A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
My most recent writing assignment for Food & Dining Magazine has taken me into the exotic realm of mezcal, one of our planet’s most unique distillates, as well as the probable source of at least one superb literary insight.
“How, unless you drink as I do, could you hope to understand the beauty of an old Indian woman playing dominoes with a chicken?” ― Geoffrey Firmin (the Consul), in Malcolm Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano
Indeed, it is highly doubtful that Bud Light Lime might ever assist an aesthetic judgment in this manner, though it suffices very nicely for TIF bonding and bunker ductwork maintenance.
(As an aside, mezcal often is spelled mescal, as in Lowry’s novel, with Microsoft frustratingly opting for the latter usage in its Word spellcheck feature. Which spelling is proper? Given that most of Mexican sources consistently use mezcal, and mescal only confuses matters by suggesting a non-existent correlation with mescaline, I’m opting for the “z”. Perhaps someday Bill Gates will, too.)
As mentioned previously at NA Confidential, the former consular official Geoffrey Firmin is the main character in Lowry’s acknowledged literary masterpiece, a story that takes place in Quauhnahuac, the ancient name for present-day Cuernavaca. Lowry lived there briefly during the late 1930s, and then as now, the monolithic volcanoes named Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl loom over the city, both topping 17,000 feet.
The volcanoes don’t feature prominently in the novel’s plot, but their presence as backdrop is a smoldering, implicit threat of abrupt violence. This is indicative of the symbolic and metaphorical value of volcanoes throughout recorded history, as in the case of a contemporary writer describing them as "wombs spouting flame."
You wouldn’t necessarily compare a volcano to mezcal, although a bottle of champagne often is used to describe pressure building to a breaking point, a phenomenon with which white American males of a certain age are becoming depressingly familiar.
The Consul is a raging alcoholic on a fast track to oblivion, and mezcal is his drink of choice, lubricating a winding path from cantina to cantina as Lowry deploys Cuernavaca’s annual Day of the Dead festival to spread foreshadowing all around. Firmin was Lowry’s fictionalized mirror image, and yet while the writer’s own drinking problems occasionally were debilitating, his skill in painting word pictures of Mexican people and landscapes remain noteworthy even today.
For me, researching mezcal has been a refresher course in Mexican history, and a reminder that Americans actually know very little about it.
Sadly, my deadline has decreed the expenditure of far more time spent writing soberly about mezcal than devoted to instructional tastings of the elixir, but I’ve had nips and sips enough to suggest that further self-education in mezcal will be edifying, indeed.
Think of it as a journey: Agave → Pulque → Mezcal.
From the dawn of human habitation in Mexico, the region’s indigenous peoples knew that agave, a cactus-like “wonder plant” also known as maguey, was indispensable to their existence. Every part of the agave could be used to sustain human life. It was capable of providing food, clothing and the raw materials for tools and shelter.
The agave plant adapts to its hot, dry climate by hoarding water and harboring sugary sap, used traditionally both as a sweetening agent and the source of fermentable sugars. For thousands of years, the daily outcome of putting agave’s sugars to work was a milky, lightly alcoholic beverage called pulque.
Hence, my favorite foundational agave tale from ancient times. There was a clever tlacuache (opossum), who cracked the code and learned how use agave’s sap to ferment pulque. The opossum later was placed in charge of river design. Eventually it was noticed that rivers ran straight when the opossum was sober, but zigzagged unpredictably when he was hammered on pulque.
Much later, when the invading Spaniards brought alembics, or stills after the Arabic model, it became possible to concentrate pulque’s alcoholic content into a liquid far stronger. The result was mezcal, of which tequila is merely one variety according to rules governing denomination of origin.
Nowadays mezcal differs from tequila according to demarcated region; the type of agave used; and the manner of production.
Mezcal’s demarcated "source" region centers on the city and hinterlands of Oacaxa, and a few other surrounding Mexican states. The emphasis is placed on old-school techniques, of which some are more modern than others, though mezcal’s current notoriety and its value as an export seem firmly rooted in “small batch” thinking and practice. I hesitate to use the word artisanal, which nonetheless is appropriate in this instance.
For those palenques (farmhouse distilleries) foraging wild agave, the harvest is a time-consuming exercise in itself, akin to patiently searching for mushrooms or truffles. Agave resists domestication and its maturation is painstakingly slow, lasting up to ten years even for those semi-domesticated varieties that permit farming.
A mezcal producer might wait fifteen to twenty years for highly desired wild agave to become suitable for use, then spend hours extracting and transporting the piña (or heart, resembling a giant steroidal pineapple) from the top of a hill or bottom of a ravine, with the ultimate yield of only a few dozen bottles of exceedingly rare albeit extremely valuable mezcal to come from the effort.
Traditional fermentation and distillation are labor intensive and time consuming. The harvested agave hearts are pit-cooked for days on wood-fired rocks, then pulped and mashed by hand, or with a huge circular stone wheel (tahona) pulled by a horse.
The liquid pressed out by the tahona is called aguamiel (honey water) and resembles sweet, unhopped brewing wort. The aguamiel and leftover agave fibers are transferred to wooden for open fermentation with added water and ambient yeast (as with Belgian Lambic).
Stills are made from copper or clay. Mezcal is colorless like vodka and generally undergoes no further aging after distillation is completed, but the words Reposado and Añejo signify examples that have been oak-aged. Mezcal now is shipped around the world, fetching prices you’d expect from special Bourbons and Scotches.
Each stage in the conversion of agave into mezcal has the potential to alter the character of the finished product, making for a spirit wickedly adept at revealing the nuances of its terroir.
More than 40 types of agave can be used to make mezcal, and each one has its own distinct fruity flavors and aromatics. Roast and smoke are added when the hearts are cooked. Wild yeasts leave their own olfactory calling card during fermentation. Clay stills just might leave a sensation that copper ones wouldn’t.
It isn't hyperbole at all. Mezcal’s organoleptic kaleidoscope is vast and endlessly evocative, but it's moot if the agave runs out, and this is a consideration as mezcal's export value increases.
Can mezcal be sustained in environmental and human terms, and still retain the qualities that make it unique? That's the million-dollar question at present. Let's hope we're not witnessing the end times for an art form that originated so long ago.
At this point you may be wondering about the worms.
After first reading Under the Volcano more than three decades ago, my friend Bob and I decided to conduct field research on mezcal. We went to Cut Rate Liquors in Jeffersonville, which offered the largest selection of booze at the time, only to find precisely one bottle labeled as mezcal, complete with two deceased agave worms (dos gusanos) reposing at the bottom.
These worms were supposed to be the ultimate stamp of macho Mexican authenticity, but to us they contributed little to the drinking experience. In fact, the mezcal in which they were immersed itself seemed unspectacular, and soon we were back to mass-produced Pepe Lopez tequila and Dos Equis cerveza.
These days, there is broad agreement that the embalmed worms are little more than a marketing-driven distraction. However, it is both permissible and encouraged to crush worm larvae along with chili peppers and salt, a condiment called sal de gusano (worm salt), meant for dredging with orange slices to cleanse the palate between straight shots of mezcal.
Let’s hope mezcal's sustainability issues are resolved, and that it continues to find its way through Donald Trump’s projected Great Wall of Futility, to reach those of us right here in New Albany who need it so much.
Starting tomorrow, the mescaline sounds appropriate, too.
After all, we'll be padding the Consul's one-day, mezcal-powered barroom crawl to at least four years, and hallucinogenics are looking like the ideal pairing with worm salt.
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