Mezcal runs deep in Graciela Angeles Carreño’s blood. For four generations, it’s been her family’s business, each mezcalero learning and passing down the tradition of turning the agave or maguey plant into mezcal.
The plant is part of her earliest memories. It was in the clay cántaros of mezcal up on her grandmother’s mantle, placed next to morsels of chocolate and the saints that they prayed to. It was the healing elixir her father would dole out, putting it on her and her siblings when they had a fever or cough. Every August, it was the focus of a festival that brought their town in Oaxaca, Mexico, together.
“It was always present in my life,” Angeles Carreño said. “For everyone in Oaxaca, it’s a part of our identities. Even now, the maguey plant is what reminds me of my family and our history.”
Now Angeles Carreño is the head of her family’s business, Mezcal Real Minero, and she’ll be part of a panel at the San Antonio Cocktail Conference titled Women in Mezcal. The eighth annual conference Jan. 14-20 brings together industry experts and cocktail lovers for workshops, paired tastings, and panels that showcase the latest mixology trends over the course of eight days of events.
For centuries, the labor-intensive business of making mezcal has been dominated by men. But according to panelist Emma Janzen, author of Mezcal: The History, Craft & Cocktails of the World’s Ultimate Artisanal Spirit, more women are beginning to get involved.
“When I was writing my book, the majority of the stories I heard were about the mezcaleros – the men and grandfathers who started the tradition,” Janzen said. “But women like Graciela are inspiring new generations of women to pursue careers in the mezcal industry.”
Angeles Carreño’s own career in mezcal was years in the making. As a teenager, she started working at the family store, filling the jars and bottles patrons would bring in before the family began bottling and labeling the mezcal. As a university student, she would accompany her father, a master mezcalero, shadowing him and learning everything she needed to know to run the business.
“More and more women are involving themselves, but it comes with a lot of challenges,” Angeles Carreño said in a phone interview from Oaxaca. “You have to fight to win the respect of the men you’re working with, and more than that, the labor can be very hard on us. Making mezcal is very physical work, but there are a lot of areas we can fit into the business.”
To Angeles Carreño, the challenges are well worth it. To her, working with maguey is a rewarding experience that keeps her in touch with her roots and the indigenous history of Mexico.
“There’s no other drink that comes from such a special plant,” she said. “Maguey represents so many different things in our culture, including fertility and strength. It’s more than just a drink, it’s medicine.”
Janzen says it’s not hard to understand the increasing popularity of mezcal in the U.S., or why so many like Angeles Carreño have such a special connection to it; she can still remember the very first sip she took.
“It was unlike anything I’d ever tasted,” Janzen said. “The spectrum and diversity of flavor you can find in mezcal is what kept me interested in it. What kept me coming back was the discovery that each one had such a different personality.”
Throughout Mexico, the methods for making mezcal vary from region to region. Even using a copper still instead of a clay one can produce wildly different tastes in a bottle of mezcal.
One thing Angeles Carreño hopes people can appreciate when they taste her mezcal is the time and patience that went into it.
“The first lesson you learn from the maguey plant is patience,” Angeles Carreño said. “If you can’t learn that, you can’t be a mezcalero. Because nature is the one who’s calling the shots in this process. At the end of the day, the rest of the world can enjoy the value of time inside a glass of mezcal.”
Going forward, Angeles Carreño is hoping that her experiences running the family business will encourage more women to join the field.
“We’re doing things that people used to think were only for men, but we’re here, too,” she said. “We’re important.”