Drinking Mezcal at the Source

I almost missed my flight to Oaxaca. That’s the danger of a long layover — too much time to kill. Once I’m settled into a multi-hour layover, once I’ve found the restaurant or bar where pilots and flight attendants and locals are eating, once I’ve paid my bill, and settled in at my gate with a book, I tend to zone out. Especially in a different country when the words over the loudspeaker are all in a different language. Right before the doors were closed in the Mexico City airport, I heard the final boarding call, frantically gathered my things, and was the last person to board the flight.

Mezcal inspired my trip to Oaxaca. The smoky cousin of tequila, made from agave plants, had found its way into my glass in cocktail bars across New York City over the last few years. I read stories about roasting pits dug into the ground, where agave hearts were roasted for days, giving the spirit its signature smoky character. I talked to fellow writers and to bartenders who had made the journey to Oaxaca, raving about its food and beauty and people. Towards the end of last winter, in need of some sunshine, I booked my own trip.

I wrote about the experience in a recent story for the Financial Times: Spirited Away. The story includes my visit to a palenque, or distillery, in the hills outside of Oaxaca City: “As I step from the car, I’m smacked with the smell of roasted sweet potatoes, but there is no food being prepared. That powerful aroma is roasted agave, being ground into a mash by a stone wheel pulled in a circle by a donkey. Master mezcalier Pedro Hernandez is in charge, and I arrive just in time to witness a roast from the start.”

One often comical aspect of my work is the feeling of being a fish out of water. For my stories, I talk to experts, people who have dedicated their life to a single thing. I may be familiar with mezcal or horseback riding or oysters or the history of lighthouses, but no amount of research and preparation can match the lifetime’s worth of work of my subjects. Luckily, most interview subjects are happy to talk about their passion and be peppered with questions, many of which may or may not end up in the final article.

My crash course in mezcal followed the production process from the agave plant growing on the hillside to the clear liquid running off the still and into my glass. The team at Mezcal El Silencio happily answered all my questions, spelling out varietals of agave plants, sticking strands of roasted agave in my mouth to taste, and encouraging me to drop the notebook and get my hands dirty in the agave roast. It is one of the most rewarding aspects of my job, following a curiosity through from first spark of interest to research to planning to meeting the people who can bring the story to life.

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