In the race to the top of Authenticity Mountain, a cluster of flatfooted technocrats clogs every bend in the trail. For the world of spirits, those technocrats often don gilded belt buckles and filigreed cowboy boots with trademarked phrases decrying their own countryfides - revealing an irony so deep it surpasses humor. I've never met anyone living an actually authentic life who decries much of anything, much less their own authenticity.
I could name names, but I won't.
That's not to say there aren't great people making great whiskey, or tequila, or gin. I've met plenty, and at this shop we have certainly established our affinity toward bourbon. But those companies who market their wares with the cheap perfume of nostalgia will never find themselves winning any foot race of this kind. There is no top of said mountain. It is not even a mountain. It is but an endless incline into the abyss of commodity.
Meanwhile, the hardy mezcaleros of southwestern Mexico tread spiny ridges across an undulating semi-desert, searching for signs of flowers, thinking mainly of how to feed their families and preserve their way of life.
I will not romanticize them more than that.
Mezcal is a spirit distilled from the fermented hearts of agave (aka maguey). Techinically, that description includes tequila (which uses only one kind of agave). But when we talk about mezcal, per say, mainly we're talking about something far more wild - and orders of magnitude more expressive - than its urbanized little brother in the north. The origins are similar, but once the maguey is harvested these two spirits diverge and don't look back.
What's so appealing about this wildest of drinks?
For me, the answer comes in three parts. First, more than any other spirit distributed in the United States, mezcal is biologically and culturally rooted in its place of origin. Second, the maguey plant in general includes an incredible range of biodiversity, with both wild and cultivated varieties. Third, more often than not, the person who manages the young maguey and harvests the mature maguey hearts is one and the same person or small group of persons who cooks the piñas in a traditional underground oven, ferments those cooked starches into a mash, and distills that mash into a finished mezcal. In an age of mechanized and specialized production, these farmer-producers are a throwback.
And to be frank, once you meet a great mezcal eye to eye, on its own terms, with a sprinkling of sal de gesano over an orange slice, soaked in the heat of a Mexican afternoon, there is no forgetting.
We can opine all day about men and women working with their hands, working the land their forebears worked, foraging for the fruit of Oaxaca in search of beauty - we can opine and never answer the most fundamental question. Does it taste good?
The delicious factor is paramount.
My colleague Tyler and I sat down earlier this week to taste through a sampling of mezcals, six he brought back from Oaxaca in 2014, and one I brought back from Mexico City this year. In the context of the whole wide world of mezcal, these seven samples represented a pretty narrow slice. And yet in them we found a range of pleasures that hardly overlapped from one to the next.
After some debate we decided that talking about "how mezcal tastes" is something like talking about "how Spanish wine tastes." Basque whites over here, Priorat reds over there. Major variations from one producer to the next.
That may be hard to believe (I felt the need to challenge Tyler on the claim, only to be won over in the course of the evening), but for example, the cultivated variety espadín comes in soft and round, whereas the wild variety mexicano tends to have firmer edges, a bit more savory appeal, and holds a slightly longer finish.
And we're still talking in major generalities.
Bottom line? Delicious. And utterly compelling.
Because maguey grows in a wide variety of conditions. And it's a finicky plant. In a cluster of four, all the same age, with similar soil and exposure, you might see them mature in four different years, in different seasons.
I can't begin to summarize the whole of it. There is too much complexity, too much nuance, too much diversity in the world of mezcal to try to capture it all in one go. But I can say that it's worth the exploration. I love bourbon, but even there I find a kind of convergence, both in production styles and in finished products. When we're talking about premium bottles, the differences from one bourbon to the next are pretty subtle.
Tyler put it this way. "Grab two bottles of mezcal off the shelf at random, and you're more likely to be surprised, more likely to find huge differences between them than in any other spirit."
After one trip to D.F., one bull session with my old friend, and one long rambling attempt to harness this beast in under a thousand words, I've come to agree.
Mezcal is an unbroken spirit, brimming with surprise and delight.