Saturday, April 18, 2009

Mezcal, Raicilla, Mexican Moonshine, and the (in)famous Worm

"It's Mezcal with me...Tequila, no, that is helpful and delightful, just like beer. Good for you. But If I ever start to drink Mezcal again, I'm afraid, yes, that would be the end..." - Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano

Moonshine. Everclear. Bathtub Gin. Mezcal. Raicilla. Since the start of times, humans have been catching a good buzz, loving a good flavor (or questionable flavor, as we will soon discuss) and inevitably making their own home-brewed liquor to accomplish all of the above. Mexicans have a rich tradition of creating beauty out of the simple things around them, and have famously used the estimated 400 varieties of the Agave plant for many of their necessities - needles, thread, food, building materials, and so on - but most famous is the creation of Tequila, her mysterious sister Mezcal, and their dangerous-yet-sexy cousin Raicilla (be careful of her!). Though I love the big sister with all my heart, its the younger girls we get intimate with today.

My all time favorite Tequila-related imagery is the bottle art of the Gusano Rojo Mezcal Joven. The great iconic art (75 year anniversary going on now) of the worm working the agave fields always makes me happy and reminds me of animation, comics... and booze. A few of my favorite things, together and apart. Though I often drank Cuervo Gold growing up, to me the image on the bottle of Gusano Rojo, and the infamous Worm, wove a tale and imagery that to me said Mexico, Tequila (though it isn't) and heavy inebriation. More on Gusano Rojo later.

The word Mezcal was born from the Aztec language, meaning a potent Mexican spirit made from the Maguey plant - they got that right on the nose, the potent part. You coul
d say that Tequila, Mezcal, and Raicilla's first major difference is their home-towns, with Tequila only distilled in and around the northern state of Jalisco, Mezcal mostly created in the south, in the areas in and surrounding the state of Oaxaca (pronounced 'Wo-Ha-Ka'), and Raicilla born of regional Agaves in different parts of Mexico. Another important distinction is that while Tequila is now a huge business, with most distilleries run by big companies with bigger budgets, Mezcal and Raicilla are both still made by Oaxacan and other local villagers in genuine home-made, back room operations. While many of the Mezcals we tried today are bottled and approved by Mexican spirit standards, it is not legal to produce Raicilla for sale, so these are the true bottles of modern Mexican moonshine. These producers are still very artisinal and very small in comparison to the Big T companies, and the flavors from town to town are distinctive and original.

decided to pull together the inner circle of the Tequila Squad for a full blown Mezcal-a-rama. My fellow Mezcaleros: Mark Alberto Holt, owner of my beloved S.F.T. Tequila Bar, Ed Schwartz, "the Nose", his wife Bambi, plus a few good folks that stopped by through the trials. Mark laid out an excellent selection of his best, brightest, moonshiniest Mezcals and Raicillas, and awesomeness, education and hilarity insued. This is what we drank.

Monte Alban Mezcal Reposado con gusano (with worm) - Not 100% Agave, and it shows. Probably what Mezcaleros may call a classic, smokey flavor, and smokey it is, but besides that to me it has some of the worst characteristics. Ed asked out loud "Why do people drink this...?" or something equally awesome. Whatever his exact words, I got the drift, and felt similarly.

Mezcalero Mezcal Reposado "Regional de Oaxaca" con gusano
- Though also not 100% Agave, this is a far more palatable cup in comparison to the Monte Alban. A light, spicy nose leads to a flavor with hints of flowers (just can't call which) and strange fruit. I was surprised by my lack of repulsion, and found this overall enjoyable.

Gusano Rojo Mezcal Joven 100% Agave con gusano - A Classic Mezcal, both in reputation and classic Mexican imagery. As stated, I remember loving this bottle when I was very young, it's cartoon gusano rojo (red worm, y'all) working in the agave fields, happy as, well, a worm in Mezcal. Though I can attest to taking many a shot of G.R. in the wee desperate hours, lost to whatever my life was giving me, and no good Tequila around...Today, sitting here in the company of my motley yet elegant crew, it tastes down right refined. Smokey nose starts you off, and carries right through the tasting, start to finish. Lasts far (far) longer than your last sip, which is good if you enjoy it.
"Hints of Pear..." Ed.

Recuerdo de Oaxaca Mezcal Joven 100% de Agave con gusano
- The flavor was better than the smell, but barely by a nose (funny). It did get better with further drinks, but lots of bad things get better with time.
That nose does not move me" - Ed.
A nose like chemicals or coal" - Mark.
Ack." - Gab

do de Oaxaca Mezcal Joven 100% de Agave con multiple gusanos - This is awesome because it is the exact same Mezcal as above, same NOM # (the Official Mexican Standard of Tequila that is regulated by the Mexican Government applicable to all producers of the spirit) and same Lot #, the only difference being an updated bottle design, and that it comes with multiple worms. I found this a much better tasting, smoother bottle than the one with only one worm, and came to the decision that this may be the only thing in the world that tastes better with more worms in it. Right on.

Sisal Silver Extra Dry Blanco, Licor de Henequen 100% Agave
- Here I had found my best taste of the day, and worth the wait. Delightful and sweet from the gate, hints of citrus take you through nose and taste. This is a gentle Mezcal you could enjoy in any situation, and be far from vomiting. Find this and start a conversation around it.

Raicilla "El Tuito" Reposado 100%
Agave - A Raicilla distilled from regional Agaves, this really lives beyond its family home, starting with a great nose, and ending one of the best surprises of the day. Raicilla is not given a NOM # or recognized by means and standards as other Tequilas and Mezcals are, so it is legal to give away, but not to sell. The back of the bottle says "...this aphrodisiac elixir...should be taken in no less than 5 drinks per day and no more than 10 per day...". Nice prescription.

Raicilla in a blank plastic bottle
- very young and born and delivered right from a still - "Oh Shit." were my and everyone else's first words after our foray into this mexican moonshine. My pal Yogi who joined us around this time compared it to what he imagined "Hawkeye and Trapper John drank on M.A.S.H..." I loved that show, and the wisdom.

As the afternoon went on, we thoroughly discussed the best qualities of even a questionable flavor, while taking joy of the "rough edges" - with Mezcal being an acquired taste, overall I can say we all really acquired it. Mezcal I find is more earthy than Tequila, and has a smokey soul that most folks probably have the most trouble with. I personally also find it saltier, but also more floral in my preferred bottles. You must remember that the varied flavors come from the local villages each bottle is born from, the local water, wether it is created in a clay or copper pot... lots of variables, all key to it's local flavor. That is where it's true charm lies. For many, learning to love Mezcal may come via cocktails, which is a fine doorway into this magical world.

Tonight I sit at home, documenting these words, enjoying my evening with Andrea, now that the boy is recently to sleep. As I sip on some Gran Centenario Azul, I can't help but think that one thing is missing, isn't it?
The Worm. MY WORM. After all these years, I have never had the worm. Well, tonights the night, as they say. I pull out my bottle of Gusano Rojo I have around for posterity and art, and pop it open. Digging the worm out is not as easy as thought, but as I am known to, I figured it out. With my glass filled with the Mezcal it spent years in on my shelf, I tossed my friend into my mouth. Small burst, more of the same Mezcal of it's home, and generally no big suprise. A worm. I do feel awesome to have finally crossed that bridge, but at the same time depressed thaI have yet to start hallucinating. Now I am sad.

I leave this night having not only a fonder place in my dark dark (pitch black) heart for Mezcal and Raicilla, but a deeper appreciation for home made booze, especially in Mexico, an amazing country born of creativity and home-grown magic.

Los Mezcaleros de Sayulita: (L-R) Mark Alberto Holt, the Fiend, Ed and Bambi Schwartz


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