"Para todo Mal Mezcal. Y para todo bien, tambiėn" (for all bad mezcal and for all good too)
I started drinking Mezcal sometime in 2013. I used to keep a $25 bottle of Del Maguey at home, it was my introduction to the spirit. I liked it quite a bit, but not nearly as much as whiskey. What I loved about whiskey was the range between a $30 bottle of something good vs a $60 bottle of something great. I didn’t really understand that range in Mezcal until I tried their Chichicapa, once again from Del Maguey. It was the only decent mezcal available in Oregon, at the time. And it changed my entire perception of the spirit. That was around 2015’ish.
In 2016, as I was working for Airbnb for the launch of a project called “Experiences”. I was en route to what would be my first trip to Havana via Mexico City. Right before boarding my plane, I had the idea of buying a bottle of Mezcal at one of the “Duty Free” shops. To my surprise, they didn’t say anything about it at customs at my arrival in Havana. And so the next few days were spent filling up a smaller flask that I carried with me at all times. Anytime I went anywhere or met someone, I poured a little mezcal for them, they were always as fascinated as I was.
Somehow,I had purchased “Pechuga” Mezcal, I figured that if it was the pricier of the options that it was going to be the best of the options. That logic didn't fail. This was like nothing I had ever tasted before. Pechuga is a Mezcal that is redistilled with whatever is in season. Often using fruits, nuts, and spices that are locally grown in that community. Also, a raw turkey breast (or chicken). This is not an infusion, this is distillation, using a mesh bag or cheesecloth, which hangs from above the still. As the mezcal distills, it picks up all the scents and vapors. By the time it comes out the other end, you can taste a lot more character in that Mezcal than what originally went in. But I didn’t know any of that back then, I just thought to myself “dang, this is sweet but also, savory? Amazing!”
When I wasn’t working I spent most of my free time walking from bar to bar, listening to the stories of life-long bartenders at places like: Los Frailes, La Taberna, Bodeguita del Medio, Fundacion Havana Club… Lots of history and lots of Mojitos. Occasionally, when I was comfortable enough to share my Mezcal with them, I would pour some in a shot glass and watch their reactions to it, it was magical. The day before I was set to leave, which happened to be the night before the election, a Monday to be exact. I met a young man by the name of Alfre, who I had been trying to connect with since the day I arrived. Get this, Alfre owned a Cafe & Bookstore, which doubled as an Art gallery, that raised money to run a shelter for abused dogs. His books however, were not for sale, they were all loaners for those in the community. Like a library, but limited to whatever books he could get his hands on. It was a beautiful passion project for him, very much in line with all of the incredible things that I came to love about that place during a short-lived time of hope and change.
We talked for a few hours. I asked him if he was excited about what was around the corner. He paused for a second, smiled, and asked me what made me so sure that Hillary Clinton would be the next president. Just about like every other American at the time, I told him, this was the one, this was it. Hillary was going to open up all of Cuba to the world. It was already in motion, Airbnb being the first big tech company present was just the start. 3 days before, I had met a number of engineers from Google, that were set to start working on a project that would run underwater fiber cables and give everyone free internet. He smiled, lifted his glass filled with Mezcal, and said to me in Spanish “A que no nos revienten mas el corazón” (don’t let them bursts our hearts again).
The next day I woke up hopeful and ready to be back in time for an election party. I poured a little of what was left of that Mezcal into my “mouthwash bottle”, the rest I left for my Airbnb Host, it wasn’t a lot but it was something. By the time I arrived in Mexico City, my flight got delayed. Hour after hour (3.5 to be exact), I sat at the airport bar, watching the news in Spanish, it wasn’t looking good for Hillary. By the time I got to LAX the whole thing was official, Trump would be our next President. To make things worse, I missed my connecting flight back to Portland and there wasn’t another flight out until tomorrow at 7am. And so I spent the night at the airport, from 10 at night, until boarding at 6am. I didn’t call anyone in my family in hope of them making the hour long drive over to pick me up. I didn’t ask my LA friends if I could crash at their home for a few hours, either. I just sat there in disbelief refreshing the browser hoping for some kind of error. When that error didn’t come I drank what was left of that Mezcal and accepted my faith.
2018, Colima, Mexico. At this point, I had left my wonderful tech job to open a coffee shop. I was only 6 months into being an “entrepreneur”, when I made my way down to Colima, Mexico after making a large investment in green coffee. I didn’t know much about the state other than it neighbored Jalisco, and that it was quite small. I was invited by Jacob Elster, the founder of Crop to Cup (coffee importing).
A few months before we met, he assured me that he could source about 30 sacks of coffee for my little roasting company. At that time, that volume alone would make me the largest independent roaster of Mexican coffee in the US. It made sense, so I decided to come along.
We stayed in a little town called Villa de Alvarez, which happened to be celebrating its annual festival of “Fiestas Charrotaurinas”,our hotel just happened to be in the middle of it all. The city was central enough to everything. Therefore when we made plans for our first nigh there, Jake felt that it was necessary for us to go to the little neighboring town of Comala.
Comala was legendary for many reasons. The most recent was its feature in Juan Rulfo’s famous novel “Pedro Paramo”. A story about a man named Juan Preciado, who makes a promise to his dying Mother to find his real Father. And so he goes to the place of his fathers birth only to realize that everyone he meets and comes across is literally dead. I won't give away too much, but it's certainly one of the best literary works by a Mexican Author.
I got to the address of what was a hotel in the town square. I looked around the room and it’s intentionally old facade, but didn’t see much of a bar. I asked the concierge if they knew of it, they simply smiled and pointed at the staircase. A few flights up and there it was, a cute makeshift rooftop bar overlooking the church and the kiosk in the town square. I spotted Jacob and his team, a couple of gringos and two other Mexicans. For an hour or so we talked life, coffee, and the politics around agriculture in Colima. It was here where I was introduced to Cerveceria Colima, a brewing company with not just great beer but simply phenomenal branding on their bottles. I kept asking the staff questions about the beer and they began pulling out every bottle they had from them, one after another after another. We drank them all, but also I fell in love with their brand, so much that I met with the creative team behind it all months later when it came time to discuss design for my own coffee bags. They were too good, but also, too pricey, so I passed.
At one point, a random man wearing a black sombrero and matching black leather sandals came over to us. He introduced himself and asked if we wanted to try “cosas chingonas” (the good stuff), “of course” we all said. He reached in his bag, brought out a plastic water bottle, and poured an ounce or so onto our empty glasses. He referred to it as a “distillate of agave”, which was produced in a nearby neighboring town. We lifted our glasses and said “salud”, before he simply walked away.
I’ll tell you, one sip of this stuff, and my entire life changed. I cleared my palate with a sip of water in disbelief of what I had just tasted. I took a second sip, it was even better. I took a deep breath, watched it dance around the glass. There was a viscosity to it, but also a strong smell of cotija cheese. I stopped the conversation and asked everyone if they could smell it. Everyone agreed, it was stinky, but also very fruity, like strawberries in yogurt. Where we drinking some sort of Pechuga? I had so many questions. It took me a minute, but I got up to look for the man, I could not find him. He just sorta vanished. I asked the staff where he had gone, but nobody was sure who I was talking about. They said occasionally, people came up to the rooftop to try and sell trinkets and bootlegged spirits, but no one had seen this guy.
I described to them what he looked like and what he poured out of, still nothing. As I was ready to give up, someone from the kitchen came out and said “oh that was Manuel, el de la raicilla. He doesn’t work here, he just really loves to share his Mezcal”.
“Raicilla?” I asked where I could find more of it, that particular one. They said, you just come back tomorrow or the day after, and hope he shows up.
Sure enough, two days later I came back. I ordered a Colimita (beer) and waited for about an hour for this man to show up, nothing. Disappointed, I went back downstairs, walked around the tiny town, taking pictures of its buildings and cobblestone streets. Every time that I saw a bar I walked in, ordered a beer, and asked about the famous “Manuel el de la Raicilla”, no one had a clue, and so I gave up on my search.
As I walked back down to the town square, I realized how quiet everything was. It wasn’t even 9pm, but there was strange silence on the streets. All the lights were the same amber color, some of them did the thing where they fade in and out, but not fully, just enough to add to the mystique of the place. After a few blocks I got the strange feeling that I was going the wrong way. And so I looked at the map on my phone, and quickly circled back. A few blocks later, I noticed that I kept going further and further from where I had started. I checked my phone once again, only to realize that my compass wasn’t calibrated. And so I went back the other way… again, only this time I went a street over, in hopes of seeing something new. Eventually, I made it back to the square, jumped in a cab, and continued on my trip. For the next few days, every place we walked into I asked if they had any Raicilla or knew where I could find any, no one knew.
For being my first trip, it wasn't a bad one. At the end I did secure those 30 bags of coffee. 36 to be exact. However, in retrospect I like to believe that this was the trip that started it all for me. My obsession with the history of Mexico and the magic of its small towns like Comala. But also, it solidified my obsession with Mezcal, more importantly Raicilla.
So much that I would one day open a place called Comala, specializing in beautiful and rare Mezcales like Raicilla.