Some days the cloud cover in Oaxaca’s Sierra Mazateca Mountains sits so thick over the lush forest, it’s easy to get lost in the mist. Known as the “cloud forest,” the region is home to the Mazatec people, an indigenous culture known for their colorful clothing and psychedelic mushroom–wielding medicine woman María Sabina. It’s also a part of Mexico where families have been distilling a style of small-batch rum made from sugarcane for centuries.
Jose Luis Carrera comes from one such family. The talkative businessman learned the trade from his grandfather, and has been making aguardiente de caña for friends and neighbors for the past 35 years to supplement his income. “[Oaxacan rum] has a long history but it’s been hidden here in the mountains for a long time,” Carrera says. “It’s a very natural, organic process—something of quality from this land that we have worked very hard to make.” Now, with help from the team behind Mezcal Vago, Carrera’s rum will debut in the U.S. this month under the label Paranubes.
While most drinkers associate Mexican spirits with agave plants, sugarcane is one of Mexico’s top crops, and rum has been produced in pockets around the country (most notably the coastal state of Veracruz) since Spanish settlers first introduced cane in the 1500s. In Carrera’s neighborhood, a five- or six-hour drive from Oaxaca city, production happens on a tiny scale. The purr of gas motors used to power mills for pressing cane is a common sound, and maybe half a dozen families have fermentation tanks and stills. “My grandfather and father both farmed caña and coffee. The cane was mainly used for sugar,” Carrera says, referencing panela, or brown sugar cones found abundantly in Mexican markets. “Aguardiente didn’t play a huge role, but it’s always been something we did to help make money.”
“[Oaxacan rum] has a long history but it’s been hidden here in the mountains for a long time,” Carrera says.
Most of the region’s best spirits can be found by simply heading out into the countryside and looking for roadside distilleries, which is precisely how Mezcal Vago co-founder Judah Kuper discovered Carrera’s aguardiente de caña. During exploration trips into remote areas of Oaxaca, Kuper came to know local rums gradually, tasting batches here and there, until a hitchhiker set him on a path towards Carrera’s tiny trapiche (the local word for distillery) outside of the small village of Huatla de Jimenez. “I was bringing 2,000 liters of mezcal down the mountain in my truck and I saw this guy with dreadlocks and a ripped shirt and a huge smile. He was coming from Huautla and had this aguardiente de caña with him. I smelled it and was blown away from the smell of cane and the sense of place I got from it,” Kuper says. “I’d tried lots of aguardiente de caña on the coast when I lived there, but it was all horrible like rubbing alcohol and didn’t smell like this. This was amazing.”
Kuper says Carrera was surprised and excited when approached with the idea of streamlining production to package and export his rum. As with many farmers in the region, Carrera’s projects are diverse; in addition to helping the local municipality pave roads and orchestrate local projects, he’s also a coffee farmer working with the Mexican government to help repopulate coffee plants that were decimated by disease. The idea of scaling up rum production as an additional means of income was appealing. “It’s always been something that we did on the side, but now we’re working very hard to do this every day,” he says.
Carrera grows four kinds of sugarcane, all of which are used to make rum. The cane is cut and cleaned in the field and transported back to the trapiche by donkey. There, it’s crushed via mechanical press before heading to the two 1,100-liter pinewood fermentation vats. No water or cultivated yeast are added; instead, a boiled mesquite bark mixture is used to kickstart fermentation. From there, wild yeast takes the reins. The stills only hold about 550 liters of liquid at a time, so instead of completely filling, emptying and refilling the fermentation vats every day as many producers do, Carrera takes only half the tepache, or fermenting liquid, out of the vat every morning for distillation. This creates a rolling process that lends layers and layers of funk and flavor to the final product. “When the fermentation is new, it has a very green, vegetal flavor that is slightly bitter from the mesquite bark,” says Carrera. “Once the fermentation has had 5 or 6 distillations taken out of it, it begins to take on a richer, fruitier flavor that is more true to the cane juice, and continues to build as the fermentation ages.” The vats are totally emptied and cleaned every four months.
The fermented liquid is transferred to a rustic, copper column still that’s heated over a fire made from used cane fiber. Carerra doesn’t use computers to control the temperature, nor does he dilute the distillate before bottling. Instead, he works from experience and blends spirits of different proofs together to achieve the desired balance of flavor and heat. Each village drinks aguardiente at a different strength, but to appeal to the American market, Paranubes is bottled at 54 percent ABV.
“This truly is my definition of a great spirit,” says Kuper. “Something that when you take a sip, you close your eyes and it takes you somewhere.”
In a simple Daiquiri, the rum shines with personality. On its own, the spirit yields aromas of mint and ripe apricot, and the flavor bursts with fresh cane juice, a rich, silky texture, and a sweetness akin to confectioner’s sugar. The rum’s funky character lands somewhere between the grassiness of a cachaça and the ruggedness of rhum agricole. But while it bears resemblances to both, Paranubes is in a category all its own—a clear expression of the place where it originates. “This truly is my definition of a great spirit,” says Kuper. “Something that when you take a sip, you close your eyes and it takes you somewhere.”
Bartenders across the U.S. are already adding the spirit to the backbar; look for it at bars including Cane & Table in New Orleans, Pastry War in Houston, Esquire Tavern in San Antonio, Estereo in Chicago, Mezcalito in San Francisco, Bestia in Los Angeles and Palenque Mezcaleria in Denver. International interest is also stirring; Italian rum authority Luca Gargano plans to bring Paranubes to the European market. “It’s a great product, and there’s a new generation who’s looking for more authentic, original products, with more expression of terroir. These people want to know there’s a human behind the label, that it’s not an industrial product,” says Gargano. “Rum like Paranubes, that tastes of the sugar cane and not other things, fits the bill.”
Paranubes might be one of the first commercial rums from Oaxaca to hit the U.S., but it likely won’t be the last. The producers behind Mezcal Tosba are also working to bring their family’s aguardiente to the states, and importers like Laika Spirits are looking to get into the game with rums from other Mexican states. Kuper is eager to see how this one grows. “If this becomes a thing even on a small level, having 100 producers across the region would be a huge difference to the local economy,” he says.
In the meantime, Carrera is just excited to see his side project take flight. “It fills me with a lot of pride,” he says about knowing bartenders in the U.S. are taking an interest in his family’s rum. “We’re excited to share it with people, and we very much hope they like it.”
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