The Legend of the Ancient Filipino Mezcalero

This story was originally published in ANCX in 4 October 2018

Santa Catalina Minas is a sleepy rural town less than an hour away from Oaxaca City in Mexico. Its sparse, dusty landscape is dotted with wild cactus. From tall, thick cacti like the ones you see in old Hollywood westerns, to knee-high spiky shrubs, there is cactus growing all over the place. As you drive by the small family-owned farms spread out through this town you notice that they only grow a single crop — cactus. Santa Catalina Minas is all about cactus; agave to be precise. Agave is what puts food on farmer’ tables. It’s what attracts a small but enthusiastic trickle of tourists. And it sustains a group of artisans that practice a Mexican tradition that has caught fire in North America: the making of mezcal.

Santa Catalina Minas is the motherlode — where it is said that some of the finest artisanal mezcals are made.

Like other devotees, I travelled to this town to meet the mezcaleros, to sample the different varietals, and to buy a few precious bottles of the liquid magic to smuggle home to Manila. But unlike my fellow enthusiasts, I had another motive: to investigate an obscure legend that mezcal was not created by Mexicans but was actually invented by Filipinos.

It doesn’t really matter to me who invented the stuff as long as they keep making it. To me, mezcal, like a good tequila, shouldn’t be overanalysed but simply enjoyed. For me, over-analyzing or over-fetishizing it kind of misses the point of mezcal. But the lore of mezcal is a great way to turn people onto it. I don’t recall exactly who told me the story, but it usually comes after a more familiar tale: that the guayabera, the Cuban short sleeved shirt, evolved from the barong tagalog, which was brought to the Americas during the years of the Spanish galleon trade. Like the guayabera, tequila and mescal was, similarly, an innovation of a concept imported from the Philippines.

Ridiculous as it sounds at first, the claim has some plausibility. It’s widely accepted that pre-Hispanic Mexicans drank a hard sweet liquor made from fermented agave called pulque. It’s also widely accepted that the Spanish conquistadors brought the first alembic stills to Mexico, which were then used to distill pulque, transforming it into what we now know as mezcal. It’s also true that Spanish galleons brought all kinds of products to Mexico from the Philippines, which was an active trading center where you could find all kinds of products from Chinese porcelain, to Malayan jewelry, and even alembic stills from the Middle East.

While Mexicans were chilling, Filipinos were distilling

Here’s where the history get murky: those first alembic stills to arrive in Mexico supposedly didn’t come from Spain but were brought by the Spanish galleon trade from the Philippines. The story goes that while our fellow colonial subjects in the Western hemisphere were swilling their pulque, we indios In the East were already actively distilling fermented coconut liquor into lambanog. One fine day, in the midst of our mutual colonial subjugation, a galleon arrived in Acapulco from the Philippines carrying with it an unspecified number of indio crewmen. Having endured so much hardship on the months’ long journey, some of the crewmen decided to settle in Mexico, and brought with them their worldly belongings, including an old alembic still. After settling into their new homes, it didn’t take the indios long to discover pulque. After all, if your worldly belongings included a pot still, it would’ve just been a matter of time before you tried the local libation. Supposedly, they had the bright idea of distilling it, and as a result produced the world’s first bottle of small batch mezcal. Perhaps as a way to ease their assimilation into their new communities, the indios shared not just the mezcal, but also the secrets of distillation. And that, they say, was the beginning of the single greatest Filipino contribution to global culture.

The Indio Mezcalero: fact or fiction

I had serious doubts about that story. But on my most recent trip to Mexico, I was in a mezcal bar in the historical center of the town of Puebla sampling their offerings. As I became acquainted with the bartender, I told him I was from the Philippines and he brought out a bottle of small batch mezcal. On the label was a blurb that said the mezcal was distilled in a Filipino still. It turns out that alembic stills were sometimes referred to in Mexico as Filipino stills. That’s when I first entertained the possibility that the legend of the ancient Filipino mezcaleros might be true.

So here I was in Santa Catalina Minas, the Romanee Conti of the mezcal world, looking for evidence of mezcal’s Filipino origins. Aside from three fellow mezcal enthusiasts Ces, Monique, and Mark, I was guided by Tomas Ramirez, a native Oaxacan who specializes in mezcal tours. Tomas also helped translate my broken Spanish to the locals. Tomas said he had never heard the legend of the ancient Filipino mezcaleros, but the skeptic in me said it may have been painful to acknowledge that his poor backward Filipino cousins may have actually invented the drink that was responsible for so much national pride.

Method to your Mezcal

Tomas took us to two small artisanal distilleries (known locally as palenques). Both made small batches of different varietals. Like all artisanal producers, they baked the raw agave in earthen pits dug into the ground and crushed the cooked agave under a large stone wheel. The pulp was then allowed to ferment in large wooden vats. Once fermented, the liquid was distilled at least twice and sometimes thrice, in copper stills, producing mezcal. The mezcal was stored in their garages in large plastic drums where it could be poured into glass bottles and labelled by hand when sold. Most of the people working in these palenques were in their early twenties and were guided and mentored by an older mezcalero, maybe in his fifties or sixties. No one I asked had heard of the legend of the ancient Filipino mezcaleros.

The third Palenque was different. It was owned by Felix Angeles, whose family has been making mezcal in the ancestral way for generations. Ancestral mezcal is different from — and is less common — than artisanal mezcal. Ancestral mezcal can only be made from clay stills and can only be crushed in large wooden mills using wooden mallets. Angeles’ palenque had a dilapidated pick-up parked in front of a small barn and an open air workplace covered by a corrugated tin roof. Inside the barn were large plastic containers filled with different varietals. Like everyone else we visited, he had mezcal made from espadin, the most common varietal. But he also had varietals of less common mezcals, some of which are only found in the wild. We sampled arroquenos, madre cuixes, tepeztates, tobasiches, barrils, and a few more whose names escape you after you’ve been drinking since 9:30 in the morning.

What distinguishes mezcal from tequila is that it has a smoky taste, quite similar to a smoky whisky but without the peatiness. It also has a wider range of flavors than tequila, which is made from a single agave, the blue agave. Some bottles were smokier than others and in some varietals you’d get more of the vegetal notes. Some mezcal “experts” will detect notes of herbs, flowers, grass, and even peppers. And when its infused with breast meat from a rabbit, a chicken, or even an Iberico pig, it takes on a meaty and sometimes. gamey flavour that blows your palate up.

All of this is true, and there is a lot of crazy flavor in each varietal that is a true joy to explore as you sip it. Maybe because at some point, the alcohol kicks in and you suddenly find yourself enveloped in a general sense of active joy. Then it stops being about the complex tasting notes and about just having a good, happy time. Noon was more than an hour away and by the time we had a shot of Senor Angeles tepeztate mezcal, we were well into the don’t-give-a-shit-about-the-tasting-notes-anymore phase and were just telling each other stupid funny stories. So here’s my funny stupid story to close this piece: In my increasingly drunken haze, I bought several bottles of different varietals and completely forgot to ask about the legend of the ancient. Filipino mezcaleros. But what the fuck. The mezcal was amazing and I didn’t want to start an international incident. That was good enough for now.

I was a journalist. I was a senior government official. I was a c-suite executive. I’ve got some stories to tell.

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