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The Western Hemisphere's Oldest Spirit

Jody Horton by Jody Horton on April 19, 2020

The clear and complex smokey distillate known as mezcal is the Western hemisphere’s oldest spirit. The heart of mezcal production lies in the dusty countryside surrounding Oaxaca, Mexico. Derived from the sugars of agave — locally called maguey (pronuonced mah-gay), the laborious age-old process is controlled by master distillers — maestro mezcaleros.

(Left): Mezcal drips from a copper pipe of a palenque - or still. (Right): Maestro mezcalero Felipe Cortés strip the spiny leaves of a maguey plant with a machete to reveal the bulbous piña (so called because it resembles a pinapple). Some twenty five varieties of wild and cultivated maguey are use to create mezcal in Oaxaca state alone.

Left: Maestro mezcalero Ramón Cruz Garcia. Right: A wooden mallet offers one method to pulverize the roasted heart of the piña before adding it to tanks to begin the fermentation process.

Fermented pulp (the mash) is moved to the palenque for distillation.

Waste pulp must be removed after each batch is made. Once dried it is used again to fuel the palenque fire.

Garcia’s son Joaquin seals the distillation tank above the palenque’s oven using, a soaked rag, string and mud. Each distillation round takes a few hours. The process is often done twice to produce a more pure and higher-alcohol mezcal.

A wall of roasted piñas.

Maestro mezcalero Felipe Cortés leans against a coa de jima - a specialized hoe with a long handle and rounded blade used to cut the spiny maguey plant at its base.

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More About Jody Horton

Jody HortonI’m a food and lifestyle photographer based in Austin, TX. Before I refocused on photography -around 2009 - I worked as a writer and editor and as a one-man documentary film production company. Before that I worked in Costa Rica for a few years as an adventure travel photographer. And before that I grew up in coastal South Carolina in a large loving family, studied English literature at Clemson University and earned a Master’s degree in Cultural Anthropology at the University of New Mexico.

I think all of the experiences you have in life give shape to the way you see things and, for photographers at least, how you make images. I love the experience of learning and exploring through photography. To me its a total cheat in life - like picking a non-major major. Its also a passport to go anywhere, observe anything that you would like to know more about or see up close. My wife Regan says I feel happiest when I’m getting away with something, and she is right. That’s one of the things I love about photography. A lot of my favorite projects include elements of process, storytelling and culture.

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