Next stop: Santiago Matatlan- aka: “World Capitol of Mezcal”
Lesson: In the production of mezcal there are 2 types of distillation - (1) Clay Pot distillation which we witnessed at Don Louis’s Palenque, brought to Mexico by the Philippines; (2) Copper Pot distillation, the more common form of distillation which arrived via the Spaniards.
The advantages to using one over the other are pretty straightforward. The copper pot technique yields more product because the stills are non-porous, and copper pot distillation tends to have a slightly smoother, softer finish. Clay pot distillation leads to an earthier, mineral taste. (Fun fact: It takes roughly 100 kilos of agave to produce 5 liters of mezcal, and for those not savvy to the metric system 100 kilos is roughly 220 pounds - math is fun!)
When we arrived at the Palenque, we were given the opportunity to check out the Tahona - the earth pit used to cook the agave - and to meet the “horse”. As the earth pit had apparently been recently used, we approached just in time to witness a gentleman cleaning it out. He had been working there diligently for quite some time and I’m fairly certain he wasn’t too amped that a bunch of foreigners strolled by and casually started taking pictures of him cleaning up the pit. But he wasn’t too annoyed since we weren’t there to just watch, we were there for some hands on action!
(Earthen Pit, Guason with Wheel, Cooked Agave, Machete Man, Copper Pot Fermentation Machete Man)
After tossing rocks out of the pit for several minutes, and getting thoroughly covered in soot, I headed over to the Tahona, made my way to the cooked agave and engaged in a lesson on how to cut the piñas into smaller sizes. Why is this interesting? Because I had a machete in my hand! More math: Me + machete = rad.
So here I am, swinging around this 20-inch blade of death when it occurred to me: (1) cutting down piñas takes some actual precision and technique; (2) wielding a machete is amazingly therapeutic. I’m fairly certain that if offices everywhere stocked machetes and had some cooked agave laying around, the workplace would be much more productive.
Tahona time: As we finished cutting down the piñas, we received the announcement that it was time for “Guasón” to take center stage and show us how the agave gets crushed. Who is Guasón (Spanish for Joker)? It is The Horse, of course. Imagine if you will, a real horse being fitted into his harness, receiving a quick push from behind, and watching him take off on his mission to crush agave by pulling a massive wheel in a circle. Not only was it awe-inspiring to see this traditional method in action, I couldn’t help but marvel at the sheer genius in the simplicity of it all.
Rock pit cleaned, machetes wielded and agave crushed, our day at the Palenque was finished, but not before we sampled some Tepache –a traditional drink made with the rinds and flesh of pineapple that has been fermented and then sweetened with piloncillo, inducing a slightly effervescent and sour, intense taste.
(Guason, Smoke Exhaust for Distillation, Mezcaloteca Back Bar, Mezcaloteca Copper Still, Mezcaloteca Guidelines on Agave)
After being given the opportunity to rejuvenate from a hard day of manual labor, we reconvened for a magnificent dinner at the famed Los Danzantes (http://losdanzantes.com/) restaurant, where we engaged in what can only be described as extreme eating. Upon our arrival, we were shown to our table, situated in a prime spot in their incredibly beautiful courtyard. Although a light rain was coming down, we were unaffected as we were privy to the sheer pleasure of experiencing the unique layout of the restaurant and its awesome design which allowed the rain to fall in front of our table directly into a welcoming pond. So beautiful, so mesmerizing, almost hypnotic… until we realized that the rain was soon coming down harder, faster and what!? We were being pelted with hail! What the hail!?! Yes, I’ll admit it…I was unaware that Oaxaca had hailstorms of that caliber and that eating a 4-course meal while being hit with hail could be so entertaining albeit slightly painful.
Dried off and sated, we left the following day for one of the premiere mezcalerias in Oaxaca, Mezcaloteca. This place is crazy awesome; “dedicated to the preservation and dissemination of traditional agave and mezcal.” The bar itself is stocked with an incredible number of mezcals separated by varietal and regions. Danny was the gent behind the bar for our session. Super knowledgeable and professional, he spent a good deal of time explaining the process involved in producing each of the mezcals we tasted, and he graciously allowed us to taste some incredible agave. I could continue to wax poetic about this place, however, I plan on renting a chair there when I return to Oaxaca, and I shall then proceed to document every sip I take of his offerings. I put Danny on notice.
(Mezcaloteca Pour, Copper Still Earth Pit, COA Used to Harvest Agave, Mezcaloteca Guide, Mezcaloteca Bottles)
The following day we made our way back to Mexico City for the launch party of Los Siete Misterios where things got very interesting. Held at a cool little spot named Aurora Roma (http://www.auroraroma.com/), the evening began with a friendly cocktail competition. Competitors: Mexico vs. Canada vs. USA. Guess who has never entered a cocktail competition in their life but was entered into this event? Guess who was representing the US with no contender credentials to his credit? Guess who hates using soda water in cocktails? This guy.
But trooper that I am, I confidently (that’s another word for sheepishly, right?) strode into this competition which featured a “mystery ingredient” chosen by the other bartenders. Interesting and talented competition: Up first was David Mora from Mexico followed by Joe Howell from Canada. Holding my own, I found myself in a dead heat with David after the initial rounds. Determined to select the “best”, we decided to have one more go at it, with the judges selecting the “mystery” ingredient this time. So what did those judges choose? Avocado; yes, they chose Avocado; Home Field Advantage: David Mora.
Not to be bested however, I drew inspiration from Chef Stupak’s notable guacamole, and concocted a mezcal, dry vermouth, Papaya Seed, Serrano Chile, Sal de Chapulines (grasshopper salt) and basil cocktail (sadly, there was no cilantro in sight). I cleverly served my inspired drink in an avocado shell, however before actually serving my creation I noticed it was a tad too thick and added some soda water to it. Big mistake. The soda water muted the flavors, David took his bows. I humbly accepted a second place finish. You may have bested me this time Mexico, but I vow to get even with you the following week. Just you wait and see…
-Mat Resler (@drink_smith)