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.
THE CURIOUS COOK: Patricia Robertson