The flavor came first. We had no idea when we first encountered Pasilla Mixe at the central market of Oaxaca, Mexico that it was the start of something greater. I only began to realize the potential after we had distilled the first Pasilla Mixe blend and tried to get more.
We looked into a number of different suppliers, but couldn’t find chilis of the same quality as the ones we found in that market. There are a couple of other smoked chilis out there, but to me, Pasilla Mixe is the most interesting and complex. There is so much more than just smokiness: there is an earthy roundness and a distinct, deep red orchard fruit note that distinguishes it from all the others. It also has a palatable spice that allows you to truly taste it, and not just be blown away by heat.
With the help of Efraín Martínez, a local academic, we managed to find our way back to the source. There, we met the Mixe people, who live in isolation in the Sierra Norte mountains outside of Oaxaca. In their native tongue, they call themselves Ayuuk, meaning “people who speak the mountain language.” For them, the Pasilla Mixe chili is an important part of the communal life and identity. However, cultivation is extremely labor-intensive: high altitudes, erosion, lack of pesticides or fertilizers, and rugged terrain make it difficult to turn a profit. As a result, production has diminished over the years and they’ve shifted to subsistence farming, producing only what they need for themselves and their families.
With this spirit, we’ve developed a way to work directly in partnership with these farmers to support this beautiful tradition and ingredient. There’s a parallel between this relationship and my background as a chef: On my days off, I would often visit farmers and purveyors to better understand their methods and how to use their products. Being more connected to our producers—to their stories, their experiences, and their processes—is an extremely positive thing. There’s a natural symbiosis that keeps us all pushing forward.
Last month, I went back to Huitepec, the village where we started this project. There are five thousand people in the village and one fifth of them used to farm Pasilla Mixe: Now, there are only eight farmers. We brought Adan Jimenez, an agronomist, who lead lectures on new farming applications that will make cultivation of the chili more viable.
One of the things I was trying to get across was that the Pasilla Mixe and their farming is of great value and that needs to be recognized. I brought a few bottles of the spirit to connect their work to ours. Word got out that I was the guy who made chili spirits: I had to start carrying around Ayuuk in my backpack for all those that wanted to try it. This winter, I’ll go back for the chili harvest with more bottles to share.
Words by Lars Williams, Co-Founder, Empirical
Photos by Arthur Couvat, arthurcouvat.com