At 2 a.m., Eustorgio Santos Rosales sets fire to a pile of mesquite and oak logs. He watches them for several hours until the wood turns into crackling red-hot embers. Then the 76-year-old Zapotec Indian orders his sons and helpers to pile fist-size stones onto the coals. On top of the stones go 1 1/2 tons of pineapple-shaped fruit of the agave plant, chopped into chunks. Next come armfuls of damp agave plant fiber to trap the heat and moisture around the roasting fruit. Finally, the men lay a tarpaulin woven of agave fibers over the pit and cover it with a thick layer of dark dirt. By late morning, when I arrive, the sun is blazing, and the men are stretched out in the shade, eating a breakfast of tortillas and beans prepared by Eustorgio's daughter Vicenta.
For three days, the men stand watch over the roasting process. It is the first in an elaborate series of steps that the natives of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca have followed for more than five centuries to produce the potent alcoholic drink called mezcal.
Made from the fruit of the Espadin variety of the agave plant, Angustifolia haw (contrary to popular belief, it's not a cactus), mezcal is made differently from tequila, which is distilled from another variety of agave. Tequila-making, centered 725 miles away in the state of Jalisco, is widely industrialized, with the cooking process taking place in huge, stainless-steel autoclaves, using steam.
Mezcal is still produced the way the Zapotec and Mixtec Indians made it centuries ago, after the Spanish conquistadores introduced Moorish-style distillation. Mezcal became such a prized beverage in 19th century colonial Mexico that only aristocrats were allowed to drink it. Commoners quaffed pulque, a rougher, less-distilled liquor made from fermented agave pulp.
These days, however, everyone seems to want to drink mezcal. Tequila, available in restaurants all over the world, is still Mexico's most popular alcoholic export. But connoisseurs are discovering mezcal, with its handmade cachet and its subtle taste redolent of the flavor-ful cuisine of the Oaxacan countryside.
In the U.S., where consumers have cut back on distilled liquor in recent years, tequilas and mezcals are the only "white spirits" that are enjoying growth. More than 5 million cases of tequila are sold in the U.S. each year. Fewer than 100,000 cases of mezcal are sold there, but consumption is rising in the U.S. as well as in Asia and Europe. Popular brands such as Gusano Rojo and Beneva sell for about $16 a bottle in the U.S., while aged premium mezcal such as Encantado fetches $40. Clients at upscale Frontera Grill in Chicago pay $7 for a shot of mezcal, which is generally served with salt and lime or straight up, like cognac.
For years, mezcal had a reputation as a headache-producing concoction that U.S. college students and sailors drove across the border to Tijuana to imbibe in unwise quantities. The maguey worm that some distillers plopped into each bottle as a gimmick turned off many drinkers.
UPSCALE. Now, mezcal is getting a boost from enthusiasts like California vintner Carl Doumani, owner of the Stags' Leap Winery in Napa Valley. He and his partner in business and life, publicist Pam Hunter, enjoyed mezcal so much while on vacations in Mexico that they created their own brand for export to the U.S. They purchase mezcal from 29 Oaxacan palenques, or distillers, then submit it to a second distillation to produce a premium brew made of 100% agave alcohol. They exported 8,000 cases of their Encantado brand to the U.S. last year and are selling it in Mexico, too. Doumani says his customers include Oaxaca Governor Diodoro Carrasco Altamirano and President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, who order by the case.
Mezcal's popularity means badly needed income for Oaxacan agave growers and mezcal distillers, who have lived for years at just above subsistence level. Some 25,000 people in Oaxaca state depend on the agave plant for their livelihood, using the pinas, or fruit, to make marmalade as well as mezcal. Hammocks, clothing, and shoes are woven from the plant's sinuous fibers. Agave growers, who call the plant maguey, tend them for 7 to 10 years before the fruit, which weighs from 60 to 120 pounds, is ready to harvest. It's cut, then carted by mule and truck to a local distillery, which is often little more than an open-air shed covering simple fermentation and distillation bins.
The mezcal boom could help the entire Oaxaca region. Located just northwest of troubled Chiapas, Oaxaca is populated by 17 different indigenous groups, making it Mexico's most ethnically diverse state. At least two-thirds of its people live in dire poverty, and it is a potentially ripe ground for guerrilla movements. So officials recently approved a special denomination of origin (on the order of Burgundy and Bordeaux appellations) for Oaxacan mezcal. To qualify, the liquor must have at least 80% agave alcohol content.
I drove 1 1/2 hours south of the capital of Oaxaca, over a winding two-lane road, to watch Eustorgio ply his art at a primitive still located in a mountainous area known as Parada del Zapote, near San Pedro Totolapan. Eustorgio has been brewing mezcal since he was 7 and is considered one of the region's most skillful distillers.
He uses no clocks, thermometers, or special instruments to measure alcohol content. When he senses the three-day roasting process is complete and the fruit's starches have been converted into fermentable sugars, he orders the men to uncover the pit and remove the pinas. They place the chunks on a rustic stone-and-cement circular platform, where a large stone wheel pulled by an aging white horse goes round and round, crushing the fruit. The fruity pith is dumped into big wooden or clay vats for fermentation. After seven days, the fermented liquid, along with the pulp, goes into a copper distillation vessel over a wood-burning fire. The vapor collects in a tube, then drips out of a faucet as crystal-clear mezcal.
As I watch, Eustorgio pours some of the brew into a cup made from a dried squash gourd. Then, using a long plastic tube, he blows into the liquid, causing a thin layer of pearly beads of air to form atop the mezcal. When the beads last for five minutes or more, the mezcal is 100-proof or better. Eustorgio proudly passes around the result: The sip I take tastes like a fine cognac tinged with smoky, spicy undertones. The exceedingly warm sensation it produces in my belly lasts for more than five minutes. I feel a bit decadent imbibing the stuff at 11 a.m., but the taste turns me into a great fan of this brew.
Eustorgio is pleased, for apart from raising a few crops such as corn and beans, mezcal-making is his life. Thanks to new mezcal drinkers like me, chances are he and his sons will be living that life for many years to come.