A Horse, A Stomach, A Mezcal
The following contains endorsements pertaining to literacy and alcohol consumption.
In front of me was a glass of mezcal and a woman named Sandra rapidly explaining in Spanish everything about what I was drinking. I caught the word horse in there. Is there horse in this? Stomach? This is from horse stomach? NO.
On the recommendation of Henry at Amate Books, a great English-language bookstore in the heart of Oaxaca, I was sitting at the bar at In Situ. After I mentioned that I was a bartender in New York, Henry told me that the proprietor of Mayahuel in the East Village had just been in to see Ulises at In Situ. Ulises’ wife, Sandra, was serving me mezcal and explaining to me what I was drinking. I wasn’t getting all of it. I had a few beers in me already, and a few more mezcals makes Spanish even harder to understand in hyper-speed. All the bar and spirits jargon that took years to learn in English, was now being repeated to me in Spanish.
I left a little confused, the words horse and stomach floating around in my head (with the mezcal). I ate an elote (corn on the cob, mayo, chile, lime) and sat in the Zocalo.
Later in the week I was walking down Calle Reforma and something caught my eye. Bottles were stacked high. Green desk lamps illuminated maps. Everything was crafted of wood. I peered in the window and saw only a man behind a bar. I read the sign by the door: by appointment only. I lingered for an extra moment and the door popped open. I could make an appointment for another day, or come back in a few minutes, and if some other people didn’t show up, I could come in. I walked around the block a few times.
Meszcaloteca is the mezcal tasting room in Oaxaca. One gets to taste artisan mezcal made by the best mezcaleros around and be schooled on the basics and finer points of this mystical spirit. I was handed a little pocket guide to tasting. If you buy a bottle, make sure to shake it to see if it bubbles. If it is under 45% alcohol, it will not: do not buy this mezcal. This is because in lower proofs, flavors are not expressed as well. As the proof gets higher, the bubbles get bigger. Science.
Like In Situ, Mezcaloteca only stocks mezcal joven, meaning young or un-aged. I was given the same basic explanation that the wood corrupts the flavors that one would otherwise taste from the agaves in a joven. There are several different species of agave used for mescal production (unlike tequila) and this is evident in the tasting notes. Also, there are different processes. Some are hand ground, some ground in mills with the use of a horse. Ah, the horse! David, behind the bar, explained everything I wanted to know. I think he was excited to have someone asking so many questions about mezcal, rather than how much each mezcal cost by the bottle (like the guys next to me).
Roasting mezcal is a fine art. Although, everything about it is a fine art, so I should keep that phrase in reserve. When I was served mezcal, first I was told who the mezcalero was, and then I was told what type of agave was used. I tasted one blend of agaves, which had also been distilled with roasted coffee beans. It had the subtle aroma and taste of coffee. It was also 65% alcohol. It was a killer. And delicious.
It’s not uncommon to throw things in the still during production. Fruits and vegetables probably being the most common, the breast of a chicken will also be hung at the top of the still so the vapors will pass through the breast before it becomes a liquid. Deer skin too. Yeah, crazy flavors.
All of mezcals I tasted were drastically different. Some tasted like nothing I’ve ever had before. I’ve been converted and will always opt for joven or ‘silver’, as the marketers like to call it. Mezcal is often aged to add the wood flavor to a spirit that is otherwise lacking in flavor and alcohol percentage.
Hardly a stumble from Mezcaloteca, Los Amantes is a little place that isn’t open that many hours a day, but it is surely worth a visit. Also a tasting room, you get three mezcal tastes for 100 pesos (about 8 bucks). Leon was behind the bar when I cozied up. He recognized my accent immediately and starting speaking colloquial English with me, DUDE. A man played the guitar and sang by the door to the street as Leon made jokes and infected everyone in the room with his laughter. Large jugs full of mezcal climb the walls. People stand at the tiny bar, or cram onto the benches that line the side walls. A few people walked by, noticing the small room full of people with small glasses in their hands, heartily laughing, listening to some live music, but they really had no idea what we were doing. It could just be any other bar, but it’s not. It’s Los Amantes.
Mezcal has an important tradition in Mexico. There is little authoritative work in English available on Mezcal because most of the traditions have been passed down in families for generations. Only now has mezcal started to be recognized on the international market. The owner of Los Amantes has a place in NYC, Casa Mezcal that I will surely not miss next time I’m in town.
When you taste Mezcal, it is an entire experience. You smell it, swish it around in your mouth, and then when it is in your stomach (stomach!) the vapors float up and inform the flavors. The flavors are many. Vegetal. Acidic. Smoky. You know it.