The night is dark over the dusty Oxacan hills, but the sky over the city burns orange with the sleepless glow of human revelry. Strangers and friends rub shoulders as they jostle for space in the high-ceilinged bar. Merry shouts spill into the street and mingle with the blaring brass of a passing band.
Raising a small clay cup of clear liquid, a Zapotec farmer turns his deeply lined face to the rabble, ‘For every ill, mezcal, and for the good as well!’
‘Salud!’ the crowded bar roars back.
The night is still young, but mezcal is known for being a jealous mistress; start the night with her, you must see it out with her or suffer her wrath the next morning.
Legend has it that mezcal was created when a lightning bolt struck the sacred agave plant releasing the ‘elixir of the gods’. In reality, it is a mestizo drink, the fiery blend of Spanish and indigenous Mexican culture.
When the conquistadores arrived in Mexico, they brought with them the Moorish distilling techniques of their homeland and applied them to the fermented agave sap used in Aztec ceremonies called pulque. While the techniques have been developed over the years, this gave rise to the clear, strong spirit that is still enjoyed today.
Also crafted from the succulent plants of the agave family, Mezcal was long side-lined as a rough tequila, but in recent years it has earned the well-deserved reputation of a highly refined, artisanal spirit in its own right.
Resisting mass production, mezcal remains the pursuit of small-scale farmers, mezcaleros, partly because of the slow glowing nature of the agave species that are harvested for their hearts. These are roasted underground for several days contributing to the smoky aroma that it is famous for.
The flavour of mezcal can vary wildly depending on the type of agave used and small variations in the production process, because of this and the small scale of each production, the drink has amassed a global cult following and the most highly prized brands can be found in the world’s top bars and restaurants alongside the rye whiskies and tequilas.
Mezcal is an experience to be cherished, and while it is traditionally served in small cups with a slice of orange and salt crushed with a worm that lives inside the agave roots, the drink is never to be shot. Any true aficionado will tell you that mezcal is to be kissed, sipped slowly to allow a deep connection to develop.