Savor it, hold it in your mouth. Let your tongue embrace it fully.
What do you taste?
Smoke, 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.
None of you think that, do you?
This 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.
Close your eyes and really think about it.
Lean your head back and swallow slowly, almost as if you are letting the mezcal flow down your throat in a stream.
So, we’ve got smoke.
But how would you describe the agave itself? The Espadin?
Grassy? 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 almost sacred.
I say almost.
If 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, no, I think not. If there’s one thing I’ve found Mexicans hold sacred, it’s calling things sacred and meaning it.
Instead, I will say this: being drunk on mezcal is a nearly identical experience to religious ecstasy. The closest most people ever come.
I’m sorry, what did you say?
Heroin, she says. Ladies and gentlemen, did you hear her say heroin?
Did you think that was a cute joke?
Some 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.
But me, 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.
It was my life’s ambition.
But when the time came to name his successor…
The 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.
You’ve all had a chance to see the pinas, haven’t you?
Yes sir, like pineapples. We have a poet in the house, everyone.
Percy Wordsworth Obvious.
Don’t pout. It’s just a bit of fun. A bit of fun is all.
If we can’t laugh about ourselves…as my brothers used to say.
Those 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.
You might notice a touch of bitterness to the smoke.
That would be from the charred remains of my brother Fernando.
Yes, it’s funny. I agree. Very funny.
Fernando 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?
He was silent. Never insulted me, like our oldest brother Benedicto did. In fact, I barely remember him saying two words to me our whole lives.
But 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.
The 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.”
How I loathed him. Loved him, in a way, but truly loathed him, too.
Even 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.
Everyone laughed. Except Fernando, I mean. Everyone laughed except Fernando.
My girlfriend laughed.
There 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.
As I rolled around on the ground, mi culo throbbing and splintered, she invited Fernando into the back of the car.
I limped home.
He 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.
She called me her conejo bebé – her baby bunny.
When Fernando left for the States, I admit, foolishly, that I approached her again. I brought her flowers. I asked if we could try again.
She 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.”
Yes, 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. I promise.
One 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.
Fernando didn’t even like mezcal. He preferred vodka full of sweet mixers.
He 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.
She got pregnant.
He threw a thousand dollars at her and told her to take care of it.
Her fiancé found out and called off the wedding.
She used the thousand dollars to move to Cancun, where she had the child alone and found work at a resort.
I’m sorry. I had promised.
Bitterness 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.
Which brings us to the next step in the process.
Once the pinas have cooked in the ground due to all the steam, it is time to crush them.
I’m 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 pina piss.”
When 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.
Some 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.
I 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?
For instance, sir, you mentioned that you also tasted something like iron, or a coppery flint. What’s that? Pennies, yes, old copper pennies.
That’s not something you’d find if you distilled it the way your fellow citizens prefer. All impurity washed away.
Instead, 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.
Did he deserve it?
Whereas 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.
It was Bene who filled in the holes of my history.
Leonel 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.
But 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.”
Bene 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 you.”
Bene said, “If I were to let Fernando kill you in your sleep, my father would be angry, only because the check would stop coming.”
It 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.
Leonel did not respond…well.
It 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.
Bene 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.
He 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.
Bene 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.”
The next day Leonel announced his retirement and named his sons – his blood sons – to take over the business.
A month later, our dad was dead.
Regardless, 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, and tobacco.
Then 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.
Shades of Edgar Allan Poe, yes?
On 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.
“I don’t know if you can forgive us, forgive me, but I can hope.”
It was far too late, and it was only the tequila talking anyway.
Once 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 –
I 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.
But 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.
Once 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.
Then we wait. We can stir, we can pray, we can bargain with the devil, but we cannot rush the magic.
From there, we move into the distillation phase, using copper stills. Again, only the most traditional methods here, my friends.
What’s that you say? That you think it tastes a little of barbecued pork?
Indeed, ma’am you’re right. You’re absolutely right. You are drinking a very special type of mezcal called a – can you tell me?
Almost! Give her a hand. It is a pechuga.
Yes, 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.
But you say it’s more like pork, and there’s a good reason for that.
You 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, a pig.
Or, in this case, long pig.
Which you might not know is what cannibals call people, because we taste so similar to pork.
That roast pork flavor infused in this batch is due to my father’s head hanging in the still.
Along with pears, plums, pecans, and cashews. My special mix.
No, he died of natural causes in his sleep. I know, because I was there. I made sure of it.
This 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 put Leonel and Sons into Leonel and Sons Mezcal.
But I am renaming the brand going forward: Les Entrañas de li Familia
I 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!”
That concludes our tour.
I believe this is the best mezcal you will ever drink.
Don’t 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.