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Primal Spirits

Ron Cooper
Smooth as Fire: New Mexico­based artist and mezcal lover Ron Cooper offers tastes of Del Maguey's Oaxacan mezcal masterpieces to brave and curious drinkers.

Handmade Oaxaca mezcals open a window on world-class sipping

By Christina Waters

MEZCAL. It's one of those loaded words that seems to produce a response in everyone. Laced with adventurous machismo, the name conjures up late-night drinking contests and monumental hangovers. Best described as a warm-blooded version of tequila, mezcal, when done right, is as righteous a sipping liqueur as many of the finest single malt whiskies.

But try telling that to the uninitiated, and you'll be greeted with howls, jeers and more than a few asides like "rot gut" and "moonshine." Let's demystify those stereotypes one by one, shall we?

Mezcal is one of the important drinks of rustic, rural Mexico--the traditional toast of choice at ceremonial occasions. While part of the very fabric of native Zapotec and Mixtec culture, mezcal's north-of-the-border mystique puts it high on travelers' tipple lists.

Like tequila, mezcal is made from the heart of the agave. Mezcal is distinguished from tequila by being distilled only once--with a notable exception we'll discuss later--hence the tendency to brandish more bite and burn than tequila.

Mezcal is usually produced farther south than tequilas, which are produced exclusively within a specific region that straddles central Mexico. Tequila is produced by steaming or baking the agave, rather than roasting. Mezcal is made from the heart of the agave or maguey plant. The heart is roasted and then ground into a mash. The mash is fermented, then distilled.

Oh yes, about the worm. There really is a point to that seemingly flamboyant fillip--the worm itself is a native resident of the mezcal-producing succulent. It doesn't frequent the agave commonly used to produce tequilas. So its presence in the bottle is an identifying signature, proof that you're about to knock back a shot of mezcal, rather than tequila.

Within the small group of mezcals available in the U.S., the colorful labels of Del Maguey stand out--and not just for visual reasons. In the quartet of exceptional mezcals imported by the Santa Barbara company, the handmade, the ancient and the organic converge with breath-taking and sinus-clearing results.


A taste test, plus Mezcal online.


Del Maguey mezcals sip the way they do because they are made according to 400 years of tradition. Four remote villages in the state of Oaxaca yield what amount to rustic versions of estate-bottled mezcals, each created by a palenquero who handcrafts no more than 3,200 bottles each year of this high-proof magic.

The company was born after New Mexico artist Ron Cooper became smitten with mezcals from isolated villages on a lengthy visit to Oaxaca seven years ago. Over the next few years of visits, Cooper built an alliance with four villages, whose men produce the liquor and whose women weave the colorful straw wrappers that encase each bottle.

Del Maguey's village producers use 100 percent agave espidin, which is grown for eight years before coming to harvest size. The heart of the enormous maguey is slowly roasted in earthen pits for three days. This step produces the smoky fragrance that distinguishes mezcals.

After being ground into a mash by horse-drawn stone wheels, the pulp is packed into wooden barrels for fermentation. Local spring water is added in minute quantities--the one and only thing added to these limited-edition mezcals. Fermentation occurs through the agave's own yeasts. Then, not one, but two distillations take place, rendering the final product as smooth as a Veracruz moon.

At close to 100 proof, these mezcals are capable of mind-altering enchantment and are best approached with the same respect one reserves for grappa or aged rums.

"People's use of mezcal down here," Cooper says, "and my interest in it, stems way back to pulque, which existed before distillation. The ritual use of pulque was enormous. The Aztec's 400 gods of pulque were representative of the infinite forms that intoxication takes. The native culture was sensitized to the immense release of being in an altered state--it's considered liberating."

Cooper points out that in indigenous mezcal circles "funerals last for days and days. The dead are laid out, and mezcal is served to everybody--people are encouraged to drink a lot to achieve a state closer to God."

Used as a ceremonial drink in southern Mexico, mezcal "is a crucial part of all fiestas, weddings, baptisms, funerals--it is not drunk as a cocktail or for everyday but in special circumstances," he notes, adding that elderly people often use mezcal for medicinal purposes.

Cooper says that this year Del Maguey will make a limited, 400-bottle edition of mezcal from wild mountain agave, tobala. "Tobala," Cooper explains, "means 'the plant that grows in high shady canyons.' It's about one-tenth the size of the giant plant--it's wild tasting and about 5 percent sweeter. A wonderful high.

"The high," Cooper sighs, "the high starts around the back side of my head where warm, soft, humorous thoughts start running around."

Del Maguey mezcals are available at some local restaurants, including Left at Albuquerque. For details on local retailers, call Del Maguey at 310/306-8076.

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From the August 21-27, 1997 issue of Metro.

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