I’m still trying to sort out our summer vacation but at least Christmas is already in the bag. We’re going back to Mexico to stay at the Casa Raab in the tiny village of San Pablo Etla, a few miles outside of Oaxaca. Bones put together a slide show of his photos from our last trip about six years ago and I thought it would be churlish of me not to share Oaxaca with you. What better place to start than at the bar, with a shot of strong, smokey mezcal?
Anthony Raab, owner of the Casa, is seriously into his mezcal. Anthony is a superb tour guide and most days we went out to explore the countryside, see a few sights and have some lunch. No lunch was complete without a shot and a cerveza to start. And most days ended with Bones and Anthony taking a trip out to the bodega for a sampling of some of Anthony’s house blends. Sometimes they even let me join them. Bones’ given name is Anthony also and Anthony Raab’s wife, Rebecca, took to calling them Los Dos. Trouble in any language.
Mezcal has always been kind of the redheaded stepchild to tequila. It was the tipple (or guzzle) of choice for frat boys who wanted to get drunk fast, impress the girls and gross them out by eating the gusano worm at the bottom of the bottle. But real mezcal handmade by small-scale traditional producers in Oaxaca is another animal altogether. Anthony seems to know just about everyone in the state of Oaxaca and he took us to a small local producer to see how mezcal is made. Now that’s my kind of field trip. And it was certainly educational.
The first thing I noticed was that plenty of the mezcal I tasted in Mexico was distinctly wormless. (And it’s not a worm really, it’s a caterpillar.) There are those who say the worm is there to flavor the mezcal, those who say it proves the mezcal is fit to drink and some say it’s just a marketing play. I don’t know where the truth lies but the worm is definitely optional.
Mezcal is made from the heart, or piña, of the maguey agave (what we call the century plant here in the Caribbean). And as far as I can tell, methods of production haven’t changed much in the last few hundred years. The maguey are harvested and the piñas extracted.
The piñas then go into stone ovens set in the ground, called palenques, where they are covered and then roasted for three or four days. It’s this roasting process that gives the mezcal its distinctive smokey flavor.
After roasting, the piñas are crushed, often by a stone wheel turned by a horse or a mule. Then it’s put into vats for fermentation and finally, into another vessel for distillation. After the mezcal is distilled, it’s put into barrels for aging for anywhere from a month to ten or twelve years.
If you can’t make it to Oaxaca, never fear. I had some commercially produced Monte Alban mezcal in North Carolina that wasn’t bad at all. If you look hard enough, I hear that some of the smaller producers are also starting to import to the US. As for me, the last time I heard from Anthony, he’d just processed four and a half tons of piñas and had another five tons to go. I think it’s safe to say we won’t go thirsty for mezcal this Christmas.