Mezcal by Caroll Taveras

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In 2008 I traveled with Chef and writer Tessa Liebman through Oaxaca, Mexico to explore the ancient spirit, mescal. The maguey plant was one of the most sacred plants in pre-Hispanic Mexico, it was often used in religious rituals. Cooking the heart of the maguey, the “piña” and fermenting it’s juice was widely practiced by indigenous Mexican people in and around Oaxaca since before the arrival of the Spaniards. There is a myth surrounding the drink that says that a lightning bolt struck an agave plant, cooking and opening it, releasing it’s juice, for this reason mezcal is considered the “elixir of the gods”.

I was really taken by the beauty and painful labor of love that surrounds the production of Mezcal in Oaxaca. When we arrived in Matatlan, the Mezcal capital of the world, at the Los Danzantes distillery we were lucky to witness the process called ‘tapar’, which we were told happens once every 3 months. It’s when the heart of the maguey plants are cooked for at least 3 days in a pit oven in the earth, over mounds of hot rocks. The smoke produced from the underground roasting is what gives Mezcal it’s distinctive smokey flavor. I experienced first hand the intensity of this smoke, as I wiped my lens and went directly towards it without a second thought. The way a fly is drawn to light. We also had the privilege of visiting Don Angeles and his family at their distillery in Santa Catarina Real Minero, about 30 minutes outside of Oaxaca city. Where he invited us to lunch with his sons, wife and granddaughter. After lunch he poured us a variety of different mezcals to taste quoting the phrase “por todo mal Mezcal, por todo bien tambien”, which translates “For everything bad, Mezcal, For everything good as well”.

The one mescal that sparked my taste buds the most was the Mezcal de pechuga (breast). This Mezcal is the most rare. It is triple distilled. In the third round it uses ingredients like wild apples, plums, pineapples, uncooked rice, almonds and the last ingredient is, yes, a whole chicken breast. In this process the vapor passes over the pechuga and condenses into a crystal clear liquid that has an amazing taste and smoothness, “por todo bien” it was for sure.’