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Mezcal Sold on Beaches of Mexico

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 [...]

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?”

Gasoline?

“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.

Mezcal vendor with liquor in gas cans

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.

Bottle of mezcal

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?

Filed under: Alcohol, Culture and Society, Food, Mexico, North America

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3411 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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5 comments… add one

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  • erik December 15, 2010, 12:37 pm

    Sounds like my kind of beach!

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com December 15, 2010, 5:09 pm

      Every beach with beer is your kind of beach haha.

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  • Bob L December 15, 2010, 4:01 pm

    One correction, or maybe just a refinement. You wrote: “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 are multiple parts to making liquor. To simplify, you first must ferment the sugars to make alcohol. This generally takes 3 or 4 days to complete for most things, much longer for some things such as some Mead recipes. Then the alcohol must be removed through distilation. This should take very little time, I suspect most batches are done in a day. THEN it should age, or rest. That can be done for weeks or many years. In a general sense, the longer it rests, the better it is, but it is also important as to HOW it rests. The initial ingredients are also important as are all other steps and details. Generally, when the distilation is complete, the liquor is VERY strong, usually twice as strong as what you would normally drink. 15 days is enough time to make a passable drink. Aging or running through activated carbon can improve the flavor, but proper aging can make a very tasty drink.

    I had some of the Thailand whiskey which is not known to be very good, but this was run through activated carbon, and tasted OK. Although I brew, I have never tackled distilling liquor. I have poked around some home made distillers, that were put together for experimenting with alcohol for vehicle fuel and have had a few tastes of moonshine, some good, some not. From grain to fuel “can” be done quickly, about a week. I would not want to drink this though.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com December 15, 2010, 5:17 pm

      Good addition. Perhaps the lack of time in the sitting process — only 15 days from start to finish — was way the mezcal that I tasted was so strong.

      Good point about the difference between distilling and aging, I just referred to the entire process as distilling.

      Thanks!

      Walk Slow,

      Wade

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  • Frank June 9, 2017, 4:55 pm

    “maguey type of agave”
    – Maguey is the Spanish word for 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.”
    -Mezcal was distilled here in Oaxaca long before the Spaniards arrived which has been proven by carbon-dating shards of a pot still. Pulque is fermented Agave juice.

    “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.”
    -the most common type of Agave, the Espadin is cultivatded but most of the many other types of Agave used for Mezcal are collected in the wild. Once the leaves of the Agave have been removed what’s left is the core or “piña” due to it’S pineapple-like appearance. The piñas are cut into chunks and then filled on top of hot cinders in a ground pit covered by volcanic rocks. Nothing is ever set ablaze. The Agave chunks are slowly and carefully roasted which can take one or two days. Uncovering the pit at the right time is crucial, – not too early or the batch will be undercooked, not have time to caramelize and create aromas – and not too late or it might be burned which ruins the taste. Usually the cooked Agave then is pressed and the juice fermetned, usually in open basins so whatever microbes are in the air get the fermentation going. No industrial yeast is used for real Mezcal, it all happens naturally.

    “Often, turkey or chicken breasts are added to the mash for flavor.”

    – nothing is ever added to the mash. Turkey or chicken breasts or a skinned rabbit are sometimes suspended in the distillation chamber so the alcoholic vapor has to pass through it. This is done for the Pechuga type of Mezcal that is distilled three times, After the 2nd destillation fruit, nuts and herbs are added to the spirit for a few days to marinate and filled into the pot still with the Mezcal for the 3rd distillation. Done right, this type of Mezcal is truly magical and rare.

    “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.”
    -distilling a batch of Mezcal is done in a day. The alcohol is “made” by microorganisms in 4-6 days más o menos, depending mostly on altitude. The closer to sea level and the more tropical the climate the less time it will take. I had palm wine in West Africa that was fermented for only one day.

    “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.”

    – as soon as something is added to the finished Mezcal it is not Mezcal any more and it can not be sold as Mezcal as stated by Mexican law. These are liqueurs and have as much to do with real Mezcal as Baileys cream Liqueur has to do with high quality single malt whiskey – nothing at all.

    You might have missed out on some great Mezcal there… if sampled out of an earthen cup and poured out of an expensive, “artisanal-looking” bottle you might have gained am entirely different impression. I recently had one of my Cuish Mezcal bottles re-filled with some excellent Mezcal Tobála that came out of a gas can…

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