Winding past scorched agave fields and the occasional wayward goat, our bus arrives at El Silencio’s tiny distillery, where workers laboring under ninth generation master distiller Pedro Hernandez follow age-old customs of making mezcal. First, the spiny green agave plants are harvested from the nearby mountains when they are between eight and twelve years old. Their razor-sharp paddles are chopped off, and the remaining pineapple-sized "hearts" are hacked into pieces and cooked over mesquite chips in a stone pit.
The burnt agave remains are further brutalized by a heavy grinding wheel called a tahona, traditionally pulled by the aforementioned donkey in a circular pen. The resulting mezcal mash is poured into large wooden vats and blended with natural spring water. That earthy mixture, known as mosto, begins to generate its own alcohol as part of the fermentation process. It’s then distilled in copper pots called alambiques, where the alcohol is vaporized and eventually transformed into 80 proof mezcal.