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 has the strength of your classic American canned beer but somehow 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 amebic stills as they were for almost 4 centuries. This is nearly as old as Scotch whisky. The history 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 has even been leaves from the Coca leave found in the wrappings of ancient pharaohs.
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.
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 the 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 (I have done this numerous times and yes it is fun) 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.
Two distillers, Fidencio and Piedre Alamas, in my mind create two of Oaxaca’s greatest artisan spirits. Fidencio which is certified organic has an edge to it and yet it is complex and balanced. The Sin Humo (without smoke) gives the subtle flavor of the maguey. The Espadin varietal of maguey which is the great grandfather to the blue agave has a sweet fruity aroma with bright pepper. Their other bottling, the wild maguey called Tobala is harvested in secret locations like it was a white truffle in a Piemontese forest. This has a rich funkiness that holds the viscosity of mother pulque in the forefront. These are both like Mexico. They are bold, somber, tough and yet elegant. Then there is Piedre Almas which loosely translates to lost soul and to me it is like a great burgundy. This is a distillery that does not seek uniformity or status quo. Every batch is completely different. They are always great but every bottle is like an individual painting and expression of mezcal. Imagine Picasso reproducing el Guernica over and over again. Although it is impressive to have a style of absolution I am not sure if I would classify it as art. One of Mezcal de Oaxaca’s greatest gems is the Pechuga or poultry breast and to be quite frank it is hands down, the best spirit I have ever tried. That’s right, they use poultry breast in the production of this elixir, turkey to be specific for Piedre Almas. The breast is studded with berries, nuts, herbs and spices. The aromas are sweet and enchanting. The palate is lush yet clean with sweet spice and cherries on the finish. This may seem odd initially but the earliest practices of great nations such as the Aztec, Toltec and Maya continue to pulse through the soul of Mexico so that she may still give her offerings to the gods and goddess’ and we too can grace ourselves with her holiest of beings.
In early January the earth will be the closest it gets to the sun during its annual cycle and although January seems reserved for Scotch whisky and Bobby Burns I cannot think of a better way to honor this moment then by treating ourselves to the flavors of fire. So on January 14th in Saloon at 6:30 we will be having a 4 course dinner featuring the mezcals of Fidencio and Piedre Almas and just as we would with great Scotch we will be enjoying the purity of these liquids in their nudity. No sour mix, no licking the salt and sucking of the lime. Tonight we will drink as it deserves; Mexico’s brown, white spirit.
Tickets are $55 per person all inclusive and can be purchased at eventbrite.com