Among seasoned drinkers, Mexico has attained something of a Mecca-like status. The country is so big (larger, in fact, than California, Oregon and Washington combined) and so wildly diverse in its geography and citizenry that drinkers face a virtually limitless array of stuff to drink and places to drink it.
If your habits lean toward fast and cheap, the murky hoochie-coochie parlors of Tijuana offer 25¢ draft beers and $2 bottles of mescal (both of which will also dissolve hard-water build-up and burn off warts). More languidly-inclined tipplers can visit the celebrated beaches of Acapulco and knock back lip-smacking tropical cocktails for as long as their credit holds. And if you favor entertainments which can only be found far from the beaten path, a trek into the northern desert country will enable you to sample mescal beer and cornstalk wine, fermented today just as they were back in the day.
And “back in the day” is precisely where our survey begins.
The Wide World of Mexican Booze
Agave: Good Tasting and Good For Ya
Aboriginal Mexican’s were similar to other ancient peoples around the world in that they concocted intoxicating beverages by exploiting familiar forms of local plant life. First among them was the cactus, a plant which thrives in Mexico’s desert climate, with the agave being especially prized. Beyond being an excellent source of high-voltage tipples, the agave was essential to life in many other ways.
One of the first descriptions of Mexico’s “cactus culture,” was penned by a Spaniard named Motolinia. He lists agave’s varied uses: aquamiel (non-fermented cactus juice), pulque (an intoxicating brew made by fermenting the juice), syrup, vinegar, string, cordage, rope, shoes, textiles, nails, paper, thatch, roofing and flooring tiles, soap, bandages and as a treatment for snakebite. It was also a vital source of food, which made agave quite the useful little plant.
Known to Mexican Indians as maguey, the agave cactus is squat, with sword-shaped leaves and a tall central stalk which, each rainy season, produces a crown of pale, sweet-smelling yellow flowers. And, as anyone who has ever perused the label on a bottle of tequila knows, the most important of the various types of agave was (and still is) the blueagave.
The Horticulture of Hooch
In addition to agave, Mexican Indians employed an array of other plants to make alcoholic beverages.
They produced a sort of wine from the fruit of the pitahaya, an odd, vinelike cactus. The fruit is known today as pitaya in Mexico and as the strawberry pear in the States. Rare and costly, it is considered a delicacy in Vietnam and Taiwan, where it is called Yellow Dragon fruit. Contemporary reproductions of pitahaya wine from centuries-old recipes have shown that, while quite easy on the palette, it was no more robust an intoxicant than wine made from grapes, and perhaps a bit less so.
Other popular drinks included mesquite wine, from the fermented seed pods of the mesquite tree, and mesquite beer, or tesgüino, from the bark of the tree. Jocote, another wine, came from the jocote fruit (aka hog-plum or prickly pear), and folks in the southern, more tropical, regions enjoyed bromelia wine, from the leaves and petals of the colorful bromelia bush. The fruit of the majestic saguaro was fermented into a sweet wine. People in the Tehuacán area drank a concoction called quebrantahuesos, or “bone-breaker,” an ass-kicking little potion made from cornstalk juice, toasted corn, and ripe seeds from the Peruvian pepper tree. And, like almost every other ancient culture, aboriginal Mexicans fermented honey to make mead, the world’s oldest intoxicating beverage.
All the drinks mentioned above were popular, but none were as culturally important to the ancient Mexicans as pulque, from the sap of the pulque agave cactus, of which there were literally dozens of varieties, and balché, honey wine infused with bark from the tree of the same name. (Balché, incidentally, can also be translated as “bellowing,” which may describe the drinker’s behavior after a few rounds of the stuff.)
We’ll return to pulque and balché in more detail shortly.
Toad Skin and Other Flavors
Indigenous Mexicans often added herbs and other interesting ingredients to their potables. A common practice among ancient cultures, the additives improved the taste and worked to fend off ever-encroaching hints of spoilage. Among the more popular additions were mesquite bark, jimson weed, chile peppers, peyote and cannabis. My favorite, though, is the skin of the Bufo. The Bufo is a species of poisonous toad. Small doses of its venom quicken the pulse and excite the senses. By most accounts, Bufo-infused brews smelled monumentally foul. As the Spanish explorer Lopez de Gómara wrote in 1522: “There are no dead dogs, nor a bomb, that can clear a path as well as the smell of this…wine.” Still, the stuff did the trick. According to anthropologist Thomas Gage, consumers of Bufo-infused wine become “mad and raging drunk.”
The Aztecs and the Maya
The big names among Mexico’s many diverse aboriginal inhabitants are, of course, the Aztecs and the Maya, who, from tribal, hunter-gatherer roots, forged the most widespread and complex societies in pre-Colombian Mesoamerica. The Aztec world centered around the great city of Tenochtitlan in what is now central Mexico, while the Maya populated the lush regions of southern Mexico and northern Central America, where they erected great temple-cities such as Tikal, Palenque and Chichén Itzá.
The Aztecs and the Maya were polytheistic peoples, whose daily lives revolved around religious observance and active communion with their gods. And, man, did they ever have a few gods. If it walked on the earth, swam in the water or soared amongst the clouds, it had a god. If it grew on its own or only because you planted it, it had a god. If you did it, thought it, or thought about doing it, it had a god. If you ate it, chewed it, smoked it, or drank it, it had a god. Or gods. (For example, the four hundred individual deities that surrounded pulque.)
The Mayan and the Aztec mythologies were very different, but some gods were so popular and vital they crossed from one to the other. None more so than Mayahuel. A fertility goddess, she had four hundred breasts that oozed intoxicating, life-giving maguey sap. Representations of the goddess have been found all over Mexico, a testament to her popularity, and to the popularity of the maguey (agave), which was understood to be the earthly incarnation of Mayahuel herself.
Among both peoples, religious observances required the worshipper to enter an appropriate state of mind in order to achieve spiritual union. Of the options available to attain such a state, the most profoundly holy were intoxicating elixirs. For the Aztecs and Maya, getting loaded was as close as a mortal could get to the divine.
Aztec society was rather rigid and war-like. Kings and priests sat atop the hierarchy, and everyone else knew their place below. Only kings and priests were allowed regular access to the strong stuff, while laypeople could only imbibe on special occasions, such as mass religious rites, harvest festivals, victory parades, etc. At all other times, priests controlled pulque stocks, which they labeled a “fifth level” beverage, because five cups was enough to get anyone loaded. According to some accounts, if a regular citizen got caught in a sodden state without permission he faced summary execution.
Once a year the Aztecs performed a weird and wonderful little rite called Tochtecómatl or “Bowl of Pulque,” celebrated in honor of the Two Rabbit god, Ome Tochtli. The ritual was presided over by a Patécatl, a priest of the god Patécatl who took the god’s name as his own, and 203 apprentice priests who symbolized the Four Hundred Rabbits, or 400 pulque gods. (The rabbit was a metaphor for drunkenness, because the Aztecs thought it lacked common sense.) The ritual took place on Four Hundred Rabbits Day (on Aztec and Mayan calendars every day of the year had its own specific name), which was also significant because, according to popular belief, anyone unfortunate enough to be born on it was forever doomed/blessed to debilitating inebriation.
The celebration got underway when the Patécatl placed a large bowl (the “rabbit bowl”) in the plaza outside Patécatl’s temple, alongside a statue of Patécatl himself. The priest filled the bowl with fine, fresh pulque, then inserted 203 reeds, only one of which was hollow and could be used as a drinking straw. Next, the 203 apprentices filed into the plaza and commenced the “dance of the four hundred rabbits,” which lasted well into the night. Upon hearing a special signal, the apprentices ceased dancing and charged the “rabbit bowl,” each frantically searching for the single hollow reed. The lucky finder was said to be favored by Ome Tochtli, and, as a reward, got to drink all of the pulque, right there in front of his many jealous fellows.
A Geyser of Gods
Among the Maya, the divine progenitors of balché (honey wine) were Acan and Bol. Acan seems to have been something of an overseer for all intoxicating beverages, although he was specifically associated with balché. As too was Bol, who set things up so that when men got drunk on balché, the gods became drunk as well. And thus were the channels of communication between the mortal and the divine kept lubricated.
The chief Mayan pulque god was Ome Tochtli, or “Two Rabbits.” A generous deity, he gave we mortals a powerful gift when he went to the supreme god, Tezcatlipoca, and asked to be killed. By sacrificing his own life, Ome Tochtli made it safe for mortals to drink pulque (though the specifics of how exactly that worked are a tad hazy). Up north, the Aztecs had Quetzalcoatl to thank for the joys of pulque. He introduced agriculture to humanity (and thus the ability to cultivate the agave). Then he showed the people how to brew pulque, and how to contact him through ceremonial drunkenness.
Banquets were exciting, all-day events in Mayan cities. A merry time was had by all, except for anyone foolish enough to omit Omacatl, the god of banquets, from their thankful prayers. A snarky being, Omacatl invaded the sleep of those who neglected him, twisting their dreams into nightmares, and when he got really cheesed, he cut right to the chase and caused the offender to choke to death on his cup of balché.
Ancient Mesoamericans were intimately familiar with the sometimes troubling side-effects of getting loaded. For example, smart folks stayed on Tezcatlipoca’s good side, for Tezcatlipoca was in charge of drunken accidents. If a guy got too wobbly, took a header down a flight of stairs and broke his neck, it was Tezcatlipoca who pushed him. If two friends got in a drunken argument and one killed the other, Tezcatlipoca supplied the knife. And it was Tezcatlipoca who gave enough rope to the man who hanged himself in a fit of drunken depression.
Not quite so nasty as Tezcatlipoca, but troubling in her own right, was Tlazolteotl, goddess of, among other things, drunken lust. Her name translates as “Dirty Lady,” and she took pleasure in helping inebriates succumb to their sexual urges. Transgressors pierced their tongues with maguey thorns, while begging Tlazolteotl for forgiveness. And you thought the Walk of Shame was bad.
And finally, it is clear that the Maya were familiar with hangovers, a claim borne out by the existence of one Quatlapanqui, the goddess of the morning-after headache.
See? I told you they had gods for everything.
Tequila and Mescal
The Dynamic Duo
Mexico’s Spanish conquerors developed a taste for pulque, but also wanted something with a bit more oomph. They had been distilling red wine into brandy for generations and around 1530 a Spanish military officer named Cristobal de Onate applied the process to pulque. He named the result “vino-mescal de tequila” after the town where he, and his still, resided. The name wouldn’t be shortened to “tequila” until 1875.
The potent liquid quickly became a favorite. In addition to providing a fine buzz, it was thought to have medicinal properties and was used to treat wounds, kill parasites, and ease labor pains. Many a farmer plowing his fields lit a fire under his donkey by blowing a mouthful of tequila up the recalcitrant beast’s nose. Whether among rural, barter-based economies or as a profitable export, the stuff has played an increasingly vital role in Mexican commerce. Today, one of the most powerful and respected ministries in the Mexican government is the one that oversees tequila production.
Learn Your Multiplication Labels
Wanna flummox your friendly neighborhood tequila snob, that guy who says he can tell the difference between the hundreds of different tequilas? Lay this on him.
In Mexico today there are fewer than 30 legitimate tequila distilleries. The output of that handful of distilleries, however, is rebottled, repackaged, relabeled, and remarketed so aggressively that, in the U.S. alone, they are sold under 400 different brand names.
Chew on that, liquor snobs.
Tequila Vs. Mescal
Despite the fact that many people use the names interchangeably, tequila and mescal are two different liquors.
First and foremost, true tequila is distilled and bottled only in Mexico. It is made from 100 percent natural ingredients, and at least 51 percent of its reduced sugars must come from blue agave. The blue grows all over Mexico, but only those grown in specifically sanctioned regions, such as Jalisco (home to the town Tequila), Guanajuanto, and Tamaulipas are of sufficient quality to become tequila. And lastly, before true tequila undergoes the distillation, the pina, or heart, of the agave is steamed in an adobe oven, which converts its starches into sugars.
Mescal is not as strictly controlled. Any type of agave will suffice. Instead of steaming the pina, as with tequila, the pina is roasted over mesquite fires, which gives mescal its signature smoky taste. Nor is it required that mescal comes from Mexico. Texas produces its fair share and a distillery recently cropped up in China, but the really good stuff is made in the area around Oaxaca.
The Morning After
The severity of a hangover is largely a matter of personal opinion. Because each drinker’s brain chemistry is unique, each has his or her own standards of pain and discomfort. For me, a tequila hangover is in a class by itself, and a mescal hangover is the Ninth Circle of Dante’s Hell.
A few things to keep in mind: mescal is distilled only once, while tequila is distilled at least twice. Double distilling removes more impurities, which makes tequila the “cleaner” of the two. On top of that, your better tequilas are aged, mellowing both the taste and the aftereffects. If you’re going on a tequila bender, stick with the good stuff, made from 100 percent blue agave, and your “morning sickness” will be minimal. A well-aged mescal, on the other hand, is about three days old and you’d need a qualified chemist to figure out its exact ingredients. It’s a very “dirty” form of booze, so don’t get all whiny when that Freddy-Krueger-in-your-skull sort of hangover arrives and stays for days.
The Fantastic Four
There are four different kinds of tequila. Blanco or plata (white or silver), joven (gold), reposado (rested) and anejo (aged).
Lowest on the scale is blanco or plata. It is colorless and aged a whopping 30 days. Unless budgetary constraints leave you no other recourse, skip the silver and white. You’ll get just about the same satisfaction from swallowing a couple of Lincoln Logs.
Joven (gold) is what most Americans mean when they say tequila. Cuervo Gold (Jose Cuervo Especial) is the most popular tequila in the country (and, as it happens, the world), to the tune of some 30 million gallons per year, most of which is consumed in margaritas. Joven is mostly reposado, blended with a touch of blanco or plata.
If you’d like to experience a tequila that is almost identical to what people enjoyed at the time of its invention, grab a bottle of reposado. Aged for around a year, this “rested” tequila is mellow and smooth, a true sipping liquor, meant to be taken slowly, like good Scotch or bourbon. Try it chilled on a summer afternoon.
And then there’s anjeo (aged), the Rolls-Royce of tequilas. To qualify as anjeo it must be aged a minimum of one year, though it is common to hold it for anywhere from 18 months to two years and some might linger in its oak cask for five or even ten years. A bottle of typical anjeo (Chinaco Anjeo, for example, is glorious) is likely to cost, but worth every penny. It is so pure and silky smooth that hangovers are almost nonexistent.
A Word About the Worm
The misinformation and downright silliness surrounding the worms in bottles of mescal is so vast that it’s worth a closer look.
Ordinarily, the worm sloshing around in your bottle is the larva of one of two insects that call the agave cactus home. One, the “white worm,” is the larva of the agave snout weevil, and the other, the “red worm,” or gusano rojo, is the caterpillar of the Hypopta agavis moth. (When alive, the caterpillar is a vibrant coral-red, but once in the bottle it turns a pasty pinkish-gray.) Aficionados believe that the “true” mescal worm is the red worm, as it has a superior taste to its white cousin. Both worms taste pretty much like whatever they’ve been soaking in, but whatever.
Noshing on agave worms probably dates back to Mexico’s earliest human inhabitants—larvae, caterpillars and grubs are an excellent source of protein. The Aztecs took things to a more philosophical level in their belief that eating agave worms infused people with extra strength and acted as a potent aphrodisiac. Neither belief is true, but myths don’t die easily, as is seen in the number of otherwise sensible people who will swear on their dead relatives that mescal worms cause electrifying hallucinations.
It’s probable that people started adding worms around the same time distillers began mass-producing mescal, as a method for catching disreputable bottlers. The worm provided immediate visual proof as to whether the liquor had been watered down. If the liquor is undiluted the worm won’t decompose, but if it’s been watered down the worm begins to rot. After Mexico gained its independence from Spain and the government began overseeing distilleries, adding worms became largely unnecessary and the practice waned. Then, sometime around 1945, a businessman from Mexico City named Jacobo Lozano Paez rekindled the idea as a marketing gimmick.
So, There It Is…
Next time you knock back a shot of gold, let it sit on your tongue for a moment and enjoy the taste of history. Or, as the novelist Tom Robbins put it:
“Tequila, scorpion honey, harsh dew of the doglands, essence of Aztec, crème de cacti; tequila, oily and thermal like the sun in solution…tequila, savage water of sorcery, what confusion and mischief your sly rebellious drops do generate.”
(Note: the Author is indebted to the works of Henry J. Bruman, Charles Gallenkamp, Ian Lendler, A.J. Baime, Stuart Walton, Tom Standage, and Ana G. Valenzuela-Zapata and Gary Paul Nabhan.)