Agave Returns: Resurrecting a Botanical Spirit of the Borderlands

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by Kimi Eisele

Part 1: The Spirit

It’s early evening on a Thursday at Tucson’s EXO Bar. Bartender Vadi Erdal slides citrus across rims of cocktail glasses in front of a wall of bottles that catch the sunlight through the window. The bottles are filled with mezcal, a spirit she and a growing number of others revere.

Vadi Erdal
Vadi Erdal brings her knowledge of plants to cocktails at EXO Bar.

“Mezcal is medicine,” says Erdal. “It’s like a story.”

Mezcal comes from the agave, a genus with over 200 species, half of which are endemic to Mexico, and at least 30 of which are used for producing the spirit.

Erdal came to bartending by way of herbalism so for her, the plant is primary. “Agave lives for so long before it’s harvested. A grape is just one year of seasons. But agave goes through so many transitions. That makes it easy to anthropomorphize, to connect to.”

To introduce newcomers to the spirit, she makes a mezcal margarita, a mezcal Mai Tai, and “a gin and tonic-y thing” made with mezcal that’s been infused with juniper berries.

But as the public’s palate grows more sophisticated, Erdal brings all her knowledge of plants to the bar. Her latest cocktail is “The Incienso,” created especially for Tucson’s Agave Heritage Festival, a 10-day gathering of seminars, trade shows, and culinary events celebrating agave’s significance in the border region. For the cocktail, Erdal made bitters from copal resin brought from bursera trees in the Sierra Pinacate, cacao, toasted Supai corn, and burned cinnamon added to a base of mezcal and sotol (a spirit made from the sotol plant). The cocktail is a mix of mezcal, pot still rum, mesquite syrup, sweet vermouth, and the bitters.

“There’s so much room for play,” Erdal says. “It’s about giving a sensory experience that has people interacting with the bioregion even if they don’t realize it.”

EXO’s owner, Doug Smith agrees. He calls mezcal “one of the most beautiful expressions of human-plant relationships.” Nearly seven months ago he expanded his daytime café and coffee roasting business just north of downtown Tucson, into a nighttime mezcal bar.

A mezcal tasting
Doug Smith hosts weekly mezcal tastings at EXO Bar.

Every Thursday evening Smith offers a mezcal tasting. For $15, you get four different shots of mezcal and a thorough discussion of how each is produced, the flavors to pay attention to, plus a smooth buzz that lasts well into the night (for me at least).

To hear Smith talk about the complex taste of mezcal is a little like listening to poetry. He says things like delicate, intimate, wet cement, and butterscotch. But his reverence goes far beyond flavor.

Smith, an anthropologist, was exposed to “real mezcal”—not to be confused with “that rotgut distant relative of tequila with a smoky worm at the bottom of the bottle” he drank in high school—while doing fieldwork for his academic degrees in Mexico (his Ph.D. dissertation was on coffee production). In Zitlala, Guerrero he witnessed a religious festival to bring in the rain involving an energetic dance of the jaguars. “Each barrio had representative fighters. It was violent,” he says. “They actually draw blood.”

At the heart of the ritual was mezcal, which was ingested and poured over both participants and spectators, and it changed the way Smith viewed the drink. “Other spirits are depressants,” he says. “This one is the only one that makes me more awake—psychically, emotionally, physically.”

Smith names five main tastes in a mezcal: smoke, florality, fruit, herbal notes, and minerality, as in granite, asphalt, and gravel. Gravel? Well, yeah, given that part of the production process can involve macerating agave leaves with a circular stone trough-and-millstone system called a tahona that crushes the fibers. Not to mention the taste of the plant itself.

Smith says he prefers a mezcal with a “green herbaceous flavor, like a tonic.” My favorite was a mezcal from San Luis Potosí, which was slippery and briny, like olive juice.

Unlike spirits such as bourbon or scotch, Smith says mezcals have a vast diversity, in part because of the unique regional methods of roasting, macerating, fermenting, and distilling the agave.

“Agaves grow in different environments and undergo different processes and local traditions. Each mezcal is influenced by the person who made it, which gives it a kind of intimacy and terroir,” Smith says, meaning a flavor of place.

In the last 20 years, there’s been a mezcal boom, Smith says. “Consumers in the United States, Europe, and Japan finally figured out that mezcal is a beautiful thing, which has motivated some brands to ratchet up development.”

shotglasses
A spirit from Oaxaca at Exo Bar’s weekly mezcal tasting.

One of the labels Smith carries is Mezcales de Leyenda, which promotes small producers and environmentally sustainable harvests. It also produces special edition bottles, up to $220 each, that emphasize various aspects of the tradition. Its “Grandes Leyendas” edition, for example, celebrates mezcaleros over the age of 70. Another, “Cementerio Mezcalero” honors the Michoacán tradition of aging mezcal in glass containers buried underground and unearthed for special celebrations like Día de los Muertos.

California and Texas have a much more active market with multiple distributors, Smith says. In Arizona there are fewer options, since licensed state distributors don’t carry the widest selection. In time, he hopes this changes.

And while much of the mezcal Smith serves at EXO comes from central and southern Mexico, where the agave plant reigns, he’s working to cultivate relationships with producers in Sonora.

Smith believes a new—or resurrected—relationship with agave makes sense for people living in arid regions. “The best mezcal agaves grow in the toughest environments. It’s resilient. It can be stuck in the worst soil possible. You don’t even need to water it.”

He’s one of a growing number of enthusiasts who sees mezcal as the spirit of the borderlands.

“Not only because of what it offers the palate,” he says, “but because it connects us to the history of this region.”

Part II: The Plant

One cool April morning, I meet archaeologists Paul and Suzy Fish in a patch of desert at the base of Tumamoc Hill just west of downtown Tucson, where early settlements of Hohokam people once lived.

Paul and Suzy Fish
Paul and Suzy Fish

Around 1100 AD, as their populations grew, the Hohokam began cultivating agave, bringing the plant from higher elevations to the desert valley floor, where the Fishes have documented evidence of agave “plantations” and large agave roasting pits.

We walk through blooming ocotillos, creosote, cholla, Christmas cactus, creosote, and a few saguaros. “It’s pretty much same suite of plants you would have seen back then,” Suzy said. “So they were also harvesting other desert foods.”

We come to a raised mound of earth, some 15 to 20 feet in diameter. “This was once a roasting pit,” Suzy says, lightly scraping her boot across the ground to move the dirt. “You can see the ash. That’s been there since the last time it was used.”

To roast agaves, the Hohokam removed the plant’s leaves and buried the heart underground to roast.

Botanical tests of the ash revealed remnants of both agave and wood sources, such as mesquite and ironwood, used as fuel, Paul says.

The Hohokam cultivated and processed agave primarily as a food source. “The heart is a very sweet and nutritious food after it’s roasted. They could just take pieces and chew it up and spit out the fibers,” Suzy said. “In pre-Hispanic times there weren’t a lot of sweet things and it was particularly prized for that.”

Agave plant
Agave murpheyi is one of the agave species cultivated by the Hohokam.

The plant could also be dried and stored. Its leaves provided course fibers for baskets, twine, ropes, bags, sandals, Suzy said. Any alcohol products were probably solely made through fermentation.

The Hohokam raised, harvested, and processed agave in this particular location for two reasons. First, the nearby drainage provided enough water for mesquite trees, offering a regular fuel supply. Second, roasting agaves on site meant they didn’t have to a haul them very far. The pits were communal with groups of farmers using them every year, Suzy says.

Farther north in Marana, more extensive agave fields existed. One cultivation area extended some 1,200 acres.

We examine the surface of the ash pile, looking for pieces of pottery or any remnants of stone.

One of the ways the Fishes first recognized the cultivation was by finding tools. “Analogous tools are used today, only they’re metal not stone,” Paul says.

“The tools have a flat sharp edge for severing leaves,” Suzy says. “The process hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years.”

We leave the roasting pit and walk north, where “informal structures” begin to appear on the landscape. The Hohokam used micro-engineering techniques such as rock piles, terraces, and check dams to capture rainwater and mulch.

The rock piles, literally small piles of rock on the desert floor, created the necessary microclimates–cooler, wetter, and better soil–for agaves to grow, Suzy says.

“They still work,” she says, pointing to an agave pushing out from one of the piles.

In 1984 the Fishes began experimenting with recreating the Hohokam techniques and started planting agave in the existing rock piles.

“We planted one little thing and the pups kept coming up. It got enough nutrients for its final bloom,” Suzy says, which happened 20 years after it was planted.

Of the four species the Fishes planted, Agave murpheyi was the most successful. “We think certainly it was one of the species Hohokam farmers were using.” But they likely used a variety of species, some for food and some for fiber.

“Agaves don’t need a lot of work to cultivate, unlike annual crops like corn, beans, squash. They grow on very marginal land where there’s no supplemental water from irrigation or floodwater farming. They really let people expand into broader parts of low desert for production,” Suzy said.

But then, agave cultivation and processing stopped.

“There’s almost never been a time when people weren’t gathering and using wild agave, but after Spanish arrived, cultivation is something that didn’t happen in the U.S. Southwest, at least not according to people who wrote down the history,” Suzy says.

Part III: The Comeback

In the soft soil of Tucson’s Mission Gardens, Jesús García is digging an agave roasting pit. An ethnobotanist and educator at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, García is intent on bringing back agave as a source of food and drink to Southern Arizona.

It never should have left, he says.

Before the Gadsden Purchase, northern Sonora and southern Arizona shared similar food production and traditions with agave, García says.

Jesús Garcia inside the roasting pit; photo by Stephen Bernier

“When you go to Magdalena or anywhere in the Sonora River or San Miguel River Valleys, towns like Curcupe, south of the border, someone will hand you a glass of mezcal, or bacanora,” García says, naming the official mezcal of Sonora.

The cultivation, domestication, processing of agave into food and drink existed in what is now Southern Arizona past the time of the Hohokam. “We have a label of a mezcal-bacanora made in Tucson late 1800s by Julius Goldbaum, so it was here,” García says.

But the border interrupted many of those traditions. “When this side became the United States, all those agave traditions started to die,” García says.

García is hoping that demonstrating the heritage roasting practice at Mission Gardens–a living agricultural museum of Sonoran Desert-adapted heritage fruit-trees, traditional heirloom crops, and edible native plants–will help people see that agaves aren’t just pretty plants for residential landscapes.

“Everyone sees them as an ornamental plant. My whole approach is, Let’s plant them to eat them as crop,” he says.

García wants to bring agave back, in part, because it’s part of his own heritage.

García’s father was a mezcal maker in Baviácora, along the Río Sonora, in the 1930s and ‘40s, a time of prohibition in Mexico. “He was making mezcal at a time when, if you got caught, they would hang you on the spot. That’s how bad it was,” he says.

His father and uncle made mezcal in the mountains and would bring their product into town at night on donkeys where his grandmother would sell it through a window in the door of her house.

That tradition continues today in towns like Curcupe and Magdalena, where bacanora is often sold from non-disclosed locations. “You ask around and before you know it you’re in someone’s living room and they’re pouring you a shot of bacanora,” García says.

Buying agave
Jesús Garcia buying agave in Oaxaca; photo by Dena Cowan

Prior to European contact, alcoholic drinks were made largely through fermentation process. Tesguín and tepache were made from fermented corn or fruits, for example, and pulque continues to be made from fermented agave juice in southern Mexico.

Mezcal is any distilled spirit made from agave, he says. The word mezcal comes from the Nahuatl for “cooked agave.” What distinguishes different mezcals by name is the region where they are produced and the agave species used.

Bacanora is the name given to mezcal produced only in Sonora. Other forms of mezcal include lechuguillas, a mescal made from Agave lechuguilla or A. palmeri found in the western and Southern regions of the Sonoran Desert; raicilla, a mezcal from Jalisco made with Agave angustifolia and several other species specific to that region; and tequila, made solely from Agave tequilana in Jalisco.

“Yes, tequila is a mezcal,” García says. “It was once called ‘mezcal de tequila,’ but once it became famous eventually they dropped the mezcal from its name. But if it’s not made from Agave tequilana, it cannot be called tequila.”

García sees a Tucson mezcal in the near future. “We’re not ready yet, but in the next couple of years.”

García’s father died before he could fully learn from him the mezcal-making process, so when the time comes, García will rely on a detailed drawing.

Jesus Garcia's notebook
Jesús García’s notebook

“Eighteen years ago I sat next to my father and drew the whole process, from the roasting pit to the harvesting to the processing to cooking to distilling. I grew up having this engraved in my mind, then I started visiting places so I could corroborate every single detail.”

For now, he’s cultivating agaves and experimenting with processing them into food on a small scale.

“We have six or seven agaves that have bloomed. We have castrated them (removed the flowering stalk), and they’re ready to harvest.”

His goal is to cook agave at the right temperature for the right amount of time to demonstrate the Hohokam traditions and inspire people to reconnect with the plant.

“Many people think desert plants can’t be cultivated, that they just grow by themselves. But if you give them a little attention, a little water, they produce more and become better tasting.”

For García, that’s the simple story of domestication, one that continues to unfold across the landscapes of the borderlands like the agave plant itself.

Let’s drink to that. Salud.

5 thoughts on “Agave Returns: Resurrecting a Botanical Spirit of the Borderlands”

  1. Absolutely fantastic article about a grand and ancient regional tradition. Also, I must say hello to Dena Cowan, from your friendly, neighborhood violin doctor. Cheers!

    Reply
  2. We are just in the beginning stages of introducing our Sunora Bacanora label in to the US. This article goes along way in explaining to the general public who don’t really understand the Agave program.
    Well done !!!

    Reply

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