Quetzalcoatl (co-ex-all-cuat-ol) the feathered serpent god of redemption one day recalled his passion for Mayahuel (Maya-Who-Well) the goddess of fertility. Finding her asleep in the sky he awakened her and persuaded her to travel to the earth with him. There they joined into the union of a forked tree. When Mayahuel’s grandmother, an evil star demon awoke and found her gone she was enraged and dove straight from the sky to find the two lovers. She tore Mayahuel to pieces and ordered her servant demons to devour her body leaving a saddened Quetzalcoatl alone to grieve. In this state Quetzalcoatl gathered her bones and planted them in the earth. From her humble grave grew a plant, a simple spiny plant called Maguey which we now refer to as agave. And from this simple plant came a milky, viscous sap called aguamiel or honey water. Once fermented this brew would be known as pulque, a true nectar from the heavens. When distilled this rich elixir took on a new life, one that transcended its godly status to reach the hands of common men so they too could be in tune with Quetzalcoatl and his forlorn lover Mayahuel and this new life was called Mezcal
The Fire Inside
In 1968 a famous mural was uncovered during an excavation in central Mexico at the Great Pyramid of Cholula, Puebla some 70 miles east of Mexico City. This mural, simply called “Pulque Drinkers” offers a far reaching grasp into the traditions of Mexican culture. The lightly fermented aguamiel or honey water has the strength of your classic American canned beer but somehow this is the seedling of one of the greatest treasures on the earth. We may think of Tequila as Mexico’s symbolic spirit but the fire inside Mezcal de Oaxaca (Wha-Hawk-a) is unmatched. Tequila is a cousin to mezcal which is just the fermented juice of the maguey plant that is distilled to make a spirit. But unlike Tequila, Mezcal de Oaxaca has a deep smokiness and fruity aroma that is solely its own. The process is simple; the hearts of agave are smoked in giant pits and then crushed, fermented and distilled. Easy enough right? Not so much actually. Everything is done by hand and organically and not just in that wholefoods sense but in the way the process unfolds. The maguey is manually harvested and smoked by wooden embers that are gathered from the dead and fallen trees of Oaxaca. Horses still pull the stone milling wheels to grind the hearts into pulp. They are fermented in clay containers and distilled in ancient alembic stills as they were for centuries. This may be nearly as old as Irish whiskey.
The history of mezcal like pulque itself is a bit cloudy but when the conquistadors came to the new world they tried the brew. This was a very serious offering from the Aztec priests as this was not for the common man. In fact it was only for festivals, ceremonies and sacrifices. Perhaps this was to ease the suffering of the gods’ dainties. Public intoxication was frowned upon during Aztec rule. Needless to say the Spaniards were not impressed with the milky elixir but saw some potential. Perhaps they were the first to distill pulque into a crude spirit that would later become mezcal but some of the stills used are not the round, bulbous stills of Western Europe. May of these stills that are used today resemble those of the middle ages when it has been highly theorized that the far east had already made contact with the “New World” hundreds of years before the Europeans. There have even been leaves from the Coca plant found in the wrappings of ancient pharaohs so it is quiet plausible that distillation predates the Spaniards in the Americas.
From its beginnings pulque was an intrinsic part of Mesoamerica. It was the corner stone of every celebration, sacrifice and ritual. It was the essence of the spiritual being. Little has changed throughout the centuries. The idea of mezcal as being all curing is still a common theme throughout the southern state of Oaxaca and when it is offered to you, it is an offering of ones soul.
Que Viva la Revolucion
Mezcal has become the latest craze in cocktail bars throughout the country. The interest has grown immensely over the past three years and although for my mother who 1st tried mezcal as a child in Hermosillo, Mexico I am tickled by this. But I do worry that the demand will, like it had done to Tequila; steal the generic integrity of the spirit. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great Tequilas produced and imported into this country but there are also a ton and I mean a ton of poor, inferior brands to make sure that there is plenty of product to keep a humble salt and lime industry operational. To be honest I have only come across a couple of poor brands of mezcal which I will not name in this blog but I will say that even though the thought of eating a worm or scorpion sounds cool at a party (I have done this numerous times and yes it is fun and great initiation for newer employees at our bar) it is not the hallmark of what mezcal is. Talking about great mezcal and focusing on these brands would be like talking about foie gras and offering you liver and onions. These all have their place in the world but not here.
What I love about Mezcal is the diversity of the maguey plant. It can have as much individual flavor as grape varietals. The climate still plays a role as it does with wine and whiskey. Most of the serious Mezcals are coming from very high altitude sites. The higher the altitude the richer and more complex the Mezcal becomes. The age of the maguey is as important as it is with grape vines. The water is as distinctive as with Kentucky Bourbon. The varietals of maguey defiantly remand indigenous to Mexico. Oaxaca is still the most well known region but there are several regions such as Dorango and Guerrero and like the French AOC or Italian DOC’s that protect their individual terroir, identity and history, these Mezcaleros and lovers of the fire inside have protected their mezcal from becoming an overly marketed, watered down industry that Tequila can be where many of them now resemble a heavy Vodka and not the spirit that is iconic, hard and like Mexico herself, seldom pretty but always beautiful.
Cock Fighting with a Sun Surfer
Modern day love can inebriate the soul like it did to Quetzalcoatl and Mayahuel. Some years ago a surfer from Colorado heading down to Oaxaca with a friend in a quest to find themselves were thrown randomly in the center of a great celebration. Several students in a trade school were dancing and singing in the street. You see, it was graduation day and in the poorer areas of the world a new Lexus is not the gift of choice, instead people opt to celebrate as a whole community and to me seems to be a truer sense of joy. These two men were grabbed into the streets and forced to dance. They were handed gasoline cans filled with a firey substance that burned their lips but cooled their souls. It was their first taste of Mezcxal de Oaxaca but it would not be their last. They opened a bar on the beach and began to sell Mezcal to locals and surfers alike. One day our hero gets an ear infection and had to go to the local clinic. There he met his Mayahuel. She nursed him back to health and over the following months the slow and charming ritual of courtship began. The only problem, she was to be married. After a few hardy punches with the rival suiter and some iced up wounds her fiance left the two alone and they soon married. As luck would have it her father was a Mezcalero, a maker of the ancient and magical elixir mezcal. And so our hero and his friend started an import company to sell his father-in-law’s mezcal and soon Mezcal Vago would be introduced to the United States.
You see many of these Mezcals are not brought to you by the same companies that bring in Don Julio ( a fine product) or Jose Cuervo (my mother once said that if you don’t have something nice to say then shut your trap… so I will). Those who offer us the treasures of Mezcal are small, independent producers, importers and well, regular people. There is no incentive for me to work with Mezcal, no gift to put a Mezcal cocktail on my cocktail list. Here, for me, like it was for our hero, for the Mezcalero who became his father-in-law, for my mother a simple understanding of the culture of Mexico. It is one of ritual which you can see so intimately through a Mexican Catholic mass where the rich and powerful history of Aztec, Toltec, Mayan and Seri cultures who have sometimes integrated a western idea of inclusion but not the western ideal of assimilation. It is the power of Mezcal that keeps me in check to remember who I am, where I came from and where I want to go. To surf on the sun.
Clear is the new Brown
Join us in Saloon on Tuesday, January 20th at 7 pm for a tasting of Mexico’s rare and powerful elixir. We will taste through 4 unique varietals of maguey, each one like the terroir of great wine vineyards, an individual to its region offering a one of a kind flavor profile.
Tickets are $35 per person (all inclusive) and can be bought through Eventbrite.com
Come and taste what Saloon calls Mexico’s white “brown” spirit