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Mexico Cooks! guest blogs A Mezcal Primer

This week we are re-publishing a trio of posts from the brilliant Cristina Potters at Mexico Cooks! about pulque, mezcal, and what Michoacan brings to the table. We started with pulque on Wednesday, today it’s Mexico Cooks! mezcal primer. You can find the original version of the post below here.

A Mezcal Primer

Mezcal Soldaduría
Sign in front of a Mexican welding shop: “We weld everything except a broken heart. For that we have mezcal.

In case it hasn’t hit your town quite yet, a tsunami is on its way from Mexico to you. Get ready: mezcal is on the roll!  Here in Mexico City and in many other areas of the country, recently ho-hum tequila is being replaced by this high-powered delight of the hundreds-of-years-old wave of the future.  Many of you may already know mezcal as that bottle from Oaxaca with the worm in it, but Oaxaca is just one of the Mexican states where mezcal is produced. And just an aside: 99.999% of the time, that bottle with the worm in it is for tourists and other rank neophytes: it’s usually rotgut.

Agave atrovirens
An agave atrovirens cactus–the same photo Mexico Cooks!published last week–that is used to make pulque. The maguey cactus is also the base for mezcal.

Mezcal Cupreata 1
Although there are upwards of 200 varieties of maguey, relatively few of those make up the majority of mezcales.  Those few are: espadín (used for 90% of all mezcal production), tobalatobasiche, tepeztate, arroqueño, and the maguey pictured above–thecupreata which grows in Michoacán and several other states.

Mezcal is produced for personal use and for sale in all of Mexico’s 31 states, but only eight of those states have received the prized Denominación de Origen (abbreviatedDO: certification of geographic origin).  The largest mezcal production in the country is in the state of Oaxaca, which in 1994 was the first Mexican state to receive itsDenominación de Origen. Today, seven other states have the certification.  Most recently (in November 2012), the state of Michoacán received its DO status.

Mezcal Flor
Cupreata maguey cactus in flower, near Etúcuaro, Michoacán.  The flowering spike of the maguey is the quiote. A cupreata maguey plant needs eight to ten years to mature; like its cousin the common century plant, the entire plant begins to wither and die once thecupreata flowers.   By day, birds pollinate the maguey. By night, bats do the same. Once the flower dies, the plant produces runners that grow into baby plants–and the life cycle of the maguey begins again.

Rocío Díaz of Michoacán, creator of the acclaimed and prize-winning video Documezcal, has graciously givenMexico Cooks! permission to use her video as a learning tool in this article.  In a way that words cannot, the video gives you direct insight into artisan production of mezcal.

Mezcal Camioncito Mejor
Mexico Cooks!
 recently hopped on a guajolotero (what you might think of as a chicken bus) to meet some new friends who promised to take me to meet an artisanal mezcal producer in Michoacán (west-central Mexico), where mezcal and its production are a way of life.

Every small town has at least one mezcal producer and frequently more than one; some small producers have been distilling the drink for private use for 50 years or more.  Commercial production of mezcal is relatively recent; many connoisseurs consider commercial mezcales to be inferior.  The good news?  The best mezcal is the one you like, not the one someone–even if that someone is me–tells you to like.

Among people who drink mezcal and study its history, origins, and traditions, there is a good bit of controversy regarding its production and destinations. Until next week, I leave you with your homework: read the linked article so that you will know what the controversies are. Whether or not these matter to you is entirely up to you. Remember that the article is strictly about the mezcales of Oaxaca. Photo and article (click the link here) courtesy MezcalPhD.

Next week, we will talk about a particular mezcal from Michoacán.

Mexico Cooks! guest blogs starting with Pulque!

We’ve chatted with Cristina Potters from Mexico Cooks! for quite some time about collaborating on a mezcal related topic because she writes one of the best blogs on Mexican culture around. I’ve read it for years just to keep up on the local culinary scene so my interest and fandom pre-date this blog.

In true kismet fashion when we were in Mexico City a few years ago visiting our tequila obsessed friends Scarlet and Grover who run Taste Tequila we even connected Cristina to them and they ended up having a great meal. Sadly we’ve never met in person because our travel plans are always at odds. Mayahuel willing that will change soon but in the interim Cristina has invited us to re-publish her recent series on the alcohols derived from the maguey starting with today’s post on one of the most fascinating drinks imaginable, pulque. You can find the original post on her blog here, we’ll run two more pieces from her series over the next week so if you’re anxious head over to her blog to read them immediately.

Oh and should you want a very personalized tour of Mexico then definitely take a look at what Cristina can offer.

Pulque: Pre-Hispanic Drink, Gift of the Gods from the Maguey Cactus

This Mexico Cooks! article was originally published on April 24, 2010. Today, read it again to begin a series of occasional reports on the remarkable products given to us from the heart of the magueycactus. Aguamiel, pulque, and mezcal all come to us from the abundant hand of Mayahuel, goddess of themaguey.

Agave atrovirens
An agave atrovirens cactus.  This enormous blue-gray plant, native to the ancient land which became Mexico, continues to provide us with pulque (POOL-keh), a naturally fermented alcoholic beverage.  The maguey, with pencas (thick, succulent leaves) which can grow to a height of seven to eight feet, matures in ten to twelve years.  At maturity, the plant can begin to produce liquor.

Pulque, native to Mexico, is suddenly all the rage in countries far from its origin.  Folks who have most likely never seen a maguey cactus ‘on the hoof’ argue the relative merits of natural versus flavored pulques, canned versus straight from the barrel, and so forth.  Mayahuel, the goddess of the maguey, is laughing up her sleeve at this current rash of pulque acficionados; pulque has been well-loved in what is now Mexico for longer than humankind can remember.

Mezcal tlacuache
Legend has it that a thousand years ago and more, Sr. Tlacuache (Mr. Opossum, above) scraped his sharp claws through the heart of the maguey and slurped down the world’s first taste of pulque–and then another, and another, until he had a snoot full.  His meandering drunken ramble allegedly traced the path of the rivers that flow through Mexico. Photo courtesy Juan Palomino.

Codice Borbonico
A drawing from the Codice Borbónico (1530s Spanish calendar and outline of life in the New World) shows Mayahuel, goddess of the maguey, with a mature cactus and a pot of fermented pulque.  The first liquid that pours into the heart of the maguey is called aguamiel (literally, honey water); legend says that aguamiel is Mayahuel’s blood.

Aguamiel actually comes from the pencas (leaves) of the cactus.  In order to start the flow of liquid into the heart of the plant, the yema (yolk) of the plant is removed from the heart and the heart’s walls, connected to the leaves, are scraped until only a cavity remains.  Within a few days, the aguamiel begins to flow into the cavity in the heart of the plant.  The flow of aguamiel can last anywhere from three to six months.  Today, the men who work the maguey to produce pulque are still called tlaquicheros.  The word is derived from the same Nahuatl origin as the name for the original tlaquicheroSr. Tlacuache, Mr. Opossum.

Pulque y maguey
An early tlaquichero removes aguamiel from the heart of the maguey by sucking it out with a long gourd.  Today, workers use a steel scoop to remove up to six liters of aguamiel per day from a single plant.  Aguamiel is not an alcoholic beverage.  Rather, it is a soft drink, sweet, transparent, and refreshing.  Once it ferments, however, it becomes the alcoholic drink pulque, also known as octli.

The fermentation of pulque can start in the plant itself. Aguamiel, left in the plant’s heart to ‘ripen’ for a few days, begins to ferment.  For commercial production, which began in the 19th century, tlaquicheros removeaguamiel from the maguey and transfer it to huge steel tanks, where it ferments.

Pulque dentro de maguey con popote
The heart of the maguey, full of aguamiel.  The tool balanced in the liquid is the same type gourd that is pictured in the early drawing seen above.  Between extractions of aguamiel, the leaves of the maguey are folded over the cavity where the liquid collects to prevent insects and plant debris from falling into the heart.

Pulque Postcard
Mexican photographic postcard dating to the 1940s or 1950s.  The women and children pose in front of huge maguey plants.

By the end of the 19th century, pulque was enormously popular among Mexico’s very rich and very poor.  Weary travelers in the early 20th century could find stands selling pulque–just for a pickmeup–alongside rural byways.  Travelers riding Mexico’s railroads bought pulque at booths along the tracks.  Pulquerías (bars specializing in pulque) were in every town, however small or large.  In Puebla and Mexico City, legendary pulquerías abounded.

La Palanca Tina Modotti 1926 Gelatin Silver Print
Italian expatriate Tina Modotti, a member of the Diego Rivera/Frida Kahlo artists’ circle, photographed Mexico City’s pulquería La Palanca in 1926.

Medidas de Pulque
This common image hung in pulquerías all over Mexico.  Clients could order the amount of pulque they wanted according to the drawings–and be reminded of what they had ordered when the pulque had laid them low.  Image courtesy of La Voz de Michoacán.

In the foreground are the actual pitchers and glasses used in Mexico’s pulquerías.  Compare them with the vessels in the drawing.  Image courtesy of Museo del Arte Popular (DF).

Pulque lovers spent long evenings in their favorite pulquerías in an alcoholic haze of music, dancing, laughter and delight.  Far less expensive than other hard liquors, pulque carries with it the romance of ancient legend, the tradition of a nation, and the approbation of the gods.

Pulquería Charrito Edward Weston 1926
Edward Weston, American photographer, immortalized Mexico City’s pulquería El Charrito, also in 1926.

Natural pulque is a pale white, semi-viscous, liquid with a slick, thick feel in the mouth; many people are put off by that feel, as well as by its slightly sour taste.  Even for those who dislike natural pulque, another kind of pulque–called curado (in this instance, flavored)–is delicious.  Natural pulque, combined with blended fresh fruit, vegetables, or ground nuts, becomes a completely different drink.   Bananas, guavas, strawberries, and the tuna (fruit of the nopal cactus) are particular favorites.

1.- Inicia la Expo-Feria del Pulque y la Salsa en La Magdalena Contreras
Feria de Pulque 
(Pulque Fair) in the State of Mexico.  Each of the jars holds pulque curado, each flavored with a different fresh fruit, vegetable, or type of nut.

Mexico Cooks!
 first tasted pulque about 30 years ago, in Huixquilucan, in the State of Mexico.  Huixquilucan, once known to its inhabitants as Huixqui (pronounced whiskey), used to be a small town, and Mexican friends took me to its small-town fair where home-made pulque was for sale in what seemed like every booth offering food and drink.  “Try it, you’ll like it a lot!” my friends giggled.  “Just a little taste!  C’mon!”  I was nervous: I’d heard about pulque and its slippery slimy-ness and its inebriating qualities.  Finally we stood in front of a booth offering pulque curado con fresas: pulque flavored with fresh strawberries.  “Okay, okay, I can try this.”  And I liked it!  The first small cupful was a delicious, refreshing, slightly bubbly surprise.  The second small cupful went down even more easily than the first.  And then–well, let it be said that I had to sit down on the sidewalk for a bit.  I truly understood about pulque.

Try it, you’ll like it a lot…c’mon, just a little taste!

Not your average use for mezcal

Per Dana Goodyear‘s new book “Anything That Moves” a New york bartender “uses a rapid-infusion technique to make a smoky marijuana-mescal, double charging a canister of mescal and marijuana with nitrous. The first charge dissolves the gas into the mescal; the second forces the mescal to permeate the bud. When the canister is opened, releasing the pressure, the enhanced alcohol seeps back out of the plant.”

Mezcal on film

Our friends over at Mescal Archivo have launched a Kickstarter campaign to support the creation of a digital documentary about our favorite spirit and the people who make it. Take a look at their campaign, it’s a worthy cause. Here’s their Kickstarter video:


Mezcal lists just popped up on our radar because it has a nice list of mezcals.  It’s not anywhere complete, especially for mezcals available in the U.S., but its presents a great variety of mezcals along with biographical notes for each bottling.  The bigger point is that we haven’t been able to find a complete list of mezcals so if you have candidates send them along.  In an ideal world someone would launch a continually updated list of mezcals along with biographies like those presented on or Mezcaloteca.  The project is far too vast for us to contemplate right now but we’ll try to fill in the gaps in our own little way.

Bebidas of Mexico video

Finally had a chance to watch the Bebidas de Mexico show that broadcast on Sept. 8th in Mexico. It’s a snazzy piece that does a nice job of explaining the cultural impact of mezcal through interviews with writers, historians, and producers from the artisanal and industrial worlds.  It is in Spanish without subtitles but don’t worry if you don’t speak Spanish – the images tell the story of mezcal in loving detail.

As a bonus it is narrated by one of my favorite Spanish speaking actors, Daniel Jiménez Cacho.  You may recognize his voice because he also narrated the oh so awesome film Y tu mamá también. Give it a watch – I can guarantee you’ll be making a beeline to grab a copita as soon as possible.



Mezcalistas on Bay Area Bites

We have a little piece up on KQED‘s food blog Bay Area Bites on the world of mezcal as a preview to our tasting next week.  Take a look and tell us what you think.


A few interesting links to articles that have appeared over the last couple of weeks. Not necessarily mezcal specific, but interesting happenings on the food and culture landscape.


The New York Times weighs in on Oaxaca’s unique relationship with its indigenous past and finds that it’s far more nuanced and sensitive than that in the United States.


The LA Weekly brings word that John Sedlar’s Playa has a roof garden full of Mexican herbs, fruits, and vegetables.


The Smithsonian has an interview with Jeffrey M. Pilcher on the history of the taco which reminds us of this earlier New York Times piece on Gustavo Arellano’s new book on the history of Mexican food in the U.S.



Apparently mezcal isn’t ready for its close up

At the very least French police object to the idea: “Mezcal seized at Mexican Cannes party

Mezcal road trip: Mezcal at Clive Bar

The word "Mezcal" painted onto a barn at Clive Bar in Austin, TX.

Mezcal at Clive Bar in Austin: Photo - Michael Gharabiklou