Home Distilled Mezcal Sold on Beaches of Mexico
PUERTO ANGEL, Mexico- A great cheer went up from a crowd of fishermen on Panteon Beach as an old man drew near burdened under the weight of two large plastic gas cans. I rose to attention, for what was truly so great about a guy bringing gasoline over to some fishermen on a beach? This happens here all day long.
But this old guy was not selling gasoline out of those plastic tanks.
“Hey you!” one of the fishermen called out to me, “Do you want some?”
“Want some what?”
“Mezcal! He has mezcal!”
Clarity was thus achieved. I was already knee deep in a 1.2 liter bottle of beer as I laid back on the beach — my daily $1.50 extravagance — so saying that I did not drink to get out of this jam would not cut it. I looked at the gas tanks, I know there some old traveler rule written somewhere stating that drinking home brewed liquor out of such contraptions on the beaches of Mexico is a bad idea. But, soon enough, the mezcal vendor was at my feet, a wrinkly hand extended my way holding a gas cap full of his prized concoction.
The fishermen watched as I drank it down.
It tasted like something from a gas can.
Missing the subtle flavors of the mezcal that I have known, this stuff tasted like pure rubbing alcohol — bottom shelf aguardiente being the closest comparison in my experience.The liquor simply burned my throat as it went down — there was perhaps a reason why this stuff was transported in gas cans.
“This is made from agave, right?” I asked to be sure that what I had tried was actually mezcal, and not some other sort of bathtub liquor that had adopted the name.
The distiller nodded, and then added that he gets his agave from the mountains in between here and Oaxaca City. He then asked if I would like to buy some. I declined politely, stating that it was too strong for me.
“It is better than your beer,” the distiller claimed. “That has lots of chemicals.”
“True,” I admitted to this fact, “but my beer is very smooth, your mezcal is very strong.”
Strong was perhaps the politest word I could think of to describe the taste of his creation.
I then asked the distiller how long he had been making mezcal, and he answered that he had been at it for ten years and began selling it on the beach two years ago.
“How many days does it take to make mezcal, how long does it take to ferment?” I asked, making a good guess at what the Spanish word is for fermentation.
I guessed correctly, and the distiller answered that it did not take very long, 15 days.
With this, the mezcal vendor picked up his two gas cans and made his way down to the next group of men sitting on the beach.
“Para todo mal, mezcal y para todo bien también.”
For everything bad, mezcal, and for everything good too
Mezcal is made from the core, called the piña — pineapple — of the maguey type of agave. It was first documented as being made soon after the Spanish arrived in Meso-America. In its simplest form, mezcal is a conglomeration of the indigenous Mexican drink pulque with Spanish mash and distilling methods. It is said that when the Spaniards ran out of their stock of liquor in the western hemisphere they began hurrying around looking for a substitute. Knowing that the native populations made alcoholic beverages from the agave plant, they began experimenting, and soon came up with the recipe for mezcal — which is still pretty much followed to this day.
Oaxaca is the center of production of mezcal in the world, and it is often produced by small distillers — not unlike the one I met on the beach earlier in this story — who use the same methods that have been passed down between generations for hundreds of years. The process consists of cultivating the agave, removing the leaves, and getting down into its core. These cores are then gathered together and put into a roasting pit, set ablaze and buried with dirt and hot cinders. They are then left to smolder under ground for three days, after which the roasted cores are extracted and pounded into a mash. Liquid is then squeezed from the mash and is put in barrels to ferment. Often, turkey or chicken breasts are added to the mash for flavor. Distilling commonly takes one month to four years, but, as the mezcal maker in this story told me, 15 days is also enough time to make it alcoholic.
There is a common misconception outside of Mexico that tequila is bottled with a worm. This is not the case, as mezcal is the Mexican liquor that makes this claim. Although tequila is a form of mezcal — one that is made from blue agave and distilled twice — the tequila worm is a myth. Added to bottles of mezcal as as a marketing ploy in the 1940’s, the larva of a moth that often infests agave plants. Ironically, it is generally accepted that agave which are infected with these larvae produce vastly sub-standard mezcal.
The way that mezcal is drank in Oaxaca is to pour it into a cup — or gas cap, as I have found out — and drink it down. “Arriba, abajo, el centro, aldentro!”
For a number of years bartenders and spirits companies have been searching for a good drink to make with mezcal, but its naturally smoky taste makes it an unwitting candidate to be taken on by a signature drink, as tequila has been by the margarita. But it is common for mezcal to be made with a variety of fruits and other sweet substances, and these candied down versions of this originally biting liquor are becoming very popular with tourists in the south of Mexico.
In Mexico, mezcal is also sometimes thought of as an aphrodisiac. Which type of liquor isn’t?