Liz Alarcón: Hola Maribel. How are you?
Maribel Quezada Smith: Hola Liz, I’m doing great. And I’m so glad to be back with another episode and excited about the topic that we’re going to be hitting on.
Liz Alarcón: Before we get started, we actually have some company with us. Joining us on this conversation is our producer, Jackie. Welcome Jackie.
Jackie Noack: Hi, thank you for having me. Very excited to be here.
Maribel Quezada Smith: I am particularly excited because you’ve been researching and diving into a topic that’s very near and dear to my heart. And that is mezcal. Tell us a little bit about.
Jackie Noack: Yeah, so, I’ve been working on this podcast called The Nectar Corridor. And it is a bilingual podcast, all about mezcal production in Mexico. And it has been super eye opening for so many reasons, not only because I learned that mezcal isn’t just smokey tequila. It’s not just alcohol. It’s really representative of a lot of Mexican history and tradition.
Liz Alarcón: What made you all decide to work on this podcast in both English and Spanish?
Jackie Noack: We were thinking about how to best go about the conversations we were going to be having, and our host, Niki Nakazawa has a lot of ties to the mezcaleros and the families. And most of them speak Spanish. And we realized that we really wanted to hear directly from them, have their voices be heard because so often in industries like this, you know, the makers get lost in the face of big business and commercialization. So it kind of just made sense.
Maribel Quezada Smith: I got to tell you that as a proud Mexicana, it really makes me happy to see that you have been diving really deep into it and not just exploring the research and the history behind the drink of mezcal, but also the stories, like you mentioned, the people behind mezcal. And that is so fascinating to me.
Jackie Noack: Yeah, definitely. It was such a great experience. And one of the things that I was most excited about was actually the name, The Nectar Corridor. So in English, this podcast is called The Nectar Corridor. In Spanish, it’s called El corredor del néctar. And I did not come up with that. That was our host Niki’s idea. And she explained to me that there is something called the nectar corridor, which refers to this migratory route that nectar-feeding bats take from the American Southwest to Southern Mexico. And along the way when they fly, they drink from the agave plants, which is what mezcal is made from. And then all the pollen gets stuck to their bodies as they fly. And they travel like hundreds of miles a day, pollinating the land beneath them. And all of this is to say that, um, I learned that essentially, if there were no bats, there would be no agaves and if there were no agaves there would be no bats. And this is like a massive thing to think about in terms of the ecosystem and the importance of what that means for the larger landscape.
Liz Alarcón: Sounds like we have so much to learn Jackie, so let’s get right into it. And now our conversation with the host of The Nectar Corridor, Niki Nakazawa.
Niki Nakazawa: I had my first sip of mezcal in 2005 when I was a student. And at that time, mezcal was dirt cheap and I didn’t know much about it. And I wasn’t really a big drinker, so, I just was like, oh, this is interesting.
Maribel Quezada Smith: Did you shoot it or did you sip it?
Niki Nakazawa: Oh, I don’t remember, honestly.
Maribel Quezada Smith: You probably shot it.
Niki Nakazawa: Who knows, who knows? Uh, likely. If everybody else was, I probably did too.
Maribel Quezada Smith: I feel like that took me a long time to actually learn how to drink tequila. I was just doing what everybody else was doing and shooting it. But then I realized that the best way to drink it is to sip it. And now it’s actually like an enjoyment for me, it’s not like, you know, a lot of people just shoot it and I feel like they do the same thing with mezcal sometimes.
Niki Nakazawa: Yes, this is true. I often have to stop people and try not to be rude while doing it. I’m like, no, no, no, no, no. I just want you to appreciate it.
Liz Alarcón: The obvious connection here, tequila and mezcal. Those of us who grew up on this side and obviously were introduced to tequila maybe in our younger years, maybe not in the most refined way. We still commit the error, which I know I’m definitely guilty of saying, oh, mezcal is just smoky tequila or it’s just the little cousin. Please, please instruct us as to why this is not the case. are those real differences between tequila & mezcal and, and just the intricacies of how this special drink has been made?
Niki Nakazawa: For sure. So tequila started as a mezcal, and now they are not as related as they once were, but, tequila is a spirit distilled from agave, but from one specific type of agave and this agave, in the world of tequila has been named tequilana. There are over 200 species of agave in the world. 80 or 75% of that biodiversity is concentrated in Mexico. So mezcal refers to every other spirit distilled from all the other types of agave. And the word mezcal comes from two Nahuatl words, “metl”, which means maguey, agave. And “ixcalli”, which is roasted.
Maribel Quezada Smith: Is that what makes it smoky?
Niki Nakazawa: Well, not all mezcal is smoky. And I think that it’s important that folks know that the agave is roasted, it’s not smoked. So, what conducts the heat is not wood, actually. It’s stones, and the stones take about five to six hours to heat up. And by the time that they’re heated, all of that wood has burned down into coals. Then there’s usually some type of padding that’s placed over the stones to create a barrier between the piÃ±as, the hearts of the maguey and the stone. The smokey thing, you know, the smoke may be a stylistic thing. It may be because you let air into the oven, it may be because the fibers in the distillation were burning, but, quality mezcal, I don’t think that the first thing out of your mouth should be smoky. This idea has penetrated people’s vocabularies and minds, and I think that sometimes people just think they think of flavor and then they taste it. And then the first thing is like, oh, it’s smoky. I’m like, well, it may be, that’s not really like, is that happening in your mind or is that happening in your mouth?
Liz Alarcón: Your taste buds.
Niki Nakazawa: Yeah.
Maribel Quezada Smith: That’s a good point.
Liz Alarcón: It sounds like something that you have to just enjoy slowly, you know, something that you have to take your time with. I was thinking about that too. When you were explaining the process, it’s such an artisanal labor of love to make mezcal. And I imagine that this has been being done for hundreds of years. Can you tell us how mezcal started and how long have people been making it?
Niki Nakazawa: The theory is that there was a trade route between the Philippines and Acapulco for 250 years. This was also a period before the system of castas and people trying to really pick out your racial identity. So people coming through were called like Chinos, Indios. You know, it was kind of like, we don’t really know some were Indian, Chinese, Filipino. Upwards of 30,000 people came through this trade route. And so were the Filipinos who apparently taught folks how to distill, so the earliest stills are called Filipino stills.
Maribel Quezada Smith: There’s a lot of rich history and culture behind mezcal and the process. I’m always curious to understand what was the process behind making this mezcal more world recognized? Cause it used to be known, I feel like, as a lesser drink, right?
Niki Nakazawa: Mezcal has been being made in different parts of the countries for hundreds of years and has been central to people’s celebrations. And then really, when you have these kinds of commercial routes established, late nineties, early two thousands, that’s when we start to have the whispers of the mezcal boom. However, up until this day, we continue to live under a period of high regulation and so I would say that to this day, most of the mezcal that’s produced is produced without any permits and working with alcohol in Mexico is extremely complex. A lot of folks experienced policing of their palenques of their mezcal production up until the 1980s. So it wasn’t permitted for them to produce spirits. It was dangerous. And there was no support. Mezcal is truly a drink of resistance.
Liz Alarcón: Niki, what about the environmental resistance? If any, you talked about the two thousands really bringing on the mezcal boom. And it sounds like mezcaleros have gotten more visibility and have been able to fight for some of their rights. But what about environmentally and for the land and for the ecosystem where mezcal is made? Have you seen any negative repercussions since the boom or is there also positive sustainability of mezcal creation since it became so much more popular?
Niki Nakazawa: Well, I think that there’s certainly a negative repercussions to the increasing popularity of mezcal. There’s no zero emissions impact anything. There are repercussions in the environment. There’s people who are clearing forest clearing fields and planting espadÃn in monoculture, which degrades the top soil, and is devastating for the water table in a lot of cases. So it’s really under the purview of each producer and land owner to take care of the land as they see fit. I think that in general, when the folks who have been taking care of land generation after generation are the owners of their land, that they tend to take better care of it. So there’s certainly efforts by individual producers to work quote unquote responsibly. Co planting, engaging in reforestation efforts every rainy season, but it’s really not unified and it’s very difficult to enforce rules here.
Liz Alarcón: And what about us as consumers, Niki? Us as individuals here who want to consume mezcal ethically and conserve and preserve the sanctity really of the land and how this was made. What do you recommend we do to make sure that we’re ethically sourcing, buying, and consuming mezcal here?
Niki Nakazawa: I think that, you can definitely get a sense of the project or the brand or the producer by looking at the bottle, like what information is on there? Like, do we have the name of the producer? Do we know what agaves it’s made out of? And also the size of the batches. Our average batch size is around 200 liters, which is tiny. We’re working with productions that are made out of a single oven. They’re like snowflakes, they’re unrepeatable. Like each bottling we have on the front label, like how many bottles are in that production. So you have maybe bottle one of 256 bottles and that’s it. You could never have the same mezcal again. And also, you know, spend time with mezcal. Does it smell good? Is it pleasing to you? Mezcal is being produced all over Mexico. There’s a lot of different regions. There’s a lot of different plants. And shop for diversity. It’s not like about, oh, I only drink X brand. Cause we’re not brands. We’re representing different traditions and different producers and family recipes. It’s probably going to be expensive, so get ready for that. It’s not cheap. These plants take a really long time. If you want to be paying your producer or producers are going to be earning a living wage off of this.
Maribel Quezada Smith: What about clarity? How do you know if it’s a good mezcal?
Niki Nakazawa: So, from a sensorial perspective, I always recommend giving the mezcal a little bit of air and so you want to pour it, you want to look at it and it should be transparent for the most part. And then you can look at the legs, you know, you can actually like, kind of turn it around and your cup and you’re like, oh, look at the oils you want to, smell with both of your nostrils, but don’t spend too much time, cause it’s high in alcohol. You don’t want to like kind of chill too long above it because you might like, you know, burn. And then you want to take a little sip and salivate and then you can take another little sip and then you’re going to perceive a bit more, like feel how it feels on your throat and your chest. Spend some time thinking about what does it remind you of? Do you have a memory associated with it? It should awaken some type of feeling or emotion. I think that it’s a way of also understanding what you like it’s a tool for understanding yourself, for engaging with others, for understanding the qualities of a plant or a place. I just hope that people will approach it with curiosity and the beginner’s mind and take it as a journey and as a learning lesson.