STILL LIFE PHOTOGRAPHY BY ZACHARY JAMES JOHNSTON
“A great thunderbolt struck a maguey and tore out the plant’s heart, setting it alight. Astonished, men saw an aromatic nectar appearing deep inside. They drank it with fear and reverence, accepting it as a gift from the Gods.” —Ancient Mexican Legend
****We were off to see El Mago, the Magician of tobala. Tobala is an extremely rare mezcal made of wild mountain agave. El Mago is the distiller who, reputedly, makes it better than any other mezcalero in Mexico. I was after proof.
Artist and mezcal impresario Ron Cooper and I had been driving all day in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico to find El Mago. Sometimes we drove on blacktop, but mostly on sketchy dirt roads through villages seemingly unchanged for a hundred years and among vistas that would have made the California Sierras look like rubble. We’d gotten stopped at roadblocks where police were searching for narco-traffickers.
It was getting dark when we entered the village, a village I cannot name as a condition of Ron bringing me here. The streets were ancient cobblestone that looped like a medieval labyrinth and as the sky darkened, there wasn’t a single street lamp to light the way. It was the time of day when people lounge in hammocks and chairs by their front doors. These villagers didn’t seem relaxed as we drove by. We were gringos in a white Cherokee, about as inconspicuous as Mormon missionaries in Mecca. Suspicion nipped at our heels.
I wondered: Would this pilgrimage be worth it? Could El Mago’s tobala be that good?
Mezcal—the oldest spirit in North America, with the most maligned rep—is on the verge of becoming one of the hottest entrants into the world of premium liquors. Ron Cooper, owner of the Del Maguey (mah-gay) label, the first international exporter of single village mezcals, has been evangelical in promoting pura y traddicional for 16 years. His success has subsequently inspired the launch of several competitors such as Ilegal, Amantes and Las Nahuales, all available now in the U.S. In 2008 one of Coca Cola Mexico’s bottling partners spent about millions to build a mezcal plant south of Oaxaca City. Closer to home, country singer Toby Keith introduced his own mezcal, Wild Shot, this last year for sale in his I Love This Bar & Grill chain. As one high level tequila executive recently put it: “Mezcal is the future.”
None of this would have happened but for the chain-smoking madman beside me, whose fast, loose handling of the Cherokee around curves where cliffs drop away a thousand feet was causing me to need a drink.
“There’s evidence that distilling was known long before the Spanish arrived,” Cooper lectures me while speeding toward the village of Chichicapa. “The Chinese may have introduced it when they visited in 1421, or the indigenous may have known about it for hundreds of years before. Mezcal was produced locally in virtually every village.”
Cooper seems an unlikely candidate for the role of mezcal messiah. Now based out of Taos, New Mexico, he’s a California-born artist who shot to fame in the 1960s along with friends Ed Ruscha, Laddie Dill, Chuck Arnoldi and Dennis Hopper. His work hangs in the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art. Among his adventures when he was a young art god was a 1970 road trip in a VW van to Panama. He stopped in Oaxaca and was transfixed.
In 1986, on another Oaxaca visit, he had his “aha!” moment. He was driving in the countryside looking for pulque, a fermented drink made from agave, when he was stopped at a police roadblock. "A soldier asked where we were going and I told him,” Cooper recalls. “He asked if I liked mezcal and said his uncle made great stuff. The next day at the checkpoint he brought me a liter. It was amazing. I realized what real mezcal was like.”
In Chichicapa, we pulled up in front of a bamboo fence along a place named Camino Real. This was the palenque of Faustino Garcia Vasquez, the first distiller signed by Cooper to the nascent Del Maguey label. We entered the compound and found Vasquez and his family at lunch. We were seated on stumps and given bowls of soup and cups of coke. Vasquez, a man of few words, nodded and smiled. I felt like I’d known him for years.
With lunch finished Vasquez gave a tour of his distillery. To make mezcal, a large, round rock-lined pit is filled with logs and set afire. More rocks are thrown in to absorb the heat. The pit is filled with trimmed root bulbs, or pinas, from agave plants. Then the pinas are covered with fiber mats and earth—clambake style—and left to roast from three days to a month, depending on the maker’s taste.
When the roasted pinas are removed, they are hacked into smaller pieces and placed in the center of a molino. This is a concrete circle where the roasted pinas are mashed by a millstone pulled by a horse or burro. The mash is then pitch forked into a six-foot high, oak vat, where fermentation takes place.
The fermentation can take from five days in summer to 30 days in winter. Once done, Vasquez removes about 300-350 liters and places it in the pot still. This still is probably identical to the stills the Spanish introduced 500 years ago. Under the pot is an oven where a fire is lit. The mash boils and steam escapes through a tube. The tube goes from the hot pot through a big water tank, constantly refreshed with cool water. The cooling water causes the steam in the tube to turn to condensation that then trickles out a faucet into a jerry can. Bingo: distillation.
As Vasquez explained the process, I continually dipped my finger into the trickle of mezcal and sucked on it. The taste was smoky, slightly sweet and with a bit of citrus. Did I mention strong? If any of us had lit a cigarette, there would have been no survivors. In the entire town.
We ventured on. It was dark when Cooper parked the Cherokee on the side of the road just outside another village that shall remain nameless. I followed him down a path as he told me about the Magician. “This guy is a treasure,” he said. “I never tell anyone his name because I don’t want people fucking with him. He’s a genius. He doesn’t make very much mezcal.”
The genius’s lot was surrounded by buildings and over grown with weeds. It looked like a place squatters lived in. Suddenly, there was a shout from the hillside above us. I feared the worst. Blam! Goodbye gringo trespassers. Instead, we saw a slight man with a huge dripping moustache. He was the epitome of the Mexican peasant with his old stained trousers and battered fedora.
This was El Mago? The maestro of tobala? He was the most unprepossessing man I’d ever seen.
Cooper introduced us and we shook hands in the Indian manner, a light touch of the palms and fingers. That’s when I saw his eyes. They were sly and mischievous. I put aside my superficial judgment. There was something going on behind that shy smile.
We got in the car and drove back into the labyrinth. We pulled alongside a small house that was unlocked and seemingly deserted, following El Mago down an unlit hallway at the end of which was a shrine to Our Lady of Juquila. The Indians of Oaxaca have an intense reverence for her. El Mago and Cooper both paused at the shrine, said a prayer and crossed themselves. We entered a small, dark room to the left, where El Mago turned on a dim bulb dangling from the ceiling.
There was nothing in the room except a chair and a large plastic drum. El Mago drew off some tobala from the drum into a traditional drinking bowl. We passed the bowl, saying the traditional Zapotec drinking phrase, *stigibeu, *which means, "To your health, the health of your friends and the health of the planet.”
It was unlike any mezcal I’d ever had. There was the same sharp taste and smokiness as any joven. But there was something more, something mineral and earthy. Despite having just been made, it tasted mature, as if it had already aged and mellowed. I had a body high, like a very light psychedelic mushroom buzz. I felt lifted off the ground just a millimeter or two.
Ron was right. It was worth a dozen trips across these mountains to meet El Mago and taste his tobala. Mezcal will be found more and more in the States. But to taste a true treasure like this one will require a pilgrimage. But for whom? The masses will never find El Mago. Certainly not from me.
MEZCAL OF OAXACAMade according to centuries-old traditions, these liquors are meant to drink straight: Del Maguey Minero single village mezcal ($70): From mountain agave grown at 5,500 feet in the village of Minero, this is an outstanding joven. Hints of smoke, citrus and earth. Mijes joven ($57): Heaps of smoke balanced with bitter orange and vanilla. You can smell a shot from across the room. Los Amantes joven ($50): Literally, “the lovers.” Hearty structure, delicate flavor, sweet finish. Scorpion 5-year old Anejo ($180): Yep, that’s a real scorpion in there. Like drinking gold velvet. Enjoy with a bold cigar. Los Nahuales reposado ($65): Imagine a mezcal mellowed like a young cognac. So delicious, you won’t want to swallow it. Illegal Mezcal anejo ($120): The name is a gimmick; the liquor is not. Surprisingly light-bodied for a spirit aged a year long. Tobacco and vanilla notes burst on the tongue, with a long, easy finish.
THE JUICELike tequila, Mezcal is distilled from the maguey (aka, agave) plant, which looks like the green top of a pineapple and grows up to tk feet high. The mezcalero (mezcal maker) takes the pina, the heart of the agave plant, and buries it underground clam-bake style with layers of hot embers for three days to a month, depending on his taste. (Tequila, in contrast, is made of steamed agave.) The roasted agave is crushed and left to ferment in large casks. Once the fermentation is complete, the mash is fed in small batches into a pot still. Often times, the liquor is distilled twice for purity. It’s bottled either clear and unaged (joven, or “young”), aged for two to nine months in charred oak barrels (reposado, or “rested”) or for more than 12 months (anejo, or “old”).