When I was in high school I drank what my friends drank, and they probably drank what their parents or older siblings drank. I don’t remember especially loving the taste of Rum and Coke, and taste was beside the point. We were just lucky if the folks at Miners Grove would sell us a case of Red White & Blue or Altes, and were fine with that.
Sometime in my 20s I began to really appreciate beer. I’d dabbled with European brews like St. Pauli Girl and Grolsch, but came into an appreciation for Canada’s Labatt’s and Molson Golden. Then around 1993 a friend and I started home brewing, which led to an exploration of some of the world’s greatest beer styles. About that time the US craft beer revolution was beginning to sweep through the Midwest. By the late 90s I was well schooled in stouts, porters, bocks, lambics and IPAs. For the next 15 years my love for truly great beer would grow in scope and depth.
Even while I was regularly exploring cigars at Fox Cigar Bar in Gilbert, Arizona, I only rarely went the cliché route of enjoying them with a Scotch or Courvoisier. Fox had 13 rotating taps of the best beer I’ve ever drunk. Old Ales, Russian Imperials, Bourbon Barrel Stouts. It’s good to see Mexico’s own craft beer revolution in full swing. Still I think it’ll be a few more years before we reach the kind of malty mecca in which I used to revel stateside. But I’m not sad. Because shortly after hitting San Miguel de Allende, I discovered mezcal.
It was just a couple of weeks after I moved to San Miguel. My studio—including vocal booth—was installed and operational. The voiceovers were coming in like normal, so I headed out into the city to discover what turned out to be my favorite local event: Sabores San Miguel. It was held in Parque Juarez, which is a large park right in Centro. Think of it as a "Taste of San Miguel." It’s free to get in, and there must be almost one hundred booths with vendors selling food, beer, wine and, as it turns out, mezcal.
Job, a brawny, bohemian young dude with big hair, a bushy beard, a huge smile and bare feet was bouncing around one booth with rows of tiny, plastic sample cups filled from a variety of bottles on hand. I asked what it was.
“Mezcal,” he rasped.
I’d heard of it. Once in the 80s I did shots of it with a buddy at some Michigan State campus bar. I don’t recall it tasting good. I think a radio friend also shared some mezcal with me. Again the taste wasn’t enjoyable.
“So mezcal doesn’t just get you drunk,” my old buddy said. “Cause it comes from the same thing as mescaline. You get a different kind of high!”
This is mostly nonsense. It is not made with the cacti from which mescaline is derived, but from a variety of agave plants. However many of us definitely notice the unusually uplifting buzz in produces. I think it even brightens my vision after a couple shots and brings on a lovely euphoria.
So I shelled out my 30 pesos to Job and took a sip. Very interesting. I laid down 60 more and he gave me tastes of 2 other varietals. Complex, green, woody, earthy…and they were all quite different. This was a little strange for me as I’d never been big on liquor, but this stuff was intriguing. I gave him a thanks-nod and breezed on to other booths.
Another mezcal purveyor was there, so I bought a taste and tried it. (Cue the screeching brake sound effects.) Bluhhhh! Imagine an involuntary anal wince followed by a facial grimace and abrupt shiver. My first reaction was to throw it away. But no. I had to make sure what I was drinking was truly as bad as the first sip seemed. Turns out it was. Persistently revolting.
Now I had to see if Job’s stuff was really as good as I thought. So over the course of the weekend I’d stop over for more tastes only to find it was even better. I ended up buying a couple of bottles from him. The first was a delicious ensamble, a mezcal made from multiple agave varieties, that I polished off in the first month. The second was a Coyote, meaning it was made from the Coyote agave. Whoa buddy that was good: elegant, smoky. I savored the bottle, only allowing myself about half a shot at a time, and making it last a whole year.
The following June, Sabores hit town again, and sure enough Job was there again. All year I’d been telling people I was a mezcal guy, but most of the mezcales served locally were either hideous or pretty bland. Would this campo-dweller deliver again? My first sip was of a Madre Cuixe from the Miahuatlán valley. It was complex with just a touch of sweetness—mad earthy. A friend later said, “This tastes like dirt. And I love it.” Not dirt dirt; think rocks, minerals, a little essence of clay—with roasted wood notes. Job must’ve had 9 or 10 different varieties, all enchanting.
That was it.
In addition to buying some bottles that go-round, I got Job’s email and Skype address, and a month later placed my first order: 12 half-liter bottles of the magnificent Madre Cuixe. It came by truck, easy as pie. Hell, I thought, I’m ordering more. But Job talked Cecilia and I into coming to Oaxaca for a visit. It was a memorable trip. I got to see how this beguiling elixir is actually made artesanally. Roasting the agave in the ground, using a horse-pulled stone wheel to crush it, fermenting, distilling. And the flavors!
So in the last year and a half, I’ve brought in at least 20 shipments of more than 25 different varieties of mezcal from the various campos outside of Oaxaca. Adjoining the voiceover studio is my second bedroom, which is now the Mezcal Room, and honestly: if any old friends come to visit me, I fully expect they’ll give me a suspicious look and ask if I’m doing okay. I have an industrial metal rack stacked with hundreds of bottles—not to mention 7 or 8 garafones of stuff I still haven’t bottled. It might well look like I’m a hoarder.
I had a Pakistani graphic designer on Fiverr create my label, and I sell to friends and local bars and restaurants. Guiño Guiño is my brand, which means "Wink Wink" in Spanish. And as I’ve yet to run my little venture by any of the legal authorities, it’s probably appropriate. But fixing my operation legally is inevitable. Just this week a local establishment ordered 12 cases, and since I plan to roll out San Miguel Mezcal Club soon, I can’t imagine I’ll avoid scrutiny.
I’ve had many tastings—originally at local restaurants or the houses of friends, but hauling boxes around gets old. So I mostly do them at my house now. And I love to get peoples’ reactions. They have heard that mezcal is supposed to be “smoky,” so they’re often looking for that quality. “Smooth” is another term that pops up often. But, while I find agreement with many descriptions, I’ve been buffaloed by many others, which leads me to believe we experience very complex flavors quite differently from person to person. And trust me: there are lots of complex flavors!
Most people, and I believe this includes many Mexicans, have never really had good, artesanal mezcal. So when you mention it or offer some, they’ll chuckle and throw their hands up defensively. Yesterday a window salesman we offered some to did just that, saying “Muy peligrosa!” (Very dangerous!) Usually good mezcal is stronger than other spirits. You’ll find most liquors—including tequila and mass marketed mezcal at 38 to 42 percent alcohol. I have one reposado that’s 40, but most of mine are in the 46 to 54 percent range. Most, but not all, long-time mezcal drinkers shy away from the mellowed reposados and añejos. (Reposados have rested in wood barrels for 2 months to a year, while añejos a year or more.) While they’re definitely softer and smoother, it’s felt that you’re tasting more wood than agave. And when you come to realize the magnificent flavors the various plants offer, the last thing you want to do is screw with that. But to each his own; just as wood aged mezcal is enjoyed by many, mezcal cocktails are becoming quite popular too.
I’ve always considered beer to be the most soul-satisfying of alcoholic beverages, but that good red wine gave me the most enjoyable buzz. Vino makes me feel warm, happy and smiley. But enjoying an entire evening of it becomes cloying. My mouth can only take so much. While I still enjoy good craft-brewed beer with meals, mezcal has now taken its rightful place at the top of my most enjoyed intoxicants.
It can take awhile to really comprehend what you’re drinking. The first time you try one, it might seem too strong. That means you're just taking sips that are too large. You automatically adjust. But if you have a genuine artesanal mezcal, just give it a few shots. Sip on it while you’re doing something else, like watching Netflix on a Saturday afternoon. At some point, (about halfway through the 2nd shot in my case,) you’ll notice a bright feeling of exhilaration, but if it’s good you’ll also begin to understand the beauty of what you’re drinking as it unfolds. Sometimes it’s incredibly earthy and complex; others it’s simple and elegant. This combination of sensational flavors along with jubilant euphoria is sure to win you over—if you give it the chance.
When we have tastings I usually put out an assortment of cheeses, tortilla chips, almonds, dates and some delicious sausage I have made locally to my specifications: no sugar, low spice. It seems fat brings out the mezcal flavors, but the sweetness of dates works with it too. I do not however recommend chocolate. It’s another Oaxacan specialty, but I find the full cacao strength clamps down on your taste buds. Water and beer are also typical accompaniments. Traditionally you serve mezcal with orange slices and sal de gusano, a Oaxacan spice made from sea salt, toasted and ground agave worms and a bit of chile. I think it’s good for refreshing your mouth between tastes—as long as the oranges are good. Chapulines, roasted grasshoppers seasoned with chile and lime, are common with mezcal too.
I’ve been wondering if it’s a male thing. Plenty of women enjoy mezcal a great deal, but when I look around at those in Mexico who talk about it the most, who speak passionately about it, who are excited about finding that magical, new mezcal…it sure seems primarily to be men.
I’m picturing some guy from the Paleolithic era; let’s call him Moe. Moe is a part of a small group of nomadic hunter-gatherers. He’s the best of the hunters, and his family—and maybe even the rest of the clan—are mainly looking to him to provide food. But what if no deer are to be found? Moe has stress. He manages it by 1) identifying new, innovative methods to more effectively hunt when game is discovered, 2) never letting himself get too comfortable and 3) when successful, having some delicious alcoholic beverages that help Moe relax, remind him life is good and make him feel like a man.
But I think there's also something about going in search of something special, struggling to find it--and then hitting upon it. The fact that you're highly unlikely to find this level of artesanal goodness at a local store, but you CAN find it by venturing out a great distance--and sometimes at personal risk--to return with a life-enhancing elixir, makes it so much more special. You almost feel like a Mezcal Marco Polo!
When I was a home brewing beer buff I used to experiment with different malts, hops and strains of yeast. Now that I’m a mezcal maniac I come alive at the thought of a veritable pilgrimage to Oaxaca. In my case there are no easy flights there, so the sensible thing is to take a bus from San Miguel de Allende to Mexico City, which is usually a little over 3 hours, then hopping a quick flight to Oaxaca City, and embarking on a journey 1.5 to 3 hours into the campo and the land of the indigenous Zapotecs.
Then, after some exploring, finding some alcoholic alchemist who’s been making mezcal as part of a family tradition for hundreds of years, tasting his distillates and feeling my face and eyes start to shine. Soon language barriers and millennia melt away, and we are just men. Men who appreciate the time, energy and wisdom that goes into good work. When they ask what my work is, I try to explain voiceovers. On rare occasion my phone has internet, and I can play them a YouTube video of one of my projects. They look at me, squint, listen, smile and nod respectfully. I hold up a vessel of their mezcal and do the same.
So it’s been a long time since Joe Boik and I were drinking saspies on the sly, usually in some cabin or on the back dirt roads in one of our parents’ cars. The evolution of my alcoholic appreciation took me from the pines of northeast Michigan and Lake Huron to Mexico, land of the magical mezcal. And even though such Michigan days are long gone, the same interest in slipping away with friends for conversation, laughter and a little boozing remains. I hope you too find something just as good.