Mayatl the ancient Zapotec goddess of mezcal is a beautiful woman with 40,000 breasts like agave pines.
Living in the desert surrounded by shadowy holes in the ground, she flowered into being when lightning struck an agave plant – cooking, opening it and spilling the first mezcal across the sand.
The holes are inhabited by the Centzon Totochtin (AKA The 400 Rabbits) on a part-time basis. These rabbit gods live a sedate and sober life when they are in the spirit world, but when they come to the desert they suckle mezcal from Mayatl’s bosom and rampage around creating havoc.
Mayatl herself does not imbibe. As a fertility goddess she loves to nourish others, actually living to give. Feeding her hordes of rabbit children was her only desire until a few centuries after her birth when maguey worms burrowed into her heart, infesting her.
Like the Sick Rose in the Blake poem, the worms spread arousal, then the emotion of love through her entire being, until she was nearly destroyed by it.
As warriors and nomads wandered into her arid desert home she would become infatuated and lavish her hearts mezcal upon them from her breasts, only to find that they became drunk and incapable of physical love.
Every time this happens, she swears off love forever until a beautiful man enters her orbit and she falls again, destined to watch sadly as they revel with her drunken rabbit brood until they collapse in sleeping piles in the moonlight.
This is where the Mexican expression “I’m as drunk as 400 rabbits” originates.
Men! Tcha. And rabbit gods! Double tcha. Love is hard.
The agave was a sacred plant in pre-Spanish Mexico, and was key to religious ritual, native mythology and the local economy – providing as it did food, drink, material for building shelter and fibre for clothing. You can use it too! and suckle down mezcal just as if you were in the desert with Mayatl and the 400 Rabbits.
The spirit should be “kissed, not shot”, so sip it slowly.
The sexiest mezcal currently on the market is Quiquiriqui, the personal brand of Melanie Symonds. Organically farmed by local families in Oaxaca, Mexico using 100% agave, Quiquiriqui has been popping up at all the best venues since its debut in 2011.
Mel launched the new Quiquiriqui Tobala at London Mezcal Week– a fiesta of Mexican art, culture, food and drink timed to coincide with Mexican Independence Day and culminating in a 2-day tasting festival with dozens of designer small batch mezcals available to sample.
Distilled from small wild agave at high altitudes, Tobala joins the original Quiquiriqui Matatlan with its complex peppery peat and wood flavour, bringing its own smoky fruit and buttered stone character to the range.
Horses are used for traditional mezcal making methods – the horse who pulls the stone mashing wheel for Quiquiriqui is called Palomo. This means pigeon in Spanish, but he’s also called Biter. Look out for Palomo!
Mixing and mingling at the tasting festival was… a feast for the senses. This is a huge cliché to employ when describing carnival or exotic experiences, but is rather less used during the daytime just off Hackney Road.
Grazing across the stands, sipping samples and chatting to the producers about the history and idiosyncrasies of each brand, a delirious mood crept up slowly on the crowd.
Frequent trips out to the taco stands, bar and dance tents which transformed a bleak carpark in Hackney into a riot of glowing colour and wild music before plunging back into the rarified atmosphere of the tasting tables contributed to a general sense of mild euphoria.
Everywhere you looked you could see smiles blossoming and a lot of hugging and kissing going on.
At the centre of everything was gorgeous blonde mezcal goddess Mel, who co-organised the event.
Q: Can you remember the first time you tasted mezcal? Is love at first taste possible?
A: I was in Mexico travelling down the Pacific coast in 2010 and stumbled across a then sleepy town called Puerto Escondido – if you are a surf fan, it’s the Mexican holy grail of surfing – and surfing means parties and at one such party I was introduced to some pretty bad mezcal.
I asked if there was good mezcal and 20 mins later was heading into the jungle to go get some of the good stuff. After an interesting chat with a dude dressed in nothing but his pants and a machete I was given a jerry can and told to drink!
I did and it was the most delicious amazing thing I have ever put in my mouth…ever! It was a wild Tobala mezcal made by this guy in the middle of nowhere and that was it, I was in love and on the jazzy path of Mezcal forever.
I spent the next 5 months in Oaxaca learning about mezcal and its culture, then I came back to London, quit my job as a TV producer and opened the UK’s first Mezcaleria under a kebab shop in Hackney….fast forward 5 years and here I am, still totally obsessed with mezcal and so happy it rules my life.
Q: One of the appealing things about both mezcal and tequila is the colour and vitality of Mexican culture, history and art. Would you still enjoy mezcal as much if it was a powerfully delicious, multi-layered, complex drink that had been distilled in – for instance – a prison toilet or in industrial plastic sheds in Staines?
A: One of the reasons I love mezcal is because of the people that make it. They are the reason I fell in love with it when I was in Mexico – I can’t say I wouldn’t love something made another way somewhere else but mezcal is what it is because of the people who make it and the traditions it has in their culture.
Q: Mezcal “worms” used to be added to some brands, creating some of our most fun urban drinking myths regarding “tequila worms” and their attributes. The new boutique brands of mezcal don’t seem to be interested in perpetuating these myths – what is your stance on the controversial worm? Does it have a role to play in the future of mezcal?
A: The worm is actually a moth larvae that lives in the agave plant. It is used traditionally in cooking in Oaxaca and other states in Mexico – they are dried and then added to food or eaten on their own – specifically to the history of mezcal they are crushed up with chilli and salt to make a chilli worm salt that is sprinkled on oranges and eaten while sipping mezcal but then this salt is also used as a table condiment.
There is no definitive answer to how they became added to mezcal in the bottle – most people say it was a marketing ploy used to differentiate tequila and mezcal in the American market many years ago – but these days you only see them outside of Mexico in mass produced industrial agave spirits which have nothing to do with traditional mezcal production.
Some rural communities do add the larvae and other herbs and spices to mezcal to make medicinal elixirs but these are never seen in commercial production.
I think chilli worm salt has a role in the future of mezcal but personally I wouldn’t go near a brand if it had anything like a worm in the bottle.
Q: If mezcal was an animal, what would it be?
A: Honey badger
Q: If it was a colour, what would it be?
Q: And if it was a song?
A: One song to represent? I’m not sure I could answer that – but today it would be Stone Cold Crazy by Queen
London Mezcal Week will be back next year, expanding to the North of England to bring some fiery fiesta flavour to those dark Satanic mills.
Thanks for talking with us at The New City Witches Cocktail Coven, Mel!
I’m developing some more complex mezcal cocktails at the moment, but this is nice and easy for beginners:
10 fresh mint leaves
½ shot of fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon sugar – rose sugar if you can find it or infuse it
1 ½ shots mezcal
4 shots chilled mint tea
Muddle together the leaves with the juice and sugar, then shake with the mezcal, tea and ice until thoroughly chilled. Strain into a tall glass and serve over more ice, garnished with a wedge of lime and a mint leaf.
O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
-William Blake ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ (1794)
But the miracle of nature was the great Mexican aloe, or maguey, whose clustering pyramids of flowers, towering above their dark coronals of leaves, were seen sprinkled over many a broad acre of the table-land. As we have already noticed its bruised leaves afforded a paste from which paper was manufactured, its juice was fermented into an intoxicating beverage; its leaves further supplied an impenetrable thatch for the more humble dwellings; thread, of which coarse stuffs were made, and strong cords, were drawn from its tough and twisted fibers; pins and needles were made from the thorns at the extremity of its leaves; and the root, when properly cooked, was converted into a palatable and nutritious food. The agave, in short, was meat, drink, clothing, and writing materials for the Aztec! Surely, never did Nature enclose in so compact a form so many of the elements of human comfort and civilization!- William H. Prescott (1843)
“For every ill, mezcal, and for every good as well” – Unknown.