Don Isaac recounts awaking at 4 am, then walking from his village of MatatlĂˇn, with his mule, to Oaxaca, arriving some 14 or 15 hours later … just to buy a large cĂˇntaro, the traditional clay vessel then used for making and transporting mezcal (also referred to as mescal). Often he would stop en route, at Santa MarĂa el Tule, for a drink of refreshing tejate before carrying on. Quenching his thirst, putting his feet up for a short while, and chatting with his favorite tejatero, made the arduous journey accepted custom, just part of the job.
“All of my children,” Don Isaac emphasizes, “from when they were very young, the boys and girls alike, learned all the steps … preparing the fields and tending the maguey, watching out for infestations, harvesting, and the process in the palenque. And my wife Juana would be in charge and do everything when I was either on the road selling, or playing in the band. You know I’m a musician as well, just like my grandfather Fidencio. He was a Master violinist.”
The family patriarch recalls that using clay for transporting had its definite downside, being fragile and at times dangerous. So when the opportunity arose to transport in latas de mantequa (large tins in which lard was then sold), he seized the opportunity. And then with the arrival of larger plastic containers, a further change occurred. But by about 1943, with the Pan-American highway by then almost arriving at Oaxaca, imported oak barrels began to appear. Don Isaac saw a chance to transport even larger quantities.
“In those days we never thought about aging. We used the barrels because they were big, and I could fit 12 – 14 of them on my truck, to go on my sales routes to towns and villages on the coast and in the mountains. It would take about a month to sell everything I had, so that was the longest time mezcal would be allowed to age … until I was sold out and could return home with a truckload of empty barrels. But when I realized I was losing a lot of mezcal due to barrel swelling and evaporation, I went back to plastic. I just couldn’t afford to sell from the barrel.”
Throughout the 1950’s business was good, with national markets opening up as a result of improved highways. The family put their modest profits to work by purchasing additional tracts of land for growing agave. In 1957 they moved operations into the family homestead (still occupied today by Isaac, his wife, and son Octavio and his family).
When asked to be town mayor (el presidente municipal) in 1966, Don Isaac of course couldn’t refuse the three year post, even though it was an unpaid position. It was an honor, and considered part of tequio, one’s moral obligation to the community. Finances were strained, but with the assistance of the family, business continued, and in fact thrived.
Isaac’s two sons’ fates had been sealed. Octavio had less of an interest in academics than some of his siblings who went on to complete university and teach. Although he attended high school, he was more interested in working the fields and life in the palenque. Brother Enrique completed his secondary school education, then entered university in Oaxaca, obtaining a degree in industrial chemical engineering. During his college years he would spend the week living in Oaxaca, and then Friday afternoon his father would pick him up and bring him home to MatatlĂˇn. There he would work at the family business, from time-to-time putting his newly-learned expertise to work, bringing welcomed innovation to various aspects of production.
Finally, by 1993 the family had its own domestic brand, Mezcal del Maestro (now known as Mezcal del Amigo) which has met with success in both Europe and the US.
Alvin Starkman together with wife Arlene operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com ). Alvin reviews restaurants, writes about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca, and tours couples and families to the villages, including MatatlĂˇn for a visit to Mezcal del Amigo.