A longtime journalist takes a cultural deep dive into the history and contemporary re-emergence of Mexico’s second-most-famous elixir.
In an industry dominated by agribusiness and liquor wholesalers, the locally cultivated, small-batch character of mezcal is something special. In this debut work of nonfiction, Greene takes his time to narrate the tale, employing journalistic instincts and a keen talent for capturing people’s stories. This is quickly apparent as he shares a drink with two immigrants in his Santa Fe home. “It doesn’t matter if their local hooch tastes good or bad, or if anyone likes it,” he writes. “The drink is a reflection of who they are—and that’s something to be proud of.” From there, Greene describes his evolution from drinking worm-laden mezcal in college to discovering the subtle burn, smokiness, and richness of the nectar cultivated in Mexico’s Oaxaca region, where he spent nine months in 2011. There are a variety of voices represented here, ranging from the artisan producers who use alchemy to craft their wares to two young entrepreneurs hoping to build their fortunes on mezcal in the United States. Greene also incorporates bits of regional history, from the inhabitants’ Zapotec origins to the coming of the Spanish around the 15th century. The author touches on the swinging days of psychedelic tourism that inspired the likes of William Burroughs and Malcolm Lowry, among others. Greene also deftly mixes chemistry and poetry, taking care to reflect on the refining of mezcal as an art as much as a science. Alongside clear but focused descriptions of making mezcal, the author describes it as “drinkable folk art.” Finally, Greene asks pointed questions as he ponders “Columbusing” and the schism between the way mezcal is portrayed and its authentic, indigenous roots.
A rich, inclusive portrait of one of the world’s great drinks.