SANTA CATARINA MINAS, Mexico — Centuries before anyone ever heard of a margarita machine, before tequila shots became a rite of passage and "with or without salt" entered the bartending lexicon, Mexicans were distilling the exotic fruit of the agave plant.
They didn't call it tequila back then. They called it mezcal.
But unlike the famous concoction that gave the world household names such as Jose Cuervo and Don Julio, mezcal — the "poor man's tequila" — has nourished an inferiority complex for decades.
Finally, thanks to new quality-control measures and increasingly successful micro-distilleries, fans of the forgotten drink are touting a mezcal renaissance: Exports are rising, new plants are being built and food critics are gushing.
"True mezcals are like the finest wines in the world,'' said U.S. mezcal importer Ron Cooper in Taos, N.M. "They change because of the microclimate and the hand of the maker. And they're incredibly diverse in flavor.''
Many Americans know mezcal as the clear elixir with the worm in the bottle, thanks to a 1950s-era marketing gimmick. Traditional producers never sold it that way.
The worm was bad enough, but years of lax quality control and adulterated exports also gave the ancient brew a rotgut reputation, which authentic producers now find hard to dispel.
Even in Mexico, where Kentucky whiskey and island rum have pushed aside traditional drinks, many have lost touch with the taste of authentic mezcal. Mezcal maker Eduardo Angeles recalls the reaction he got from an 82-year-old man who recently tried his hand-crafted Real Minero.
"He said, 'I thought I was going to die before tasting another mezcal like that,' " Angeles said.
"Maguey" is the common word for agave — Greek for "noble plant.'' Long before Columbus reached the New World, indigenous tribes used it for clothing, construction, food and, yes, alcoholic beverages. But researchers say Spanish conquistadors first distilled the fermented maguey drink, known as pulque.
Though agave-based beverages can be found all over Mexico, mezcal is particularly common in old mining towns. The Spanish discovered that workers tolerated the awful conditions better with a shot or two, said Sergio Inurrigarro, the president of the Cultural Association for the Promotion of Mezcal.
The new quality-control laws and a rigorous certification process — now required for all exports — are beginning to redeem mezcal's reputation, promoters said.
"Once all this certified mezcal starts hitting the sophisticated palates . . . things will change, like they did with tequila,'' Inurrigarro said. "We'll have to find the right cocktail like we did with the margarita. That will be the boom.''
After the regulations took effect in 2005, mezcal exports dropped as producers struggled to meet the new requirements. But exports to the U.S. are up 5 percent in the first half of this year compared with last year, U.S. trade figures show. And Beneva — which bottles the widely available Monte Alban mezcal — inaugurated a modern $1 million plant Sept. 11 in Oaxaca in southern Mexico, the epicenter of Mexican mezcal production, that's the largest of its kind to date
However, mezcal hasn't entirely outgrown its rough and ready reputation. Although the worm seems to have outstayed its welcome, a new brand has made a big splash by bottling a different kind of critter. The label says it all: Scorpion.
The word mezcal means "cooked maguey" in the Nahuatl language, historians say. It was the stuff of bootleggers until 1795, when Jose Cuervo got a permit to make "mezcal de Tequila," or "mezcal from Tequila,'' the municipality of Tequila in Jalisco state.
In other words, tequila is and was the locally produced mezcal, even if modern-day tequila manufacturers would like the drinking public to forget its humble origins. But diversity is mezcal's strength: While tequila must be made from blue agave, mezcal can be distilled from dozens of species. And just as wines vary by grape variety and geography, mezcal changes from village to village and from one maguey to the next.
Production techniques vary, too, but traditional mezcal makers, unlike their steam-cooking counterparts in tequila country, roast mature maguey over wood. That's what gives true mezcal its unmistakable smoky flavor.
"In tequila, it's like starting with a boiled onion,'' said Cooper, the importer of Del Maguey mezcal. "In mezcal, it's like starting with a roasted, caramelized onion.''
AT A MEZCAL PLANT
At Real Minero in tiny Santa Catarina Minas, a former mining town about an hour outside Oaxaca City, the Angeles family has been making mezcal the old-fashioned way for at least five generations. Its specialty mescals include the sweet arruqueno and wild tobala species, which take longer to mature than more common species.
A visit to the small Real Minero plant, nestled in the foothills of the southern Sierra Madre mountains, is a walk back in time. The smell of roasted maguey rises from giant outdoor pits and mezcal slowly drips out of tiny wood-fired stills into earthen pots.
The Angeles family adheres to traditional distillation methods with almost religious devotion, and noted critic Cornelio Perez has hailed Real Minero as one of the finest mezcals in Mexico.
Getting the product to market hasn't always been easy, however.
In the 1950s, during a government crackdown on rural mezcal makers, Modesta Angeles, great-grandmother of current production chief Eduardo Angeles, used to hide samples under her dress on her way to market.
Today, with little help from the government and almost no budget for promotion, Real Minero hasn't been able to export its product and finds it difficult to compete with lower-priced industrial mezcal.
Eduardo Angeles said he could keep 30 people employed at full production, but without a reliable market, many of his former workers are off tending gardens in the United States. Yet he's convinced that small-batch mezcal such as his will take its rightful place alongside French cognac and single-malt scotch someday.
"We could have gone into industrial production, but we decided to do it right,'' Angeles said. "One day there will be a market for it. I can't tell you when, but one day there will be.''
(Jay Root reports for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)
ON THE WEB
A video on how mezcal is made.
For more about mezcal: — www.mezcal.com