Charanda: A Storied Mexican Spirit At Risk

Michoacán is known for its red soil, which lends itself well to growing sugarcane.

The lush sugarcane fields that grow in parts of Michoacán reach skyward like corn stalks, standing in stark contrast to the beds of rich, red volcanic soil that set the foundation for the willowy plants. The region is known specifically for this soil; the people who lived in the Tarascan state during pre-Columbian times (roughly where Michoacán and parts of Jalisco and Guanajuato stand today) called the dense, nutrient-rich earth charanda, a word that translates from the Purépecha language to mean “red soil” in English. Charanda is also the name of one of the country’s most intriguing native spirits, a cane distillate that’s been made in the region for more than a century. 

Mexico has a rich history of making rum from sugarcane, dating back to when the Spanish first brought the plant to the country in the early 1500s. Charanda is the only sugarcane distillate with an official protected denomination of origin (DO), joining other established spirit designations like mezcal, tequila, bacanora and sotol when the appellation was established in 2003. The expressive, terroir-driven rum can only be produced from fresh sugarcane juice, molasses or piloncillo (cane juice that is preserved via boiling, evaporation and caramelization), and it can only be made in 16 of 113 municipalities in Michoacán. It’s a spirit that clearly reflects where it’s made. It’s also a spirit at risk of disappearing.

Charanda’s Decline
Michoacán is known within Mexico for its prominent fishing industry—the state stretches down the Pacific coast on its western side—but its worldwide reputation hangs on its two most abundant agricultural products: avocados and berries. More than 30,000 avocado orchards producing about 80 percent of Mexico’s total avocado crop call Michoacán home, and the state grows almost all of Mexico’s blackberries and strawberries. Production of both agricultural products has challenged the viability of charanda. “Many producers are not making charanda anymore,” says Miriam Pacheco, general manager of the brand Charanda Uruapan. “Maybe 100 years ago we had around 80 or more distillers in the region, but now it’s more like 6 or 7, because they produce avocados or other crops that make more money, like berries.”

Michoacán’s population has dwindled over time as the state became a hotbed for cartel and gang violence. A quick google search cites dismemberments, public hangings and other acts of violence taking place within the state in the last few years alone, and the “Green Gold” avocados play a role in that conversation. A 2018 article from the Latin American Post states that criminal organizations within Mexico have targeted avocados since NAFTA was signed in 1994. “There are [sic] no official data on the amount of money that the cartels are obtaining for the commercialization of said fruit, nor the victims who leave the practices of extortion and intimidation, but the authorities confirm that the product has become a source of financing for the cartels,” the article reads.

This activity has likely been another contributing factor in the decline of charanda production. “The incredible political problems in Michoacán have played a part in the disappearance of the spirit over time,” says Estereo general manager Michael Rubel. An avid proponent of unaged Latin American spirits, Rubel stocked Charanda Uruapan as soon as bottles arrived in Chicago in early 2018. “You have a whole generation of people from there who came to the U.S. because they were afraid to stay. How can a spirit survive in that kind of turmoil over time? And with no interest on the side of the government to keep traditions alive or create new jobs—it’s so difficult.”

Now only a handful of charanda producers remain in the area. Most are small, rudimentary operations, and the ones that still make charanda supplement their income with other agricultural products. Some producers distill charanda with the singular goal of sending the unusable parts of the spirit to local companies that make medical-grade alcohol. As the industry has fizzled over time, the name charanda no longer holds the same weight it once did, with many producers simply calling it aguardiente (including Gustoso, a brand the Pacheco family used to make that self-identifies as “aguardiente artisanal rum”). In the face of these odds, Charanda Uruapan is one of the only distilleries in Michoacán fighting to preserve the region’s spirited tradition.

The stills at Charanda Uruapan are wood-fired.

A Revival Stirs
Petite and soft-spoken, Charanda Uruapan general manager Miriam Pacheco comes from a long line of mezcal distillers. Her great-grandfather Don José Cleofas was the first in the family to distill sugarcane for charanda when he started the company Casa Tarasco in 1907. Some of Pacheco’s earliest memories take place at the family fabrica, or distillery. “My older brothers lived inside the fabrica, that house had also been Don Cleofas’ and everyone in the town knew it as La Bohemia. There were famous Las Posadas parties with piñatas and always a delicious smell,” she recalls. “When I was born, we lived in a house a few meters away, where they sold [charanda] directly in a small place that faced the street—people carried their empty bottles or jugs and filled from the barrels daily.” As a child, she would help mix the paste needed to stick labels on the bottles, and after high school she split her time working at the family distillery and studying accounting at the local university.

Today, Pacheco is the general manager of the business, which offers several expressions of sugarcane distillate, a few of which are exported to the United States, plus a macadamia nut cream liqueur and a coffee liqueur. They own their cane fields (a rarity in the industry), growing cristalina, criolla and morada cane varieties, the latter of which Pacheco is working to revive after the variety all but disappeared. “It is a very beautiful cane that gives a somewhat different flavor and a very pleasant smell,” she says.

All their cane grows at over 4,000 feet in elevation, a high altitude that offers warm temperatures during the day and cooler nights. “There’s a lot of fruit growing in the vicinity, mango trees and five types of bananas, and it’s all growing in this red volcanic soil,” says Heavy Metl importer William Scanlan, who works with Pacheco to bring charanda into the U.S. “As you taste these charandas you will notice influences from the tropical fruit.”

To preserve the soul of the spirit, the way they distill charanda sticks true to tradition. For the flagship 50/50 blend, bottled in ocean blue glass with a label that hearkens back to the heyday of production, half of the liquid is fresh-pressed cane juice that undergoes a natural fermentation with wild yeasts before distillation in an 80-year-old wood-fired copper pot still that belonged to Pacheco’s great-grandfather. “You may notice some influence from the wood fire, because you do get hints of smoke which I think makes it really unique and different from the other rums on the market,” Scanlan says. The other half of the blend brings a more modern side to the production: molasses that Pacheco sources from a company that processes their juice is fermented in stainless steel before distillation in a French column still. The two distillates are blended together to make the savory, somewhat tropical rum. The newer 100% cane spirit that launched earlier this year is a singular version of the 100% cane distillate used in the blended bottling. Fresh and fruity, it tastes unlike any other 100% cane distillate in the world.

For both products, instead of using the more user-friendly label “rum” that many adopt for the American market, or the more colloquial “aguardiente” term that’s used by locals, Pacheco is adamant about resurrecting the use of the word charanda. “It’s our culture, something that’s passed from generation to generation, so that’s why we’re trying to save it,” she says. Scanlan agrees, saying, “we’ve got to push this category because it’s disappearing. Calling it ‘Mexican rum’ is the path of least resistance because you don’t have to explain to people what charanda is, but if you’re here and making this spirit, why not promote it? We want people to know charanda.”

In addition to making a high-quality spirit that’ll draw new attention to the category, Pacheco is also working to support her local community and build bridges between distillers and the avocado industry. She helped start a music program to help keep kids engaged after school so they won’t fall prey to local gangs. Her program recently merged with another organization that puts a focus on other kinds of arts and crafts. She’s also collaborating with the avocado producers to create fruitful partnerships; after pressing the sugarcane to make charanda, she sends the spent fibers called bagasso to a composting system that’s used by avocado producers to fuel their crop. In turn, many farmers donate wooden pallets that would otherwise be discarded to the distillery, which Pacheco uses to stoke the fires that heat the copper pot stills.

charanda

The Charanda Güey form Hundred Proof in San Diego. | Photo by Stephen Kurpinsky.

A Place at the Bar

Since arriving in American bars two years ago, Charanda Uruapan has found a home in cocktails at establishments like Clavel in Baltimore (try the Pátzcuaro at home), Petty Cash in Los Angeles, Midnight Rambler in Dallas, the Pastry War in Houston and Hundred Proof in San Diego. “Just like agricole rums, you get the true terroir of the place it’s from and I swear I can taste the red volcanic soil in which it’s grown,” says Paul Shanrock of Stampede Cocktail Club in Seattle, where they mix the spirit with blanc vermouth, celery bitters, Angostura bitters and agave syrup in the Killer on Ice cocktail.

At Estereo in Chicago, Michael Rubel says charanda was a spirit he’d always heard inklings about during his travels around Mexico but never had the chance to taste any until Charanda Uruapan arrived stateside. “One of my employees tried it when it first came to the bar and said his grandfather drank charanda—this one ‘smells like home,’ he said to me. Miriam is so passionate about the history of charanda and protecting its traditions. Without her driving force it probably would not exist like it does in my bar right now,” Rubel says.

At Estereo, Rubel pairs the spirit with fresh blackberries and raspberries, like in the Pet Shop Eyes recipe. “Our conception of aguardiente is that it’s fire water, but to me, charanda has delicate fruit flavors; it’s slightly vegetal with a hint of grass to it and a little funk, like a corn or butter popcorn element, which I think has to come from the cane,” he says, adding that “it works in any kind of tropical drink.”

For people like Scanlan and Rubel, the path to reviving this storied spirit is two-fold. Pacheco already has the first part covered: making high-quality versions of the spirit and getting bottles into the hands of tastemakers in the U.S. It’s a move that has proved successful with other Mexican spirits like mezcal. Sending her rum to the U.S. with the DO-protected name of charanda on the label has piqued the interest of bartenders who were already inclined to explore Mexican spirits like mezcal, tequila and sotol. “People like Michael [at Estereo] that have really embraced it have made a huge difference,” Scanlan says. “It’s gonna take people who actively talk about it, getting engaged with the industry and getting them excited about it and so they can see the possibilities.”


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