The gods of the pre-Hispanic world gave men and women of this earth countless gifts; among them was the agave, every part of which they learned to use. That’s why the Spanish, surprised by it’s multiple uses, called it tree of wonders and named it maguey. It was later called mezcal from the Nahuatl word mexcalli, which means, “heart of the maguey”. In the modern-day state of Oaxaca, an alcoholic beverage called mezcal is made from the maguey that grows there, just like the agave from Jalisco produces tequila. Mescal is the final result of distilling the trunk—or “pina” ( pineapple )- of the agave mezcalero that was first cooked in an earthen oven lined with stone. That is why mescal has an earthy, smoky flavor. The drinking of mescal has grown from it’s ritualistic beginnings to international markets were it has won worldwide popularity. Mescal now has an official Mexican standard and appellation, and is considered another of Mexico’s contributions to the world. Men and women drink mescal in ceremonies and social activities. They drink to find courage or swallow betrayal. They toast health or sip when they’re feeling poorly. Mescal is drunk in sorrow and in joy, in poverty and in wealth. That is why the old adage explains all it’s qualities and contradictions: for every misfortune mescal; for all good fortune ‘ pour me another’! The legend of mescal says that there was once a very cold but generous goddess whose body was like the trunk of the agave but instead of leaves, she had 40,000 breasts. From her breasts flowed the elixir drunk by those who venerated her; she was Mayatl, Zapotec goddess of mescal. Cold and untouchable, she first came in touch with her feelings when some worms burrowed into her breasts and were trapped forever. She fell in love with a brave warrior but he did not feel worthy of her favors. In desperation the goddess offered him the most beautiful and luxuriant of her breasts for him to drink the elixir that poured from her heart. He drank and drank until in a drunken despair begged her to “make me a god or become a woman”- Unfortunately for the romantically inclined, the legend ends here. It is important to point out that pre-Hispanic mescal was different than that produced after the arrival of the Spaniards. Distilling processes were unknown in pre-Columbian times. Drunkenness was penalized by death, so alcoholic beverages were very low grade and drunk almost exclusively for religious ceremonies. Alcohol was produced by simple fermentation. So mescal was simply the fermented juice or tepache from the cooked heart of the maguey. The Spaniards introduced stills and started to produce beverages with a high alcohol content. There is a long journey between planting the maguey and a glass of mezcal. It goes through a series of steps combining ancient techniques and modernized processes. Maguey plants take 7 to 9 years to mature. Rows of agave plants cover the landscape of Oaxaca. In general, this is a mountainous terrain, making mechanized farming nearly impossible. Farmer’s hand cut the mature trunk or “pina”. Then the maguey is baked in a circular earthen oven lined with stone. Then crushed so that the juices may be extracted by grinding in an old-fashioned mill and grindstone. Modern distillation is mostly in wooden tubs and copper stills, but very traditional earthernware pots and reed pipes are also used. Types of Mezcal: ·Mescal with a worm, in which a red maguey worm is added to the bottling process. ·Mescal de pechuga is distilled with a chicken breast ·Tobala mezcal, made from the heart of the tobala maguey that grows wild and is only distilled in earthernware pots. ·The purest form of the liquor, miner’s mescal, the product of the first distillation. Paid, in the past, as part of the miner’s salary to ease the pain of the back-breaking labor. ·Others have names of herbs, flowers and fruit, which were added during the distillation process. ·Mescal liqueurs are also manufactured with mescal, sugar syrup, honey and fruit. Mezcal is a handcrafted beverage, a family and community tradition. Along with tequila and pulque, mezcal forms the nation of Mexico’s trilogy of drinks produced from the maguey. All three were regional beverages whose production and consumption were seriously restricted for over two hundred years. Perhaps its ritualistic use, especially in the case of mezcal, created its popularity. Mezcal is used to bless the planting of crops, new arrivals to the family, a few drops are even sprinkled on the grave of loved ones to send the soul on its way. On patron saints’ days it is served according to local hierarchy and to refuse a cup is tantamount to sacrilege. It is most often served straight but can occasionally be used in cocktails. Mezcal is strong and overdoing will put one in a state of permanent stupor. It is highly recommended that one stop before reaching this state.
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