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The Playboy Bar: Mezcal
  • August 19, 2011 : 20:08
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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.

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read more: lifestyle, magazine, alcohol, issue september 2011

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