"There was a great abundance and variety of tropical fruits, but the dorian was never in evidence. It was never the season for the dorian. It was always going to arrive from Burma sometime or other, but it never did. By all accounts it was a most strange fruit, and incomparably delicious to the taste, but not to the smell. Its rind was said to exude a stench of so atrocious a nature that when a dorian was in the room even the presence of a polecat was a refreshment. We found many who had eaten the dorian, and they all spoke of it with a sort of rapture. They said that if you could hold your nose until the fruit was in your mouth a sacred joy would suffuse you from head to foot that would make you oblivious to the smell of the rind, but that if your grip slipped and you caught the smell of the rind before the fruit was in your mouth, you would faint. There is a fortune in that rind. Some day somebody will import it into Europe and sell it for cheese."
--Mark Twain, American Writer 1835-1910; "Following The Equator"
Sidenote: in Bangkok it is forbidden to bring Durian fruit onto the subway.
Mescal is a big point of pride in Oaxaca. Made from the agave, or the maguey, it is a cousin of tequila but not the same. Tequila is made exclusively from the blue agave plant, but mescal can be made from any of 30 certified subspecies. Tequila is made commercially, but mescal is made via artisanal methods that date back hundreds of years. Tequila is distilled twice, whereas mescal goes through the process once. Also, tequila is often mixed with other ingredients in cocktails, while mescal is properly drunk on its own.
With a chaser of orange powder made of dried, ground maguey worms, chile and salt, offered on a plate for dipping your orange or lime wedge, in between shots.
The pinas, the hearts of the maguey that you see on the right, are harvested when the plant is 10-15 years old we've been told, then roasted in an earthen oven for about three days, providing the unmistakable smoky flavor. They are then mashed in a stone mill, pulled by a horse or donkey, and left to ferment in huge barrels, sometimes with flavorings. The liquid that emerges is distilled in a clay or copper pot, and allowed to age.
The factory is a small affair, and bears resemblance to someone's backyard hooch-making operation. This is true handmade stuff.
The results are young (blanco), older (resposado) and oldest (anejo) mescals, flavored mescals, and mescal cremas, sweetened liqeurs flavored with fruits, herbs, or coffee. Less predictable flavors include Pechuga mescal, fashioned by hanging raw chicken breasts in the mash during fermentation, Cedro, flavored with cedar wood, and the infamous Gusano with maguey worm floating around the bottom.
In a side-by-side tasting, in addition to the choice of clay or copper distilling pots, the family recipe, and the exact kind of maguey used, the terroir of the plants, their provenance, is a very clear factor in the ultimate taste of the mescal. There are seven Mexican States that are certified to produce mescal, but Oaxaca is the main player with about 90% of the production facilities.
With more of us going out of our way to find artisanal food and drink, mescal is enjoying more appreciation. A tiny storefront tasting room and retailer in Oaxaca is involved in opening a bar in New York's Lower East Side. We haven't figured out who owns what, and we think it's called Casa Mezcal, but it looks like it's getting buzz. Apparently Karl Lagerfeld walked in one day and proceeded to shoot a Chanel catalogue. If it has the amount of style the tiny place in downtown Oaxaca does, it's no surprise.
See? Good lighting and cute, enthusiastic, informative Mescal Man.