How to Love Mezcal

Thad Vogler learns that to truly understand mezcal, you have to surrender to it.
story: Thad Vogler
illustration: Nick Hensley Wagner

The road through Matatlán is lined with the shitty, cinder-block construction ubiquitous to Central America and Mexico. The floor of the valley is flat, baked and uninspiring—a dramatic contrast to the surrounding hills, which constitute a horizon of earthy greens of varying pallor, like something rendered by Georgia O’Keeffe.

As you travel further from Oaxaca City, evidence of mezcal production presents itself. Old, wood-paneled trucks, loaded with freshly harvested piñas, pass you in either direction; fields of agave with their thrusting, pale-green, turgid blades are visible all around; and palenques—distilleries—begin to appear with greater frequency. On this trip, Jay, my lead bartender at Bar Agricole, and I will continue for another hour past Santiago de Matatlán, the self-described capital mundial de mezcal, to Santa Catarina Minas, a village famed for its mezcals distilled in the ancient manner using small, hand-formed clay pot stills. It’s there that we’ll meet with Eduardo Angeles—or Lalo, as he invites us to call him—who sells mezcal under two labels: domestically, he has his own mark, Mezcal Lalocura, but internationally he uses the label Sacaparablas Mezcal Artesanal.

I was first introduced to Lalo by the city government of Oaxaca, who invited me down to meet with a few select producers. The Proyecto was intent on empowering producers to export and distribute themselves, rather than rely on third parties from the U.S., or wealthy Mexican exporters who operate the same way. The idea is for the capital—cultural and fiscal—to benefit these communities where the spirits have long been distilled.

Anyone who’s paid close attention to the fate of Cognac, Scotch and, more recently, tequila, has watched as foreign companies profit from the labor of the area—and not often to the benefit of the workers or the liquid. Following a number of large investments in the region from multinational liquor companies, it’s clear that artisanal mezcal is now big business. Lalo and his sister, Graciela, who runs Real Minero just down the road, are perfect examples of what’s good about Mexicans owning and distributing their own mezcal.

Lalo greets us with a machete in his hand, a prop that seems to underscore a dramatic scar across his left cheek. It adulterates an otherwise perfectly symmetrical, classically handsome face with broad cheekbones, a pronounced chin and dark, artful eyes that always seem to be on the verge of tears.

He guides us toward a broad, smoldering mound of earth being monitored by a few lethargic goats. The agave plant’s bulb, what we call the piña, is the heart of mezcal. Lalo buries his in a roasting pit with hot coals, cooking the sugars gradually over several days. Expert producers, like Lalo, will put a layer of espadín, the most common and abundant variety of agave used to produced mezcal, closest to the coals, shielding the more valuable layer of silvestres, or wild agaves, from the heat and smoke. Today they are roasting barril, a member of the Karwinskii family, that’s known for its green pepper and floral notes. We kneel and place our open palms against the warm earth of the roasting pit, pausing to smell the pleasantly acrid combination of earth, coals and roasting fruit.

Lalo then ushers us toward a concrete slab sheltered only by a simple roof of aluminum siding. Shallow troughs create a perimeter around the edge of this concrete foundation, where the roasted agave is pulverized for fermentation. I notice a wood chipper. Without being asked, Lalo addresses it. “The people who feel most passionately about using a large stick to smash the piñas are not the people who do it,” he says. “I have workers with shattered forearms. Young men who are weak before they are old.” When he says something like this, he pauses, often rubbing his right cheek, with the open fingers of his right hand, as though evaluating the quality of his shave.

In the more traditional palenques, the liquids are generally extracted from the roasted agave in one of two ways: The first is by tahona, a large stone wheel that is affixed to a thick post, anchored to a centerpiece and pulled by a donkey. The other method involves placing the roasted piñas in a narrow stone trough, then battering the agave with a long, 50-pound club fastenedwith a thick, bulbous head. Most of the labor is in lifting the tool; gravity assists in its descent and ensuing impact with the meat, causing rivulets of unctuous brown juice to flow toward rustic receptacles. While the human scale of this work appeals to the Luddite in me, I must defer to our host when he says it harms the workers.

Lalo waits a beat and smiles before hurling the blade of the machete he holds into the meat of a piña of tobaziche, another member of the Karwinskii family, while holding fast to the handle. The blade’s momentum is stopped about a foot into the piña before he withdraws it gracefully and buries it again, creating a V-shaped segment, which he secures with the tip of the machete and transfers to his left hand. With the machete under his arm, he segregates stringy segments of the agave heart and passes them around. He takes some himself and puts it in his mouth. We follow his example and enjoy, simultaneously, the reedy, fibrous flesh and the sweet liquid that our chewing forces from the vegetal filaments.

This experience of the base material is always so satisfying, not only because of the familiar flavors—acid, sugar, savory and bitter in unisonthat travel between the teeth, but also because touching and tasting the material places it in context. Mezcal is the effort to capture precisely these flavors, and they are wild. We diligently chew the rugged cud left behind long after its juices are gone, until, following Lalo’s example, we toss the spent agave into one of the shallow wood fermenting tanks.

The fermentation yields a thick foam at the top of the tank, so concentrated near the end of the long cycle that you can rest a glass on top of it without it sinking. Lalo sticks crucifixes in his ferments, as if they are mountains he’s climbed. When asked why, he replies, simply, “Soy Católico.”

Though he is not concerned with the label and would be distilling this way regardless, Lalo’s mezcals are “ancestral,” the most cherished and traditional of the three official categories of mezcal, which also include mezcal “industrial” and mezcal “artisanal.”Ancestral mezcal, by law, must be fermented in wood, clay, animal skins or tree trunks; the piñas must be crushed without a mechanical shredder; and agave fibers must also be included in the ferment and distillation, the latter of which happens over direct fire in clay pot stills.

Where most of the world’s distillers hasten fermentation with yeast inoculations, these fermentations begin naturally, as yeasts living around the distillery eat the sugars of the roasted agave. At my favoritepalenques, a variety of microbial life—from the rustic fermentation vessels to the air around the palenque to the children that frequent the distillery and plunge their fingers in the sweet ferment—is invited into the process. Like great cheese, great spirits can be the progeny of these microscopic colonies.

The fermentation yields a thick foam at the top of the tank, so concentrated near the end of the long cycle that you can rest a glass on top of it without it sinking. Lalo sticks crucifixes in his ferments, as if they are mountains he’s climbed. When asked why, he replies, simply, “Soy Católico.”

On the lower slab on the palenque, tiny hand-built stills are chugging away. These stills, which are made of clay, impart a loamy, soft quality that I love. Lalo squats by the still and interrupts the flow of the clear, new-make spirit with half a dried gourd, which he fills a third of the way before tasting it there on his haunches, with closed eyes. He stands effortlessly from his deep squat and hands the gourd to Jay with a mute nod. No language is necessary as we’re each consumed by exactly the same taste sensation—heady stuff.

When he asks if we’d like to eat, I suddenly feel sorry that we’ve had a large breakfast—on the last visit, we had a memorable meal with his workers.In a cinderblock shed with a corrugated metal roof, Lalo held court at a large table around which everyone was equitably seated: laborers, distillers and a few tradespeople in addition to Lalo’s family and us. A matriarch in the corner used a pot-bellied, wood-burning stove to heat large flour tortillas that were folded into quarters and served to us alongside golden mounds of scrambled eggs. Two dried gourd halves held red and green sauces, and we were all given large chipped bowls of Oaxacan hot chocolate. I couldn’t finish a plate without it being refilled, begging ultimately for them to stop.

Today, though, we will get a snack. One of Lalo’s workers has built a small mountain of fresh, wild fruit for their pechuga—a style of mezcal produced for special occasions. The spirit is infused with ingredients connoting opulence: fresh fruit, dried fruit, cured meats. Lalo’s is made only with wild fruits from the vicinity of Santa Catarina. We eat small, yellow bananas with firm, pleasing flesh and striking acidity, hard, tart oranges and slices of a midget pineapple, only about six inches in height and three inches in diameter. The flavor is inversely proportional to its size—almost a caricature of the acidic, sweetness of the larger versions I used to eat every day in Guatemala.

We finish the visit in Lalo’s home, tasting a multitude of his single-variety distillates. I begin to move restlessly from bottle to bottle, trying to make sense of them until I remind myself of what a bartender said to me at In Situ, a mezcal bar in the old town of Oaxaca City. I ordered three expressions of a wild agave called coyote and asked her to help me understand the flavors. “Gringos want to understand and talk about it,” she said, “but for us, it’s private.” It did not make sense to me initially, but I’ve thought about these words a lot over the last few years. Tasting something is an intense and very personal experience—an opportunity to get lost. To attempt to categorize it can remove us from the moment.

Back at Lalo’s I ease back in my chair and let myself relax, as I always do when I abandon the idea that I must be an expert. I pour myself some barril and sit with it for the next half hour. It’s a mutating kaleidoscope of greens and yellows—at once vegetal, then bursting with pineapple, earth, salt and sunshine. Unfiltered, undiluted, unmitigated by any additives—a great mezcal tastes entirely different each time you approach it. And it’s true: often the best way to understand it is to give up trying to, and surrender to its roaring beauty.

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