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Oaxacan Diary: Day Ten – Part Two.

Posted in Uncategorized on February 15, 2018 by brunyfire

Brunyfire and travel companion for the day, Amanda are both glad to clamber into the air conditioned comfort of the hire car after our two hour hike around the ‘frozen falls’ of Hierve el Agua, and we head off with our driver who is taking us on a mezcal tasting tour.

Mezcal (or mescal) is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from any type of agave plant native to Mexico and comes from the Nahuatl* word ‘mexacalli’ (meaning oven-cooked maguey leaves).

There are literally thousands of palenques (mezcal producers) scattered throughout the state of Oaxaca, most of which follow traditional practices of mezcal production, and before long, we are pulling off the dusty highway to visit the first.3AAB33E1-FD84-467C-9395-365E43B7C3B344806D90-6F3A-414E-9BCB-72A8A8F5763EThese small roadside fábricas represent how mezcal production has occurred since the time of the Spanish conquest, though there is archaeological evidence to suggest that pre-Hispanic Oaxacans were already into the distillation of the agave.

For example a DVD with excellent sound tracks in English, Spanish and French explores this theory and brings to life fascinating discoveries on the origin of mezcal, raising the controversial question of whether the process of distillation was known in pre-Hispanic times. The film points to the discovery by archaeologist Isabel Kelly in 1970 in the tombs found on the side of the Colima Volcano, of curiously-shaped Capacha vessels, found to be 3,500 years old and thought to be pre-Hispanic stills.
37F39B84-0798-45EA-A6D9-29EAECEAEBD7Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, ‘pulque’, an undistilled alcoholic drink from the agave cacti was drunk, but it was the Spanish who refined the distillation process.

Pulque was (and still is) made from the agave cacti (or maguey). The sweet, milky sap, or aguamiel (‘honey water’ in Spanish) is extracted from the plant and when  fermented, becomes a mildly alcoholic beverage known as pulque. (This Brunyfire was able to try firsthand when in Mexico City several days later).63E361B1-90FF-48B8-81F9-11B66D958EE2

(Images above from the web).

The agave or maguey (also called the century plant for its long life) is a family of native plants from the North American continent…….26D142A7-E616-4C6E-B398-20B22C062621………that thrives in arid, semiarid, and temperate forests of the Americas at elevations between sea level to about 2,750 meters (9,000 feet) above sea level.

The mezcal process starts by harvesting the mature agave, usually when the agave is between 7 to 20 years old, depending on climatic and growing conditions – whatever the age, the plants must weigh 40kg or more. Once the agave has been harvested all of the leaves are cut off the cactus to leave the piña……E52F58C3-DF1F-4B71-900A-A88C815CB94E………so called because it looks like a pineapple. (Image above from web).

The piñas are then slow cooked in a stone-lined pit over several days………….19732A12-54D5-4715-AE2F-2D01A6844066CDF0D308-ED4D-441E-948F-E897A7FB69B4…….the images above had to be shot surreptitiously as it was considered bad luck for us to take too closer a look. Basically, the piñas are cooked in a giant earth oven. Firewood is placed in the pit and ignited and stones are placed on top and once under way, a layer of discarded fiber from distillation is placed over the rocks, followed by the piñas – whole, halved or quartered depending on size (each weighing roughly 100 – 400 pounds). Palm leaf mats were traditionally used to cover the piñas but now grain sacks are used and then earth is shovelled on top forming a mound up to five feet above ground level – an airtight, in-ground oven. 

The cooked piñas are then crushed (usually by a horse-drawn milling stone) and then left to ferment in wooden vats along with any other ingredients required for that particular mezcal recipe. 4C585501-57B9-4DF4-9A11-08FBC29816D3D3B243A3-3D34-4D61-8475-A72BC690E1F2Once it is determined that the fermentation process has run its course, the liquid from the mezcal mixture is transferred to copper………AD185ECE-5557-472C-B348-9C65644CE536 ………or clay stills (…….0C8BA787-2F67-4794-AC17-4D3198B0597E…….to undergo the first and second distillation processes, and finally mezcal is produced. The spent fibres are hauled out……2A8BD847-FFE1-4482-BBDD-4A60F1B13266……..and used for compost. The addition of the maguey worm…….7B77D224-3F69-4FF2-83D8-911B3826B0B1……in the final bottled mezcal, is said to have been introduced in the 50s – the worm is said to be an aphrodisiac – not so sure about the snake though……




*Nahuatl – a member of a group of peoples native to southern Mexico and Central America, including the Aztecs.



Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien, también – For everything bad, mezcal, and for everything good as well.