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At the End of a Long Drive

Shreesh and Neena Taskar

We didn't make the decision, the decision made us. On October 20th, 2007, we left our comfortable city of San Francisco to follow a simple algorithm - go North till the road ends then turn around and then go as far South. In between those two points was the stage, the timeline, the space, where we made things happen and things happened to us.

The past is fleeting and the stories, the sights and the feelings are perishable. One sees what one wants to see, and perhaps we are not capable of more. We saw that people are kind and helpful even if they were not materially rich. Some we could understand even though we didn't speak the same language, the motivations of others were incomprehensible even though we did. In the end fragments remain - the smell of roasting chocolate, a flock of snow Ptarmigians on snow, the creaking of the rainforest, the rough feathers of penguins, and the intoxication of Curanto.

So these are our stories. Every time you visit the site you will see a random post below. Each starts with Lo que pasa es que...

The Magic of Mezcal

Research into Mezcal proves to be interesting and highly rewarding

When traveling it is necessary to leave behind all that I am used to and learn to accept the treasures of the region that I am in. The state of the Mexican wine industry can at best be described as deplorable and at worst… well I’d rather not go there. Combine that with bland, insipid, mass-produced beer and becoming a teetotaler starts to look like an attractive option.

Glug glug...

The tasting room at the Union of Palenqueros

Unfortunately for the budding teetotaler there is the siren call of Mezcal, the locally produced liquor that embodies all the qualities of a proper homage to the gods of spirits. Mezcal is an ancient distilled spirit made from the agave plant that used to be reserved for consumption by the nobility and high priests. The plants are either cultivated in an arid mountain climate, or as in the case of Tobalá, found growing wild in the mountains. The leaves are removed, leaving only the heart of the plant or piña.

A pineapple a day...

Agave piñas ready for processing.

The piñas are then roasted in a conical outdoor oven or palenque for several days and then chopped up. The resultant bits are brought inside where a mule powered mill is used to create a mash for the fermentation. A small amount of water is added to the mash and the mixture is fermented in large open barrels for two to fifteen days.

After fermentation the mash is double-distilled in wood fired stills, or as in the case of Pechuga, triple distilled. The spirit is then aged in wooden barrels for up to twelve years as in the case of Añejo or consumed immediately as in the case of Mezcal Blanco. Sometimes a worm or gusano is added for a bit of pizazz and flavor. Surprisingly, eating a Mezcal infused gusano tastes exactly what you would think a Mezcal infused gusano would taste like.

sad mule distillation

Grinding the piñas

Wood fired still

The tiendas of large producer Beneva with their nubile young female hostesses, are hard to miss in the city of Oaxaca. The “Starbucks Coffee” of mezcal, they produce an inoffensive and good quality Añejo. But just like Starbucks Coffee, the discerning consumer will soon realize that there is something better over the horizon – small production artisanal Mezcal. The subject can take a lifetime of study, but some good producers we discovered were Real Minero (available at the Pochote organic market) and El Rey Zapoteco. However, the best mezcal we found comes from a small collective of eight farmers called the Union of Palenqueros, located at 510 Abasolo in a building badly in need of repair. Their Añejo de 12 años is a marvel.

A small artisanal producer, like the Union of Palenqueros, produces a wide array of mezcal:

Blanco Aged for a brief period of time and very strong in taste.
Reposado Aged for a up to a year, it can be earthy and strong.
Gusano A worm is added to the spirit for flavor. The popular brand, Gusano Rojo, is of extremely poor quality and should not be used as a gauge for this or any other type of Mescal.
Añejo Usually aged for three years or more. Smooth and earthy, the best varieties can be amazingly complex with earth, tobacco, vanilla overtones. My personal favorite.
Tobala Made from wild Maguey plants, it has a distinct spirit taste, a little reminiscent of paint solvent. Prized by many for that same reason.
Pechuga Traditionally made by hanging a chicken or turkey breast in the still or by hanging a slab of maguey. Triple distilled and distinctly fruity.
Punta Made from the first products of the distillation punta is fruity and packs a wallop. Normally it exceeds 140 proof!
de Olla Made by the traditional process of using clay pots for distillation, it has a characteristic smoothness that cannot be achieved by modern equipment.