MEX­ICO, DIS­TILLED

Te­quila— and its rougher cousin mez­cal— have long suf­fered from a rep­u­ta­tion as fe­ro­cious fire­wa­ter. But these Cen­tral Amer­i­can spir­its are worth a sec­ond sip. Over four days in Mex­ico, cock­tail ex­pert Vic­to­ria Chow chased down the true mean­ing of te­quila

Philippine Tatler - - LIFE -

“Why is it that te­quila is never equated with some­thing that is labour-in­ten­sive and qual­i­ty­driven?” asks Vic­to­ria Chow, a hint of ex­as­per­a­tion in her voice. The ques­tion hangs in the air, and I take a closer look at the dizzy­ing ar­ray of spir­its laid out in front of us at The Woods, Chow’s cock­tail bar in Hong Kong. It’s a Mon­day af­ter­noon, but there ap­pears to be a se­ri­ous tast­ing ses­sion ahead of us—at least a dozen of the bot­tles have trav­elled back to Hong Kong from Mex­ico, where Chow and her team have just spent four days and four nights tast­ing their way through the states of Jalisco and Oax­aca, learn­ing all there is to learn about the dis­tilled agave spir­its of te­quila and mez­cal.

Te­quila may be the favourite of ev­ery Satur­day night out, but the true ex­pres­sions of the spirit are vir­tu­ally un­known out­side of Mex­ico and cer­tain parts of the United States. Very few re­alise that te­quila—which by def­i­ni­tion must be made in a spec­i­fied re­gion near and around the city of Te­quila, from 100 per cent blue agave—is sim­ply a style of mez­cal with a de­nom­i­na­tion of ori­gin sta­tus. Chow found her lack of un­der­stand­ing of the spirit dis­con­cert­ing, and so this April she took a jour­ney across the globe to rec­tify it.

Her first stop was the town of San­ti­ago de Te­quila in Jalisco, the birth­place of te­quila it­self. With a pop­u­la­tion of just over 40,000, Te­quila is a small com­mu­nity that has pros­pered thanks to José Cuervo, the in­dus­try’s dom­i­nat­ing pro­ducer of te­quila. The Cuervo fam­ily were the first to be given per­mis­sion to pro­duce te­quila in 1795. To­day, José Cuervo owns the sole lux­ury ho­tel prop­erty in the cen­tre of Te­quila—the Re­lais & Châteaux-rated So­lar de las Án­i­mas—as well as a lux­ury train link­ing the state cap­i­tal of Guadala­jara with the town.

“The en­tire town smells like roasted agave,” re­calls Chow. “You step out of your car and you’re im­me­di­ately greeted with the scent of bar­be­cu­ing fruit, a smoky sweet­ness that re­minds me of roasted pineap­ples.” The art of ap­pre­ci­at­ing te­quila is far re­moved from the knock-them-back men­tal­ity that has per­vaded drink­ing en­claves around the world. Chow de­scribes how dot­ted around the city are sim­ple street-side stalls heav­ing with buck­ets of cit­rus—lemons, limes, grape­fruits—all to be crushed and served in wide clay can­tar­ito mugs rimmed with a salt-and-pep­per mix­ture, along with a gen­er­ous slug of te­quila from an im­pres­sive line-up of bot­tles.

“Te­quila nat­u­rally goes with cit­rus and salt, but not in the way that peo­ple out­side of Mex­ico have tra­di­tion­ally drunk it,” she says. “We met a lot of lo­cals who would ask us whether it was true that we would do shots of te­quila. They were aghast. To these peo­ple, te­quila was not a joke.”

An agave plant, the foun­da­tion of all mez­cal and te­quila, re­quires a min­i­mum of six years to reach ma­tu­rity; most are har­vested at year 10 or older. Sud­denly, it seems al­most per­verse that a decade of work can be di­min­ished in sec­onds. The sen­ti­ment is en­cap­su­lated in the phrase “sip it, don’t shoot it,” coined by Cal­i­for­nia-born mez­cal advocate Ron Cooper. Cooper is the founder of the Del Maguey dis­tillery, and he is of­ten cred­ited for bring­ing dis­tilled agave into the Amer­i­can con­scious­ness. For her jour­ney on­wards to Oax­aca, Chow con­nected with Cooper to wit­ness what she called “the wild west” of mez­cal pro­duc­tion, far re­moved from the clean and cheer­ful scene of Te­quila.

“He greets us at the air­port, grey­ing man­bun and all, and al­though it’s only nine in the morn­ing, he hands each of us a co­pita,” says Chow. “He brings out one of his top lines of mez­cal, pours us each a full co­pita in the mid­dle of the carpark, then driz­zles half of it on the floor in the shape of a cross. It’s a ded­i­ca­tion to the land from which the agave grows.”

Dozens of small palen­ques (dis­til­leries) proudly make te­quila across the state of Oax­aca. “We wit­nessed how mez­cal was made, in the most rus­tic way pos­si­ble, where the piñas [agave hearts] are crushed with what looked like base­ball bats,” Chow re­calls. “We tasted mez­cal warm from the stills, when it was at 60-70 proof be­fore it was di­luted.” Dif­fer­ent ex­pres­sions of the spirit abounded—even one that Cooper calls

pechuga, in which a raw chicken is hung over the still. “They say it smooths out the flavours and brings a soft­ness and tiny bit of a savoury

char­ac­ter,” says Chow. “But if you talk to pro­duc­ers, there’s noth­ing they love more than just blanco, or ‘white’ te­quila. It’s their pre­ferred form, the purest ex­pres­sion of the plant and ter­roir. It’s what they want to taste.”

It’s not sur­pris­ing, con­sid­er­ing that the rough ter­rain of Oax­aca is con­ducive to the growth of dozens of kinds of agave—among them an ar­ray of rare species that re­quire an ag­o­nis­ingly long time to ma­ture. Tobalá, a small and broadleafed agave, grows un­der Mex­i­can oak trees on high al­ti­tude slopes and takes at least 10-15 years to ma­ture; its roots se­crete a unique en­zyme which are able to break down the gran­ite in or­der to sta­bilise the plant on steep slopes. Wild te­pez­tate re­quires 25-35 years to ma­ture. Its broad and wavy leaves can be seen hang­ing hor­i­zon­tally from rocky moun­tain cliffs, and is said to lend an in­tensely veg­e­tal and herbal note to the mez­cal it pro­duces.

Dur­ing this short but spir­ited trip, count­less co­pi­tas were drained, each of­fer­ing a dif­fer­ent ex­pres­sion of the land. One mo­ment sticks out to Chow in among all the tast­ing and ex­plo­ration: when she ar­rived at the home of Floren­cio Car­los Sarmiento, a 90-some­thing-year-old palen­quero mae­stro. Dressed sim­ply in a faded blue sweat­shirt, he got out of his makeshift cot in the mid­dle of the court­yard to greet his guests. Turn­ing to Cooper, he passed on a mes­sage: “Please, tell our guests that this is a hum­ble home, and we are only a hum­ble farm. We are only farm­ers.”

Cooper in­sists that Sarmiento should be one of the wealth­i­est dis­tillers in the coun­try. “I don’t know what he does with all his money,” he told Chow, ges­tur­ing to­wards Sarmiento’s mod­est dwellings. They’re told that in his hey­day, the old man would spend 14 days and 14 nights locked up in a room per­fect­ing mez­cal. “He’s an artist,” laughs Chow.

To Chow, mez­cal is now more than just a prod­uct of Mex­ico. “It’s the story of their land,” she says. “It’s a story that has never been told. And it has made me want to tell more peo­ple about it.”

be­fore and af­ter Bot­tles lined up at In Situ mez­ca­le­ria in Oax­aca; (op­po­site) Vic­to­ria Chow ven­tured into the land of tall cac­tus, shrubby agave—and po­tent mez­cal

STOP SHOTS Stop­pers shaped like agave piña hearts top bot­tles of For­taleza te­quila

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