An Education In Mezcal

mezcal

I inhale. The scent is earthy, smoky. I take a sip, rolling the liquid around my tongue, exploring its flavors. Per instruction, I gurgle. My mouth explodes, the alcohol transforming into a liquid fireball that burns the insides of my cheeks. It takes a few minutes before the sensation expires.

There is a saying: “para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también.”

For everything bad, mezcal, and for everything good too.

In Oaxaca, mezcal is as much a part of the landscape as the mountains, textiles and colonial architecture. Legend has it that a form of the tequila-like liquor existed prior to the Spanish conquest of Mexico, but mezcal as we know it was first distilled by the conquistadors in the 17th century. It is a generic name for spirits distilled from the agave plant, or maguey as it is traditionally called, of which there are 11 types. The state of Oaxaca is the traditional home of mezcal, and the countryside is littered with small family distilleries.

But not all mezcal is created equal. There is a difference between artisanal mezcal and the touristy stuff sold in bodegas across the city. I learned the difference at the Mezcaloteca, a tasting library run by a group dedicated to the preservation of traditional mezcal production.

It turns out, pure artisanal mezcal isn’t brown – it’s clear. And those larvae at the bottom of the bottle? Pure marketing, intended to bait unassuming tourists with the promise of a G-rated “Fear Factor” experience. (“I can’t believe you actually ate the worm!” your friends back home will gape.)

No, the best artisanal mezcal is crystal clear and worm free. David, our bartender-cum-teacher, filled us in on some other ways to tell the difference.

  • Look for the words “100% agave,” which signifies that the liquor is pure and not mixed with cheaper additives.
  • Make sure that the stated alcohol content is 45% or greater.
  • Check the label for the state of origin, type of agave plant and name of the maestro mezcalero, or mezcal master.
  • Shake the bottle and see if bubbles arise – they should, unless it is a mezcal with more than 55% alcohol content, in which case the bubbles only arise when you stir it.
  • Do not buy mezcal that is reposado or anejado in barrels – the wood destroys the distinct flavors and aromas of the mezcal.
  • Rub a drop of mezcal between your fingers to evaporate it – the scent should be of cooked agave.

Now for tasting the mezcal.

  • Mezcal is traditionally consumed from a gourd or wide-mouthed cup.
  • Pour the drink from one cup to another to see the bubbles rise.
  • Inhale the mezcal. Try to find the aroma that you smelled when you rubbed the mezcal between your fingers. Then inhale with your mouth closed and try to discern other smells. You’ll notice that there is a difference.
  • Sip the mezcal and rinse your mouth for 10 seconds without swallowing. Exhale through your nose. Feel the flavors on your palate.
  • Take another sip, rinse your mouth for 10 seconds, then swallow and feel the burn.

According to David, these flavors are the essence of mezcal.

The Mezcaloteca is located at Reforma 506 in central Oaxaca. Tastings are available by appointment only, though you may be able to piggyback onto another group’s tasting if you swing by at the right time. Prices vary, but a basic four-pour tasting cost us 150 pesos (about US$12). Call +52-01-951-5140082 or email mezcaloteca@gmail.com for reservations.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

Airline Liquor Bottles To Be Replaced With Robot Bartender

airline liquor bottle

Feel like cracking the cap of a mini airline liquor bottle in flight? You better hurry; the skies could be filled with robot-like bartenders soon.

The Skytender Trolley dispenses hot and cold drink options without the cabin crew having to pour and open traditional drink containers for passengers. Flight attendants using the system are able to serve hot and cold drink items like juices, soft drinks, cocktails and hot drinks in less time.

Airlines and passengers will like the more efficient operation, enabling cabin crew to serve more people, faster. Skytender can produce 235 drinks out of 100 or more available flavors. Cabin crew can forget about making coffee or going back and forth to the aircraft galley for water refills as Skytender holds 30 liters of hot and cold water too.

In the works for several years, Skytender Trolley went along on its first ever commercial flight on German airline WDL Aviation flying from Cologne to Palma Majorca with in-flight caterer LSG Sky Chefs along for the ride.

“Our first ever test flight was a complete success, the system operated as expected and we have generated even more interest in our innovative product,” said Oliver Kloth of Skymax in a Travel Daily News article, adding “the passengers were extremely pleased with the beverage options and most importantly the quality and speed of service.”

Want to see the Skytender Trolley in action? Check this video:



[Photo Credit: Flickr user Eph Zero]

A Solo Stroll Through Baghdad

Baghdad, Iraq, Iraq travel, Iraq tourism
I am alone in Baghdad. After a farewell dinner and a visit to an Iraqi amusement park my travel companions have left for the airport. Our guards from the Interior Ministry have gone off to other duties and I’m staying unguarded in my hotel. I don’t fly out until tomorrow.

I’m not supposed to leave the hotel. Guards are supposed to be with me at all times. While I understand why the government insists on this rule, I’ve found the guards annoying. They’ve often made me move on when I’ve wanted to linger at a place or continue a conversation, and I get the feeling some people didn’t approach me because of their presence.

Now I finally have a chance to see Iraq without them. I’m not nervous about this. Well, not too nervous. My hotel is in a good neighborhood and I walked in Basra without a guard and had no trouble. Besides, the biggest risk here is from car bombs and I don’t really see what a guard can do about that.

I don’t have much of an area to explore. I can’t go through a checkpoint alone. The best result I could get from that stunt would be a stern lecture and a police escort back to my hotel. The worst result is something better left unexplored. So my Baghdad tour is limited to one neighborhood circumscribed by police barricades.

The neighborhood is a good one by Baghdad standards, shops and apartment blocks and a few official buildings. The main landmark is the National Theater and a couple of swank hotels. It’s considered an up-and-coming and reasonably safe area.

The only problem is that it’s the last day of Eid al-Adha, a celebration of Ibrahim’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael, known in Christianity and Judaism as the story of Abraham and Isaac. It’s one of the biggest holidays in the Muslim calendar and most places are closed.

I pound the pavement past rows of steel shutters. It looks like most people are taking the day off. A middle-aged man and his son come up and say hello. Their English is almost as bad as my Arabic and the conversation soon falters. What I want is to find a like mind, someone with open eyes, a good education, and good English who can explain his country to me. The National Theater seems a likely place. I head over there. Closed.

I continue on my quest. I have a few more “Welcome to Iraq” conversations, each time cut short due to language. I curse myself for not studying more Arabic. One young guy says he’d love to smoke some hash with me but he’s all out. Yeah, pot paranoia on the streets of Baghdad. That would have made an interesting article.

%Gallery-173222%One of the few stores I pass that’s open is a liquor store. The owners, two guys who look to be in their late 20s, wave me inside. “Where are you from?” “How do you like Iraq?” The usual conversation starts, hampered by bad English and terrible Arabic.

They invite me behind the counter and give me a glass of whiskey and some string cheese. String cheese. I kid you not. I didn’t know they had string cheese. Yet another insight into Iraqi culture.

My two companions really, really want to leave Iraq.

“But business is good here,” I say, eying the wad of bills in the cash drawer.

“Yes, but too many troubles,” they say. “Sometimes Muslim militia come here, take bottles, and no pay.”

I shake my head. A lot of the so-called Islamists are actually simple criminals grabbing an opportunity.

They ply me with questions about how to move to Canada, my home country. They’re disappointed to hear that Canada wants people with money who can speak English but seem hopeful about the refugee angle. They’re from one of Iraq’s many persecuted minorities.

As we talk a steady stream of customers come through. None look at me. Muslims always have this guilty look on their faces when they buy booze. It’s the same look Western guys get in porn shops. As a joke I start serving customers. My two buddies think this is hilarious. None of the customers bat an eye. Iraqis act nonchalant when stuck in a strange situation they’re trying to size up. It’s a survival technique. To show that you notice is to become part of the scene, and that’s not always healthy.

One of the liquor store owners runs over to a nearby bakery and brings back some fresh, hot pita. Ah, Arab hospitality! This is followed by a second (third?) round of whiskey, another form of hospitality that isn’t as rare in the Middle East as you might think. As they break out more string cheese I notice it’s getting dark outside. My day of independence is ending. My one real chance to have an immersive experience in Iraqi culture ends with string cheese and an alcohol buzz in a liquor store.

It would have to be good enough. When I told a friend back in Spain that most of my interactions in Iraq were friendly but all too brief and superficial, he replied that Westerners and Iraqis need to have more friendly, superficial meetings. At least it’s a start, he said.

Good point, but I wanted more.

Guarded group travel has insurmountable limitations that one day of partial freedom can’t break. Those serendipitous experiences don’t come on demand. You need time and luck. For me they came a few times on this trip – with pilgrims at the Shia holy shrines, with a child refugee in my hotel lobby, and with an artist on the tough streets of Nasiriyah. Each time these experiences could have – should have – turned into daylong interactions. Each time, though, the group agenda and my guards’ concerns meant we had to move on.

Luckily the security situation is slowly improving and there’s talk of individual travel opening up throughout Iraq like it already is in Kurdistan. Perhaps in a few years I’ll be able to come back and explore Iraq the way adventure travel is supposed to be done – slowly, with no itinerary, and alone.

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “Ten Random Observations About Iraq!”

[Photo by Sean McLachlan]

Beer Run In Basra

Basra, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travel
We’d been on the road in Iraq for a week, and after inhaling ten pounds of desert sand each, we really needed a beer. Luckily we were in Basra, and our tour leader Geoff knew a good place to buy liquor under the counter. So after a day of seeing the historic quarter and taking a boat trip along the Shatt al-Arab, a few of us ditched our guards and headed out into town.

Ditched our guards? In Iraq??? Sure. Basra is a pretty safe town and our Muslim guards from the Ministry of Interior wouldn’t have approved of us going on a beer run. Besides, what’s the worst that could happen? The last time I went off without my guards I nearly got arrested, but that wasn’t so bad. I even got to meet a general.

Geoff led the way. We passed down some quiet back streets flanked by crumbling concrete buildings. The few passersby didn’t seem to take much notice of us. This is common in Iraq. They’re looking at you but don’t make a show of it. If you wave and say hello, though, they’ll respond warmly.

We ended up at a little corner grocery store. A few dusty boxes of tea and some cans of soup with faded, peeling labels sat on the shelves. It didn’t look like this place had sold any groceries for a decade. It was one of the least convincing facades I’ve ever seen.

%Gallery-171530%We walked up to the counter and asked for beer. The two middle-aged men behind the counter didn’t bat an eyelid. They named the price, we handed over the money, and one of them walked out of the store.

“He will be back in one minute,” the owner said. “Where are you from?”

Basra, Iraq, Iraq tourism, Iraq travelWe replied and had the usual friendly conversation of “Welcome to Iraq” and “How do you like my country?” Lots of smiles and handshakes. Anyone who has traveled knows these conversations. They quickly get repetitive but they’re good for international relations. Iraqis and Westerners could do with a few more friendly conversations.

“We are Christians,” he told us.

We nodded. The liquor sellers in Iraq tend to be from the Christian or Yazidi minorities. They still suffer harassment, even though they aren’t breaking the rules of their religion. In some places liquor sales are strictly forbidden by self-appointed vice squads. In other places like Basra it happens in a semi-secretive fashion with everyone turning a blind eye, like with the pot dealer at a university dorm. In Baghdad the liquor stores operate out in the open. It all depends on which of Iraq’s countless factions controls that area.

The guy returned with a bulging plastic bag filled with cold cans of Turkish beer. The owner cut the conversation short.

“You go now,” he told us. Having foreigners in the store was attracting attention. People on the sidewalk peered through the glass door as they passed by. A group of guys across the street stood staring. One made a call on his mobile phone. I looked right at him and he looked right back at me, expressionless.

We thanked the shopkeepers and left. I volunteered to carry the bag. I figured if we ran into trouble I could use it as a club. A dozen beer cans upside the head will stop just about anybody.

It was the only weapon I ever carried in Iraq and I never got to use it. Those guys across the street were simply curious. The one with the phone wasn’t calling in a hit squad. We got back to our hotel with no trouble at all – except for getting lost. And what’s the point of traveling if you don’t get to ask for directions in Basra with a bag full of beer in your hand?

Don’t miss the rest of my series, “Destination: Iraq,” chronicling my 17-day journey across this strife-ridden country in search of adventure, archaeology and AK-47s.

Coming up next: “Hostility And Smiles On The Streets Of Nasiriyah, Iraq!”

[Photo by Sean McLachlan. This is actually a liquor store in Baghdad that runs much more openly. I didn’t get a photo of the Basra folks. They weren’t exactly in a photogenic mood.]

Doing Shots At The World’s Highest Distillery

liquor While trying local spirits is always a fun way to get to know a city’s flavor, the Breckenridge Distillery in Colorado has something special to offer. Not only do they make small batch bourbon, vodka, whiskey, liqueurs and infusions, they’re also the highest distillery in the world.

Their hooch is made at 9,600 feet, using snowmelt from the Rocky Mountains. If you visit their distillery, which is located at 1925 Airport Road, you’ll be able to take a complimentary tour, and watch as the spirits are mashed, fermented and distilled. Additionally, a trip to their downtown tasting room, located at 137 S. Main Street, will allow you to browse their gift shop of mugs, shirts, glasses and flasks, as well as taste their products.

There are three options for the free tasting: Breckenridge Vodka, Breckenridge Bourbon and Breckenridge Bitters. The vodka is very flavorful, mashed with 100% Midwest sweet corn and filtrated with coconut shell charcoal. Moreover, the bourbon has a long finish, and is mashed with yellow corn, green rye and unmalted barley, and is fermented in 100% new American White Oak barrels. The tasty concoction you’ll sample will be at least 2-3 years old. Lastly, you can try the bitters, my personal favorite. Unlike most dash bitters, this version is meant to be sipped. Likewise, it has a neutral grain base featuring 13 herbs, spices and fruits, giving it a delicious tea flavor.

For more information, visit their website by clicking here.