Yes, mezcal is the stuff that used to have a worm in it.
Think of the Monte Alban label and whatever debauched, border hijinks you were into back in the day. But the worm has turned. Mezcal in the 21st century is not only safe in staid social events; it’s become a cultural phenomenon.
This is both good and bad.
Almost from its beginnings, the spirit — distilled in Mexico from more than 30 distinct and mostly wild varieties of the agave plant, had something of an outlaw aura about it. Spanish colonizers forbade its production, considering it “immoral.” Mezcal’s suppression didn’t diminish demand, but it did lead to smuggling, with many women disguising jugs of mezcal as babies, wrapped and slung across their chests.
Men sourced agave and cooked them in earthen pits, ground and fermented the concoction and distilled the spirit in rude, clay stills over pine fires. But women helped make the production a family tradition that continues to this day, with more women leading in distilleries and as the heads of respected companies such as Real Minero.
Today, the most serious — read expensive — mezcals depend on the wild plants harvested in remote locations. Espadín, the most common varietal, takes seven or eight years before harvest, while Tepextate, can take a quarter-century to mature. Mezcal is still largely made in small villages, some unburdened by electricity and the internet, generally located to the south and east of Oaxaca City.
I visited with local photographer Scott Martin, who traveled through Oaxaca with family and friends in 2015. Over the course of six months, he visited many small regional producers, who were happy to share and sell their sustainable mezcal.
These distilleries were “usually without electricity and cars, with only foot trail access to their property,” Martin said.
I was lucky enough to sample 10 of Martin’s mezcal varieties, and the range and depth of expressions of the mezcals was astonishing, with almost none of the spirits were smoky in the expected sense.
Bellying Up for Mezcal
You don’t have to go trekking through the wilderness to taste exceptional mezcal, however. You’ll find it here in San Antonio.
The Esquire Tavern was an early adopter in what has become a rush to mezcal, and the seasoned bartenders are more than ready to help you explore from the safety of a barstool. Ditto for Downstairs, the Esquire’s almost-subterranean extension.
At 1919, the basement bar at Blue Star primarily known for its whiskeys, owner Don Marsh is proud to offer an expansive list that also includes mezcal-adjacent spirits such as bacanora from the Sonora region and sotol, a non-agave spirit produced in northern Mexico and at Desert Door Distillery in Dripping Springs, Texas. The bar currently offers up to 19 options with more to come, Marsh said.
Flooded With Bottles
For those looking to enjoy at home, I recommend two things: a copy of Emma Janzen’s Mezcal, The History, Craft & Cocktails of The World’s Ultimate Artisanal Spirit, and a visit to Alamo City Liquor, 2943 Thousand Oaks Road # 3. Alamo City’s knowledgeable staff can point you in the direction of several amazing bottles, but be aware that the really good shit can cost over $100. If just starting out, let me instead suggest Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, a much less painfully priced, espadin-based creation by respected artist Ron Cooper.
Cooper learned about mezcal in 1970s Mexico and is widely credited with bringing the spirit to the American drinking public with the 1995 launch of the Del Maguey label, emphasizing the varietal and the village of origin.
The mezcal market has since flooded with bottles like those produced by Gracias a Dios and Rey Campero. Their back labels now not only indicate the varietal and village but also the method of grinding, type of still, number of distillations, date of production and name of the head mezcalero. Increased production, coupled with America’s craze surrounding anything “natural” or “artisanal,” has perhaps made mezcal a victim of its own ubiquity.
Fortunately, there are producers who are aware of mezcal production limits. The agave is wild, long-to-mature and essential as a bat- and hummingbird-pollinated resource. Several distilleries have established nurseries using seeds gathered from unharvested agaves. Wahaka Mezcal hosts a volunteer planting program — there’s no pay and you get yourself to Oaxaca, but they take care of you, if in non-deluxe fashion, once you arrive. Rough going, perhaps, but worth it, if only to help in preserving centuries-old cultural ways.
Safely at home, there are still things you can do. First, drink only the good stuff with all the appropriate specifics on the back label. Second, drink to Ron Cooper’s motto: “Sip it, don’t shoot it.” And finally, to keep it culturally connected, learn the Zapotec word for “cheers,” which is stigibeu.
You’re on your own with that pronunciation.
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