In recent years, mezcal — tequila’s more interesting ancestor — has become a much buzzed-about spirit, showing up on menus at high-end bars and restaurants from New York to Moscow. But nothing about a typical mezcal distillery suggests a fashionable drink which can sell for $20 an ounce in a major metropolis: in fact, it’s more likely to put you in mind of a post-apocalyptic squatter camp.
A typical distillery is mostly open to the elements, with a roof made of old corrugated iron sheets or slate tiles, held up by wooden posts. Arranged on the dirt floor are several large pine barrels big enough for a man to bathe in, full of what looks like fermenting marshland with flies feeding upon it. At the edges of the space are mysterious piles of hairy-looking plant matter. Elsewhere, flames can be seen in the bottom part of a low brick structure housing a log fire, above which sit several deeply-colored copper pot stills, connected by ancient-looking tubes. There is a lot of smoke.
While your average tequila factory looks like the inside of a spaceship — pristine, full of gleaming metal ducts and tanks, plus an array of gauges and knobs — the most technologically advanced thing you’ll find in a mezcal distillery, or palenque, is a horse. The animal’s job is to walk in circles towing a half-ton concrete or stone wheel which looks like it belongs in an episode of The Flintstones. The wheel is used to crush the agave hearts which will be fermented and distilled to make the final product — the only part of the process that is no longer done by hand.
Mezcal, like tequila, is made from the pineapple-shaped cores of cooked agave plants, but the two drinks are very different. Modern tequila, whose primary ingredient must by law be blue agave, is essentially an industrial product, with a clean, somewhat neutral flavor that reflects a mechanized process during which the agave is typically steam cooked. Mezcal, on the other hand, is made in a rustic, artisanal manner which has changed little since the early days of the Spanish conquest. To roast the agave hearts, which can be from any of 40-plus species of the plant, they are buried in a huge earthen pit with rocks and burning wood for several days, before being crushed and fermented using wild airborne yeast (the flies on the open fermentation barrels help eat the sugars).
The result is a distinctly smoky, sometimes funky-tasting drink. The numerous variables in its production (not least of which is the hand of the individual maker), lead to a huge variety of flavors. Mezcals can be darkly fruity, grassy, spicy, chemical-tasting (particularly if the first part of the distilled liquid is used), or just straight-up boozy, since this is a spirit which can be 160-proof. If you put this variety in your mouth while visiting a rural palenque and standing in the hot sun, it seems as though the alcohol is evaporating through your nose before you can swallow it.
But relatively little mezcal is actually consumed where it’s created. The people who make it tend to drink beer after work, and the results of their labor are traditionally used during multi-day weddings which begin with the judge being given a shot of the good stuff, or at quinceañeras — Mexican “sweet 15” celebrations which, despite marking the birthday of a schoolgirl, are occasions for serious imbibing of strong liquor.
Mezcal is mostly drunk in cities, in bars like Loló in San Francisco or Mexico City’s Clandestina, one of the capital’s best-stocked mezcalerías. Clandestina’s owner, Karla Moles, has two brands of her own (Enmascarado and Milagrito Del Corazón) and she regularly visits Oaxaca in search of new varietals, which are arranged on the back wall of her small bar in traditional glass jars connected to hoses for serving. The place looks as though it belongs to a mad scientist who likes a drink or two.
Clandestina’s customers are mostly middle class urbanites, but the drink is made by campesinos whose families have been living and working in the countryside for generations, in areas where levels of formal education are not high. Until the recent boom in the drink’s popularity, many mezcaleros had little contact with Mexico’s cities — never mind the foreign countries where their product is now sold.
The best-known of the country’s mezcal-producing areas is the state of Oaxaca, where the family of Pepe Jiménez makes some extremely well-regarded hooch (theirs is the house brand of several restaurants in Ciudad Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s gastronomic hubs). Their line is named Don Isaac, after Pepe’s late grandfather — the family has been making mezcal for five generations, which is not uncommon in this community.
The Jiménez family create some of their product from farmed espadín, which can reach maturity in around seven years, but they also use wild agaves, such as tepextate. This plant needs to grow for around 25 years before it’s ready to be used, and the heart, or piña, from one of them can weigh over 400 pounds. “To get those wild agaves,” says Jiménez, “people have to go deep into the mountains to find them.” When a suitable plant is discovered and cut from the earth using machetes, it will be taken back to the palenque using donkeys, which can navigate the hilly terrain better than any vehicle. Jiménez adds that it takes around 40 pounds of tepextate to produce a single bottle, making it perhaps the most labor-intensive liquor in the world.
Which is all the more reason to treat it with the respect it deserves. In the United States, the rise of mezcal has mostly been through its use in cocktails, which is, frankly, a shame. No sane person would combine a 16-year-old Islay Scotch or Kentucky bourbon with fruit juice or other adulterants, and there’s no reason to treat this spirit any differently — especially if you want to savor its nuances. In order to really experience a good mezcal, it’s best to drink it like the Oaxacans do — not necessarily while officiating at a wedding or hanging out at a kid’s birthday party but, at the very least, neat.
Photography and additional reporting by Brian L. Frank