Opened in December 2010, Mexico City’s Tequila and Mezcal Museum is based in Plaza Garibaldi, a large public square with something of a reputation for fun, being the headquarters for Mexico City’s mariachis and generally a hangout for dancers, loiterers, stray dogs and other sorts of night-time denizens of this colourful neighbourhood. A friend of mine who knew it before the construction of the museum describes an incident that occurred in the midst of a large crowd of people dancing at night during which, for whatever reason, a knife was drawn. He describes the crowd splitting like a school of fish sensing danger, instantly creating an empty space around the threat where a moment earlier existed a multitude.
The building itself is essentially a frosted glass cube decorated with silhouettes of the distinctive maguey plant. The admission and gift shop are on the ground floor, with the main exhibit on the second. Among other things, the museum displays pages from the official diary of the 30th session of the World Heritage Committee’s meeting, held in Vilnius on August 23, 2006, which secured the tequila producing region’s place on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, granting it the same cultural privileges enjoyed by Gros Morne National Park, the banks of the Seine, and the Great Wall of China. While the museum itself is disappointingly small, the exhibit is basically complete, explicating the stages of harvesting the maguey plant and its processing into either tequila or mezcal. The exhibit makes an important distinction: that the distillation process was introduced to Mexico by Spaniards, overshadowing pulque, the predominant beverage produced before the Spanish arrival, which to my shame I had never tasted or much thought about before my arrival in Mexico City, obsessed as I was (as a result of my worship of the novel Under The Volcano) with mezcal. Grant Cogswell, owner of the Under the Volcano bookstore in Colonia Roma, insisted to me that tequila and mezcal are “less serious beverages” compared to pulque.
Pulque was, indeed, serious as a heart attack, given that its primary role in Aztec culture was as the facilitator of ritual sacrifice, equally taking the edge off the extremely unpleasant acts engaged in by both killer priests and victims offered up to please the gods. The Aztec goddess Mayahuel, closely associated with the maguey plant, and also incidentally regarded as the giver of life, was regarded as an endless supply of mexcalli, aguamiel (honey water) and pulque. Really, what these colonial processes of distillation amount to is the cooking of the maguey heart, either steam-cooked or earth-roasted. Tequila is made using only the blue variety of the maguey. Mezcal takes its name from the nahuatl word for “cooked maguey”, or mexcalli. Archaeologists know from finding maguey fibres around Mesoamerican settlements and in period feces that the plant is intimately affiliated with the goings on of the earliest human settlements in this part of the world, which corroborates the unsurprising fact that humans will ferment any substance at all other than rocks and drink the result.
The trick in harvesting maguey plants for tequila or mezcal production is to get the mature plant immediately before its flower stalk (quiote) blooms, so that the fuel that would have been used to produce flowers becomes the source of mezcal. Jimadores, workers who harvest the plant, can also spot when the heart of the plant (cogollo) is thinning. The stalks are cut with a machete, exposing the stem, which is then cut either with a machete or chainsaw. The plant is taken out of the ground, the remaining stems removed, exposing the heart of the maguey, the piña. This maguey can be left to sit for a couple of years, thus concentrating its sugars.
Cooking the agave hearts breaks down complex carbohydrates into simple sugars, allowing for fermentation. Cooking techniques vary by region and era. During the Industrial Revolution, tequila making involved steaming the hearts in brick kilns. The only difference between then and now is that the agave can be steam-cooked in a mere 12 hours in gas-heated stainless steel autoclaves. As pure tasting a result as this produces for tequila, the characteristic smokiness of mezcal would be lost without the traditional method of cooking over several days in hermetically sealed, cone-shaped earth pits for ovens. Agave hearts are placed on heated stones, covered with palm leaves, straw mats (or simply grass or canvas). Then the pulp must be separated from the fermenting juices and sugars. This can be done industrially or by stone, axe, mallet, or whatever means can be employed to grind the cooked maguey.
On the third floor of the museum is a lovely open-air bar, where with your ticket you can claim a free sampler of both tequila and mezcal and chat up the staff about product. On the ground floor, the gift shop sells an extensive array of both tequila and mezcal, from well-marketed high-end brands like Los Danzantes and Patrón, to much more obscure, less expensive and equally high-quality marks. The gift shop employee I quizzed not only spoke excellent English, but also had some highly specific opinions about her wares. I believe that she steered me right in the end, the heartbreaker being that you have to make a choice at all, owing to draconian laws for “importing” alcohol depending on your home country. Canada allows something punitive, slightly more than a litre of spirits. This really must change. Write your MP.
I couldn’t resist two days later further burdening my luggage buying a true mom-and-pop make of both mezcal and tequila at the Jardin Borda in Cuernavaca on the Day of the Dead. More on that to come.