“Pa’ todo mal mezcal, pa’ todo bien también”
It’s Friday night and our daughter has fallen asleep at dinnertime. She’s had a really persistent flu since Monday and she’s too tired to eat. My wife and I sit down to dinner and she pours us each a Nuestra Soledad espadin mezcal and says that she hopes we do not get sick too. As we sip our drinks I am reminded of the popular Oaxacan saying “pa’ todo mal mezcal, pa’ todo bien también” which loosely translates to “mezcal for all things bad, mezcal for all things good”. In our house we pour mezcal to celebrate, to warm us up on cold nights, to help us digest a fatty meal, to ward off sore throats and colds and to honour the dead on our Dia de los Muertos altar.
Mezcal, tequila and trends
The first time that I tried mezcal was in 2007 at La Casa del Mezcal – a cantina 2 blocks from the zócalo that has been around since 1935 and is decorated with gaudy prehispanic-esque murals inside. This place is an institution. Although I had previously enjoyed drinking tequila I don’t think that I was at all prepared for the taste and experience of Mexico’s original distilled spirit.
Most people are familiar with tequila, a kind of mezcal made in Jalisco from the blue agave plants that has been exported since the late 19th century. However, mezcal has only gained recognition as an export in the last decade or so. In the 8 years since I first tried the agave spirit I have seen an evolution in the way that it is marketed. Since I do not drink beer, my drink of choice while I was living in Mexico was always mezcal, and it often came from a plastic jug with no label. Now, years later when we visit Oaxaca I am able to order mezcal by a brand name and also by variety. The evolution of mezcal in Oaxaca feels similar to my experience of the craft beer movements here in Vancouver – people always drank beer but now there is more interest in where it came from and how its consumption affects the local economy. Similarly in Oaxaca mezcal has always been there, but now young people are paying attention to varieties and their distinct flavours.
In the summer of 2009 I visited both a tequila factory in Tequila, Jalisco and a mezcal factory in Matatlan, Oaxaca and I can assure you that although both processes achieve the same goal – distilling cooked agave – they are very distinct. The process of cooking, fermenting and distilling agave to make tequila is more mechanized and often quite large-scale. Tequila is only made with one variety of agave – blue agave. Whereas the mezcal making process is generally very small scale – allowing for the production of different flavours based on the variety of agave used, and many of these varieties are wild. Mezcal is still generally produced with the help of a horse-drawn stone wheel and distilled using a brick oven fuelled by firewood, both of these aspects give mezcal its earthy, smoky tastes.
Mezcal gets its smoky flavor during the production process. The hearts of the agave plants, piñas, are cooked in pits in the ground in a style that’s similar to that for making barbacoa…The cooked agave is then crushed, combined with water, and allowed to ferment. – Mezcal 101, Epicurous
The culture around mezcal is evolving, just as tequila evolved before it. Produced from a plant that can take decades to mature and must be replanted after harvest both spirits are also influenced by climate change and high demands for export. In the article Mezcal’s Dance with Extinction Grace Rubenstien asks:
When the world suddenly wants an abundance of authentic, homespun goods, can their authenticity—and the locals who can only produce them in small quantities—survive?
Mezcal is a big part of my wife’s family’s life as many of my mother-in-law’s family members are involved in producing it in and around Tlacolula. One of my favourite things to do is sip on mezcal and catch up with my Oaxacan family and friends, and I hope that this ritual remains unchanged, despite local and global trends. My wife and I always have a few bottles on hand because“pa’ todo mal mezcal, pa’ todo bien también”.