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Spirit of Mexico Packs a Bite in Every Bottle

Submitted by Tequila.net     July 18, 2008     12862   0

The cast members of the 1964 film The Night of the Iguana were the first to introduce tequila to the US, distiller Doug French, owner of Scorpion Mezcal, explains as he ferries our small group in a 1970s Dodge van to his operation on the outskirts of Oaxaca City in southwest Mexico.

In the film adaptation of Tennessee Williams's play, a defrocked Episcopalian clergyman leads a busload of middle-aged baptist women on a tour of the Mexican coast. While shooting in Puerto Vallarta, actors Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr discovered the local spirit. Cast and crew took back tequila, native to the state of Jalisco, to share with their Hollywood friends once filming was over. Its sales have been strong ever since.

Tequila is a form of mezcal, French tells us. The state of Oaxaca is the official and traditional home of mezcal-making in Mexico. Derived from the heart of the spiky agave plant, this smoky spirit is the oldest distillate in the Americas. Zapotec Indians learned distillation 400 years ago from their Spanish conquerors, who had picked up the craft from the Moors 700 years earlier.

Tequila must contain only 51 per cent agave spirits. To merit the mezcal designation, however, it must contain 100 per cent agave spirits and be bottled in Mexico. And tequila is made from only one type of agave while mezcal can be made from up to 28 varieties.

Our host and guide is not a defrocked preacher but an American expat and the son of a former diplomat to Oaxaca. French is one of about 300 Oaxacan mezcal distillers and a relatively new player in this increasingly popular world. He trained under a Zapotec mezcal master and launched his own brand in the late 1990s. The small distillery now produces 6000 litres a month. French's six varieties of mezcal are available in the US, Canada and Australia and mezcal under the Scorpion label will soon be introduced into Europe and Asia.

The marketing bite for French is a small Oaxacan scorpion at the bottom of every bottle, with the macho dare "Worms are for wimps", since mezcals traditionally contain that infamous drunken worm.

Beyond the marketing hook, Scorpion brand premium and super premium mezcals are handmade in small quantities and each bottle is individually numbered. Produced in a small artisanal distillery, or palenque, these award-winning mezcals exhibit similar complex subtleties to a cognac and are far superior to bulk-made tequilas. French has garnered a swag of accolades to prove it.

In 2003, Anejo One Year Old was chosen spirit of the year by Food&Wine magazine, and Wine Enthusiast magazine named the Anejo Five Year Old one of the top 50 spirits of 2005. In the recent Spirits of Mexico competition in San Diego, French entered his six brands and won gold medals in most of the six categories.

Given this track record, I am curious to see the operation. We drive into the rough-hewn parking lot of the distillery and the first signs of the business within are the massive hearts of agave lined up for processing. Nearby, I spot a row of stainless-steel holding tanks and a small adobe building that resembles a hut. My curiosity is piqued.

Only the heart of the agave plant is used to create mezcal, French tells us. They are steamed for 54 hours in the hut-like oven at between 80C and 95C.

Once steamed, the plant hearts are processed by hand and machine. French leads us through his factory to where stoic young women in blue coats and red rubber gloves chop the cooked hearts with small hatchets, then feed them through a shredder and presses to extract the brown liquid for fermentation.

The fermentation and distillation room contains a hodge-podge of new and old equipment. There's a rudimentary, hand-made feel to the entire facility. It takes five to 15 days for fermentation, French says. Once the agave is fermented, it is double distilled and ready for ageing.

The freshly distilled clear spirit is bottled and branded as joven (young) while the slightly smoky reposado (rested) sits for between two and 11 months.

With reposado, French has distinguished himself from his competitors through a lengthy ageing process. In the warehouse area, imported French oak barrels are stacked high and the four levels of aged (anejo) product remain here for more than 12 months. The oldest and finest anejo product in stock has been aged seven years.

Before we hit the tasting room, French has one more stop: the scorpions. A young woman sits matter-of-factly at a table with a large container of scorpions she's preparing for use. The scorpion is placed inside every bottle while a tiny sombrero is hung from the neck.

The last stop of this two-hour tour is the capper. French pours sample tastes of the joven and the anejo into tiny cups. It's not yet noon, but the flavour-filled mezcal goes down very smoothly. Everyone is smiling, talkative and a little tipsy as French loads his secular middle-aged group back into the van. Like the giddy cast of The Night of the Iguana, we are mezcal converts.

www.scorpionmezcal.com

Source: http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au
THE CURIOUS COOK: Patricia Robertson

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Mezcal Renaissance

Submitted by Tequila.net     January 02, 2008     13502   0

New quality controls are helping drink dump its rotgut reputation

SANTA CATARINA MINAS, Mexico — Centuries before anyone ever heard of a margarita machine, before tequila shots became a rite of passage and "with or without salt" entered the bartending lexicon, Mexicans were distilling the exotic fruit of the agave plant.

They didn't call it tequila back then. They called it mezcal.

But unlike the famous concoction that gave the world household names such as José Cuervo and Don Julio, mezcal — the "poor man's tequila" — has nourished an inferiority complex for decades.

Finally, thanks to new quality-control measures and increasingly successful micro-distilleries, fans of the forgotten drink are touting a mezcal renaissance: Exports are rising, new plants are being built and food critics are gushing.

"True mezcals are like the finest wines in the world," said U.S. mezcal importer Ron Cooper in Taos. "They change because of the microclimate and the hand of the maker. And they're incredibly diverse in flavor."

Many Americans know mezcal as the clear elixir with the worm in the bottle, thanks to a 1950s-era marketing gimmick. Traditional producers never sold it that way.

The worm was bad enough, but years of lax quality control and adulterated exports also gave the ancient brew a rotgut reputation, which authentic producers now find hard to dispel.

Even in Mexico, where Kentucky whiskey and island rum have pushed aside traditional drinks, many have lost touch with the taste of authentic mezcal. Mezcal maker Eduardo Angeles recalls the reaction he got from an 82-year-old man who recently tried his hand-crafted Real Minero.

"He said, 'I thought I was going to die before tasting another mezcal like that,' " Angeles said.

Maguey is the common word for agave — Greek for "noble plant." Long before Columbus reached the New World, indigenous tribes used it for clothing, construction, food and, yes, alcoholic beverages. But researchers say Spanish conquistadors first distilled the fermented maguey drink, known as pulque.

Though agave-based beverages can be found all over Mexico, mezcal is particularly common in old mining towns. The Spanish discovered that workers tolerated the awful conditions better with a shot or two, said Sergio Inurrigarro, the president of the Cultural Association for the Promotion of Mezcal.

The new quality-control laws and a rigorous certification process — now required for all exports — are beginning to redeem mezcal's reputation, promoters said.

After the regulations took effect in 2005, mezcal exports dropped as producers struggled to meet the new requirements. But exports to the U.S. are up 5 percent in the first half of this year compared with last year, U.S. trade figures show. And Beneva — which bottles the widely available Monte Alban mezcal — inaugurated a modern $1 million plant Sept. 11 in Oaxaca in southern Mexico, the epicenter of Mexican mezcal production, that's the largest of its kind to date.

However, mezcal hasn't entirely outgrown its rough and ready reputation. Although the worm seems to have outstayed its welcome, a new brand has made a big splash by bottling a different kind of critter. The label says it all: Scorpion.

A DRINK’S HISTORY

The word mezcal means “cooked maguey” in the Nahuatl language, historians say. It was the stuff of bootleggers until 1795, when José Cuervo got a permit to make “mezcal de Tequila,” or “mezcal from Tequila,” the municipality of Tequila in Jalisco state.

In other words, tequila is and was the locally produced mezcal, even if modern-day tequila manufacturers would like the drinking public to forget its humble origins.

But diversity is mezcal’s strength: While tequila must be made from blue agave, mezcal can be distilled from dozens of species. And just as wines vary by grape variety and geography, mezcal changes from village to village and from one maguey to the next.

Production techniques vary, too, but traditional mezcal makers, unlike their steam-cooking counterparts in tequila country, roast mature maguey over wood. That’s what gives true mezcal its unmistakable smoky flavor.

“In tequila, it’s like starting with a boiled onion,” said Cooper, the importer of Del Maguey mezcal. “In mezcal, it’s like starting with a roasted, caramelized onion.”

By Jay Root | McClatchy Newspapers

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Mexico Mezcal Loses Image as Poor Mans Tipple

Submitted by Tequila.net     November 20, 2007     13017   0

OAXACA, Mexico (Reuters Life!) - Mexico's traditional spirit mezcal, infamous as a firewater drink of the poor and for the worms bobbing around in its bottles, is suddenly cool and growing in popularity.

The mezcal craze is not only sweeping through Mexico City's trendiest neighborhoods, it is also changing the feel of rough-and-ready cantinas in its home state of Oaxaca.

La Casa del Mezcal, or The Mezcal House, in the colonial state capital Oaxaca has served the agave plant drink since 1935 but only used to be visited by construction workers, old men and a handful of tourists. Those times have changed.

"Now young people, women, locals and many foreigners also come to drink mezcal," says Eleuterio Vicente Vazquez, its manager for more than 10 years.

Hundreds of miles away in Mexico City, fashion designer Paola Hernandez meets with friends in one of the capital's hippest bars. But instead of a fancy cocktail, she orders a mezcal.

"It is new, popular, more sophisticated and artistic," says 24-year-old Hernandez, comparing mezcal to its better-known cousin, tequila.

Mezcal is made from water and cactus-like agaves roasted in oven pits. Aficionados say the best ones have a smoother taste and a more sharply defined agave flavor than tequila.

Many brands have worms or even scorpions bobbing around in the bottle and the drink is traditionally accompanied with "sal de gusano," a mix of salt, red chili powder and dried worms.

Two years ago, five friends traveled to Oaxaca, famous also for its indigenous markets and spectacular ruins, and after visiting its micro distilleries they decided to open a Mexico City bar called La Botica specializing in the tipple.

"Nobody knew about it in the beginning. Now it's always full," says Emanuel Nino, the manager of the original La Botica in the fashionable Condesa neighborhood. The owners have since opened four more bars using the same model.

YOUNGER AFICIONADOS

Cornelio Perez, who has held weekly mezcal tastings in different bars in Mexico City for almost two years, says interest in the drink is spreading.

"People want to know more, there is more interest and it is more fashionable," says Perez, adding that only older people were interested in his tastings at first but now younger people have started turning up.

Mezcal's rise has come amid turbulent times for tequila, which is mainly made in the western state of Jalisco.

Tequila saw a boom in the 1990s, but then suffered a dearth of the agave needed to make it. It started to become scarce and tequila makers started mixing other sugars to make the liquor.

"Quality dropped and consumers started looking for different options, discovering mezcal," says Perez.

To keep up with climbing demand, 12 new mezcal production plants have been built since 2005 and others are in the works.

Oaxaca's state government has invested $1 million in promoting mezcal, up from a paltry $50,000 in 2005.

The Mexican Regulatory Council for Mezcal Quality says the registered national output of certified mezcals in the first seven months of this year was 138,130 gallons (531,271 liters), already well above the total output in all of 2006.

"We expect this growth to continue," says Porfirio Chegoya, commerce director of the Oaxaca government. Real growth could be even higher as many mezcals are not certified and there is no reliable estimate of total output.

But some aficionados are worried about the rapid rise of mezcal's popularity and about the move away from its humble roots, with exports of mezcal also growing rapidly.

"Homogenization, massification, and industrialization led by growing demand and popularization can be a threat for the culture of mezcal," says Perez.

"This is a drink made by small cooperatives. The moment you kill that connection, the tradition dies," he says.

Source:
www.uk.reuters.com
By Lina Yoon

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Mezcal - tequilas kindred spirit - is making a comeback

Submitted by Tequila.net     October 11, 2007     12988   0

SANTA CATARINA MINAS, Mexico --
Centuries before anyone ever heard of a margarita machine, before tequila shots became a rite of passage and "with or without salt" entered the bartending lexicon, Mexicans were distilling the exotic fruit of the agave plant.

They didn't call it tequila back then. They called it mezcal.

But unlike the famous concoction that gave the world household names such as Jose Cuervo and Don Julio, mezcal -- the 'poor man's tequila'-- has nourished an inferiority complex for decades.

Finally, thanks to new quality-control measures and increasingly successful micro-distilleries, fans of the forgotten drink are touting a mezcal renaissance: Exports are rising, new plants are being built and food critics are gushing.

'True mezcals are like the finest wines in the world,' said U.S. mezcal importer Ron Cooper in Taos, N.M. 'They change because of the microclimate and the hand of the maker. And they're incredibly diverse in flavor.'

Many Americans know mezcal as the clear elixir with the worm in the bottle, thanks to a 1950s-era marketing gimmick. Traditional producers never sold it that way.

The worm was bad enough, but years of lax quality control and adulterated exports also gave the ancient brew a rotgut reputation, which authentic producers now find hard to dispel.

'People are afraid of it. They don't know it can be a high-quality item,' said Brady Matthews, bartender at Reata Restaurant in downtown Fort Worth, Texas, which serves explosively tasty Del Maguey. ``A lot of people think mezcal is a dirty liquor, not refined as much.''

Even in Mexico, where Kentucky whiskey and island rum have pushed aside traditional drinks, many have lost touch with the taste of authentic mezcal. Mezcal maker Eduardo Angeles recalls the reaction he got from an 82-year-old man who recently tried his hand-crafted Real Minero.

He said, 'I thought I was going to die before tasting another mezcal like that,' Angeles said.

'Maguey' is the common word for agave -- Greek for 'noble plant.' Long before Columbus reached the New World, indigenous tribes used it for clothing, construction, food and, yes, alcoholic beverages. But researchers say Spanish conquistadors first distilled the fermented maguey drink, known as pulque.

The new quality-control laws and a rigorous certification process -- now required for all exports -- are beginning to redeem mezcal's reputation, promoters said.

Some traditional producers are finally enjoying commercial success. Los Danzantes and Los Amantes are exporting small quantities and Del Maguey has seen its business grow 15 percent. 'There is definitely a niche for such a product,' said Bill Shehadeh, who sells Del Maguey at Select Wine & Spirits in Sacramento, Calif. 'The people that do drink it... they're just in awe that we have it.'

Mezcal still represents a tiny fraction of tequila-dominated liquor exports from Mexico. Shehadeh said the problem was that large tequila producers devoted millions to advertising, while mezcal makers were struggling just to let people know they weren't putting out worm-laden, rotgut liquor.

After the regulations took effect in 2005, mezcal exports dropped as producers struggled to meet the new requirements. But exports to the United States are up 5 percent in the first half of this year compared with last year, U.S. trade figures show. And Beneva -- which bottles the widely available Monte Alban mezcal -- inaugurated a modern $1 million plant Sept. 11 in Oaxaca in southern Mexico, the epicenter of Mexican mezcal production, that's the largest of its kind to date

However, mezcal hasn't entirely outgrown its rough and ready reputation.

Although the worm seems to have outstayed its welcome, a new brand has made a big splash by bottling a different kind of critter.

The label says it all: Scorpion.

BY JAY ROOT
McClatchy News Service

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Mezcal Film from Director Ignacio Ortiz

Submitted by Tequila.net     August 06, 2007     14020   0

Director Ignacio Ortiz's film 'Mezcal' takes a page from Malcolm Lowry's 1947 novel

By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY -- There's a saying that people here use when knocking back a shot of mescal, the spirit distilled from the agave plant with a fiery sting like the devil's own pitchfork: "Para todo mal, mescal. Para todo bien, también." For everything bad, mescal -- and for everything good, as well.

Malcolm Lowry, the British author whose 1947 novel "Under the Volcano" is easily the best book ever written about mescal and whose own battles with the bottle were the stuff of legend, undoubtedly would have toasted to that judicious proverb.

Set in 1939 in the Mexican provincial city of Cuernavaca (which Lowry called by its Aztec name, Quauhnahuac), "Under the Volcano" chronicles the final tragic hours in the life of Geoffrey Firmin, a dipsomaniacal British consul unable to shake his personal demons. Miraculously reunited that morning with his estranged actress-wife, Yvonne, the consul squanders his last chance at redemption and, through a string of inebriated misunderstandings, is killed and flung into a ravine.

Critics repeatedly have declared "Under the Volcano" to be one of the 20th century's literary monuments. Lowry's prose has provoked many imitators, and his masterpiece inspired a 1984 movie adaptation directed by John Huston, starring Albert Finney and Jacqueline Bisset. Though written by a Cambridge-schooled Englishman, "Under the Volcano" is revered by many Mexicans for being among the most discerning modern depictions of their country's convulsive and incendiary character, along with Juan Rulfo's "Pedro Páramo," published eight years later.

"It's an English novel, its point of view, but it's a Mexican tragedy," says Mexican screenwriter and director Ignacio Ortiz, who first read Lowry's book 30 years ago. "For me, it's the great modern Mexican tragedy about Mexico."

Now Ortiz has become the latest artist to borrow a page, or several, from Lowry, who died 50 summers ago. In his feature film "Mezcal," which finally has reached theaters here after repeatedly being rejected by distributors, Ortiz uses "Under the Volcano" as a jumping-off point into his own sulfurous odyssey.

"Mezcal" bears little resemblance in plot to "Under the Volcano," but it channels the novel in subtle ways, thematic and imagistic. When he first considered making his film several years ago, Ortiz says, he deliberately erased the book from his mind, because "there would be the temptation to make an adaptation of the novel, and the novel is unadaptable."

Though he calls Huston "a great, great director" who knew Mexico well and made other movies here including "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," he thinks that Huston's "Under the Volcano" fell short, partly because so much of the novel's action occurs inside the consul's mind. Huston "tried, but he did not obtain the substance of the novel, its soul," Ortiz says.

Shot on a sinewy $1.3-million budget over six weeks in 2004, "Mezcal" (which uses the traditional Mexican spelling of the word) was shunned by most Mexican distributors despite strong critical notices and its winning several Ariel awards, Mexico's equivalent of the Oscars. When distributors passed again and again on "Mezcal," the producers made 10 copies of the film in order to begin showing it in Mexico City and other urban centers.

Fortunately, Ortiz already had a track record. His previous screenplays and two feature films -- the 1994 "La orilla de la tierra" (The Edge of the Earth), about a migrant worker returning from the U.S. to Mexico, and the 2002 time-traveling historical drama "Cuentos de hadas para dormir cocodrilos" (Bedtime Fairy Tales for Crocodiles) -- have been praised within and outside Mexico. Slightly more than half the budget for "Mezcal" came from the government's Quality in Cinema fund.

Although Lowry published one other novel, "Ultramarine," and left two more novels ("Dark as the Grave Wherein My Friend Is Laid" and "October Ferry to Gabriola"), short stories and a profusion of letters to be published posthumously, his reputation clearly rests on "Under the Volcano." He didn't live to see his chef d'oeuvre make it to the big screen, something he always longed for and a fate that carries a certain irony. As the writer and critic Stephen Spender has noted, the book's technique "is essentially cinematic," employing flashbacks, jump-cuts and other methods resembling movie editing.

Lowry's book focuses on Firmin's private torments and the tangled relationship among him, Yvonne and the consul's reckless, adventure-loving half-brother, Hugh, as they wander the provincial colonial streets on the Day of the Dead. The consul's descent into a solitary hell evokes the pitch-black pilgrimages of Faust and Dante. Dimly in the background hovers the specter of a rotted-out Europe, about to plunge into World War II.

Though the consul turns to beer, whiskey and even strychnine to treat his sick soul, mescal is his libation of choice (a preference shared by many Mexicans, particularly in the provinces, who prefer the smokier, more home-grown taste of mescal to its generally smoother, better-known cousin, tequila). One of the novel's great internal debates is whether his epic indulgence in this infernal liquid brings him tragic clarity or merely confusion and despair. As John Hartley Williams wrote in a June essay in the Guardian of London, "alcohol abuse in Lowry's book signifies human failure on a cosmic level."

"Mezcal" likewise aspires to present a cosmic vision of human suffering and longing, collapsed into the microcosm of a remote Mexican village. It tracks the (mis)fortunes of a motley crew of characters who end up converging on a dingy cantina in the mythical hamlet of El Parián in rural Oaxaca state. Like the consul and Yvonne, the two central characters, played by Ana Graham and Dagoberto Gama, are locked in a fateful, and ultimately fatal, erotic embrace.

"When I began to make [the movie] I had this idea, this impression, a story of a doomed romantic encounter," Ortiz says.

Yet rather than being afflicted with the very modern, transatlantic malaise of Lowry's protagonists, the characters in "Mezcal" are trapped in some quintessential Mexican psycho-dramas: the thirst for revenge and the search for a responsive God. Their beverage of choice, which fuels their passions, is, naturally, mescal, a regional specialty of Oaxaca.

Throughout the movie, a group of village drunks provides a kind of Greek chorus, tapping a rage, sadness and fatalism that Ortiz believes is one of Mexico's chief spiritual inheritances from its traumatic history of conquest. "There's a sense of being unprotected," he says.

That sense finds a correlative in the movie's electric penultimate scene, in which a rampaging horse and a raging thunderstorm converge in a violent mishap. Ortiz says he was inspired to find visual equivalents to Lowry's lyrical sensibility (the British author also wrote poetry). Many images in "Mezcal" are richly poetic: a VW Beetle burning on the edge of a cliff; a mother hiding her son beneath her skirts in an earthen pit; a dead woman lying in water, Ophelia-like. In keeping with its literary-cinematic mixed breeding, "Mezcal" quotes from Shakespeare's "The Tempest" and "Hamlet" as well as from "Under the Volcano."

In a critique in the magazine Letras Libres, Fernanda Solórzano wrote that "Mezcal" demonstrated that Ortiz "is perhaps the only Mexican director capable of expressing in images the means of magical realism or of the indigenous mythology without falling into tastelessness nor slipping into folklore." Solórzano also reproached the distributors who passed on the film because, she wrote, they were "reluctant to exhibit a movie about Mexico without a happy ending."

Ortiz surely would agree with that characterization of his film. "In 'Mezcal' the idea was characters that don't have solace, they can't be in peace," he says.