Mountains of Mezcal

T Updated

I’ll never forget my first encounter with Mezcal; it happened in the clouds. My anthropologist friend Michael and I were zigzagging along the treacherous mountain roads of the Mexican state of Oaxaca, near Santo Domingo Albarradas—literally driving in the clouds—when we came upon a rustic roadside distillery where an old palenquero (mezcal maker) was tending to a large, steaming copper vat of mezcal. Before you could say salud, Michael had pulled his petrol-fume-filled VW bus off to the side of the road and was engaged in conversation with the palenquero. As for me, having spent the better part of the day being carsick, I was just happy to be back on terra firma. Little did I know then that carsickness is a walk in the park compared to mezcal fever.

Although many Americans seem to think otherwise, mezcal (also spelled mescal) has zero to do with the hallucinatory drug mescaline—except that drinking mezcal also can bring on sights, sounds and scenes that live strictly in your skull. Trust me on this one; I’ve been there. After a night of sipping premium mezcal at a bar in Oaxaca, I spent the better part of an hour trying to get a window screen and frame in my little apartment to stop vibrating even though it was, by other witnesses’ accounts, perfectly still.

Anyway, sampling mezcal while driving the already perilous roads of Oaxaca is not something I recommend. Better to do it in the safety of your own crib or near your hotel if you’re visiting Mexico. It’s not easy to find much mezcal diversity here in the United States, with the Monte Alban brand being the default mezcal that most stores and bars carry, including those in the state of Utah. Not that there is anything wrong with Monte Alban ($22.95); it’s just that once you try it, it’s unlikely you’ll ever go back for a second bottle.

The homebrew mezcal I first tasted in the Oaxacan mountains was rotgut, but since then, I’ve sampled premium mezcals in the city of Oaxaca, some of which are downright as refined as premium tequila. And as with tequila, good mezcal is made from 100 percent agave. In fact, technically speaking, all tequila is mezcal, although not all mezcal is tequila—but that’s another story. Tequila and mezcal are also similar in alcohol content, at about 40 percent. However, it’s mezcal, not tequila, that has the worm at the bottom of the bottle. And actually it’s not a worm, but the caterpillar of a mariposa night butterfly which feeds on the maguey (agave) plant. Frankly, I’ve never been offered a worm (or lime or salt) with mezcal in Oaxaca, where most of it is made. That only seems to happen in tourist establishments in places like Cabo and Cancun.

A good, premium mescal—like some of those made by quality producers such as Divino, Del Maguey, Scorpion, La Fogata and Los Danzantes—is worth seeking out. They can even be sipped like cognac and—thanks to their rich, smoky taste—actually pair quite nicely with premium cigars.

The Salt Lake City Weekly, by Ted Scheffler

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