A mezcal musing, originally published by Food & Dining Magazine (Spring 2017; Vol. 55).
Mezcal: Tasting Mexico By the Kiss
Mezcal won’t tell you everything about Mexico, but you’ll be in a far better mood to learn more
“Mezcal,” said the Consul. The main barroom of the Farolito was deserted. From a mirror behind the bar, that also reflected the door open to the square, his face silently glared at him, with stern, familiar foreboding.
I’ve never been to Mexico, not even once, but it’s impossible to hear the word mezcal without thinking about Geoffrey Firmin, known informally as the Consul, the central figure in “Under the Volcano,” Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 literary masterpiece.
The novel takes place in the city of Quauhnahuac, a rendering of Cuernavaca, where Lowry briefly lived in the late 1930s. Lowry was a talented, troubled, and sadly alcoholic Englishman, but in spite of his self-inflicted debilities – perhaps because of them – he possessed a keen, detailed writer’s eye for the physical and cultural landscapes he experienced in Mexico.
The Consul, Lowry’s fictional doppelgänger, devotes his last hours on earth to wandering Quauhnahuac’s cantinas during the annual Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead:
And now he saw them, smelt them, all, from the very beginning—bottles, bottles, bottles, and glasses, glasses, glasses, of bitter, of Dubonnet, of Falstaff, Rye, Johnny Walker, Vieux Whiskey blanc Canadien, the apéritifs, the digestifs, the demis, the dobles, the noch ein Herr Obers, the et glas Araks, the tusen taks, the bottles, the bottles, the beautiful bottles of tequila, and the gourds, gourds, gourds, the millions of gourds of beautiful mezcal.
When I read “Under the Volcano” just after college, it marked the first time I’d ever heard of mezcal, the traditional Mexican spirit distilled from agave. Inspired by the novel, a friend and I determined to conduct field research — for purely academic reasons, of course. We proceeded to a nearby package store, and a shelf filled with cheap mass-market tequila and just one solitary bottle identified as mezcal, complete with dos gusanos, or two agave worms, both deceased and reposing stiffly at the bottom.
According to the prevailing urban legends of hardcore boozing in that far-off, pre-electronic world, these worms were the ultimate stamp of macho Mexican authenticity, but they struck us as disgusting, and the liquid itself seemed indistinct, leaving little impression either way. Soon we were back to Pepe Lopez, Triple Sec, Tecate and Carta Blanca whenever the mood struck to express Latin American literary pretensions. Three decades later, belatedly, I’ve learned quite a bit more about mescal’s history, its importance to Mexican culture, and why American aficionados of distilled spirits should know more about it.
To get the most immediately noticeable detail out of the way first, agave worms in the bottle are a marketing-driven distraction. But in Mexico, worm larvae is crushed with chili peppers and salt to make sal de gusano (worm salt), meant for scraping with orange slices to cleanse your palate between kisses of artisanal mezcal.
Artisanal mescal is being brought to the discerning clientele at Louisville establishments like Silver Dollar and Seviche, by a man named Marcos Mendoza, creator of the Mala Idea line of mezcal. With the help of Mendoza and testimony from a few others, I’ve learned that mezcal is an utterly unique distillate, borne of a long, slow, achingly authentic process, and exhibiting delightful olfactory proof of its terroir – fruity, earthy, yeasty, smoky, and primeval – like few other alcoholic beverages.
I was introduced to Marcos Mendoza in early January. He had just returned to Louisville from one of his frequent trips to Oaxaca, taken as necessary to manage Mala Idea, his well-received mezcal line, so named because of the finger-wagging advice Mendoza received from well-intentioned acquaintances when announcing his determination to produce small-batch mezcal made by rigorously traditional, time-consuming methods.
“That’s probably a bad idea,” they cautioned Mendoza, and he promptly ignored them, embracing this advice as a brand and a badge of honor. As a passionate and exuberant personality, Mendoza’s choice of slogans seems a natural: “Bad Ideas Lead to Amazing Adventures.”
However, as we stood in Mendoza’s kitchen nipping at the wares, what struck me about his role in the ageless agave narrative is a sense of awe and a refreshing humbleness about the object of his affection.
Time is the very best metaphor for mezcal, because it has taken mezcal generations to inch its way toward us, arriving largely intact and yet still evolving, stretching back into history’s cobwebs, past the Consul and Montezuma, still further, all the way to Mayahuel, the fertility goddess — the deity with 400 breasts, each one of them a god, taken as a unit to comprise a divine assembly of 400 rabbits, which as a group were reputed to enjoy a drink or three whenever they conferred.
Some archaeologists believe that a form of agave-based distillation known as the “Capacha-type Mesoamerican still” may have developed in Mexico as long ago as 1500 BCE, utilizing gourds and pottery otherwise intended as bean pots and steamers. If so, the use of this stronger potion was restricted to the priestly caste, and ceremonial uses. Mezcal would have to wait a bit longer to come into its own.
He came dancing across the water
What a killer
— Neil Young, “Cortez the Killer (1975)
Americans know far too little about Mexico’s wild historical rollercoaster ride that stretches back several thousand years. When the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, they found indigenous peoples who had been occupying the land from time immemorial, perfectly content to live by their own social structures, religions, cuisines and intoxicants.
Most of us know how this geopolitical tete-a-tete was fated to play out, at least in the short term.
Europeans came to Mexico equipped with vast arsenals of modernity, comprising guns, germs and steel, and they wreaked societal havoc. It was a lopsided match, but over the centuries to follow, indigenous Mexican culture persisted, and mescal is one of those cultural artifacts that continues to persist, having become today accepted as a great gift from history to all participants, whatever their heritage.
In Mexico, the Spanish found silver and gold, tomato-based salsa, vanilla and chocolate, and hitherto unknown but valuable red dye from the cochineal insect. Into Mexico they brought livestock, garlic, Catholicism, and alembics, or distilling apparatus. For those of us who imbibe, it was the latter that proved truly revolutionary.
Distillation meant heightened strength for fermented drinks, and as such it collided headlong with the methodology of “softer” preexisting libations like pulque, probable fuel of the 400 rabbits. Pulque is a milky beverage of moderate alcohol content fermented from agave sap. Alembics initiated a cross-cultural transition from old to new, making pulque almost obsolete, and leading to the mezcal of today.
Throughout the changes, the fermentable and distillable sugar source stayed the same. It is agave, Mexico’s wonder plant. Also known as maguey, agave is a succulent native to hot, dry areas of Mexico and the Southwestern United States. Like cactus, agave’s fleshy leaves are liberally spiked with thorny stickers and spines, such that harvesting it can be a delicate proposition for the blade-wielding jimador, whose job it is to collect the fermentable piñas, or hearts of the plant.
As bison herds were to plains-dwelling Native Americans, agave was to the ancient peoples of Mexico. Agave did it all, providing life-giving food, medicine, sweeteners and intoxicants. Thorns made perfect needles, and fibers yielded the raw material for clothing, rope, musical instruments and even housing. Ancient Mexicans domesticated a few varieties of agave, although more than a hundred varieties grow untamed in the wild today. To the ancients in Mexico, agave was mystical as well as transactional; religious, though eminently practical.
My favorite foundational agave story from Mexican mythology is about the clever tlacuache (opossum), who learned how use the agave’s sap to ferment pulque. Eventually the opossum was given the job of planning river courses. They’d run straight so long as he was sober, and meander unpredictably back and forth when he was drunk, this being much the same way the Consul meandered between cozy cantinas in search of his next gourd of mezcal.
“Mezcal is almost like a baby. It needs a lot of care.”
— Marcos Mendoza
Tequila is a type of mezcal, but mezcal differs from tequila in three significant respects. Mezcal and tequila are produced in different Mexican states, with sanctioned geographical regional centers in Oaxaca and Jalisco, respectively; as many as 40 different types of agave can be used to make mezcal, while only blue agave can be used to make tequila; and mezcal is made differently than tequila, accounting for its distinct flavor profile.
“I’m just a student of mezcal,” Mendoza told me. “Mezcal is agave, and agave is a sacred plant, meant for handling with care. You have to respect the agave’s life. There is reverence and thankfulness in the agave harvest. Every drop counts.”
The post-modern irony for Mendoza and other artisanal producers of mezcal is an imperative to turn back the clock. While in most significant respects, tequila’s international renown has been achieved by following the logic of the Spaniard’s alembic to its logical and contemporary mass-market conclusion, Mendoza has chosen to emphasize mescal’s pre-industrial roots. Tequila can be – and is – produced quickly in quantity by industrial processes. Mezcal seeks to slow down, not speed up. While modernity cannot be entirely reversed, it can be placed into an artisanal context. Mendoza explained to me why distilling agave requires patience and deliberation.
Even the few domesticated varieties of agave require seven to ten years of growth before harvesting. For those growing wild, the maturation period is even longer, up to 25 years in the case of Tepextate, which is both a variety of agave and the name of the mescal Mendoza crafts from it. Moreover, because these plants do not grow in convenient formations in farmers’ fields, producers must keep mental inventory of wild locations that might lie on top of a scrubby plateau, or at the bottom of a steep ravine.
Agave must be harvested at optimum ripeness, just before flowering when the sugar content is highest, as with browning bananas. The jimador must navigate the agave’s nettles and remove the leaves, exposing the piñas (hearts), which can weigh anywhere between 50 to 500 pounds.
Once transported to the farmhouse distillery, called the palenque, the piñas are cooked for three or more days on hot rocks atop wood fires in earthen ovens – basically, pits in the ground lined with stone or clay. Tequila makers departed from this process long ago, but the venerable character of mezcal derives significantly from flavors and aromas redolent of fire, roast and smoke, which become fixed during cooking.
The agave now softened, its aguamiel (honey water) must be extracted by pressing and pulping, which can be done by hand with mallets, or by use of the tahona, a stone wheel in a circular stone pit pulled by a draft animal.
The aquamiel and remaining fibers then go together into open fermenters made of pine. Water is added, and wild yeast (sometimes with cultivated local strains) begin their work. Once fermentation has concluded, the liquid is distilled in copper or clay stills to an alcoholic strength of between 36% and 55%, with classifications including Joven (unaged and clear); Reposado (aged in oak for at least two months); and Añejo (aged in oak for at least a year).
The preceding is only an approximation of mezcal’s back-to-basics ethos. The classifications and “rules” are changing. Some palenques are archaic, and other utilize newer techniques. Each type of agave has its own characteristics, and each recipe differs in some obscure respect, often instinctively, from the wood used to heat the stones to the length of time cooking the agave, and from the funky ambient yeast strains to the construction of the still. It’s enough to exhaust the novice, though mezcal functions brilliantly as a restorative.
Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también … “For everything bad, mezcal; for everything good, the same”
“Mezcal is the only spirit you kiss in order to taste,” Mendoza said, encouraging the drinker to breathe deeply of the aromatics in preparation for tasting his Cuishe, then ingesting only a few drops to acclimate the tongue, followed by a second gentle “kiss” to receive the full chapter and verse. “It’s a beautiful dance of discovery. What can I find?”
The real trick might be finding Mala Idea. By its very methodical nature, owing to the rarity of wild agave and the old-fashioned techniques, mezcal is a limited art form. Mendoza’s partner in Oaxaca state, a palenque with decades of distilling experience, is capable of producing only 60,000 bottles of year … for the entire planet.
“I don’t want it to be for everybody,” remarked Mendoza. “Anything of high quality is worth waiting for it to be done well.” According to Silver Dollar’s Larry Rice, one Louisville’s most knowledgeable drinks purveyors, Mendoza is succeeding.
“Mala Idea is pretty exceptional,” Rice wrote in an e-mail. “The Cuishe is as balanced as any I’ve had, and very complex. The Tepexate has interesting brine notes, but in a good way. I wanted some east coast oysters to go with it.”
Rice also had a few thoughts on tasting mezcal, both kissing and mixing.
“I personally drink mine straight. It’s complex and worthy of the attention. But it does work great in cocktails. We have a heavy mezcal selection at the Dollar, and we do use it on the cocktail menu from time to time.
“Mezcal is bold, so it holds up in cocktails and remains the star of the show. A well-rounded mezcal has tons of flavors to play off, so it can be used to make anything from an old fashioned riff to a sour.”
Mendoza’s synthesis of the spiritual and the temporal is making a name for Mala Idea, though as we near the end of this necessarily broad survey, there is a final, sobering consideration: How much of a “name” can mezcal afford to have, and still be sustainable?
Agave matures slowly and resists domestication. Will there always be enough of it?
Wood must be burned to cook the agave and fire the still. Doesn’t this cause pollution? Are the workers’ wages fair? The animals treated humanely? The prerequisite of social justice in Oaxaca being furthered? Whether a particular mezcal is overtly smoky or reminiscent of a woodsy stone, mezcal as a category is smoking hot. These sustainability issues also are hot topics among mezcal aficionados, and encouragingly, there seems to be no shortage of suggestions about how mezcal can move forward during complicated times, even as it stays rooted in the accumulated wisdom of millennia.
The novelist Lowry has the honor of closing words.
“Mescal,” the Consul said, almost absent-mindedly. What had he said? Never mind. Nothing less than mescal would do.”