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Soon we were seated at a long table in a small home near the palenque.
Outwardly casual, it’s a temple beneath the surface, and meticulous fanatics come to declaim thoughtfully about finish and mouthfeel.I’ve known Garrone for years, but I can’t quite say I know him well, because he’s mysterious and speaks in riddles.“Mezcal will set you free,” he told me before the trip, raising his eyebrows meaningfully, “unless it doesn’t.” I couldn’t argue.When the Spanish plowed through in the 16th century, they found a rugged terrain dividing Oaxaca into isolated village-states.In some ways that’s still the case: Many communities have maintained their own dialects, their own traditions—and yes, their own mezcals.By the time the city was switching on, the three of us were on our way out of it.
We drove past the centuries-old cathedral and the jumbled morning markets, then the brake shops and additional brake shops on the edge of town. Maybe it’s the bare rebar protruding from the roof of every other building. Some attribute it to an obscure tax law that rewards unfinished structures. You start by harvesting a prehistoric-looking agave, locally called a maguey.
Up in Los Mochis, Mexican marines were tightening the noose on El Chapo, fugitive head of the Sinaloa Cartel. How had the microbial population near the distillery affected the local yeast? It was midnight at a small, dark bar called Mezcalogía.
Twelve hundred miles away, things in Oaxaca City were also urgent. It would be hard to overstate the import here of a smoky liquid made from a spiny succulent, or the irrelevance of the country’s distant drug-trafficking theatrics.
Oaxaca feels like a city hidden from itself, much of it existing behind high walls and thick doors. We turned onto a dirt road that led to another and in time we pulled up outside a small compound. Under a blanket of straw mats and dirt, the piñas roast in that pit for the next few days or even a month.
When I’d catch peeks of a courtyard or garden, they were glimpses of a bright, secret world. (With tequila, the agave hearts are often merely steamed—pshaw.) For mezcal, the cooked maguey is then ground to a pulp.
Some mezcaleros use a hand tool, others an enormous round grinding stone pulled in a circle by a deeply patient donkey or horse.