The One About the Mezcal – A Love Affair with a Mexican Liquor

Today’s post is by Susan Coss, our favorite part-time Oaxacan, foodie traveler and an outspoken advocate of a certain ancient Mexican distilled alcohol.

Lemon Mezcal

Expanded lemon mezcal

Suddenly it’s mid-December and I have no idea what’s happened with the time. Perhaps this is the greatest gift and curse of mezcal – a strange time paradigm that takes over.

This year it seems I am breaking down some final barriers, and doing things I have sworn for years I would never ever ever do – first and foremost would be driving a car here in Mexico. I once swore the same in Italy, only to back down when I realized how unfair it was to burden the other person with all the driving. Alas, the same thing here. But the thing is, driving here, driving in Oaxaca, is rife with all sorts of potential disasters; cars that speed thru intersections, topes (speed bumps) and more topes that appear with no warning on a highway, roads the just disappear into dirt. And of course, donkeys, goats, etc that wander on country roads. But drive I did and I survived and thrilled to the feel of driving a stick shift after so many years of absence.

I think I also swore once that I would never ever ever again drink more than 3 mezcals in one day.

So, the hecticness of November and gave way to the traditional Thanksgiving meal prepared for Oaxacan friends and family. A fresh turkey from Tlocolula, a pueblo outside of Oaxaca famous for the market turkey drives – do not confuse with any images of the running of the bulls, though I am sure Hemingway could have a field day with this – weight unknown to be cooked in an oven that had no temperature readings and nor a door that closed tightly. But no one died of food poisoning and we laughed and cried as we went around the table and said what we were thankful for.  And then after a few quiet days, everything went into hyper-drive and all of the conversations of the mezcal road trips came to fruition.

So what is it with me and mezcal and this crazy obsession? I love the flavor, I love the story, I love that it is rough and wild and makes me think of my Appalachian roots and the supposed moonshiners in my family tree. And so why not go straight to the sources, why not find those OP’s (original palenqueros), why not get out into the country, the mountains and see what it is all about.

Alfonso showing the bottles

There is no “mezcal trail” so to speak. There is the road lining the town of Matatlan, filled with its touristy mezcal rooms, but erase any thoughts of Napa’s Silverado Trail. And so that first week, 4 of us (and a baby) piled into a tiny Chevy Aveo – rental mistake on my part – and headed out to San Dionisio and then Chichicapam – a beautiful valley area about 1.5 hours outside of Oaxaca. San Dionisio begs the question – what came first, the town name and then the mezcal or vice versa?

And Dionysus was definitely smiling down on us as we walked into a Palenque, walls filled with pictures of half naked and naked women. Mezcal is a man’s world, not the drink, but the world, and being a woman, and a foreign one at that, walking into one of these places certainly creates a stir, especially when you aren’t accompanied by a husband. It can cause a palenquero to declare “Estoy aca solo” (I am here alone) and to propose marriage. It can mean accepting a hand on the small of your back as you discuss production capabilities, where the maguey comes from, how it is blended, pricing, and then tasting the sweet strong nectar. It can mean the back story of what that bottle of mezcal might eventually be named.

These agave weigh a hundred pounds. 80 piñas were being harvested and then split this day.

And then it was off Chichicapam, the next valley over and to another Palenque, more blends, more tasting, and the opportunity to learn how blends are done and how the perlas (bubbles) tell you how much alcohol is in that blend. Making perlas is no easy feat. It requires using a 2 foot long piece of hollowed out bamboo to carefully suck up the mezcal in the jicara (gourd traditionally used for tasting) and then letting it stream back into the jicara. After several tries I was still not able to get the hang of it. At this Palenque, Alfonso and his brother Jesus had us tasting their blends of the common espadin, the sweet mexicano, a delicious tobala (wild maguey) and a tobaziche – another wild maguey. The variation of flavors between the mescals was amazing, and I must confess that Tobala is probably my favorite of the varieties. We also tasted a pechuga – a mezcal that is distilled with chicken breasts and bones, that knocked my socks off. Then, more bottles were purchased, and an invitation made to return the following week to join a maguey cut, and see exactly how a harvest is done, the land it is grown on.  After, we dined on fried fish – mojarras – at a comedor and then made our way home.

And so what to do with so many accumulating bottles of mezcal? Prompted by a visit of SF friends, Jose Luis (long time chef friend here) and I talked about doing a pop-up restaurant here at my apartment complex. The idea was to create a mezcal pairing menu and come up with a 5 course menu. Aside – for future reference, it is not a good idea to do this the night before, as far too much mezcal needs to be tasted. I was sent to the market to procure the herbs and greens for the meal – a daunting task as I had no idea what much of the stuff was and could only go by smells, and that very important question – can you eat this.

So, 10 strangers sat around a large table and got to know one another, something made easier by the eclectic mix of personalities, and of course the mezcal. We dined on a salad made from herbs and verdologa and purple tomatillos with a chapulin dressing, shrimp agua chile (a ceviche) with pomegranate, fish roasted in a chile guajillo and hierba santa infused broth, a shrimp mole that had us all licking the plates and a dessert of basil infused cream with strawberries. It was divine, and a giant success. Here’s to more pop-up restaurants here in Oaxaca.

And then the next day it was off to Hierve el Agua to taste more mezcal. This time, a larger car, though god help us it was a brand new white jetta that was about to go on the ride of its life, up a winding rutted out road. Friends Max and Davina accompanied Jose Luis and I on this journey. It is a beautiful drive, and the town is famous for its sulfur pools of water and the original (and natural) infinity pools that hug the side of a mountain. Here we tasted various herb infused mescals and noted the flavor difference of the espadin. Terroir is a huge element in the flavor profile and the magueys change in flavor, much like grapes, depending on the soil and the altitude. And after some memelitas, tlayudas and tacos, it was back on the windy road to return to Oaxaca to drop off Max and Davina and to get ready to head out for the maguey cut the following day – a 4am departure from Oaxaca.

Of course, this was when I had to drive – 4 am, pitch black, a non-morning person navigator and many wrong turns. But driving through the valley as the sun began to rise was unbelievably beautiful, the sky turning a light purple, then orange and gold, casting shadows from the clouds over the rocky mountains. We arrived early and had an hour before we were to head out for the cut and so we decided to go visit my fiancé and pick up more of his mezcal. I was skeptical that you could do that at 6:30 in the morning, but there he was and there we were having to take the obligatory taste before having our bottles filled. A shot of mezcal in the morning is a helluva way to start the day.

A look inside the fermenting barrels.

And so the cut – a field of espadins whose spikey leaves had already been shaved from the piñas on a previous day. They were going to be cutting about 80-90 for a roast. They harvest about every two weeks to keep the process constantly going – roast, ferment, distill. All done by hand and in cutting maguey that means dealing with a piña that is about 2-3 feet high and as big around, each one weighing about a hundred pounds. Machetes, a sledgehammer, a shovel like device – these are the tools of the trade and after watching the back breaking work for almost 2 hours, I will never ever complain about the cost of an artisanal bottle of mezcal.

We returned to the Palenque, and moved a fermented barrel of maguey to the distillers, and then of course, began tasting more mezcal, making different blends. Note, it was not yet noon. Finally, we decided to go get some food at the same comedor, bottle of special blend mezcal in hand. This was where business would be discussed.

The fancy lunch

A side note about Alfonso, the palenquero. His family has been producing mezcal for eons, and they are in fact the producers for Pierde Almas, one of the most prestigious, and expensive, artisanal brands sold. Currently here in Oaxaca, it goes for about $120 a bottle – and I can pretty much guarantee that the majority of that stays with Pierde Almas and not with Alfonso’s family. They are master producers, with an understanding of artisanal food and beverage production that is mindblowing. But the reality is, the producers rarely have their marca or brand on their bottles of mezcal, and are rarely acknowledged as the actual masters of the mezcal.

So we had a long lunch over fried fish. Two bottles of mezcal on the table, the owner of the comedor joining us, and me sitting back and listening to the conversation flow before I said much of anything (shut up and listen is a great practice in situations like this.) I also knew I was being tested, or more to the point, they were also trying to get a read of me, and also see just how much mezcal I could drink, i.e. keeping up with the boys. With a few bottle of water, I did my best not to embarrass myself. And when I did finally join in the conversation, at a natural point after they had been talking about how to better market the artisanal products in Chichicapam, I spoke of my desire to put education about mezcal first and foremost in any business I would develop with them. I delved into the use of the words organic, natural, artisanal, prompting a huge debate.

A special blend for lunch – tobala/tobaziche

Let’s just say, they don’t think much of the word organic and think it’s bullshit given everything they do is completely natural and traditional and artisanal. Jose Luis tried to keep me from saying anything that could be construed as offensive, reminded me that some words were stronger than others and to thread lightly. It was three hours of fascinating debate about perspectives and how to educate the US market, and at the end, it was all-good and we headed back to the Palenque for more mezcal, including an oh so special Conejo – like a Pechuga, only with rabbit. One word – wow.

I passed the test.

The drive home was amazing, as my iPod spat out a random mix of Ella Fitzgerald and Neko Case and Nirvana. The day washed over us, its utter perfection, the joy of a friend’s presence, and of course that warm glow of mezcal coursing through our veins.