For a half century if not longer, the central valleys of the state of Oaxaca have been known in the US, Canada and further abroad for production of the high alcohol content, agave based spirit, mezcal. It, and not tequila, is actually Mexico’s iconic drink, with a history dating back anywhere from a few hundred to a couple of thousand years, depending on to which theory of the beginnings of the country’s distillation practices one subscribes. While the region’s pre-Hispanic ruins, colonial architecture, cuisine and craft villages have been noted in travelogues and guide books for quite some time, most recently mezcal hastaken center stage. Hence the arrival of mezcal tourism. It has gripped Oaxaca; and along with it has come a revival of the chango mezcalero.
For at least the past couple of decades vintage chango mezcaleros have become highly collectible, mainly by Americans interested in one or more of Mexican folk art, non-human primate imagery, as well as mezcal and its associated appurtenances.
Chango mezcalero is a clay receptacle in the shape of a monkey, generally a liter or smaller in size. Traditionally it was used as a bottle to market and sell mezcal. It was a natural, since the primate has been associated with drunkenness for eons. I have personally traced its history to the 1930s based on uncovering a chango mold dated July 12, 1938, owned by the late Juventino Nieto of the Oaxacan town of San Bartolo Coyotepec. In a cardboard box alongside it, was a somewhat larger undated chango mold of the same vintage. Don Juventino was the husband of the late Doña Rosa Real of black pottery (barro negro) fame.
Many of the old chango mezcaleros found today have written on the back, Recuerdo de Oaxaca(Souvenir of Oaxaca), some have a couple’s first names on one side or the other (celebrating their marriage), and most but not all are painted multi-color,with the gloss in various stages of decline.
For at least the past couple of decades vintage chango mezcaleros have become highly collectible, mainly by Americans interested in one or more of Mexican folk art, non-human primate imagery, as well as mezcal and its associated appurtenances. “Old” clay monkey bottles are available on ebay, and on other websites specializing in the purchase and sale of vintage Mexicana and what are otherwise known as “smalls” from Mexico and the southwest US. Prices can be as low and $50 and as high as $500 USD.
It’s very difficult to discern whether or not a chango mezcalero was indeed made in the 1940s or earlier as some are represented. Antique dealers and aficionados know best how to date collectibles. Most in the general public, however, do not have a clue, and if it looks old to them, it is.
The town of Santiago Matatlán is known as the world capital of mezcal, boasting the globe’s highest number ofsmall family owned and operated distilleries, or palenques as the traditional ones are locally known. There are currently at least three pottery workshops in Matatlán which have been producing chango mezcaleros for decades, and continuing to date. Some of these contemporary changos are upright, others are sitting on a log, all formed with the monkey in different poses. Until recently, if the changos were painted, and most of the time they were, they were glossy. The older ones, both tucked away gathering dust in the back of a palenque, and in local purchasers’ homes having been used, often show nice wear.
But as of 2015, vintage-looking changos have begun to appear in the marketplace in Oaxaca. They have been spotted in at least one antique shop and one mezcalería. The coloring and patina is matte, and exquisite. There are at least two sizes. Most likely they are coming from the same workshop, using the same or similar molds as the shiny bottles, as is easily borne out by anyone who places the old and the new vintage side by side.
It is not suggested that the retailers noted above are motivated by misleading or defrauding the buying public, despite the fact that some are for sale in an antique store. On the contrary, of those found in the latter outlet, some but not all are marked with the date 2015.
Visitors to Oaxaca and elsewhere in Mexico, collectors surfing the net, and retail shoppers in the US and further abroad , should all be vigilant, and not be misled by the outward look of years of use. Oaxaca’s chango mezcalero has now come of age as a much more popular collectible than it previously was. Congratulations are indeed in order to the workshop which has identified the market.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca. Alvin has a substantial collection of both contemporary and vintage change mezcaleros.
Alvin Starkman holds an M.A. in social anthropology from Toronto’s York University and a J.D. from Osgoode Hall Law School. He has written one book about mezcal (Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market: Unrivalled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances) and over 35 articles centering upon Mexican craft beer, pulque, mezcal and sustainability, as well as a further 250 articles about Oaxacan life and cultural traditions.
From 1991 to 2004, Alvin was a frequent visitor to Oaxaca. During this period of time he became passionate about mezcal and pulque, and made one of his primary objectives in life to learn more. Then, in 2004, he became a permanent resident of Oaxaca. From that time onward and continuing to date, he has become friends with many of the growers and producers with whom he had previously had casual acquaintanceships. Feel free to ask how the revenue generated from Alvin’s excursions, financially supports indigenous communities and their residents. For more, please contact Alvin at: CONTACT