a blogazine of crime stories and occasional reviews
Monday, September 12, 2022
Mezcalero, fiction by Anthony Neil Smith
it, hold it in your mouth. Let your tongue embrace it fully.
do you taste?
you say, sir? People always say smoke. They think it makes them, if
not an expert, then at least smarter than the tourist who still
thinks there’s a worm in every bottle.
of you think that, do you?
is my first attempt as the maestro of this palenque, a position held,
until recently, by my adoptive father, Leonel. You were wondering, I
see it in your eyes, how a white blonde boy, the only son of an
American mother, ends up becoming a maestro mezcalero.
your eyes and really think about it.
your head back and swallow slowly, almost as if you are letting the
mezcal flow down your throat in a stream.
we’ve got smoke.
how would you describe the agave itself? The Espadin?
Fresh mown? Yes, now we’re getting somewhere. Mezcal holds onto the
wildness tequila tries so hard to tame. With mezcal, you are enjoying
the land itself, my friends. It’s as if you are barefoot on the
soil. Your fingers and toes covered in soil we mezcaleros consider
it was really sacred, you would not be here now at this tasting, yes?
You would not have been able to pay for the privilege.
no, I think not. If there’s one thing I’ve found Mexicans hold
sacred, it’s calling things sacred and meaning it.
I will say this: being drunk on mezcal is a nearly identical
experience to religious ecstasy. The closest most people ever come.
sorry, what did you say?
she says. Ladies and gentlemen, did you hear her say heroin?
you think that was a cute joke?
powder manufactured in a lab by scientists who know how to easily
pacify and manipulate their users? You think it’s funny to compare
that to the tradition, care, sweat, and blood that goes into making
blessed mezcal? Something as good as my dad made? Something as good
as my older brothers – they were supposed to be my brothers,
anyway, although they made it their goal in life to be my merciless
tormentors as we grew up. Then they both fucked off to the States and
partied until Dad ran out of patience and cut off their funds,
forcing them both back home to take the business seriously.
I was there all along. I was learning the secrets, too. I was
mastering the craft right before Leonel’s eyes. To me, it was much
more than a job. An obligation.
was my life’s ambition.
when the time came to name his successor…
espadin absorbs whatever it is that makes the soil so special. Maybe
it really is sweat, the way our jimadors muscle the pinas from the
ground, slicing away the leaves with a nasty blade on a long wooden
handle. A coa de jima.
all had a chance to see the pinas, haven’t you?
sir, like pineapples. We have a poet in the house, everyone.
pout. It’s just a bit of fun. A bit of fun is all.
we can’t laugh about ourselves…as my brothers used to say.
pineapples, as you call them, are gathered together and thrown into a
pit of burning oak and hot rocks, where they are slow roasted,
although “roasted” is misleading. Yes, we set fire to the wood
and heat the rocks, but it is the steam from the pinas doing the real
work. We cover the pinas with banana leaves and dirt. It smolders for
days and days. This is where the smoky taste comes from.
might notice a touch of bitterness to the smoke.
would be from the charred remains of my brother Fernando.
it’s funny. I agree. Very funny.
was the reason I never slept through the night. I’d wake to his
face hovering inches from mine, his hand over my mouth. I would count
my bruises taking a bath the next morning. Shivering. I began to lose
my grip. When would he strike? What was real and what was nightmare?
was silent. Never insulted me, like our oldest brother Benedicto did.
In fact, I barely remember him saying two words to me our whole
I never felt safe when he was here. He would strike at anytime,
anywhere. School, home, the toilet, the market, in the middle of the
night, halfway through dinner.
one time I approached my adoptive father, asking, begging,
him to do something about it, he wouldn’t look me in the eye. Just
continued sipping and spitting his latest concoction, tinkering. “A
man must find his own way. I hope you will find yours. But if you
want to make a way in this
family, over your brothers, I cannot cheer for you. I do not bear you
ill will, either. You will have a harder time than my blood sons, but
that will make your victories only sweeter.”
I loathed him. Loved him, in a way, but truly loathed him, too.
as I fumbled with my first serious girlfriend in the backseat of
Dad’s Lincoln Town Car, parked up on a ridge overlooking the agave
field, only an inch away from my first time, there came Fernando,
flinging open the door and yanking me out onto the ground in front of
all his friends, my jeans around my ankles, and literally whipped my
ass with the wooden handle of a coa de jima.
laughed. Except Fernando, I mean. Everyone laughed except Fernando.
she was in the backseat, covering herself with the dress I’d taken
off only a few minutes before, laughing to the point of tears.
I rolled around on the ground, mi culo throbbing and splintered, she
invited Fernando into the back of the car.
dated her for a couple of years after that. Meaning she was always
around the house, always around the palenque, always anywhere I tried
to regain a shred of dignity. She was never awful to me about it,
never mentioned it again.
called me her conejo bebé
– her baby bunny.
Fernando left for the States, I admit, foolishly, that I approached
her again. I brought her flowers. I asked if we could try again.
laughed, though not as loudly or as cruelly as she once had. “My
baby bunny, it would be like sleeping with my own brother. I can’t
see you that way, never again.”
I am drifting from the purpose of the tasting. The mezcal, its
secrets, its mystery. Please, stay, and I will get us back on track.
last thing about Fernando. When he returned, our father gave him my
job. I had been his right-hand man all this time, but Leonel demoted
me, placed Benedicto at the top, with Fernando right behind.
didn’t even like mezcal. He preferred vodka full of sweet mixers.
did pick up with his old girlfriend again, even though she’d gotten
engaged to another. She thought it was a torrid affair, like a
romance novel. Fernando thought it was an easy lay.
threw a thousand dollars at her and told her to take care of it.
fiancé found out and called off the wedding.
used the thousand dollars to move to Cancun, where she had the child
alone and found work at a resort.
sorry. I had promised.
is not always unpleasant, if you think about it. There are many
bitter notes in our favorite foods. The blackened crust on a flank
steak on the grill. The char on a roasted habanero. These flavors
work in concert – the smoke, the bitterness, Fernando’s bones.
brings us to the next step in the process.
the pinas have cooked in the ground due to all the steam, it is time
to crush them.
sure you know, those of you who haven’t fled, that we use
traditional methods here. Others are switching to autoclaves and
shredding machines to speed the job along. But my father always
believed in the ancient ways. He wanted his mezcal to taste as
natural as possible. I’ve seen him be offered tastes of others
product, as his opinion was highly valued in the industry. And I’ve
seen him spit onto the ground at their feet, saying, “It’s just
it’s time to crush the pinas, we use the tried-and-true method, as
you saw earlier, of the tahona. The stone, yes, the stone. A giant
stone, pulled around our crushing pit by donkeys. A stone seasoned by
nearly one hundred years of crushing pinas this way, as Leonel took
over from his uncle, who had no children, who had taken over from his
own father, who had stolen the palenque from his neighbor in the bad
old frontier days.
may tell you there’s no difference between mezcal made with an
autoclave and a shredder and the nectar we produce here using the old
ways. Some may tell you the updated methods help reduce the
bitterness and funk of wild agave, which is more palatable to the
growing American market.
find it all very strange. Very strange. Why drink mezcal that’s
been distilled until it becomes, God rest Leonel’s soul, pina piss?
Nothing more than smoky water?
instance, sir, you mentioned that you also tasted something like
iron, or a coppery flint. What’s that? Pennies, yes, old copper
not something you’d find if you distilled it the way your fellow
citizens prefer. All impurity washed away.
what you’re tasting is the blood of my eldest brother, Benedicto,
who I treated on his birthday at the local watering hole, before
dumping him into the crushing pit with the pinas and letting the
tahona finish him off.
he deserve it?
Fernando had been an unholy terror, it was Bene who was evil
incarnate. Whereas Fernando did his damage out of sight of Leonel,
Bene’s poison was in his words. He could destroy me in front of our
father, send me running from the table wracked with guilt and shame,
without Leonel so much as spilling his spoonful of soup.
was Bene who filled in the holes of my history.
had told me, when I was nine, that a young American girl unable to
support her new baby had tearfully left me at a church in Oaxaca, and
my adoptive father’s sister, a nun there, asked if he would take me
in. And so he did.
Bene said, “Your mother was a Spring Breaker, your father any one
of countless frat boys, and if she’d known she was pregnant sooner,
you’d have been forced out by a clothes hanger. Instead, she was
too drunk to realize and her parents sent back here to give birth at
an orphanage, so their friends would never know. She couldn’t get
away from you fast enough.”
said, “The only reason my father took you in was the monthly check
promised from your mother’s parents to help support you if he would
keep their secret. As you can tell, he didn’t spend much of it on
said, “If I were to let Fernando kill you in your sleep, my father
would be angry, only because the check would stop coming.”
was Bene who first got me drunk on mezcal when I was seven. Very
nearly killed me. It also happened to be our father’s favorite
reserve, which in my stupor I had smashed a case of to the ground.
did not respond…well.
was Bene who taught me about sex. He showed me in the old
encyclopedias. He showed me in old magazines with dried together
pages, bondage, blood, whips, and other kinks a boy should not have a
crash course in.
told me I would be cast out of the family as soon as I graduated, if
his father even let me get that far in school.
and Fernando moved away well before I graduated. Leonel did not cast
me out. I proudly stood beside him learning his craft, all his
secrets, making them my own. It had begun as a passion. An art form.
But now, it could make a man rich.
said, upon the brothers’ return home, “You won’t get a dime out
of this place. And if you try to start your own palenque, I will send
Fernando to burn it. Any success you have in life, we will be there
to take it from you.”
next day Leonel announced his retirement and named his sons – his
– to take over the business.
month later, our dad was dead.
I was there to celebrate Bene’s first birthday without our father.
I kept buying him shot after shot of tequila. Not our beloved mezcal,
no. But blue agave tequila, aged in scotch barrels, a deep amber
color, the aging process blessing it with notes of caramel, vanilla,
I brought him back here – had to nearly carry him, and he’s so
much bigger than me. I was determined, though. He might not have
noticed how little I drank during the evening, as I had faked it.
of Edgar Allan Poe, yes?
the road home, Bene told me he was sorry for the way he had treated
me. That he and Fernando were afraid of me, of my potential. They
didn’t want their dad favoring me over them.
don’t know if you can forgive us, forgive me,
but I can hope.”
was far too late, and it was only the tequila talking anyway.
we were inside, alone, I helped him to the crushing pit, let him drop
dead weight. His skull cracked like an egg on impact. While he
convulsed his last breaths, I hooked up our strongest donkey, threw
in some pinas I’d been saving for this occasion, and –
see we’re really separating the wheat from the chaff here now. The
strong from the weak. Please, those of you leaving, don’t forget to
stop by the gift shop for sample sets to take home.
to you remaining, my faithful few, my adventurous conspirators, you
want to know what’s next. You can’t help yourselves. You’ve
come too far to back out now.
the pinas are crushed to a pulp, they are moved to tinas – wooden
vats – to ferment. Yes! It is no longer just a plant. The magic has
begun. I still use my adoptive father’s special blend of yeast,
cultivated from years of trial and error.
we wait. We can stir, we can pray, we can bargain with the devil, but
we cannot rush the magic.
there, we move into the distillation phase, using copper stills.
Again, only the most traditional methods here, my friends.
that you say? That you think it tastes a little of barbecued pork?
ma’am you’re right. You’re absolutely right. You are drinking a
very special type of mezcal called a – can you tell me?
Give her a hand. It is a pechuga.
a mezcal de pechuga is made for momentous occasions. Weddings,
funerals, coming of age. Traditionally, you would make these by
hanging a mix of fruit and nuts inside the still, above the mezcal,
to enhance the flavor. That includes hanging a raw chicken breast as
well. Sometimes turkey.
you say it’s more like pork, and there’s a good reason for that.
see, each family has a special perchuga recipe, and which fruits and
nuts and herbs they choose make a difference. Sometimes, instead of
chicken or turkey, a mezcalero might try venison or rabbit. Or, yes,
in this case, long pig.
you might not know is what cannibals call people, because we taste so
similar to pork.
roast pork flavor infused in this batch is due to my father’s head
hanging in the still.
with pears, plums, pecans, and cashews. My special mix.
he died of natural causes in his sleep. I know, because I was there.
I made sure of it.
is his finest creation, in a way. They always said “he put all of
himself into his work,” but it took me for that to become even
remotely true. I literally
Leonel and Sons into Leonel and Sons Mezcal.
I am renaming the brand going forward: Les
de li Familia
hope to introduce it to the States soon, though. I shouldn’t be
telling you this, but there has been a lot of interest from an
American actor to invest. It’s far too early to say who, but I’ll
give you a hint: “Hi-ho Silver, away!”
concludes our tour.
believe this is the best mezcal you will ever drink.
worry. I won’t tell if you won’t.
Anthony Neil Smith is a novelist (Yellow Medicine, Slow Bear, The Butcher's prayer, many more), short story writer (Cowboy Jamboree, HAD, Blue Murder, Punk Noir, Bristol Noir, many others), and professor (Southwest Minnesota State University). He likes Mexican food, cheap red wine, and Italian crime flicks from the seventies. His dog is named Edmund, who is the devil.