Sunday, February 6, 2011
"How sensible to have had a mescal. How sensible! For it was the right, the sole drink to have had under the circumstances. Moreover he had not only proved to himself that he was not afraid of it, he was now fully awake, fully sober again, and well able to cope with anything that might come his way." - Malcom Lowry, Under the Volcano (1947)
Mezcal--a clear, spicy alcohol drawn from the roasted core of the maguey plant--is as deeply embedded in Mexican tradition as it is in the imagination of foreigners. Long produced in rural regions, for much of the twentieth-century mezcal remained in the shadow of tequila, its heavily distilled cousin. But this seeming lack of refinement is precisely what gives mezcal its allure. Whereas tequila is made only from blue agave, roasted and distilled in modern, stainless steel factories, local mezcaleros produce in small batches, roasting different varieties of maguey hearts in earthen hearths, then fermenting and curing the nectar in rough clay vessels. The resulting spirits possess a range of flavors that reveal the individuality and artistry of their provenance. Mezcales are often hot with peppery alcohol, infused with a campfire smokiness, but can also be sweetly fruity and insidiously smooth, or richly earthy with tones of bitter chocolate.
There is an odd duality about modern mezcal, however. As it has become increasingly chic in Mexico, and the number of trendy mezcalerías has exploded, the endearing qualities of small-batch artisanal production have become commodified, with printed labels proclaiming towns of origin. Simultaneously, many of the best mezcals are homemade, slowly traveling from down from the sierra, passed along chains of friends and acquaintances, sold or gifted in recycled plastic soda bottles, unlabeled and unpretentious.