Hunting the Wild: Mezcal and Oaxaca

Like the country, this beverage is wild

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By David Hammond

If Canada is our virgin aunt, reserved and kind, fundamentally decent, maybe yearning for a little more fun in her life, then Mexico is our somewhat wild older cousin, also fundamentally decent, with perhaps a rougher sense of justice, and given to escapades and wild excesses; he drinks mezcal.

Tequila, by far the better known and perhaps more beloved beverage of this country, is strictly name-controlled and, many times, the product of large scale production under the aegis of semi-mythical corporate personalities like Jose Cuervo and Don Julio.

Truth be told, tequila seems a somewhat more evolved drink, with more time and attention and pesos having been expended in its development toward becoming a world-class beverage.

Mezcal is produced mostly in Oaxaca, kind of like tequila, which is produced mostly in Jalisco.

Mezcal in Oaxaca seems largely the province of small producers, families who put their own names on the signs outside their buildings.

Driving up through Oaxaca from Huatulco to the state capital, Ricardo Torres, excellent driver and former chef, pulled over in Matatlan, a town that produces pretty much one thing: mezcal.

At ten years, the green agave plant (blue agave=tequila) is stripped of spiny leaves, and the resulting "pineapple"-looking plug is cooked, usually in a pit in the ground. This cooking process is critical; if you don't smoke the agave plugs, you get raicilla, which is not good (though I've had my share of it).

The "pineapples" are then ground up by a horse who walks in a circle for days, smashing the plant to threads.

 Add water to begin funky fermentation.

Distilling is next. Thank you, Spanish empire, for contributing this technology to the indigenous Zapotec-Mixteco, who already enjoyed pulque, also an agave-based beverage, though not distilled.

After that, the mash can be aged, for the anejo and reposados, in oak or other wood, or the mezcal can be consumed young, unaged, which is the preferred way for sommeliers (mezcaleros?) who wish to savor the fundamental promise of a batch. We tried it in many ways.

We tasted all of these El Palmillo mezcals, and based on The Wife's finer sense of taste, bought two, including a tobilo, which is made from a wild agave. Now, my experience is that wild plants and animals are frequently tastier than domestic varieties. The tobilo had an almost anise flavor, sweet, with a lot of dimension, and none of the petroleum notes I'd noticed with some of the crummier mescals I've swilled. The only available version was an anejo, so that's what we got (about 350 pesos, a little over 25 bucks). Being an aged version, it was smooth, and yet perhaps because wild, it had a punchy streak of personality. An excellent purchase.

Traveling on Mexican back roads high in the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca – kind of like riding out a hurricane – is scary fun, and I'm glad I didn't hear about narcotrafficantes offing journos until I got home, but of all the places I've visited in the past year, Mexico remains my favorite. I like the people, the food, the language, the history, the mezcal. I could live there. Maybe someday I will.

Headed back to Huatulco, Torres hit his brakes when we saw a serpentine line of cars backed up from a small white church that stood just outside San Jose del Pacifico, a hamlet with some underground renown as a source for psilocybin mushrooms, sometimes sold preserved in honey. We waited outside San Jose del Pacifico for a few hours.

Story is, the government had withheld some allocated funds (as in, they kept it for their own purposes), and this small village responded the only way they knew how: by blockading traffic for a day or days, as needed.

Torres chatted up the villagers. They were laughing and having a good time. Then he said, "You know, I have some tourists with me and we really have to get to Huatulco for a flight."

Their response, entirely predictable, was basically "Take another route, cabron, because you're not coming through here."

Torres said sometimes these guys have machetes. "It's about pride," quipped Torres. There was no way we were getting through, so we turned tail back to Oaxaca City.

A Federale showed up. They told him, too, to turn back and take another route. A blockade is a blockade. He left.

This bloqueado resulted in hours lost. It may still be going on, for all I know. But I liked it. It was wild.

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