Oaxacan Life Distilled
I drank a few beers with my friend Rene as we watched working class Oaxacans slip into a midday buzz. Five to ten man bands playing strings and brass, something like Mariachi, took turns projecting out over the radio. Occasional commercials interrupted the sonorous voices and harmonic instruments while a human static burgeoning with conversation hunched over small circular tables spilled with beer, salutations and hand shakes between comers and goers strangers and friends, and clanking glass accompanying every movement, filled the cold, shell of a room up to the rafters with a communal warmth. Two young men asked to sit with us and inquired my origins and other niceties. Their eyes lacked focus and gazed passed anything and anyone. A liquid filmed membrane coating the eyes forsook their sobriety. They started to share completely incoherent tangents. I inconspicuously glanced at my watch to discover the time, 1:45 PM, and then visualized the route home, anticipating the frustration at our tardiness. Waiting with tapping feet at the door, Sara and our two new Australian friends made sure to highlight the time as Rene and I grabbed jackets to ward off the the cool mountain air at the Mezcal farm we were supposed to be riding to already.
We rode the bus to a town called Santa Catrina Minas. Of course, the bus was full; I was standing with my crotch in someone's face, a different ass was also in that face, and that face was Sara's. The bus undulated and jerked spontaneously according to the divots, vagabonds, and oblivious drivers carpeting the road. Consequently, Sara spent most of the ride dodging waistlines and I rocked along the edge of my feet in circular, last-bowling-pin-standing patterns. Shoulders bumped shoulders and my left hand held held the metal bar above while my right attempted to read Patrick Leigh Femor's, A Time of Gifts, on the dimmed screen of my iPhone. Usually I can read on a bus; however, the constant motion along with Femor's unrelenting vocabulary kept me to under two pages an hour. I spent most of the time staring at the screen as the brightness automatically adjusted and my body between left hand and Teva substratum whipped like a sheet in the wind. It was equivalent to a voluntary medieval racking. Fortunately, I had the ability to let go when we arrived to Santa Catarina Minas.
Descending the bus's staircase we walked on a dirt road to a line of pickup trucks. One of these chariots carried us the remaining five miles through the countryside to our final destination: Mezcal Distillery Lalocura. Given our dilatory arrival, we had no expectations for our guide to be waiting and wandered through the front yard towards the house. An old man unloading freshly cut agave near a covered patio saw our confusion. He waved us forward with thick, leathery hands and summoned a younger man to walk us through the distillery and educate us on the Mezcal process.
Mezcal is a bit of a mystery to those of us north of the border. Smoky and strong, our mental models yearn to place it with Scotch; however, as the smoke lifts, something raw, viscous, and delicious remains. It smoothly coats the mouth revealing a slightly sweet, vegetal flavor, usually finishing with a subtle bite. Sitting at at least 45% ABV the bite can be anticipated. Watching the Mezcal process only intensifies the fascination. Mezcal is made of the same products as tequila: agave. Making Mezcal even more enigmatic, the most prized varietals are made from wild agave that can not be cultivated and is hunted like truffles. Many of these wild varieties require up to 30 years to reach maturation. The process differentiates Mezcal from tequila. Whereas tequila production utilizes modern, galvanized equipment, the Mezcal Maestro's intransigence continues production with a dirt hole in the ground, superheated stones, wooden, open fermentation vehicles, and a small copper still with a copper bowl full of cool water above the boiling Pulque (fermented agave juice) condensing the alcohol vapor and feeding it into a wooden chute and into a collecting bowl. Oaxacans prefer Joven (young) Mezcal and firmly believe that any aging or mixing jades the product. As far as I can tell, consensus stands firmly in the past: any industrialization will strip away the unique qualities of the product.
The stone lined dirt pit stained black with thousands of burns permeated the air with sweet and roasted smells. Our cicerone provided strips of the cooked agave as we walked past the spontaneously fermenting barrels. The magical, fruity smell of working yeast complimented the dark molasses, vanilla, and nutmeg flavors of the agave in our mouths. With nothing distilling, our guide gave a quick explanation about the distillation process and handed us over to the Maestro.
The Maestro is like the brewmaster in a brewery or head stiller in a whisky distillery. He led us to the front door of his house. Walking in, I realized that the residence doubled as a storage facility: glass carboys filled with various styles of Mezcal lined the walls in dueling phalanxes. Each carboy carried a paper label with the classification designated in black marker. The maestro looked at me and asked a question filled with the little Spanish that I knew: "De donde vives?" In my excitement I replied, "Seattle!" Further questions followed and I fell off kilter: more concerned about my parochial Spanish vocabulary than trying to pick up the bits I probably did know. The conversation ended quickly and in retrospect wasn't as embarrassing as I first perceived. He led the five of us to his kitchen table, brought three glasses per individual, sliced oranges, and gathered cheese.
The process of tasting and understanding the characteristics and flavor of Mezcal was also very unique. The Maestro transferred Mezcal from the carboy into a bowl. He then poured it into a large metal funnel - similar to the kind you may use while changing oil - holding his thumb over the narrow spout on bottom. The next two steps were very interesting. He held the funnel two to three feet above the bowl, shifted his thumb aside leaving a thin crescent opening, and aimed the stream of cascading Mezcal back into the bowl in order to aerate the liquid. The light above the table irradiated the tiny prisms, or "pearls", indicating a quality, unadulterated Mezcal. Next, from the bowl, he poured a splash into our hands and encouraged us to rub our hands together and smell the consequent aroma. The texture was slightly oily and the smell vegetal and lurkingly sweet. Finally, after the dogmatic ceremony, the Maestro released two ounces into each glass to drink. Given the escalation from carboy to glass, you can be certain that "shooting" the liquor was completely off limits: Mezcal is to be sipped, contemplated, and appreciated. Well, after sampling two ounces apiece of seven or eight varieties, the line between my gustatory memory and personal history perforated. I was taken back to the first feelings of warm drunkenness and remember the morning light over Taipei after a night of hard drinking before going to bed; the harsh awakening of grappa after an uncountable coursed Italian dinner in the Venetian coutryside. This all happened before my senses even responded to the drink approaching my mouth. When sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch took over I processed the clear liquid refracting the kitchen light onto the table. The subtle alcoholic sharpness entered my nose first, followed by fresh green aloe and then candied sugar. I feel the piquant alcohol sting my lips before tasting anything, and its brief edge sheared my palate; smoke engulfed the inside of my mouth and drifted through my nose with the internal circulation of breath; the flavor train rolled into the vacuum carrying tart citrus, green leafed freshness, and finished with lingering anise. The viscous lining within the mouth endured and eventually diluted into saliva. The process, a chiasmus, ends as it began: with memories.
Nearly lost in the joy of the evening, hunger pains brought me back. We all bought a bottle of our favorite variety and rushed towards the kitchen behind the house. The cool air intransigently fought the setting sun for my sobriety. A window framed the oven heated by a spitting fire. A man and a woman huddled over it cooking fresh tortillas, beans, and carne as smoke crept into the room and funneled up the chimney. I followed the chimney up to the smoke exiting the building. Tracking the ascending smoke, my vision intersected the ridge line on the horizon where a sliver of sun remained, projecting halcyon rays onto the Oaxacan champaign. Descending along the beam I now saw the spectrum of color: the thin black horizon line; the purple and indigo hillside; the red piedmont; orange and yellow agave leaves. Above, flaming pink clouds dotted sky blue. I waited for the brief green light beyond, splitting the day from night; it did not appear that evening. I walked through the breach into the kitchen where the warmth of the the hearth staved off the cool night air and the sobriety that follows.