Lightning in a Bottle
“All of this,” says Vicente Cisneros of El Silencio, the premium mezcal that the roasting agaves will eventually become, “is the art of the mescalier.”
While mezcal is made in a number of regions in Mexico, the finest comes from Oaxaca, the product of the many small distilleries called palenques dotting the villages around the city. In Oaxaca, agave is everywhere—the plant grows in manicured rows in the town center, Plaza de Santo Domingo, and is rendered over and over by the city’s many artists. It is considered sacred—mezcal’s origin story involves a bolt of lightning, an agave, and a spontaneous gusher of the spirit—and is believed to have healing properties as well. Most of the families who make mezcal have done so for generations, and now they are being joined by newcomers such as El Silencio’s Cisneros and his cofounder Fausto Zapata, two friends from Los Angeles who launched the brand last year. Elliott Bennett Coon, an artist who moved from Oakland, Calif., to Oaxaca about two years ago, plans to debut an herb-infused mezcal called Gem & Bolt later this year. Before them came Ron Cooper, another American artist, who paved the way for premium mezcal in the United States when he started Del Maguey in 1995. Earlier this year, Cooper brought the chef-mezcal connection full circle when he collaborated with José Andrés on a mezcal made with Ibérico ham that costs $200 a bottle.
Zapata and Cisneros have partnered with the makers of Koch mezcal, whose maestro mezcalero, Pedro Hernández, is a ninth-generation mezcal maker in the village of San Baltazar Guelavila, about an hour outside of Oaxaca. After the agave is roasted, it will be put into a small cement ring and crushed by a millstone—powered by a donkey—until it becomes a thick, chunky pulp, which is mixed with water and fermented in wood vats for about five days. “The mezcalier smells, tastes, listens,” to the developing brew, says Zapata, even watching the liquid for movement. When it is ready, it is distilled twice, with Hernández making the critical decision of when to cut the “head” and the “tail”—the early and late parts of the distillation that contain off flavors or high alcohol. “He determines where the flavors start, tasting every 30 minutes,” says Carlos Moreno, Koch’s CEO. “Then every 20 minutes, tasting closer and closer, and at the end, one after another.”
This year, the distillery will produce about 2,000 bottles of Koch, each made with a specific wild agave, and 10,000 bottles of El Silencio, made with a blend of Mexicano, espadín, and tobasiche. Every bottle will be the result of the same small-batch process yielding about 160 liters each time. The finished El Silencio, which sells for about $75, is cut with a little water, to temper the mezcal’s characteristic sensation of a blue flame licking at the tongue. But it is still a potent 80 proof, smooth without giving up the rustic character of the drink, with the flavors of fennel, white pepper, and fine saddle leather lurking behind a merely lip-numbing burn.
Artisanal mezcal such as this is usually sipped as an aperitif or a digestif, straight, in a short glass with an open top, Terán of Pitiona says. While some Oaxacans—and plenty of visitors—like to chase a sip with a bite of orange dipped in sal de gusano—an earthy blend of ground red chili, salt, and pulverized agave worm—Terán is adamantly against it. “We don’t use chili and salt, and we don’t make cocktails with it,” she says. “When you have mezcal that’s so beautiful, so complex, you don’t want anything to interfere.”