years old. His knowledge from his years of experience is being passed to his sons. His son Mario does much of the heavy lifting these days. The family is what drew Gabriel in and made him confident about the business. Gabriel also saw an opportunity to make Viejo Indecente an environmental leader in the mezcal business.
Visiting San Isidro Guishe
The sun was hot as we got out of the car. We stood in front of a large metal warehouse labeled with the Viejo Indecente logo. A few large agave Madrecuixe grew near the door. We noticed a small horno dug nearby. Wait a second, what about the steam oven?? Gabriel said the team uses the underground oven for smaller batches which are usually rare agaves. Their recent batches of agave Tobala and agave Tepeztate were cooked underground.
We stepped inside to escape the sun. There was Don Jose with a huge smile. He greeted us warmly and was eager to show us around. We walked around what had been an open-air palenque. A few years prior they had added a large roof (check out the before-and-after pictures below). Every part of the process flowed in a singular order. The boiler was outside and a pipe transported the steam inside into the brick oven. Cooked agaves rested nearby. The team chops them up with axes before feeding them into a wood chipper machine. Next, he walked us through the fermentation room which was its own small building inside the warehouse. Finally, the three copper stills lined up on the other side of the fermentation room. There were exhaust ducts which funneled the smoke outside.
In the middle of the space were huge plastic containers full of mezcal. “That’s our batch of Tobala, I’d let you try it but I would have to get it re-certified”. We laughed. It was a real teaser. The top was secured and documents from the CRM were taped on the side of the container. Don Jose said he was going to check on lunch and walked up some steps. The family home was next door and connected to the indoor palenque.
Back at the starting line, we were going to do the palenque walk-through again with Gabriel. First things first, let’s talk more about the steam oven. The oven holds 10 tons and is used to cook agave Espadin and agave Madrecuixe. The steam lasts for 18 hours, but the door stays closed for 5 days. They seal the door with a cheap corn flour called maseca. The door must remain closed for 5 days because the temperature is concentrated and very hot. It requires time to cool down. If the door was removed too early, it could be dangerous to the team and potentially crack the oven.
Gabriel tells us that Don Lucas is very impressive because he is not set in “old school” mezcalero ways. Sticking to traditions is not a bad thing, but breaking from tradition can yield positive results. Remember, steam ovens are fairly unique in the world of mezcal. So what’s the story? Years prior, Don Lucas’ sons traveled across Mexico on their way home. They had been working in the north and were traveling back to Oaxaca. The trip was long because they had to make money to fund their journey. They would work, earn money, travel a bit more, and repeat the process. Part of their journey included time in the state of Jalisco. Mario and Marciano saw the brick ovens used to cook blue agave. The efficiency of the steam oven impressed them. They told their father about it after arriving back home.
The Jalisco Connection
Don Lucas was open to making mezcal using a steam oven. They found this new cooking method to have many benefits. First, the steamed agave gets cooked without being burnt. The yield is higher because they don’t need to cut off burnt portions of the agave. Gabriel said that some mezcaleros potentially waste up to 30% of their agaves because of charred plants. Meanwhile, other brands use the burnt pieces which can negatively affect the flavor. The oven method also saves trees, because the steam is created using gas. The current system works fine but Gabriel wants to upgrade the heating system to be more efficient.
We moved past a pile of shredded up agaves. Gabriel picked up a golf ball sized piece of agave Madrecuixe. “There is sugar in here that might not get fermented.” The team used a shredder, but it was a far cry from the pulverizing machines used by big tequila. Still, it was an effective little machine and didn’t need an animal to power it.
As we returned to the fermentation room Gabriel said, “I think this is the most important part of the process.” We gathered in the middle of the large wooden vats. “Look at the ceiling.” We looked up. The ceiling wasn’t very high and it looked old. This “fermentation hut” was outside for many years. There was a history of natural fermentation yeast in this small room and it was alive. The vats were bubbling more than I had ever seen at any palenque. The vats were inside and not swarming with bugs. They used rocks to push down the fermentation mix; this prevented the “scab” (la costra) and saved cooked agave. Sliding doors on both sides of the room were used to control the room temperature. Adjusting the doors open and closed to varying degrees was an important part of the process, he explained. Next, we returned to the three copper stills. Gabriel said there was discussion of using gas flames to heat the stills but that was a work-in-progress. The spent agave fibers (bagazo) are mixed with manure to create fertilizer used when planting new agaves.
After a delicious meal prepared by Doña Lucas, we headed out into the agave fields. Gabriel brought a hard black plastic case. It looked like something a spy might use to transport nuclear launch codes. After parking in the fields, we gathered around the trunk of the SUV and Gabriel opened the case. The need for security was clear, it was full of delicious Viejo Indecente mezcal. He poured us veladoras of agave Espadin mezcal. “You said you like mezcal from Miahuatlan?” Gabriel asked. “Of course!” we said unanimously. He then showed us a map of Oaxaca which indicated that the type of soil in Miahuatlan is completely unique. In the whole state, this one area has a specific soil type. Is that part of the secret? Personally I’ve noticed that mezcal from Miahuatlan has strong mineral notes. But maybe the water source has a significant impact? Maybe it’s a perfect combination of multiple external factors? Clearly there is much to learn.
Exploring the rolling fields of agave
Holding our veladoras, we stood and admired the view. It was early May so most of the landscape was brown. Rolling hills in front of us lay before mountains in the distance. “What do you notice about this place?”, Gabriel asked. “It has great mezcal,” someone said confidently. We all laughed. That was true but there was something else. Gabriel pointed, “there are trees!” He went on, “You won’t see this in Matatlán.” While it wasn’t a dense forest, he was right. Theses weren’t flat agave fields as far as the eye could see. Here we saw many clusters of trees around the rolling patches of agave fields. This was a reminder that the steam oven was an important tool to combat deforestation.
Gabriel led us down the road and then down a hill to a field of agave Madrecuishe growing in rows. My understanding had been that the name “Madre” signaled its use as a plant that protects property. Agave Madrecuishe make excellent natural fences. Agave Karwinskii is the parent species of maguey Madrecuishe. Gabriel told us that agave Karwinskii plants have a unique reproduction trait. A Madrecuishe plant can produce seeds for other types of agave Karwinskii. As an example, seeds for agaves Tobaziche, Cuixe, Barril, and on and on could come from a Madrecuishe. This was kind of incredible and gave a whole new meaning to the name “madre”.
Gabriel poured Viejo Indecente Madrecuishe into our veladoras as we continued our discussion. We had always thought that hijuelos were an endless supply of more agaves. Hijuelos are the “pups” growing from the roots of an agave. Hijuelos are often replanted to produce new plants without the need for seed. But too much reliance on hijuelos can create a lack of biodiversity, a problem seen in blue agave (i.e. tequila). For one thing, we learned that rabbits like to eat them. But more fascinating was that only the early hijuelos are fit for replanting. If hijuelos are taken from an older plant, the hijuelos inherit the “age” DNA of their parent. As a result, the small agave clone might grow a quiote after only a few years. Therefore only certain hijuelos are proper candidates for mezcal production.
We admired the large agaves while enjoying the exquisite Viejo Indecente Madrecuishe mezcal. Gabriel’s case held three bottles and there was one left to try: Tepeztate. It was time to visit the “Tepeztate Forest” as Gabriel called it. There were patches of trees nearby, but it was hard to imagine a forest of agaves in this area. After short walk downhill past the agave fields, we entered a cluster of trees. Sure enough, after a few steps we began to see large agave Tepeztate plants on both sides of the path. None of these agaves are harvested for mezcal, Gabriels tells us. All the agaves here grow quiotes and their seeds are collected.
As we walked through the Tepeztate Forest, Gabriel opened the case again. We stopped and he poured us a taste of the agave Tepeztate mezcal. I had been eager to try this again and this was the perfect setting. The aromas are a bouquet of fresh peppers. On the palate there is that signature minerality with the velvety spice found in the other Viejo Indecente mezcals. To be clear, the Tepeztate wasn’t steamed but it had the same flavor profile as the others. Was it the soil, the water, the fermentation… magic? We stopped briefly to rest among the large agaves. I wondered how long they had been here, growing in peace under the trees. I was also impressed that these fine plants hadn’t been chopped to bits for mezcal production.
Value not volume
After arriving back at the palenque, Gabriel had a few more mezcals to share before we headed back to Oaxaca City. The Lucas family house brand was 400 Lustros. The name signified the 2,000 years the family had been in the region. Most of their mezcal was under the Viejo Indecente label, but they still produced under their house label for the local community. The family still has a presence at the Miahuatlán mezcal market every weekend. Under that label, there was a 100% agave Espadin mezcal and an ensamble consisting of agaves Espadin, Madrecuishe, Coyote, and Tobala. From what we tasted, there were no differences in the production process between the two labels.
While we weren’t able to try the CRM-sealed agave Tobala mezcal, Gabriel had some surprises for us. We were lucky enough to taste some special batches that were limited in quantity. There was a small batch of 25-year-old hybrid agave Mexicano/Arroqueno. That special mezcal had also been aged in glass for 4 years. Next we tried a special ensamble made with agaves Espadin, Madrecuishe, Mexicano, and Arroqueno.
This had been our third annual Oaxaca trip and by this point we had visited many palenques all across the state. We had known the least about this brand prior to our visit. We hardly had any type of relationship with Gabriel or his team. From the outside, one might perceive Viejo Indecente as a highly-polished but uninteresting mezcal engineered by a former “Fortune 500 marketing executive”. After being invited to the palenque with open arms, we were able to form our own, more informed, opinions. Yes, Viejo Indecente ships in beautiful robust heavy glass bottles imported from France (Gabriel is torn about the bottles given the transportation distance). And yes, the spirits are adjusted to a consistent 45% (the Espadin) and 48% (everything else). But we discovered that the Lucas family and their mezcal are anything but uninteresting. They might have a steam oven and a new roof above their palenque, but underneath are traditions that have been practiced for generations. The mezcal isn’t particularly rugged but it is authentic. It is refined and it is also unique.
Our visit got us excited about what the Lucas family was producing. We asked Gabriel why this wasn’t on more shelves in the US. “I’m focused on value, not volume,” he told us. It was a simple and sincere response that serves as my unofficial slogan for Viejo Indecente. There was no committee demanding that the Tepextate Forest be harvested for expensive bottles of mezcal. There weren’t urgent plans to build more stills or fermentation vats. Like an agave plant growing slowly in the shade, patience would yield great outcomes.
One year later
The Mezcal Reviews crew visits Oaxaca every year near the end of the dry season. As we began planning our 4th annual trip for 2020, we reached out to Gabriel in January. He had some positive updates. A beautiful tasting room had opened in Oaxaca City. And a shipment of Viejo Indecente would arrive in the US soon. New mezcals including the Madrecuishe and Tepeztate were being imported. For the first time, the brand would be available in Texas.
We were excited to see Gabriel again and visit the tasting room… but then COVID-19 happened. Unfortunately we had to postpone our trip. Much of the world has been “cancelled” these last few months. Rather than dwell on that, it is better to end this blog on a positive note. While we were sheltering in place here in Texas, a piece of Oaxaca came to us. That’s right, Viejo Indecente arrived on the shelves. We hope their US relaunch is a huge success amid these challenging times.
Do yourself a favor and look through the keyhole. You might find something you like.