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