By Alec Jacobson | 1/20/17
On the night that votes were being tallied in America, I was eating mole on a rooftop in Oaxaca. Across the patio, a Mexican in a thick red sweater that I envied flirted with an exchange student. I sat alone, refreshing maps and twitter feeds that switched from smug to shock. The wind was cold, so I drained my beer and went to bed.
Overnight, both the US State Department and my mom had raised their travel warnings for Mexico a notch, but the only anti-American sentiment I saw in a month of driving was from a group of ex-pats in San Miguel de Allende – aging artists with anti-Trump signs and badly translated flyers. Diego, in Mexico City, was angry at Enrique Pena Nieto, his own president, for sitting down with a candidate who so clearly lacked respect for Mexico. A hotel owner in Oaxaca City who had studied in Oregon said that maybe it would be good for America to feel a little shame.
A friend wrote on Facebook, “If we win, champagne and then we get to work. If we lose, tequila and then we get to work.”
And so, in the morning, I drove south to a mezcal distillery in Tlacolula.
Like tequila, mezcal is made from agave, but unlike the skull jarring shots you take and immediately regret, it’s typically pure plant with no additives and takes advantage of the vast diversity of the species that encapsulates nearly 200 varietals in Mexico. It’s like backroads scotch.
The mezcal tradition goes back centuries, but it’s found a recent niche in hip bars bumping production up by more than 100% in a few years. I was driving distillery to distillery to understand the impacts of that market shift on traditional producers and ecology.
Americans have long consumed the majority of the world’s agave spirits, adding millions of dollars every year to the Mexican economy but, through tequila, tending to concentrate them in only a few hands. The same could be said about most globalized business success, but the gap feels particularly poignant between Carlos Slim and subsistence farmers.
“Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States,” said dictator Porfiro Diaz at the end of the 19th century. He was thinking about a war, but neoliberal machinations tambien.
Mezcal offers a chance for a more democratic distilling future, with small-batch artisanal varieties leading the market from some of the country’s poorest places.
In Tlacolula, a dusty highway-side town, I met Santiago Suarez, founder of Mezcal Amores, and a team of social impact investors who were analyzing the company’s process. Amores is one of the largest mezcal companies but works with 15 maestro mezcaleros, each making their own distinct spirits, to keep quality high and profits distributed. “It’s very easy for me to build a big palenque and produce everything ourselves, but that’s not the philosophy,” said Suarez.
Tlacolula is a new site where Amores is building a sort of mezcal academy to study tradition scientifically and spread the knowledge among the next generation of mezcaleros.
After a tour of a construction site and a nursery full of rare – typically wild – agaves, we packed our cars off to the next palenque in Mitla where the maestro mezcalerohas sold enough booze to buy an Audi. As we tasted sample after sample, Canadian analyst with the team worried how often he might be perceived as “Trumpain.” What if he looked at a woman?
The women of the house served lunch, laying out platters of grilled meat, strings of Oaxacan cheese and bowls of spicy sauce and then we loaded off to San Juan del Rio, turning off the road onto a dirt track into the mountains.
The heart of mezcal country is in farming towns where the craft extends back as moonshine. Agave is harvested by hand – the spines carefully trimmed off with machetes – roasted in a pit for days, milled by a mule and a big stone, naturally fermented and distilled in copper. That boutique process is drawing a global cosmopolitan elite to the backroads to make what Suarez calls, “a contemporary story of Mexico.”
San Juan del Rio is at once a relic – a Zapotec-speaking village with a historic cathedral at its heart and donkeys roaming the streets full of subsistence farmers – and also globalized – it’s economy driven by remittances from America and agave. Everyone I met has a relative abroad, mostly in Los Angeles, and most asked what might happen to them. Will Trump deport my uncle? Will he hurt my daughter?
I had never thought about what might happen if Donald Trump became president. Anything was possible, I apologized.
I asked if there was a hotel in town where I could rent a room for a few days. Nothing like that, no, I was told, but Toribio Hernandez welcomed me into his home. Every day, his granddaughter-in-law woke with the sun to grind masa and make tortillas, offering me a cup of hot chocolate and bowls of soup. I followed Hernandez up the hill to his agave fields and passed the days with his fellow mezcal makers.
“They say that people in America like mezcal a lot,” said Fortunato Angeles one afternoon, leaning on a fermenting tank, “I like it because it puts food on the table.” He had lived in a California for a few years and, despite the money, girls and bars, missed home where he could walk to work, longed for his wife’s cooking. Here in the village, life was pleasantly more “tranquilo.”
Fernando Mejia Lecama, another, older mezcalero in Puebla explained, “You have to be realistic in life. We will die one day but I’m thinking about my grandchildren. We don’t have a chance, but right now we have a really big chance. I have a mule and a crappy truck, but maybe they can have a horse and a nice truck. Right now, we are trying to change the world. So many kids go to America, but, maybe with mezcal, they can stay here.”
Weeks later, I drove across the northern border. “I never stopped the car going south, so there might not be a record…” I told the guard. “I don’t think they care that much over there,” gesturing and tossing back my papers. I must not look very threatening because I barely stopped then either.
Did you enjoy this story? Please consider
a donation to help keep Alec writing.