Bricia Lopez is the mezcal queen of Los Angeles. Five years ago, Lopez, who is thirty-one and imposingly savvy, persuaded her father to let her build a mezcal bar at Guelaguetza, the restaurant that he opened when the family moved north from Oaxaca, a center of mezcal culture, in the mid-nineties. He didn’t know if Americans would like mezcal, or if Mexicans would admit that they did. But he decided to trust Bricia, and she focussed her offerings on premium mezcals—high proof, small lots, no worm. At that point, there were only a handful of brands on the market. Since then, mezcal imports have spiked, and labels have proliferated. Lopez now carries thirty. When I visited her at the bar the other day, she was in the midst of a renovation, doubling its size.
Some of Lopez’s earliest memories of life in Mexico involve the barbecue-sauce smell of cooked agave that pervaded her father’s tourist shop, where she and her brother sat on a cement floor, racing worms and tying little packets of sal de gusano to bottles of the family mezcal. Her job, at six, was to run out to the square and draw the tourists in. She is still an expert marketer: many influential L.A. bartenders thank Lopez for giving them their first taste of quality mezcal, in the form of a small bottle, sourced from Oaxaca by her dad and sealed by her with wax that she bought at Staples. Her identity is so deeply intertwined with the spirit that people call her Goddess Mayahuel, the Aztec deity of agave, whose children are sometimes figured as four hundred drunken rabbits. She prefers to keep her references bicultural. Around her neck, she wears a gold necklace that says “Mezcalifornian,” in gangster script.
Mezcal is a distilled spirit, and can be made from some thirty varieties of agave, or maguey. It is typically produced by farmers using a laborious and antiquated method, at primitive distilleries known as palenques, and sold or shared in villages to mark births, funerals, and everything in between. Contrary to popular belief, it does not induce hallucinations. Originally, “mezcal” was a generic term, like “wine,” for a spirit produced all over Mexico. Tequila, a two-billion-dollar global business, is just a style of mezcal; developed in the state of Jalisco, it is made from a single variety, the blue agave, using a largely industrialized process, and consumed on spring break in the form of slammers. Often mixed with other alcohols and enhanced with caramel coloring, tequila can also pick up flavors from the wood in which it is aged—sometimes spent whiskey barrels bought from the United States.
Traditionally, the agaves used for mezcal are roasted in an underground pit, wild-fermented in open vats, and distilled to proof, yielding a punchy, petroly, funky spirit that is thought to be a uniquely eloquent expression of terroir. Regulations allow the proof to fall between 72 and 110—but hard-liners hold that anything lower than 90 isn’t “real” mezcal. There is scarcely a serious cocktail menu in a major American city that does not feature a mezcal drink—at least three have been named for Lopez—and more and more restaurants offer lists of obscure varietals, at twenty to thirty dollars for a two-ounce pour, as if they were wines from the Loire. Lopez’s father, like many of his compatriots, is stunned by the turn in mezcal’s fortune. In his time, producers emulated tequila and did what they could to compete with it, adding a worm for flavor and to distinguish their bottle on the shelf. Now tequila companies are looking for mezcal and emphasizing the simplicity and rusticity of their product whenever possible. “We tried to sophisticate mezcal, but it turned out that people like traditional things the most,” he told me.
The mezcal boom coincides with the popularity of farm-to-table food, the rise of the craft cocktail, and the advent of the bartender as an advocate for environmental and social justice. Lopez told me, “Mezcal hits every magic word—artisanal, organic, gluten-free, vegan. It comes from a small village, and you have to drive there to get it. It’s made by a family. It automatically became cool when knowing what you eat became cool. Tequila got to the point where it’s like Tyson chicken—that’s Cuervo. Now I want to know my chicken’s name. That’s mezcal.”
Mezcal’s ascent is both a victory for those who love it and a cause for concern. The grains for whiskey are planted and harvested each year; grapes are perennials. But most agaves—succulents, kin to asparagus—resist domestication. Espadín, one of the easiest to grow, takes up to a decade to mature, and each piña—the usable core, stripped of its spiky blades—yields only about ten bottles of mezcal. Prized wild varieties can take longer and yield less. Tobalá, a tiny, feisty plant that grows under oaks on high-altitude slopes and secretes an enzyme that breaks down granite, needs as many as fifteen years, and gives up about two bottles of mezcal per piña. Tepeztate ripens over a quarter century. The desire to consume a botanical time capsule is fraught; every precious sip both supports a traditional craft and hastens its extinction. “I truly believe mezcal will be big everywhere, because it’s delicious,” Josh Goldman, a Los Angeles bar consultant, told me. “Though there may be a subconscious thing going on—see it or eat it before it’s gone.”
Throughout its history, mezcal—which is, at heart, homemade hooch—has periodically been banned, restricted, penalized, and suppressed. Its new aficionados appreciate the outlaw status: the more illegitimate a mezcal is, the more legit it is. (A popular brand memorializes its cross-border-smuggling origin story in its name: Ilegal.) With so much mezcal in the marketplace, seekers must work harder now. One evangelist, who travels back and forth from Mexico with a suitcase full of esoteric mezcals, told me that his favorite distiller works in a village three hours on a bad road from Oaxaca City. He gave me a phone number but warned me that probably no one would answer.
At Guelaguetza, Lopez showed me a prized bottle, which she acquired at a tasting six years ago and had been nursing ever since. Only an inch or two was left. “It is everything you would want in a mezcal,” she told me. “It is from a wild agave. The batch was only forty litres. It was distilled in clay. It was macerated by hand. It was fermented in leather. Nobody had that.” She poured some into a jícara, the dried hull of a fruit, often used to serve mezcal, and offered it to me. It was tangy and slick, like a dirty Martini, with a whiff of neat’s-foot oil. “Mezcal doesn’t taste like this anymore,” she said. “You can’t order this anywhere. You have to go to these places. You have to drink it hot off the still.”
The sun was going down when I landed in Oaxaca City, a cluster of pastel plaster, flanked by mountains. Lipstick-red flame trees were in bloom, and the air was filled with the intoxicating smell of gasoline. Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Zapotec people built Monte Albán, a monumental city on a hill outside town; they worshipped a bat god and a human-jaguar-snake god, who brought rain and lightning. The Aztecs overtook the region, and then Oaxaca fell to Cortés, but the geography made colonialism a challenge. Sixteen indigenous languages are still spoken, and town names tend to be half Spanish, half something else—the capitulation of some royal bureaucrat preserved forever on the map. Oaxacans practice a spunky form of Catholicism: in some villages, saints who fail to grant favors risk getting slugged by their petitioners. Eating psilocybin mushrooms is accepted as a spiritual rite; if that isn’t your thing, four glasses of the agave beer known as pulque will reportedly deliver similar results. Even in the city, the culture remains stubbornly rural. At Casa Oaxaca—where René Redzepi, Alice Waters, and Rick Bayless like to eat—Alejandro Ruiz serves the pre-Columbian food of his country childhood: local herbs, exquisite moles, crickets, worms. The society is so traditional, Ruiz says, that “our competition is mama.”
Mezcal is integral to life in Oaxaca. It is medicine and social glue. Spooked children have mezcal spat into their faces; rashy ones have mezcal rubbed onto their skin; fussy ones have it massaged into their gums. “Mezcal is a way to welcome you home,” Ruiz told me. “It makes you cry, sing, dance, hug the neighbor you just met an hour ago—and then your soul rests.”
If your eyes are burning, if you said something insincere, if you have a hangover the next day, you are drinking mezcal wrong. One enthusiast I met, a Colombian woman whose extreme version of a dining club involves hunting for the main course, told me, “You must kiss the mezcal.” Besides the jícara, the most popular vessel is a glass votive holder with a cross etched on the bottom. The first sip is mouthwash—harsh, disinfecting, functional. The second reveals the flavors. By the third, people are saying the word “magic,” and it’s not that embarrassing. After another round, your mouth is fresh; your cheeks have turned to wax. You can sleep to the sound of fireworks—because it’s Tuesday in Oaxaca City—and wake up cheerful to unsynched church bells and crazed birds.
Many Americans who have learned to drink mezcal learned from Ron Cooper, a Southern California artist who takes credit for the phrase “sip it, don’t shoot it.” Cooper’s first encounter was less than sublime. It was 1963, and he and a dozen friends from art school were camping on the beach in Ensenada. They spent every night at Hussong’s Cantina, drinking Monte Albán, an industrially made mezcal the color of lemon Joy, with a worm at the bottom of the bottle. “I was the fool waiting for the worm every night,” he told me, when I met him for dinner in Oaxaca City. He showed me a picture of himself at Hussong’s, flopped over, head on the table. “I crawled back to the beach at night to have a beer and recuperate, and I thought, What was that stuff?”
Cooper is now in his early seventies, with an unstudied man bun and the wizened, tanned face of an apple doll. He poured us mezcal Negronis from a dented plastic water bottle that he’d brought from home, and in a raspy voice instructed me to stir my drink fifteen times in each direction to unleash its energy. The waiter remained deferential. Cooper’s luminous, pale resin sculptures are owned by the Whitney and the Guggenheim, but in Oaxaca he is known as the person who made mezcal respectable. Everywhere he goes is de-facto B.Y.O.
In 1970, Cooper and a couple of friends—artists and surfboard shapers—drove to Mexico on an impulse, and stopped in Teotitlán, a weaving village in the central valley of Oaxaca, where they stumbled upon a Zapotec wedding. They were invited to the altar room, where the officiant poured mezcal on the floor in the shape of a cross and offered toasts, round after round, until everyone had had a drink. Only then could the party start. “I began to understand the ritual use of mezcal,” Cooper said. A few months later, he flew home to Los Angeles with a Coke bottle full of it, and the poker invitations flowed.
Celebrities like Bing Crosby helped make tequila famous in mid-century America, but mezcal was a spirit for the highbrow underground. Cooper was a frequent guest of Stanley and Elyse Grinstein, art collectors who were behind Gemini G.E.L., a printmaking studio that championed L.A. artists. “William Burroughs is there,” Cooper recalled. “Rauschenberg is there. Tony Berlant is there. Larry Bell is there. Everyone from the L.A. art world is there, and I got the good stuff and we’re all drinking it and we’re having a good time. And then it goes to the in-group in New York—Jasper Johns, Richard Serra, Robert Smithson.” In 1990, he said, “I had some fuck-you money from a couple of large commissions” and spent six months in Oaxaca. He gave himself permission to explore different media, and came to see his buzz as a work of art. “A work of art transforms the viewer,” he said. “Mezcal gave me all these incredible, humorous thoughts—transformation.”
In 1995, Cooper began exporting mezcal to the United States under the name Del Maguey, emphasizing the agave varietals in each batch and the village of origin. (The artist Ken Price painted all the labels.) Cooper invited influential bartenders to Oaxaca and took them to the villages to meet the mezcaleros who were adhering to methods passed down by their great-great-grandfathers. He fed his guests barbacoa, and taught them to say stigibeu, a Zapotec word for “cheers.” Last year, he says, he sold fifty thousand six-bottle cases. But it isn’t like it was. “I could take the best shit to the U.S. without anybody checking it—it was pristine, naïve, pure bliss,” he told me. “I converted people one person at a time, nose to nose. I created this whole market, and until three years ago I owned the whole fucking deal.”
It was only a matter of time before someone recognized the potential of artisanal mezcal and scaled it up. In 2013, Fausto Zapata, an entrepreneur from Los Angeles, launched a brand called El Silencio, an approachable mezcal aimed at mainstream American drinkers—in Scotch terms, a smooth, honeyed Oban rather than a peat monster like Laphroaig. “We’re the slick ones—as much a marketing company as a mezcal company,” he says. “We’re elevating into a pop-culture phenomenon something that people like seeing as niche.” Jeremy Piven is an investor; El Silencio is featured in Aeromexico’s first-class lounge.
Zapata grew up in Mexico City, drinking tequila-and-Sprite to give himself nerve when he went out to the clubs; as he grew older, he took road trips to Oaxaca, in search of something authentic, mythic, and cool, and found mezcal. His sipper is an 80-proof combination of wild and farmed agaves; his mixing mezcal, an 86-proof Espadín, comes in a bottle the matte-black color of the Batmobile. He sold ten thousand cases last year, and hopes to double that in 2016. “We want to create a global brand,” he told me. “You don’t just drink single malt in a village in Scotland, or sake in Japan.”
Outside my hotel, in the bright morning light, a white bus waited, stocked with bottled water, beer, and straw hats. Zapata was standing by, in a pair of hiking boots and a company T-shirt. He was taking Cedd Moses, an American bar owner, and a few of Moses’ employees to visit the palenque where El Silencio’s Espadín is produced, an hour to the south, in a village called San Baltazar Guelavila. El Silencio is in the well at Moses’ bar Las Perlas, in Los Angeles, which was one of the first mezcal bars to open in the United States. The bar goes through six cases a week. “Our customers demand products with integrity, that don’t use chemicals to bring the proof down,” Moses told me. He wanted to see the production for himself.
Moses is in his fifties, tall and rangy, with tightly curled graying hair and a disarmingly uncertain manner; in his thirties, he was a money manager, regularly featured in the financial press for generating spectacular returns. Now, in addition to Las Perlas, he owns fifteen bars and restaurants in Los Angeles, and others in San Diego and Austin. He lumbered onto the bus, wearing sunglasses and his own straw hat. “Let’s roll,” he said.
Nikki Sunseri, the general manager of Las Perlas, a former chef with long black hair and pale skin scrimshawed with tattoos, had come, too, along with Andrew Abrahamson, a gentle booze savant who oversees Moses’ single-spirit bars, and Pedro Shanahan, a by-donation-only yoga teacher and freelance philosopher, who is Moses’ “spirit guide.” Shanahan runs tastings and palate-education programs at Seven Grand, Moses’ whiskey bar. “I can heal you from the yoga with the whiskey or heal you from the whiskey with the yoga,” he said.
We drove with the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca on our left, until we reached San Baltazar Guelavila, where a hand-painted sign warned of dengue, and small boys bear-wrestled beside a pickup truck full of piñas. The palenque was simple and clean, newly built: a pit filled with burning coals; four fermentation barrels brimming with mashed, cooked agave that smelled of apple-cider vinegar; six wood-fired copper stills; two gleaming ten-thousand-litre stainless-steel storage tanks; and a small bottling facility. In the center, a dingy white mare pulled a heavy stone wheel—“like Fred Flintstone’s tire,” Sunseri said—around in a circle, crushing cooked agave that would be added to the fermentation barrels. “For breaking it down, the faster way would be with chemicals, but it ruins the quality,” Moses said. The horse stopped to take a bite of agave. “That horse has got it made,” he said.
The hills all around were stitched with Espadín plants; cattle and goats wandered among them. Zapata poured mezcal, and we watched as workers unloaded a truckful of eighty-kilo piñas onto the coals. Quartered, they looked like an infestation of green armadillos. The men arranged them into a mound, and covered the mound with sacks and then with dirt, while the heat made fun-house mirrors of the air. Pedro Hernández, El Silencio’s distiller, explained that he waits until the coals are smoldering before he adds the agave, to prevent the mezcal from getting too smoky. “Hand of the maker,” Moses said, approvingly.
Shanahan wandered over to the stills and filled a little cup with second distillate. He tasted, and guppied his lips. “Sweet, huh?” Zapata said.
“Excellent,” Shanahan said. “This gets cut with water?”
“What you’re drinking is not adjusted,” Zapata replied; straight off the tap, it was 120 proof. El Silencio adds water to decrease the potency—sacrilege to some makers, who distill to proof or adjust with tails, the last products of distillation, which can be complex and flavorful but also yield inconsistent batches.
Later, sitting under a palm-thatched roof at a long table littered with bottles, Abrahamson turned to Zapata. “Would you ever want to talk about a special collaboration?” he asked. Zapata nodded: he was always ready to talk business. “What do you have in mind?” he asked.
“A joint venture,” Moses said—an uncut sipping spirit that could also be used for powerful cocktails, of the kind his customers preferred. El Silencio’s undiluted mezcal was viscous and high-test, like cask-strength whiskey, and there was nothing like it on the market. “There’s no day like today,” Zapata said. It could be ready by Q2.
Zapata started pouring Koch, a mezcal that is also produced by Hernández. Moses sipped, while his team spieled tasting notes that reminded me of a Shel Silverstein poem.
“Banana, yogurt, grass clippings that have been kept in a garbage can for a little bit then opened. And then some menthol.”
“There’s something gelatinous, like okra. I would hesitate to say mucus in a tasting note. . . .”
“Inky fern. Andrew—help me, help me, I’m having mezcal brain!”
Hernández, the mezcalero, sat straight-faced, with his arms folded across his chest, as a three-man band began playing classic Mexican crooners. He said that many of the men at the palenque had lately migrated back from the United States, where they had been working as gardeners and landscapers and on construction sites. His daughter, who is six, came to sit on his lap. He brightened, and reported that she was learning Zapotec in school.
After the mezcal was drunk up, Sunseri delivered tasting notes on the Oaxacan air. “Super-mineral, with molasses and grass,” she said. At a certain point, Zapata interrupted the reverie to proclaim that he had just received a four-hundred-case order from Southern Wine and Spirits, the largest distributor in the United States. Shanahan looked deep into Hernández’s eyes. “Village by village, let’s build this thing,” he said. “Let’s not go big. Keep it small, spread it out. It’s information. It’s history and culture. Es possible grandes cosas.” Hernández received him impassively. In poetry, not every contradiction needs to be resolved. The stars came out, shockingly bright in a world without electricity. Abrahamson stole away with an empty Koch bottle and filled it with the 120-proof mezcal from the still. They would spread the love to Los Angeles, and then the world, if they didn’t drink it on the bus ride back to the hotel.
The popularity of distilled agave has, perversely, always been a problem for the makers of mezcal. The Spanish saw it as subversive, linked to pre-Columbian festivities and beliefs, and banned it. In the eighteenth century, King Carlos III, hoping to promote the sale of Spanish products, outlawed the production of all alcohol in the Mexican colony. The prohibition was lifted a decade later, when an ancestor of the Cuervo family was granted permission to distill mezcal on his property near the town of Tequila, in Jalisco. Tequila, with its special dispensation, became a center of production; its makers acquired money and status, exemplifying what one academic calls “the hacienda fantasy heritage.”
As Mexico industrialized, and tequila started to be exported to the U.S., tequileros rapidly developed technology to extract the maximum amount of liquor from each agave in the least amount of time. Column stills were used instead of pots, and masonry ovens replaced the pits: no more smoke. Then masonry ovens gave way to autoclaves, speeding up production, and most companies invested in shredders, to break up the agave mechanically. In some distilleries, the agaves are no longer cooked at all; the sugars are extracted by washing the raw plants in a chemical bath. In 1974, tequila became the first product outside Europe to be protected by a denomination of origin. The D.O. said little about production methods, but explicitly allowed for the inclusion of up to forty-nine per cent other alcohols. Intense monocropping of blue agave, the designated source material, began.
Regular mezcal, meanwhile, largely remained humble, unromantic, bumpkinly, but with its own mythology. Its makers hid out in the mountain towns and formed a loose resistance. Many stills were portable, easy to pack up when the authorities were near. Graciela Ángeles, the rigorously traditional fourth-generation distiller behind a successful label called Real Minero, told me that her great-grandmother sold bootleg mezcal from the back of a burro. In 1994, the Mexican government, seeking to develop a valuable market around what many consider to be the unofficial national drink, created a D.O. for mezcal, essentially copying the rules for tequila, though by then the products were sharply distinct. According to the D.O., in order for an agave spirit to be sold as mezcal—and to be awarded the hologram sticker that marks it as an approved export—it has to come from one of several specified regions, and submit to a certification process that is daunting and costly. Those that don’t must be sold as “agave distillates.”
Many mezcaleros are by long habit suspicious of authority and more comfortable in the shadows. But a growing international audience has foisted clout and visibility upon mezcal, which may bring unwanted pressure. Proposed regulations, backed by the tequila industry, would rename the agave distillates by an obscure Náhuatl word, komil, and forbid producers to advertise that their products contain ingredients used in either the tequila or the mezcal D.O. Some see the proposal as the latest in a long line of exclusions. “It’s a pretty egregious appropriation,” Sarah Bowen, the author of “Divided Spirits: Tequila, Mezcal, and the Politics of Production,” told me. “The producers are already not allowed to use the word ‘mezcal’—which is what they call their product to their families and to each other. Now they’re not even allowed to use ‘agave,’ which is what their product is made from.” Imagine a French vintner barred from using the words “wine” and “grape.” Pedro Jiménez, a filmmaker and bar owner who lives in Jalisco and champions the agave distillates made there, told me, “Tequila was just another type of mezcal, and now they’re trying to abduct the word from them. It’s like spitting on your background.” He worried that people wouldn’t be able to sell their spirits; tequila companies, he said, are already approaching small producers, urging them to forsake their own businesses and grow blue agaves for them instead.
David Suro-Piñera, an artisan tequila maker who advocates for mezcal, told me that many of the distillers who would be most affected are illiterate, economically marginal, and live in communities where there is no Internet. To him, the motive behind the proposed law was clear: big companies, especially tequila makers, were threatened by the rising popularity of all things agave. They didn’t want to be blindsided the way that large beer companies were by microbrews, which now control some twelve per cent of a multibillion-dollar industry. It was of a piece, he said, with the rest of colonial history. “When the Spaniards arrived in the Americas, they prohibited the production of alcoholic beverages by the indigenous people. When are they going to let these people alone?”
One morning in Oaxaca, I went to see Hipócrates Nolasco, the president of the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal, the advisory body that administers the holograms. A chemist with a Ph.D. from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, Nolasco works out of a laboratory where young technicians in lab coats test samples from hundreds of palenques, verifying proof and checking for levels of methanol and other volatile compounds in a gas-chromatography machine. Music blared from a radio, and flasks of yellow and clear liquid were strewn about the benches. Along the wall was a stencilled motif of a green agave plant with a chemical flask in place of the piña. The lab, which Nolasco ran until 2013, is a private business; mezcal companies pay twelve hundred pesos to test each batch, a necessary step before the C.R.M. can approve it for sale.
Thirty-eight and baby-faced, Nolasco wears cowboy boots and golf shirts. His office, separated from the lab by glass panels, is a museum of mezcal. Hundreds of bottles—his personal collection—line the walls on mirrored shelves. In a conference room appointed with red leather chairs, Nolasco offered me a drink of javelí, his favorite varietal—“It’s afternoon in Europe,” he said, smiling. He comes from a sorghum-farming family, in a part of Oaxaca that does not produce mezcal. His appreciation stems from his training as a scientist. He pushed a button, releasing a screen from the ceiling, and showed me a presentation of side-by-side chromatographs of mezcal and other major spirits. The line for mezcal jittered along the x-axis, jumping up dramatically every inch or two—the chemical profile of mezcal can include furfural, which carries hints of bread, nuts, and caramel, and napthalene, a hydrocarbon that lends a note of tar. Vodka’s line, by comparison, was stolid and straight, featureless as snow.
He explained to me how the proposed regulations, which he helped craft, would protect the growing prestige of mezcal, as well as consumers. “We are all agave distillates,” he said, explaining that the use of the term “agave” by uncertified and possibly unscrupulous distillers encroached on the D.O. In December, he said, the C.R.M. conducted a study of the marketplace and found that nearly half the mezcals for sale were illegitimate—untested fakes, any one of which could have been contaminated with methanol. “It takes only twelve millilitres of methanol to go blind,” he said. “In the best case, when you drink a fake you will get a bad impression. You will get a bad hangover. You can have a bad party. And then you think that is mezcal. We are very jealous about what we can call real mezcal. It’s the most expensive exported beverage in Mexico right now—it costs three times as much per bottle as tequila—but one problem could be catastrophic.”
During his four years at the C.R.M., Nolasco said, he’d brought many mezcaleros into compliance. But it was hard going. “You confront a lot of factors,” he told me. “Resistance, laziness, no interest in innovation, no interest in a new challenge.” The scoundrels, he suggested, were not the producers but the middlemen who brought uncertified spirits to consumers. “They avoid all the taxes,” he said. “They hide behind the idea that they are helping a poor farmer. They sell it in bars and restaurants, and they even export it without permission. The worst are the ones who pay less here but sell the ultra-expensive bottles for two hundred dollars in the United States. It’s a very good business being outside the law.”
For years, it was tough to buy artisanal mezcal in Oaxaca City: it was considered hillbilly moonshine, and nobody copped to liking it. But now, thanks in part to Ron Cooper, there are mezcalerías in Los Angeles, New York, and Paris; in Mexico City, it is a cliché of privilege to drink mezcal, and practically a rite of passage for a young “junior” to own a label for a while. And every street in Oaxaca City seems to offer an opportunity to drink well. “It’s sad that it took a white person to say it’s cool, because this thing has been in our culture for so long, but that’s Mexico,” Bricia Lopez told me.
A couple of days into my visit, Lopez arrived in town, and she took me to El Destilado, a new spot that focusses on uncertified, nano-batch mezcals—the agave distillates that may be rechristened komil. El Destilado belonged to a twenty-eight-year-old from Fort Wayne, Indiana, named Jason Cox and two of his friends. El Destilado’s* chef formerly worked at Saison, a three-Michelin-star restaurant in San Francisco, and the menu—which emphasized “local, artisanal, organic” food—was designed to be ephemeral. The walls were painted with murals of wild agave varietals, accompanied by their common and their scientific names. Cox, who graduated from Denison University, with a degree in politics, philosophy, and economics, is wiry and sharp-featured and has an asymmetrical haircut that flops in his face, flustering him like a yearling with an unruly forelock. For much of the past year, he has studied mezcal aggressively; after visiting dozens of palenques, he assembled a menu of obscure offerings, which he buys wholesale in plastic jugs and bottles in a back room.
Having recently discovered mezcal, Cox feels fiercely protective of its future; given the shortage of raw material, its popularity scares him. “I don’t give a shit about the common person who thinks mezcal is a smoked tequila,” he said. “It’s not a drink to buy in clubs. This is limited! It should be consumed by people who know what they’re talking about.”
Cox presented his favorite: an earnest glass bottle with an agave-fibre label. “This one’s fermented in cowhide,” he said. It was wonderfully weird and comforting, salty-sweet and leathery, like Old Spice on a beloved cheek. I turned the bottle around and read the name of the maker, “Maestro Mezcalero: Alvarado Álvarez.” Cox said that he went to the source, a tiny village called Santa María Ixcatlán, every other month to pick up an allotment of about twenty-six litres; it happened that he was going the next day. As for the pending regulations, he said, the mezcalero, whose full name was Amando Alvarado Álvarez, didn’t care at all. “He’s going to sell it whatever the fuck you call it. You can call it piss water, for all he cares.”
Early the next morning, Lopez picked up Cox and me in her father’s Jeep. Cox had cash in his pocket, and a jug that he stowed in the back. We drove for three hours, through high-desert plains weird with Joshua trees and forests of oak festooned with air plants, like Christmas trees in a hotel lobby. The road dipped and rose, and we entered Ixcatlán through a colorful gate. The streets were empty, the cathedral flanked by bare cement galleries where pilgrims camp during the town’s main festival. We stopped at Alvarado’s mother’s house for lunch—tortillas made from her own corn, eaten in the kitchen while love songs played on the radio.
The palenque was at the edge of a bio-reserve, high in the mountains, twenty miles from where the tropics begin. We got out and walked down a little slope, past a pile of singed agaves to a covered structure on the side of a hill above a streambed. The air was heavy. Alvarado crouched beside a small clay pot with a bamboo pipe poking from its side which emptied into a clay jug. The space was rigged with an ingenious network of angled bamboo sluices, which, Swiss Family Robinson-style, used gravity to bring cool water to the stills. Three hides full of fermenting must bowed from tree-pole frames lashed together with rope. Cox stepped up for a closer look. “This is raw, man!” he said. “Fresh leather.”
Alvarado is twenty-five, sure-footed and small, with a quick bright smile and a heavy brow that is often tight with concentration. Before deciding to follow his father into mezcal, he was a drummer in a folk band; he left school when he was fourteen. “If it wasn’t for mezcal, he wouldn’t be here,” his mother told me. “All of the other boys go to Mexico City.” There used to be thirty professional distillers in Ixcatlán, and now he is the only one. At that point, Lopez told me, she realized who Alvarado was—the maker of the bottle she’d been harboring for so long. “Holy shit, this is the place,” she said. “This is the guy!”
Alvarado filled a jícara with clear liquid. The surface danced with bubbles: the pearls, which indicate the proportion of alcohol according to how quickly they dissipate. These pulled apart like a ruptured spiderweb—fifty per cent alcohol by volume, or 100 proof.
“Puntas!” he called—“Heads!” We tasted them, warm and potent—the giblets of the mezcal. By the time the jug filled up, the heads would be finished, and thrown away; what came out next would be the heart of the distillation. Alvarado said he’d learned to distill from his father. He didn’t know about methanol, he said, but he made a practice of never using tails.
As we drove back to Alvarado’s mother’s house, Lopez contemplated mezcal’s predicament: fated for ruin if it got its due. But she couldn’t help trying to figure out a financial model above subsistence for Alvarado. People wishing for an authentic mezcal experience should visit him, as tourists seek out tiny wineries in France and Spain, and buy his mezcal at retail prices as a souvenir of the experience. “That is the huge vision,” she said later. “People talk about making mezcal to help the people. Paying a hundred and eighty pesos for something you’re selling for a thousand isn’t helping the people. Helping the people is creating an industry for the people.” At the house, Alvarado filled Cox’s container from a five-gallon blue plastic water jug—ten litres for a hundred dollars, to be parcelled out in bottles that he would sell for thirty** apiece.
Lopez asked Alvarado how he usually sold. Wholesale, he said, or through a nonprofit brand associated with the bio-reserve, which gave him young agaves that he could plant as part of a reforestation effort. That brand, supported by an ex-governor of Oaxaca, was certified, but he chose to keep the rest of his output outside the reach of the C.R.M.; the hologram was too costly. He did not like to charge too much, lest high prices fuel a gold rush on the agave. “If you want to take it with you in your stomach, it’s free,” he said.
“I’ll never change the way I’m making this, but if here in Ixcatlán I had to say ‘booze’ or ‘liquor,’ as opposed to ‘mezcal,’ people would be scared away by it.” He was contemplating giving his product a name in Ixcatec, a language that fewer than ten living people speak. “Maybe it’s wrong that I stay away from everything,” Alvarado said. “I’m trying to join the movement. I want to fight for the rights of the mezcaleros to respect the right traditions, so the C.R.M. doesn’t make laws to change the process.” He said that an official had been out to see him, and had recommended that he store his mezcal not in plastic jugs but in barrels, which would change the flavor. “Because of the boom, there’s an illusion that I’m going to get rich making mezcal,” he said. “I just want to keep doing what I’m doing.” ♦