I had a wonderful adventure last night.
I have a friend. He’s someone I’ve known for something like sixteen or seventeen years. I knew him back when he was a round-faced, curly-mopped creature languishing in that terrible period of time that exists between childhood and adulthood. This friend lives in Portland, and he is a bartender by trade and is extremely plugged in to his industry. He found himself rather unexpectedly in my neck of the woods yesterday, so we made plans to go get beers.
Now, I thought I would drink a few beers and head home for an early night. That was the plan. We met up and split a couple of pitchers. At that point he wanted to check out a bar just around the corner that he hadn’t been to yet. So we went around the corner.
I remember at this point having a profound sense that I was just along for the ride; as though my ability to influence our trajectory or momentum had ceased to exist and that all there was left was the necessity to hold on as tight as I could.
We sat on the stools at the new bar, with the air of two people settling in for a business meeting. We shook hands and got acquainted with the staff. We drank a shot each of Fortaleza tequila, and discussed the nature of fine tequilas. He gave me some names to try out and validated my current favorite, Espolon, as a top-shelf tequila with a mid-shelf price tag. He turned to me and said, “have you ever had mescal?”
I responded in the negative, but said that I’d always wanted to try it. This was the truth; as a tremendous tequila fan, I felt a need to try this brasher, less refined cousin. So we got some water to clear the palate, and split a shot of mescal.
A word or two about mescal. Mescal is a distilled liquor produced from the maguey, a type of agave separate from but related to the blue agave used in tequila manufacture. The heart of the maguey is collected, and then roasted, sometimes for days at a time, in underground pit ovens. The roasted maguey is then crushed, left to ferment, and then distilled. Mescal has been around for a very long time, but is only recently gaining traction in American markets, where it has become quite the fad. In Mexico there is a saying that goes, “para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también.” Mescal for everything bad, and for everything good as well.
I wish I remembered the name of the brand, but unfortunately it was not in my tasting notes for the evening. I either never caught it, or failed to make note of it. The mescal has a flavor that bears an inescapable resemblance to tequila, but with bolder aromatic components; it is less refined, but retains the same complexity and adds pungent smoke and minerality. If you have ever had tequila while sitting at a campfire, that is an approximation of the mescal experience. Needless to say, I was enchanted.
Next came sotol. You might never have heard of sotol. I certainly hadn’t until last night, and yet there was suddenly a glass of it sitting in front of me. Sotol is a liquor distilled from fermented mash of a plant called desert spoon. The desert spoon plant itself takes fifteen years to grow to maturity, and each plant makes one bottle. That’s right, just the one.
Sotol is, believe it or not, smack in the middle of the gulf between tequila and mescal. Which is to say that in terms of flavor, if one accepts that tequila resides on one end, with its sweetness and floral delicateness and complexity, and that mescal resides on the other end, with its brash earthiness and smoke, then sotol is the perfect compromise between the two. It tempers the smoke with sweetness and the rampant herbaceousness settles into order. It is a beautiful thing to drink, and it’s rare here, so I am thrilled that I got to try some. Even if it is the only sotol that I ever have, it has played a part in making my experience of the world more complete.
At this point, we switched to some whiskeys, which aren’t really within my ken. I tasted each and handed them off to my long-suffering drinking partner to enjoy. We soon had a healthy row of empty glasses standing sentry, a testament of our commitment to this fine work.
So this is about the time in the evening when the world convulsed and began to appear to me as if it were a kind of vibrant, throbbing carnival in some distant and exotic land. Everything started to sound like calliope music and laughter; faces seemed distorted, but not unfriendly. Colors seemed unearthly in their brilliance, even in dim bars and night dark streets.
We went back to the first bar for more beer! We played video games and plugged money into the jukebox until it belched forth sweetness and light. I don’t remember drinking any of the beer, but this seems unrealistic to me. I probably did. It sounds like the sort of thing I would do.
We ended up at some point at an after-hours party, at which point my partner in crime took over the bar. He is a bartender by trade, as previously mentioned, and now I can confirm that he is one of the best bartenders I have had the privilege to know. He pounded out cocktails that I’d never heard of and the names of which I no longer remember… the note-taking had ceased some hours before this point as I was reduced by alcohol to the state of a delirious and wonder-struck child. We all passed the cocktails around, admiring his handiwork. The other folks commented on the flavors and the aromas of the different drinks, and at some point I instructed my bosun to stop providing me with alcohol.
I don’t remember anyone calling a cab, but I know one pulled up and the two of us got into it. I know we stopped for provisions, and I know that when I got home it was just an hour or two before sunrise and the birds had already begun singing their morning songs into the eerie pre-dawn peace.