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I’m in Mexico! It took me a minute, but I am finally in the Land of Agave having arrived at the Benito Juarez Airport in Mexico City on Saturday, 4/20. I was welcomed by the extremely hospitable and generous crew from Los Siete Misterios Mezcal, the hosts for a wily crew of Canadian bartenders, a few Mexican bartenders, some media folk and yours truly.
What a week it was…
Shortly after my arrival, I was taken to the Montagu restaurant in Polanco, for a welcome dinner. Not only was the food incredible, there was plenty of Mezcal to go around and some really interesting Mexican artisanal beer. Everyone was made to feel comfortable, and soon were mingling, jumping behind the makeshift bar and getting ready for the next week.
After the previous evening’s festivities, Sunday morning came a tad too early for most of us, but we rallied for a trip to Oaxaca! Mexico City to Oaxaca is a fairly easy six hour drive; the roads are well kept and it isn’t too winding or bumpy, so I'm happy to say that the most uncomfortable part of the trip was the Robin Williams movie “What Dreams May Come”. Seriously, that is a terrible film. It even made the follow up feature, “The Tournament”, with Ving Rhames look like "Citizen Kane".
After check-in at a cozy little hotel, Casa de Sierra Azul (http://www.hotelcasadesierrazul.com/), we met for dinner at La Cathedral (http://www.restaurantecatedral.com.mx/) then later set up a little pop-up bar in the courtyard of the hotel. Bartenders took turns mixing one-of-a-kind cocktails for the rest of the group until hunger set in, causing us to go in search of tacos at 3am. Oaxaca is fairly quiet in the early morning hours and I’m sure I don’t have to explain how ridiculous a group of seven bartenders (with little idea of where we were and an even smaller grasp of the Spanish language) wandering the streets in search of tacos looks like. Tacos found, appetites sated, back to the hotel by 430am.
A short. two and a half hours later, it was time to board the bus to Sola de Vega to visit the agave plantation and Palenque (distillery) where the mezcal magic happens.
(Agave Pit, Pina Crushing Log, Fermentation Barrel & Pina, Fermented Agave Clay Pot)
We arrived at the Palenque and walked uphill to find Don Louis, the owner of the agave fields, and Zoylo the agave farmer awaiting our arrival. We were escorted to the beautiful agave fields where Don Louis personally filled us in about his plantation, and then took a short walk through the fields where we saw the different types of agave and were briefed on how to differentiate among the various species he grows on his plantation. Briefed is an understatement, as we were instructed on everything from detecting the slightest differences in color, the size of the agave, the width of the agave leaves, even to the amount of thorns and the way the leaves hang - all identifiers of distinct species. Presumably, I think when you are the one doing the planting it gives a distinct advantage in correctly identifying which agave is which. Advantage, Don Luis and Zoylo.
Fact: One who wields a machete is called a “Machetador.”
Allow me to explain further: the Machetador is the man whose job it is to go to the fields and harvest the mature agave using nothing but a machete for the leaves and an axe for the roots. One way to tell if an agave is ready is by simply looking at the leaves; if they are wide open, they are ready! Zoylo showed us an agave that was ready to be harvested and got to work, quickly lopping off the leaves with ease and then using his axe to pry the agave piña from the ground. This is some seriously precise and hard work, made to look effortless by the man behind the machete. When he was 10, Zoylo learned the craft from his father who had been taught by his father, who had been taught by his father’s father…you get the idea.
When we asked Zoylo about the last time a group of people came to the agave field to take pictures and video of him doing his thing, he just smiled and said it was the first time in 40 years. That was the common theme among these workers, distillers and the plantation owners: they were always smiling; they love to share, and they each have a genuine passion for what they do. It is humbling and incredibly touching to witness the amount they give of themselves to make something that others have little or no knowledge of; for people who have no idea about how much effort goes into each bottle of the Mezcal.
I’ve heard people complain about the price of Mezcal. Although I’ve been in Mexico for just a few short days, I have already learned so much about how much heart and soul goes into producing a single bottle. I would love to bring each and every one of those complainers to a Palenque to witness the back-breaking labor and the love and dedication involved in making each and every bottle. Witnessing this process first-hand gives one a deeper appreciation for the Spirit and, more importantly, the people behind the Spirit.
(Cooling Water for Distillation, Wood Over for Distillation, Pina Crusher in Fermentation, Drop by Drop)
Fact: One who picks up a freshly cut piña is called a “dumb gringo.”
This quick lesson was learned by me and six other “gringos” after Zoylo deconstructed the agave. After he had cut the agave we all huddled around it like ferrets around shiny objects and started to pass it around like the Stanley Cup. I blame the Canadians, but I digress. They did warn us not to grab it, but the warning was in Spanish, and since 90% of us don’t speak the language, and because we were too focused in how awesome it was to hold an agave piña, we probably wouldn’t have heard anyway. Let’s just say that within 10 minutes after holding said piña (piña refers to the heart of the agave plant as it resembles a pineapple) we all noted a distinct itching and a mild burning sensation emanating from the spot where the piña had touched our skin. For the record, I had cradled the agave in my arms, in a short sleeve shirt. I'm still itching.
-Mat Resler (@drink_smith)
Celebrate Cinco de Mayo with us at Empellon Cocina with a 6 course menu and
unlimited Margaritas, Beer and Sparkling Wine.
1st Seating - Anytime btw 6 & 7:15 Seating
2nd Seating – Anytime btw 8:30 & 9:45 PM Seating
$95 per person, includes a 6 course menu and unlimited
Margaritas, Beer and Sparkling Wine (plus tax & gratuity)
Dinner Prix Fixe Menu
To Begin With (Served for the table)
Guacamole with Pistachios and Masa Crisps
(Select two, served family style for the table)
Carnitas Rillettes, Spicy Pickled Vegetables
Scotch Egg, Chicken Chorizo, Masa Tempura
Chicharrones, Salsa de Arbol, Salsa Verde
Sweetbread Milanesa Cemita, Refried Black Beans
(Select one per person, served individually)
Roasted Carrots, Mole Poblano, Yogurt, Watercress
Lamb Tartare, Avocado Leaf, Pasilla Oaxaqueña, Guaje Seeds
Mezcal Cured Ocean Trout, Cream Cheese, Trout Roe, Sal de Gusanos
Sliced Mango, Lime, Chile Powder, Peeky Toe Crab Salad
Razor Clam Ceviche, Guava, Horseradish, Pickled Red Onion
Shared for the table (Select one, served family style for the table)
Melted Tetilla Cheese, Tomate Frito, Kol, Lobster
Tacos, 2 Per Order (Select one per person, served individually)
Green Garbanzos, Crispy Kale, Black Garlic Hummus
Sea Scallops, Caramelized Cauliflower, Caper-Raisin Emulsion (Jean-Georges, 1984)
Shortrib Pastrami, Pickled Cabbage, Mustard Seed Salsa
Hawaiian Albacore, Raw Turnips, Masa Tempura Bits
Beer Braised Tongue, Chorizo, Salsa de Arbol
Chef's selection (served for the table)
Menus subject to change