Monday, June 17, 2024

Cuatro Volcanes leading a Mexican craft whiskey movement

Whiskey is not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Mexican spirits, but a nascent movement is happening here, and why not? Mexico is the land of corn, so why couldn’t its native corn make a Mexican whiskey comparable to the classics north of the border?

A fundamental member of this movement is a tiny distillery in Tlaxcala called Cuatro Volcanes, and if you haven’t heard of it, you will soon. 

Cuatro Volcanes Craft Distillery and Gastropub
Ernesto learned the craft in the United States, where he took grunt jobs at microdistilleries there until he learned how to do the process himself. (Photo: Cuatro Volcanes/Facebook)

Founded by Ernesto Vargas Mendoza and his sisters Celeste and Getzany, they are not only serving up some of the country’s most exciting new whiskey, but they are also making brandy, gin and rum, all made with endemic corn, fruit and herbs. 

Ernesto has long been fascinated by the distillation process, spending time in Oaxaca with master mezcaleros and binge-watching the TV show “Moonshiners” on the Discovery channel when he lived in the United States. His first venture into distillation was buying a cheap whiskey from Costco and trying to age it himself in a barrel he bought online. 

After several years of tinkering, his wife Emily said, “Why don’t you just go and work in a distillery? Wouldn’t that be the best classroom?” 

They were living in Washington D.C., and after sending out feelers to a half a dozen distilleries, Ernesto’s lack of experience looked like it would leave him empty-handed. Then the owner of District Distilling Company, a now-defunct microdistillery, offered him the chance to start out with grunt work, like labeling bottles. 

Cuatro Volcanes Craft Distillery and Gastropub
Perhaps not surprisingly since it was created out of their mom’s home, Cuatro Volcanes has a cozy, among-friends vibe. On the weekends, they frequently run out of seating. (Cuatro Volcanes/Facebook)

Five months in, he was diving into production. After a second stint, at a Maryland microdistillery, Ernesto knew he wanted to make his own whiskey and spirits. 

“I wondered why in Mexico, the place where corn was domesticated, we didn’t have any whiskey that was emblematic of Mexico,” he says. “One of the things they say that’s so special about Kentucky is the high level of calcium in the water and the soil — and it’s the same in Tlaxcala.” 

So he bought a simple 70-liter still and started making whiskey in his mom’s garage during his trips home to Tlaxcala. 

Cuatro Volcanes gin from Tlaxcala, Mexico
The distillery has made created some unexpected Mexican spirits, like this “mole” gin, and it continues to experiment with new items like prickly pear and absinthe. (Cuatro Volcanes)

“She never thought it would become something serious, I think. She’s never told me, but I suspect she was like, ‘Oh, this is just an itch that they have that will pass, and then I’ll get my house back.’”

But Señora Mendoza didn’t get her house back. In fact, the living room is now filled with oak barrels, and the upstairs patio has been converted in the Cuatro Volcanes Gastropub, where the curious come from far and wide to try Mexican whiskey as well as corn-based gin, rum made from Mexican cane sugar and lots of other experiments that Ernesto and his sisters are still working on in their mom’s garage (now outfitted with four stainless steel stills, 12 fermentation tanks and one tank for mash). 

When the siblings started their project, they were determined to buy local, endemic corn at a fair price and use as many local ingredients as they could. Enter their mole gin, laced with cacao, blue-corn whiskey and cane sugar rum made from the same region where their grandfather used to farm in Pantepec, Puebla. 

Cuatro Volcanes distillery of Tlaxcala at spirits event in Guanajuato, Mexico
At a spirits event in Mineral de Pozos, Guanajuato in September. Says Ernesto Vargas of what inspired Cuatro Volacanes, “I wondered why in Mexico, the place where corn was domesticated, we didn’t have any whiskey that was emblematic of Mexico.” (Photo: Cuatro Volcanes/Facebook)

“My grandfather was a farmer, but he also grew sugarcane and made his own cane sugar and sold it in the outdoor markets in the surrounding communities,” Ernesto says. “When I was little, I watched him process it. 

“The region is still growing a lot of sugarcane, even though they are losing a lot of land that was once dedicated to that crop — because it’s cheaper now to just buy processed sugar. Our cane sugar is 100% artisanal.”

Now this tiny distillery — born from one man’s curiosity and hundreds of failed attempts to make a drinkable whiskey until one December 17 when it finally came out right — is leading a movement in Mexico to produce whiskey with some of the best corn in the world. 

The team is also dedicated to making their efforts as environmentally sustainable as possible, using solar power to run the distillery, recycling and conserving water and supporting conservation projects around the world. 

Cuatro Volcanes distillery of Tlaxcala
The gastropub has become a social and cultural center in downtown Tlaxcala city. (Cuatro Volcanes/Facebook)

“Right now, we are working with Azul.org, which engages Latinx people in ocean conservation in California. They were instrumental in the single-use plastic bag ban in California,” Ernesto explains.

Cuatro Volcanes’ business is now booming as people get to know their products. Their location outside of downtown Tlaxcala means that visitors generally show up just to see them and try their spirits, and more are showing up each day. Despite ramped-up production, they haven’t lost their sense of adventure: they’re currently experimenting with prickly-pear brandy and with making their own absinthe. 

Sitting in the Cuatro Volcanes Gastrobar, sipping a Black on Black cocktail — lychee brandy, zapote negro fruit and absinthe — along with a slice of Celeste’s famous huitlacoche pizza, there’s a sense of hometown pride and family. Even Ernesto’s mom ventures out to talk to the clientele that have found their way to this hidden cocktail paradise. 

Cuatro Volcanes Craft Distillery and Gastropub
Chef Celeste Vargas Mendoza complements the cocktails with intriguing food concoctions using local ingredients.

Live-edge wooden tables cluster around the bar up front, with drinking gourds and clay xoloitzcuintle dog statues scattered about. Ernesto mans the bar, Celeste the kitchen, and even Emily helps out serving tables when the crowd starts to grow. Their only problem now is what to do on the weekends, when it gets so packed that they run out of seats.

But maybe that means that Señora Mendoza will finally the get that apartment her children promised her, and that Cuatro Volcanes will take over the rest of the house at Tepoxtla #12 as their project grows. 

Lydia Carey is a freelance writer and translator based out of Mexico City. She has been published widely both online and in print, writing about Mexico for over a decade. She lives a double life as a local tour guide and is the author of Mexico City Streets: La Roma. Follow her urban adventures on Instagram and see more of her work at www.mexicocitystreets.com.

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