This is one of a series of articles highlighting this year's Agave Heritage Festival taking place on April 27-30. Other articles include features about Dr. Ivan Saldaña of Nocheluna, Diana Pinzon of Zinacantán Mezcal, Carlos Camarena of Tequila Ocho, and all you need to know about the Agave Heritage Festival.
The Agave Heritage Festival is in for a big treat with the participation of Asis Cortes, co-founder of Origen Raiz Mezcal. A charismatic speaker who naturally draws you into his sphere, he carries the message of the Mescalero in three languages: Zapotec, Spanish, and English. A native of Matalán, Oaxaca, which is considered the “blue chip” address for Mezcal, Cortes grew up speaking Zapotec as his first language.
His matrilineal and patrilineal history can be traced back to indigenous Zapotec families in Matalán who have farmed agave for mezcal production over the course of five generations.
Cortes, who is a masterful storyteller, believes that the preservation of his family’s oral history is the bridge that connects everything in his life. From passing down Mescalero know-how to understanding Oaxacan cultural traditions, stories have provided a map forward from the past.
Indeed, Origen Raiz which can be translated as “root origin,” co-founded by his father, Valentin, and their friend, Bildo Saravia, is a collaboration built on the exchange of generational knowledge. Saravia’s family has expertise in ranching in the state of Durango while the Cortes family brings their Zapotec legacy of cultivating and distilling agave.
At the Saravia’s Durango-based ranch, they are working together to preserve and regenerate the ecosystem by supporting a specific type of autochthonous agave called Cenizo Durangensis. Additionally, they are distilling plant-specific and site-specific spirits to include mezcal bottlings from Oaxaca and explorations into sotol from Durango.
“We don’t really know who has started where,” said Cortes. “Where were the first Mescaleros? There are no documents. Nobody really knows. There are no books. We have all the stories from my grandparents' generation from cousins, brothers, and neighbors…telling us stories about my great-great-great-grandfather, Don Miguel Cortes. This was from about 180 years ago. We don’t have the exact dates but we know he was a Mescalero.”
Like many other well-known beverages such as beer and wine, Cortes said that the crafting of mezcal in Matalán began as a cottage industry. He explained that across Mexico, different families were known for different types of expertise such as in baking, carpentry, pottery, and textiles.
In Matalán’s community history, his family has always been known for being Mescaleros.
“My great-grandfather, Don Francisco, had his house right in the center, like two blocks away from the church in Matalán,” Cortes remembered. “The back of his house is where he had his distillery. This is the same way we know it today. That is the distillery my grandfather, Don José, used to work in with his brother, Miguel. My granduncle was the older brother. He used to be the guy who was traveling outside, promoting, and going around to look for sales. My grandfather was in charge of the distillery.”
In continuation of family tradition, Cortes’s father started working in the family business at the age of 12 and was around 17 years old when he took charge of the distillery. Cortes has fond memories of being a child and getting the opportunity to help clean, fill, and label bottles of mezcal after school.
It wasn’t until Cortes was approaching adulthood that he realized that his upbringing was unique. Cortes wanted to have conversations with other Mescaleros and mezcal enthusiasts and longed to share the traditions of his family and culture. He realized that his upbringing was largely unknown in more metropolitan areas of Mexico.
A central fact in understanding why Asis Cortes is a remarkable ambassador of his trade and culture lies in knowing that in order to have conversations with other Mexicans about the life he loves, he had to learn Spanish. Then, to share his expertise about mezcal with the world, he had to learn English. The work of learning and assimilating new languages in order to translate and convey his Mescalero message is a feat in itself.
Today, Cortes speaks English with such ease and emotion that most would take for granted the journey he’s walked to close the gap between him and his audience.
“I started to go talk about mezcal because I realized that nobody knew what it was,” he said. “I realized that I didn’t know how to express it because I was not speaking Spanish. My family speaks Zapotec and my Spanish was super bad. So, when I started to look to the city, people were making jokes about me because I was not speaking Spanish. Then, I realized that since we didn’t know how to express what we had because people don’t speak Zapotec in the cities, we would have to find other ways to express ourselves.”
Cortes learned to speak and read in Spanish and went on to study graphic design in Oaxaca City. It was when he was studying graphic design that he saw the avenue to communicate his family’s story. In his 20s, he worked as a graphic designer for his family’s company, Mezcales Casa Cortes. His label artistry combined with his impassioned storytelling put the family’s brands such as Mezcal El Jogorio on the international map.
It was a meeting in Australia over Mezcal El Jogorio that brought the Saravia and Cortes families together. The Cortes father and son commiserated with Saravia, who was living and working in Australia, about how the ancestral methods of the mezcal craft were being misinterpreted and appropriated in ways that erased its authenticity.
They shared that not only were there new brands and players making agave-based spirits being erroneously passed off as artisan but that the rising awareness of mezcal, as a desired commodity, was hurting rural communities due to the exploitation of their natural resources. Big businesses were moving in and clearing the desert to plant monoculture agave, particularly the Espadin variety which is thought by traditional Mescaleros to produce a spirit with less character.
Saravia moved back to his family home in Durango in the mid-2010s and reached out to the Cortes family to discuss a collaboration. Origen Raiz was born and, as they say, the rest is history.
Attendees of the Agave Heritage Festival (April 27-30, 2023) can become a part of Origen Raiz’s living history by joining Asis Cortez and Bildo Saravia at a guided tasting held at Tuxon Hotel. Meeting the two in person is the best way to experience how Cortes combines art, spirituality, culture, and expertise into his Mescalero message.
“I am happy to have something that has integrity that comes from my heart and that comes from my family,” said Cortes, who’s looking forward to being in Tucson to share his viewpoints on what is happening behind the scenes in the world of mezcal. “I am happy to spread my knowledge, my world. The Agave Heritage Festival sounds like the right place to meet good people who want to enjoy something very beautiful. I’m gonna be there with happiness and we’re excited to be there.”
Oftentimes, knowledge and language are lost in translation. In Asis Cortes, with respect to agave and Mezcal, it is found.
For more information about the 2023 Agave Heritage Festival, read our article "Education with a Kick: The 15th Agave Heritage Festival goes big." For more information about Origen Raiz Mezcal, visit mezcalorigenraiz.com.
Tucson Foodie is a locally owned and operated community. Thanks to our partners and members, we are able to offer paywall-free guides and articles. We value your support!
Sariya, whose name rhymes with Maria, is a sommelier, writer, educator, public speaker, and epistolarian. A monsoon child, born in Bangkok during the rainiest month of the year, she emigrated to America as a kid and has been a resident...