It was my first night in Oaxaca and my third mezcal; Ulises Torrentera, owner of the tiny mezcalería , In Situ, was pouring me a glass from one of his 180 bottles of mezcal, each labeled with a dangling paper tag marked with the name of the maguey plant from which it is made. It was called Del Rayo—literally “From Lightning.”
When I asked what species of agave it was, he shrugged. Though the name sometimes refers to a regional variety of Agave americana , in this case, he said, neither he nor the maestro mezcalero who’d made it—one of more than 50 who work with Torrentera—had ever seen this exact plant before. Sandra Ortíz Brena, Torrentera’s business partner, interjected from across the tiny bar: “Maguey,” she said, “is a promiscuous plant.”
Of the 150 or so species of agave found in Mexico, around 40 are used to make distilled spirits, some of which can take decades to mature (even the most common domesticated variety, Agave angustofolia , usually called espadín , takes around seven years). When they reach maturity, it’s with a spectacular burst of fertility, drawing bees and butterflies and bats with their beacon-like towers of white and yellow flowers. When mezcaleros plant the fertilized seeds, they’re often surprised at the new variants that come out of the ground. In the last 35 years, scientists have identified more than 40 new varieties of agave in Mexico.
As little as a decade ago, mezcal was appreciated almost exclusively by the communities that have historically produced it, usually in field blends distilled from whatever maguey they had on hand. Starting in the 1990s, mezcaleros began experimenting with mezcals made from single varietals, teasing out the distinct flavors of each plant, like taking apart a jigsaw puzzle. A decade or so after that, […]