Karen Locke | 12.10.2014 | Issue #6/7
In 1994, as a 20-year-old Liz Davis sat with her best friend in a men-only Oaxacan bar, an old albino Indian came by with a car battery, charging for a few rounds of body-shocking electricity.
After spending the day tasting mezcal in the countryside with a new acquaintance (a rocker dude named Carlos), the trio returned to the city and discovered this bar, aptly called La Casa de Mezcal “right off the wrong side of the zocalo.” Davis, who would eventually become the owner of Portland, Oregon’s Xico, had picked out an unlabeled bottle of anise-infused mezcal, which the bartender handed over with a stack of cups.
“At the end of the night he would look at the level in the bottle and charge you according to how much was gone,” she says. “They didn't serve anything else.”
The bar was spare: round, white plastic tables and picnic chairs, a tiny bar with a bunch of big bottles of mezcal infused with herbs, and chin-resting-on-chest-drunk guys passed out at some of the tables. The floor was linoleum, and a juke-box serenaded the six or so people who were ever there with Mexican hits.
Mr. Car Battery, as Davis calls him, asked them to hold hands around the table, the people on the ends holding on a silver cylinders connected to the battery. He cranked up the car battery to send electric shocks through their bodies, a trick as old as the batteries that power it. They asked him to go higher, faster, until they were buzzing with electricity and the mezcal was coursing through their veins.
“That night, wandering back to our house through the moonlit, empty zocalo where packs of stray dogs roamed was so beautiful and quiet and surreal, like a dream and a drug trip,” she remembers. “Mexico is like that.”
After such an introduction, Davis was hooked. For the past 15 years, she’s gone back on average two times a year to bring back true mezcal to the States, never visiting the same mezcalero twice, smuggling the spirit down the Oaxacan mountainside in reused Coke bottles. She shares her “suitcase mezcal” with anyone who raises a brow or questions their legitimacy.
“It’s this little tiny industry of people who have been doing it for more than 100 years,” she says. “They’re doing amazing work. They're making an artisan spirit, and it’s unsupported by the Mexican government.”
Davis’s trips support the mezcal industry directly, but even after so many years of experience, the trip can be challenging. "It's hot, and there's nothing fucking around,” she says, “it’s definitely not like wine tasting.” When you arrive at a palenque (or production house), you’re welcomed to small family-owned shack with a pour of mezcal. The son of the mezcalero hacks piña, the heart of the agave, with a machete, as a horse pulls a giant stone wheel around and around, slowly pulverizing the plant.
The mezcal that Davis brings back from Oaxaca is made from foraged agave—not cultivated—unlike many of the mezcals she officially serves in her restaurant, due to Oregon laws on alcohol control and sourcing. The mezcaleros strike out like mushroom hunters, carefully selecting their maguey, which can weigh up to 40 kilograms a piece. For variety, they often add fruit or other ingredients growing near their production facilities.
“After the mezcal is ready, they usually hold it in, hopefully, new gasoline cans. Some of our mezcals have a pink hue and it’s because they were stored in red plastic gas cans, which I think is awesome, but people are really scared of,” she says. Thankfully, “mezcal kills everything.”
In order to avoid a shake down, Davis has a driver take her to Mezcaloteca, a distillery and tasting room, before leaving Oaxaca to have her mezcal “legitimized” in sealed and labeled bottles. She’s never once run into trouble with customs.
Apparently, in the years since, La Casa de Mezcal has morphed into a very trendy spot, now a favorite of a younger, cooler crowd. While Davis isn’t about to toss you one of her unmarked bottles with a stack of cups, or even condone old guys with car batteries shocking her guests, the spirit of the old place lives on. She makes it a point to not be stingy with the mezcal she's brought back. When you travel thousands of miles, hire a driver, jump in an unmarked van (while crossing your fingers your chauffeur for the day isn't going to jerk you around), and wind your way through the hot, sweaty mountains surrounding the city of Oaxaca, the treasure you've gone after becomes that much more valuable when it’s shared.