Mezcal: The Soul of Oaxaca

A road trip in the seventies proved the start of an intoxicating love affair

  • Words: John Turner
  • Photography: Michael Toolan

‘Because of its organic nature, mezcal is easy to sip.’ Ron Cooper, the artist and founder of Del Maguey Mezcal, is explaining to me what it’s like to have a drink of the pre-Columbian spirit that’s been converting those in search of something edgier than tequila. ‘It warms your throat and chest. Your eyes get a little scrimpy, like you’re smiling. And your feet come about an eighth of an inch off the floor. Half an hour later they’re back on the ground again.’

Amando and horse leave Ixcatlán while it’s still dark to trek 13km to collect piñas. Photography: Michael Toolan.
Photography: Michael Toolan.

It was almost half a century ago that Cooper took a road trip down the Pan American Highway from Los Angeles to Panama on a dare. One of the towns where he and his surfer friends stopped-off was Oaxaca. In his book about the experience, Finding Mezcal: A Journey Into The Liquid Soul of Mexico, he describes driving in a VW van with the ‘windows rolled down, hot air pouring in like lion’s breath. We drove through Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica.’

His arrival in Oaxaca confirmed a love affair that had begun eight years beforehand. He tells me, ‘it seemed that there were about four people who owned shoes. It was very much a village. A beautiful colonial village. It’s evolved ten thousand times since then.’ It was here that he got the chance to drink mezcal again – he had first encountered it in the Sixties, when it had tasted ‘like diesel’ and given him the most brutal hangover of his life. But this time round, hanging out with local weavers, he realised that the best stuff was privately stashed away for special occasions, and that there were special rituals connected to drinking it.

Irma, Amando’s wife, prepares food on the comal (a ceramic griddle which sits over fire). Photography: Michael Toolan.

Michael Toolan is the photographer who has helped Cooper document the lifestyle of those who grow the agave plant from which mezcal is made. In the Nineties, after making a large amount of money from two bronze sculptures he had created, Cooper made another pilgrimage to Oaxaca and began the Del Maguey export business. In order to make sure he was selling only the highest quality mezcal, he painstakingly tracked down the farmers who were making the drink in the most traditional way. As Toolan points out, ‘The nature of mezcal, and part of its appeal, is that it is produced on a small scale, by artisans, using age-old materials and techniques.’

Having baked the maguey and removed the dirt and palm fronds, the piñas are still warm –and now sweet-smelling – ready to be crushed and fermented. Photography: Michael Toolan.
The horno, just lit, will produce large clouds of smoke. It will be several hours till the fire burns itself out and the piñas can be piled on. Photography: Michael Toolan.

In 2013 Toolan started taking these photos of one of the families of mezcaleros in Ixcatlan. ‘The maestro mezcalero, and head of the family, is Amando Alvarado Jiménez,’ he explains. ‘He has been harvesting the hearts, or piñas, of Agave Papalomé in the hills around his village for decades. His son, Amandito, has been his apprentice for a number of years and is himself now expert in the harvesting and baking of plants, and the fermentation and distillation of mezcal.’

In order to make mezcal, first the agave is harvested, generally when it is seven or eight years old. The spines are cut off, and the heart (called the piña because it looks like a pineapple) extracted. Then the piñas are taken to a roasting pit (horno), in which a fire is started with stones placed on top of it. Once the stones have heated up, the halved piñas are placed on the stones, before being covered with palm leaves and earth and left to roast for several days.

‘Your eyes get a little scrimpy, like you’re smiling. And your feet come about an eighth of an inch off the floor. Half an hour later they’re back on the ground again.’

Ron Cooper

Toolan describes how he took one of the photos shortly after arriving in Ixcatlán. ‘Amando let me into the house and said he was going to light the horno at 1am (so the rocks would be ready for piñas at 7am). So just before one, Amando got up and knocked on my door and the two of us drove to the palenque (distillery) –about 15 minutes from town. I caught Amando in a contemplative moment, in my first shot of the trip. Some people have assumed it’s a double exposure. It isn’t.’

Coworker, Simitrio, takes a break, and sips on a glass. Fermentation takes place not in wooden vats but in great receptacles made of cow hide. You can taste the cow hide in the final product. Photography: Michael Toolan.

Once the pinas are baked, they are ready to be fermented. Often fermentation takes place in a barrel, but here, according to Toolan, ‘Their fermentation happens not in wooden vats but in great receptacles made of cow hide. You can taste the cow hide in the final product. I’m vegetarian – and this mezcal is not.’

Amando and his team drive into the hills and harvest great quantities of Palma Blanca (‘White Palm’) fronds from the forest, so it is always fresh plant matter directly against the maguey. Photography: Michael Toolan.

Toolan’s own favourite mezcal memory comes from a time when he slept all night at the palenque so he could get up early to use the morning light. ‘At 6am I was shooting – and Amando and his team were producing mezcal. As they passed through different phases of the distillation they spoke to me of the importance of knowing the taste at different moments during the course of the process. Enthusiastically they offered me cup after cup, eager to see my appreciation of their fine work. I certainly did not want to offend anyone by declining the offer, despite the time of day. By 9am I was absolutely plastered. I continued to shoot while struggling to stand, a great source of amusement to all.’

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