I’m on a bus rumbling up a dirt road into the mountainous holy land of agave, a sun-baked Mexican town called San Baltazar Guelavila, where some of the world’s finest mezcals are made. It’s barely 10 a.m., but the previous night’s indulgences at Oaxaca’s many mezcal bars have left most of my fellow passengers reaching for the redemptive power of the Pedialytes and Coronas that pack a cooler rattling around in the front of the bus. We’re all feeling a bit too delicate to revive ourselves with yet more mezcal at the moment, but that inevitability will come soon enough.
Our bleary crew includes top bartenders from Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and San Diego, part of a group of more than a dozen mixologists that El Silencio mezcal has flown to Oaxaca to show how the company’s signature spirit is distilled. Smokier and more complex than its agave-based big brother, tequila, artisanal mezcal is having a remarkable surge in popularity, with El Silencio enjoying a 400 percent increase in production over last year. And the process of making that mezcal is a fascinating ritual blending proud tradition, flaming plant matter, and the horsepower of one hard-working donkey.
Winding past scorched agave fields and the occasional wayward goat, our bus arrives at El Silencio’s tiny distillery, where workers laboring under ninth generation master distiller Pedro Hernandez follow age-old customs of making mezcal. First, the spiny green agave plants are harvested from the nearby mountains when they are between eight and twelve years old. Their razor-sharp paddles are chopped off, and the remaining pineapple-sized "hearts" are hacked into pieces and cooked over mesquite chips in a stone pit.
The burnt agave remains are further brutalized by a heavy grinding wheel called a tahona, traditionally pulled by the aforementioned donkey in a circular pen. The resulting mezcal mash is poured into large wooden vats and blended with natural spring water. That earthy mixture, known as mosto, begins to generate its own alcohol as part of the fermentation process. It’s then distilled in copper pots called alambiques, where the alcohol is vaporized and eventually transformed into 80 proof mezcal.
While tequila is only made from the blue agave plant, mezcal can be made from more than 30 different species of the prickly vegetation. “It’s is a more multi-layered, soulful spirit than tequila,” says El Silencio co-founder Fausto Zapata as he pours me yet another glass.
“You have the scotch association with the single malt process and the smoke notes; the association with wine because of the agave growing, the association with tequila because of the agave--it just becomes this endlessly infinite drink.”
Indeed, El Silencio is smoky, layered, and surprisingly smooth, an eminently quaffable elixir that’s a far cry from the worm-infused rotgut associated with the cheapest, roughest mezcals of yore. But that’s an outdated caricature that Zapata would just as soon consign to the same shame-hole of extinction where those infamous--and probably mythical--Tijuana “donkey shows” now reside.
“The worm, or larvae that comes from agave, was a marketing ploy that started when somebody dropped a worm in a bottle of mezcal years ago, and it stuck,” Zapata says. “But to me the worm is the best way to destroy mezcal becauses it’s extremely organic, extremely pure.”
Eric Alperin, head bartender and co-owner of acclaimed L.A. swillery The Varnish, served a mezcal cocktail, The Saladito, long before arriving in Oaxaca, and says he’s been seeing the niche spirit on more and more drink menus. But like most bartenders on the El Silencio trip, Alperin prefers his mezcal straight. “I usually like it neat--and never chilled,” he says.
The thirst for an agave fix beyond just another shot of Patron has fueled the mezcal boom in recent years. In addition to the success of small-batch distilleries like Silencio, the mezcal industry as a whole has experienced a serious uptick--with an estimated 143 percent jump in production overall.
To accommodate that surging demand, El Silencio instituted a sustainability program and has planted 20,000 baby agaves in the rugged mountains outside Oaxaca so far this year. “It’s important for all mezcal producers to engage in sustainability practices as demand will soon outpace supply,” Zapata says. “Not doing so will put the agave species at risk and drive the price to prohibitive levels.”
With the fate of the agave hopefully secured, we can likely rest easy, and yes, keep drinking mezcal. While El Silencio and other premium mezcals are smooth enough to sip straight, here’s three great cocktails to make right now:
San Balthazar Summer (Pictured above, by Marcos Tello, head mixologist for El Silencio)
2 oz. El Silencio
3/4 oz. agave nectar
3/4 oz. fresh lime juice
1 oz. watermelon juice
2 serrano chile slices
3 cilantro sprigs.
Combine all ingredients except mezcal and muddle thoroughly.
Add mezcal, ice, shake, and strain into an ice-filled large rock glass.
Top with watermelon cubes, chile salt and cilantro sprigs.
Saladito (Marcos Tello for The Varnish in Los Angeles )
¾ oz. lime juice
¾ oz. honey
2 oz. El Silencio Espadin (black bottle)
Shake ingredients and pour into coupe glass. Add one dash of salt, one dash of chile powder for garnish.
Oaxaca Fresca (Greg Bryson for The Wallace in Culver City, Calif.)
3/4 oz El Silencio
3/4 oz medium dry sherry
3/4 oz white rum
3/4 oz Jamaica Syrup
3/4 oz fresh lime juice
Shake and strain into a glass tumbler, add crushed ice to the top.
Photos by Photos by Debora Ducci and Chris Wilson