In 2008 photographer Caroll Taveras and I traveled through Mexico to learn more about a spirit that offers much more than a worm in it’s bottle. Mezcal is at once an ancient, revered mystical cure-all, sometime-prohibited outlaw and meticulously crafted moonshine. We learned much of it’s history but also a glimpse of its future.
I met Don Angeles at the weekend organic market, Pochote, in Oaxaca, mezcal’s spiritual home. He was rattling bottles of mezcal and asking passersby to sniff. I could sense his passion and could feel the legacy of generations of mezcaleros. After spending about an hour with him at his stand, I asked if I could come and see how the mezcal was produced.
Visiting his family home, fields and distillery, meeting his sons, eating with his wife and granddaughter, Caroll and I glimpsed a dying art. Mezcal may soon turn from the family and village-run operations to a much more standardized, stainless-steel future. This is happening via the intervention of the mezcal-governing body, COMERCAM, and the influence of Tequila, the town where an appellation of mezcal, the ever-popular tequila, is literally pumped out of factories. One day operations like the Angeles’ and the Los Danzantes distillery, where we got to witness the smoking of the maguey hearts in the ground (a days-long process that lends mezcal it’s distinctive smokiness), may be hazy memories.
For now, the smoky blancos, smooth anejos and oak-barrel-aged reposados from every corner of Mexico can be enjoyed for their distinctive, varietal-influenced flavors. Through slick bars in Mexico City (and now in New York at Mayahuel), serious tasting programs and regional gastro-tourism, there is still a chance to know more about what has been named as a cure “por todo mal” and recommended “por todo bien, tambien.”