‘Anyone for a mezcal?’
‘A what? You mean the one with the worm?’
The smoke... the worm... the very name. My mum thought I was writing a book about drugs.
So, how come all the confusion? Why all the dubious legend and lore? Until very recently, mezcal sat in the public psyche on a par with lost cities, surfacing only in tales of terrifying excess. Footnotes from Hunter S Thompson. A kind of El Dorado of booze.
Few could have imagined that, out there in the lesser-trod pockets of Mexico, one of the world’s most distinguished craft delicacies was being unassumingly distilled for the local communities.
So then, what is a mezcal? Well, the answer is not as straightforward as one might hope. In essence, mezcals are Mexican spirits (including tequila) made from agave plants (succulents, not cactae). And that’s it.
But, as we look a little closer, we quickly see that it is an unusually elusive subject and difficult to convert to hard fact. The spirit changes its colour from region to region, blending in with the environment. What we’re told by one mezcalero is often quite different from the words of another. As we move towards it, mezcal seems to retreat. A mirage.
Lumholz, the Danish anthropologist who was, in 1890, the first to document the indigenous peoples of the North-western Sierra Madre (solid mezcal country), titled his book on the subject Unknown Mexico. In it, he observed that the shamans of the region, though working with the same spirits, all gave him a different story. The place is mercurial. Unknown Mexico. Unknown mezcal. There’s a Mexican expression that is best adopted for the situation. Lo unico que sé, es que no se nada. ‘The only thing I know, is that I know nothing.’ A good place to start.
This book is a guide; nothing can teach us better than the mezcal itself. But I hope it will give you what you need to best receive those teachings. It is a guide to assist you in the field of your own discoveries. Take it with you, to the mezcalerias, to the palenques, and may it serve you well.
-Tom Bullock, Mexico City, January 2017
The Mezcal Experience:
A Field Guide to the World's Best Mezcals and Agave Spirits