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Tequila Sunrise

How a New Upscale Day Dawned for Mexico's Ancient Firewater
Jonathan Kandell
From the Print Edition:
Chuck Norris, Jul/Aug 98

(continued from page 4)

For my own course on mescal, I traveled recently to Oaxaca where I linked up with Javier Toledo, a university professor and mescal enthusiast who often lends his services to Encantado. We spent a day crisscrossing the region around Oaxaca City in search of potential future suppliers for Encantado and to trace the growing local expansion of the mescal business.

We begin the day at Oaxaca City's La Merced Market, with a huge breakfast. "Mescal is best tasted in the morning cool and we'll need a full stomach," explains Professor Toledo.

Our first stop is a 40-minute drive south, in Santa Catarina Minas, a rural village. There, Bonifacio Arellanes, 41, owns one of the oldest and largest palenques, a distillery in continuous use by his family for seven generations. Not much has changed over all those years. Don Bonifacio purchases most of his maguey agave cores, or piñas, from his neighbors and relatives. He bakes them in his backyard, in a stone-lined oven pit six feet deep and with a 40-foot diameter.

The caramel-colored piñas are removed, crushed and shredded by a mule-powered grindstone (or, if it's working, a small electric shredder). The liquid is fermented in open 1,500-liter wooden vats. Then it is poured into large ceramic bowls topped by copper coils and heated by charcoal for a double distillation. The entire process takes about a month and employs up to 40 people.

Don Bonifacio serves us the freshly made, 110-proof brew in a wood bowl and offers the usual mescal toast: "Para todo mal, mezcal--para todo bien también." ("For anything bad, mescal--and for anything good, as well.") The good news is that the drink has a wonderfully light and fruity taste. The bad news for Toledo, who was hoping to eventually woo him over to Encantado, is that Don Bonifacio has already signed a contract with another American company.

We spend the rest of the morning visiting mescal stands and restaurants along the highway southeast of Oaxaca City. Busloads of American, Canadian and European tourists descend at the most upscale of these outlets, owned by Beneva, another superpremium mescal producer. Inside the restaurant and in its backyard, the tourists can see rows of agave plants and a working replica of a palenque--the entire mescal production cycle. As they depart, they can take home mescal at prices ranging up to $60 a bottle.

We end the day at the bottling plant used by Encantado on the outskirts of Oaxaca City. Valeriano Martínez, the mezcalero leader, seems to have cooled on his Californian associates, whom he blames for slow sales back in the United States.

Back in his office, he explains that his association of mezcaleros are producing their own mescal under the name of Mixtlan, which they are hoping to sell in the United States at $10 a bottle, despite their commitment to Encantado. He offers a couple of shot glasses. "Now tell me: How does it compare to Encantado?" he asks. After a day spent imbibing, oh, a dozen shots of mescal, I can look him in the eye and honestly confess: "At this point, it all tastes the same."

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