Sunday, February 27, 2011

Tequila Incognita

During my missing years of the mid-to-late 1980s, I decided the time had come to make a pilgrimage to Mexico, following in the footsteps of my heroes Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. And so one morning, then, with little planning and forethought I jumped into my beat-up 1981 Chevy Citation and proceeded on my adventure - without a map.

Someday, the whole story of my Mexican misadventures may be told - in the end, it all played out more like Losin' It than On The Road - but what's relevant to our topic today is that this sentimental journey was my first experience with the mysterious mezcal, a beverage that could be described as tequila's crazy-but-deep older brother - like the Motorcycle Boy to Rusty James. Both mezcal and tequila are fermented from the agave plant, but from distinctly different species with dramatically different results. Also, the agave hearts are steamed to make tequila but fire-roasted to make mescal - this gives it an earthy, musky, dirty, smoky flavor totally unlike any sort of tequila. And it's not for the faint of heart.

Back then, I was definitely faint of heart when it came to drinking. I was strictly an amateur drinker during this time in my life, and hard liquors and I didn't get along. So, what do I do when I find myself in a dangerous pulqueria somewhere in the bad part of Ciudad Juarez? Of course, I order one of the hardest liquors available in this spiral arm of the Milky Way: a shot of mezcal, straight.

I sipped it gingerly, trying to find something "cool" about it. I failed. It tasted like burnt urine and kerosene to me. The bartender, obviously amused by this Gringo kid, kept watching me to see my reaction. I tried to play it casual, tipping the shot glass far back against my mouth to make it look like I was taking bigger gulps than I really was. I whistled along with the conjunto music, trying to second-guess the melody and make it seem like I was familiar with the song, in some ludicrous attempt to "fit in".

Gradually I became aware that I was the subject of whispered and increasingly sneering discussion by every other man in the place, and so I decided to high-tail it out and exit stage left before these surly-looking braceros and maquiladora workers decided to carve their initials on my spleen. Determined not to leave the shot unfinished, I downed it and exited the pulqueria - then I went to my motel and was up with pulqueria all night.

A lot of creekwater's gone under the bridge since those days, and so the other night at Ernesto's I decided to reacquaint myself with mezcal's style. After having been softened up to agave-consciousness by my past two years of margarita immersion therapy, I found Mezcal a much more elegant dancing partner. The warm, rustic smokiness of it is something that speaks to me these days, and I will be coming back to its oasis to sup further in the weeks and months ahead.

Though the rumor that mezcal is related to mescaline is apparently just a myth, there's no denying the psychedelic punch delivered by this psychedelic punch. It gave me a peculiar simultaneous feeling of being opiated yet with a surprising clarity of thought and brightness of outlook - rather like I how I feel after a good Underberg. Of course, if I'd had more than just a shot of it, I expect that clarity would quickly give way to some weird scenes inside the gold mine.

Hey, I wonder where I can get a frozen mezcal??

- - JSH

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