At a party not long ago, the kind of get-together where somebody handed me a ripe peach wrapped in Benton’s prosciutto upon arriving and an unmarked mason jar of moonshine upon leaving, the guy who lived in the house pressed a rocks glass into my palm. It held two fingers of clear, white liquid and a single ice cube. It smelled like tequila, which gave me all sorts of unpleasant flashbacks.
There’s spring break in a Mexican border town and a barber’s chair (I also think I remember handcuffs), as well as a nutty former boss who always shot Patron. I don’t like most tequilas, except as a vehicle for 2 a.m. excess, always with salt and lime. I don’t even really like margaritas. A friend of mine invented a drink he named the Corvette Summer, which uses blanco tequila, and, while it’s good on a hot day, it’s not something I’ll drink on the regular. So I wasn’t really looking forward to the glass in my hand. I glanced down at it.
“Mezcal,” I was told.
I’m a whiskey drinker. I didn’t know the first thing about mezcal or tequila. I didn’t know the difference between mezcal and tequila. But the stuff wasn’t at all what I was expecting. It was smoky, almost like expensive scotch. I was surprised and looked at the bottle. It was a single village Del Maguey, and later that night, suffering from the modern incarnation of black cord fever, I got on the computer and had about half a case shipped to me.1 My wife rolled her eyes when I bounced down the stairs to tell her. I eagerly awaited the care package, plotting a way to expense $600 of booze to the Walt Disney Company. There is something thrilling every time you get to drink On The Mouse.
Del Maguey makes what many folks consider to be the best mezcal in the world. “Make” is the wrong word. The company, founded by an artist named Ron Cooper, curates mezcal. It’s actually made by villagers in Mexico, using a recipe and method handed down from the generation before. Twenty-five years ago, wandering in the mountains of Oaxaca, Cooper found that each village had its own way of distilling liquor. It was hyperlocal. This didn’t bear the usual hallmarks of mass-produced booze, where the price comes from marketing campaigns or skull-shaped bottles. (An aside: Seriously?) At first, Cooper smuggled it back across the border, which eventually led to forming a legitimate export business in the mid-1990s, which benefits both Cooper and the villages. None of these mezcals had ever been bottled before.
“There are a lot of poorly made spirits,” Cooper says. “There are very few that are still made the old way, very slow, by people who care.”
Traditional mezcal, in case you’re a neophyte like me, is different than tequila, which originated as a form of mezcal made in the city of Tequila — think champagne versus sparkling wine — from steaming the blue agave plant. Mezcal is made all over Oaxaca, and involves smoking the heart of agave plants. Most trace its beginning to the Spanish using their distilling technology to amp up the traditional Aztec beverage of octili poliqhui. (This is a point of contention; recently, there’s been evidence uncovered of preconquest stills.)
A friend who’s been down to see it made described a barbecue pit with plants instead of pigs, which provided a moment of private Nirvana: realizing there is a place in the world that combines the making of barbecue with the making of booze. It’s a better marrying of interests than the strip club buffet.
The end product is an artisanal, quirky, working man’s liquor. It’s bottled at high proof; the stuff can knock you down. I quickly learned a few of the rules. Sip it. Shots are for college sophomores. Don’t look for worms. Worms are for tourists. The bottle includes a poem of sorts:
Para Todo Mal
Y Para Todo Bien
I liked everything about this. Most high-end tequilas have been hijacked by lemmings who order bottle service (Las Vegas and Miami nightclubs did to tequila what Brooklyn did to Pabst).3 But this was something I could get behind: a liquor made in villages, where recipe, microclimate, and water source create something that not only eased the sun down each day, but told a story about the people doing the easing.
I waited on the porch for the UPS truck to arrive. The box contained seven bottles from five villages. Together with a group of friends, I laid out the mezcal with some glasses and a pitcher of ice (my friend’s son, Jess, who is the coolest 10-year-old in America, looked at us and seemed to shake his head).
Over the next hour or two, we tasted each bottle.
Some we liked.
“It’s like a single malt,” Damian said.
Some we didn’t.
“I would put that in a lamp if the power went out,” Joe said.
We detected hints of black pepper and plum. We detected flashes of kerosene and laundry detergent. We actually took notes, tasted again, and came up with a mezcal cheat sheet, should you ever be in a bar that serves it or a store that sells it. My wife is a magazine editor, formerly of women-specific magazines, and she tells me this is called “service-y.”
Drive down the right dirt road, 7,000 feet in the mountains, and you arrive in Chichicapa. The Gulf of Mexico is over the horizon to the north. The label on the bottle shows the faint hint of a village, with mountains and a winding road. This was the mezcal I tried at the party, and it runs about 70 bucks a bottle. (Though a friend recently saw it for half that not sure if it’s a mistake at the store, but I need to make a short drive and buy them out.)
It’s the smokiest one we tried, and the one scotch drinkers will like the best. It’s made by a man named Faustino Garcia Vasquez. An article in Imbibe magazine describes him pouring mezcal into the ground by his family shrine before offering a taste, and that’s the image that’ll be in my mind the next time I drink a glass.
Men in straw hats start with a pit made of stones, layered in kindling, the suitcase-sized hearts of agave, and, eventually, a mound of dirt on top to make an underground smoker. A cross is kissed and placed on top of the pit. Several days later, the agave is ready for the clay pot still, which has a hose running in the top and a long stretch of bamboo coming from the side. A trickle of white liquid comes off the still into containers. This is mezcal as it’s made near the mines. Del Maguey gets Minero from the town of Santa Catarina Minas. I’ve done stories with miners before, hung out in gravel road shot-and-beer joints in West Virginia, and so, just by association, I have an idea of life outside the gaping holes in the earth. It makes sense that this packs a punch, at 98 proof. The first sip flares your nostrils.4
The South 11th Street Tonic
A little dry Vermouth
Green Chartreuse (We’re using this big, dark-green magnum bottle made by a 1,000-year-old order of monks. The stuff is insane.)
Mix ingredients to taste (everything except the tonic) in a shaker with ice, pour over ice, add tonic.
Santo Domingo Albarradas
The village has 300 people, at a high elevation, with a climate a lot like Hawaii. Two of those people, a father and son, make mezcal that tastes like black pepper. It’s spicy, and smooth. This is sipping liquor — like the first two, it goes for around $70 — and my friend Joe described it as the Buffalo Trace of mezcal. A great drink, and you don’t get dinged as bad as with the really high-end stuff. Which brings me to
It’s expensive, upwards of $200 a bottle. It’s rare. The process of making it includes a chicken (more on that later). Cooper knows of only three people in the world who do it.
The bottle is green, closed with a wax-sealed stopper, and on the back is an explanation. The craftsmen start with Minero mezcal and — as they’ve done for centuries — begin creating a special, small batch. They take apples and plums, along with bananas, pineapples, almonds, and uncooked rice, and add that to the booze. Then, a whole chicken breast is hung in the still as the third and final distillation occurs. The chicken, the story says, keeps the fruit from dominating the flavor. When the run is over, the liquor is hung in the family’s altar room, a blessing of sorts. I don’t know if this makes sense, but something like this was never meant to be tasted outside an incredibly small circle. The world is full of liquors made the same way for hundreds of years, or longer, some all the way back to long-vanished empires. There’s secret hooch cooked in remote villages on every continent. That’s how Pechuga would have remained, except that now you can order a glass or have it shipped to your house. It’s a miracle of globalization that it’s on my bar downstairs.
After the first sip, all four of us noticed the complexity. Don’t roll your eyes. I don’t wax about the bouquet of a bottle of wine, or the nose, or any shit like that. This isn’t just a twitch of bad food writing; there were a lot of flavors, stacked so closely it was hard to separate and identify them all. We called them out. Sake. Mint. Anise. Plum. This was the last mezcal we tasted and, afterward, I got a rocks glass, poured a drink, and went out on the front porch.
I understood the warning about not shooting it; all the work from the unseen villagers compels you to enjoy it slowly. This is a drink that tastes best when not wearing a watch. The melting ice, instead of simply cutting the liquor, actually enhances the flavor. The sun was setting, and families walked dogs down the street. Summer’s still going strong where I live, and this bottle will get me through a lot of afternoons before the heat rolls away.
Wright Thompson is the Murray Hotel Bar correspondent for Grantland. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Previously from Wright Thompson
A Yoknapatawpha Wake
Drinking the Last Bottle of Jim Beam
The Hunchback and the Lost Art of the Birmingham Dog
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