Mezcal Traditions Buried But Not Forgotten
Aahh yes, mezcal traditions. Honestly, I love them almost as much as the drink itself. Almost.
Mexico is a country rich with history and customs. Often beautiful, occasionally kinda crazy. Never boring.
Mezcal certainly holds up its end of the bargain with regards to the captivating Mexican culture and related storytelling.
Elixir of the Gods
The spirit is often referred to as the elixir of the gods. Why? I assumed it was simply because of its wondrous flavours, but there is in fact more to it.
According to the bible of mezcal, around 400 years ago a wicked bolt of lightning struck an agave plant…instantly cooking the pina (the inside of the plant)…releasing the juices which had magically been converted into mezcal!
Considering the many years of sweat and toil actually required to create mezcal, I reckon there would be a few mezcaleros wishing this tale was true. A few donkeys too.
Throughout the entire history of mezcal the struggle has been very real.
Back in the day in Michoacan, mezcal was a type of moonshine. Bathtub mezcal if you will. Yes, illicit mezcal!
Not only was it bloody hard work creating the stuff, but protecting it from evil forces was an exhausting and fulltime job. Stories abound of mazcalero families trampling through the moonlit woods in desperate attempts to avoid the enemy.
These enemies included the government and police ( I like to refer to them as “the authorities” – makes them sound suitably heartless).
The authorities enjoyed tracking down the mezcal and confiscating it – gee I wonder what they did with it – and destroying the equipment used to make it.
In addition, producers of tequila from across the border in Jalisco were known to sneak over and destroy the mezcal, as it was seen as a threat to their business.
As you can see, there were problems. A project manager would refer to them as challenges.
What to do?
Action was taken, it was simple but effective…and gave birth to one of the famous mezcal traditions.
They buried the mezcal.
Now, we know that during the production process the agave is buried and cooked below ground, but this is different.
The mezcal was stored in large glass bottles and buried around the property of the mezcalero.
As outlined above one reason for doing this was to protect the mezcal from the heartless authorities and tequila henchmen, but there were other reasons too.
Storing the bottles underground provided protection from sunlight and fluctuating temperatures.
Nosy neighbours were also none the wiser as to how much mezcal had been produced on the property.
Also, there are many tales of wives becoming fed up with their beloved mezcalero consuming too much of the supply – and therefore burying it in places unknown to him.
Actually, slightly off-topic I heard a story this week of a wife who had taken over making the mezcal for her husband over a period of 25 years as he was constantly in no state to do so!
Umm…Where is It?
Back to the buried mezcal…whilst you can see there are many advantages, over the years there have been many a desperate search for misplaced bounties…I can’t imagine the sort of heartache experienced in these moments.
Fortunately I live in a garden-less apartment so nobody will be burying my mezcal!
Whilst things have changed somewhat since those bygone days, the mezcal tradition of burying the goods has stayed strong. The bottles are buried in a cementerio mezcalero …mezcal cemetery! Pretty cool, right?
Many producers still practice this tradition across the country, and in particular in Michoacan.
Bottles may be buried for anywhere from 6 months to many years. During this period the flavours can change, become more complex. What started off as a precautionary practice has now grown into one of the many processes that result in the incredible mezcal flavours.
The exciting news is that in a few weeks I’ll be heading off to visit the vinata (where they produce the mezcal) of Desentierro Mezcal. That’s right, I’ll be donning the mask and social distancing my heart out with a group of other mezcal aficionados to take place in my first real mezcal trip! Look forward to providing an exciting blog post after I have returned.
So, in Spanish desentierro means unearthed. I think you know where this is heading.
At Desentierro they have a tradition of burying glass bottles for 9 months. Each November, when it is time for the Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration the limited edition bottles are dug up and consumed as part of the celebrations. Sounds like a pretty special occasion to me.
At other times of the year bottles are unearthed all over Mexico to celebrate events such as birthdays and weddings.