Solamente elixir de agave
Pugilist Paul an ex-Marine and his Austrian wife, are restoring and renovating the Kingston Hot Springs, now years later, it's known as the Chinati Hot Springs. Half the adventure of ending up at the oasis in the desert is the trip to it. The usual route is going through Presidio, TX on US Highway 67 out of Marfa, TX, one of the oldest highways in the US highway system. Then one continues along the river road The more adventurous way to get there however, is to take the Pinto Canyon Road, Texas FM 2810. I call it the pucker road.
It takes you past the base of Chinati Peak and limestone outcroppings where peyote cactus and sotol agave grow. Each turn of the road is an Ansel Adams print on steroids and amphetamines. The drive involves a blue highway scenic route that degrades into a dusty dirt and washboard nightmare. At 11 miles the road dives down into the bottom of the canyon, then over a native stone arched bridge. If you take the correct fork in the road after coming up and out of Pinto Canyon, you pass by a precarious and old landing strip, an oasis opens up and you go down into the hot springs. Humans of the area, though long since passed on, have been making this journey for thousands of years.
"This will ease your pain a little", Pugilist Paul shrugs with a bit of swagger. With his huge hands, Pugilist takes the 5 gallon jerry can and fills up the two midget shot glasses. "What's this?" I laugh, while looking in amazement at these two midget-sized shot glasses filled with light greenish-gold liquid. "Pugilist, you're a little fuckin' light on the drinks tonight aren't ya?" He only grins and holds up his glass for a toast.
We click glasses and we both knock back the midget shooters. I am half expecting to resist spitting it out. Pugilist looks at me, "Um...you really need to treat this stuff with some respect." he calmly speaks, "Or you'll end up on your ass." Pugilist is always calm. Then I notice how this is as smooth as honey and it just slithers down my gullet like a liquid rattlesnake with no poisonous bite. Noticing also that Pugilist only has half a thimble left. He waits with a sly grin for my reaction which is surely to come forth.
I slowly realize what an odd sight this is. This huge ex-marine sitting across from a scrawny, skinny legged, dog-bit half-wit, drinking god-knows-what, with two midget shot glasses and a jerry can on a red-checkered table cloth. It reminds me of a twisted Norman Rockwell scene. "Wow! What is this? It's great!" shoving my shot glass towards him. He pours me another. "It's sotol moonshine."
Sotol grows weed-like everywhere around here, it makes for all the mysterious scenery. Up to this point, I am thinking scenery is all it is good for. I start relaxing a bit and knock back shot #2. BAM! easin' it down slowly... "yeah right I am," I think to myself.
hecho en Chihuahua, Mexico
"Where'd you get it?" I inquire. We both know this would be my next question. Pugilist goes on to tell me about a Mexican family across the river that makes this to sell on the U.S. side of the frontier. They are poor ranch workers that, like most here, love the vast Chihuahuan Desert and its mysteries. They've never lived anywhere else. Occasionally, they come across the river to immerse in the healing powers of the hot springs. Every time they come across the river for a stay, they always bring a jerry can of sotol, to pay for their stay for the weekend and drink with Pugilist.
It is smooth as silk. "How much is it? Can you get me a can?" Of course I know the answer but it's worth a try anyway. Pugilist gets a serious look on his Scots-Irish face. "No way, too hard to get it." he tells me.
Indeed, I suppose. This type of agave mezcal is only made in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. Even then it is confined to Northern Chihuahua along the frontera, the border. Like it's cousin tequila, sotol is made from the same family of plants, the agave. Unknown to most people all tequilas are mezcals but not all mezcals are tequila. Sotol is a regional mezcal and not common. Sotol is a rarity for anyone except native chuahuanistas. That is why this night is a special and rare treat. The light golden-green liquid is superb.
Tequila is made from the maguey plant and sotol is from a related but different plant. Like tequila, sotol is made from a mature plant and I assume that the older the better. The reason being that the more mature the plant the greater the abundance of natural sugars in the root. Some say, this is the reason there is rarely a hang over after drinking tequila, at least under normal circumstances.
I have never seen sotol being made [see NOTES below]. But the process must be similar to that of tequila. I know that like the tequila maguey, sotol starts from the large root of the plant. It is then low baked in earthen ovens fueled by mesquite wood for a number of hours. Then it is allowed to cool and the baked root is pulverized and chopped up. This presumably masticated mess is then fermented for almost two weeks after which it is most likely distilled once and canned.
Visions of mezcalito
I hammer down #3, then #4, then #5 and start talking about whatever shit that starts popping into my head. Hell, I don't even know what kind of psycho babble I'm spewing. I do keep wondering why Pugilist appears to be growing a second head. This stuff loosens your tongue with the result being outbursts of brain farts and a lubricated false sense of deep self-knowledge. Maybe it is my state of mind or my frame of reference. The thought passes through my mind that I might be getting the onset of rabies...wacko thinking indeed. I envision the local paper in the morning headlines! "Rabid man brought in for observation while drinking gasoline from a jerry can and striking a match." Or "Naked Man found wandering in desert claiming to be mezcalito and foaming at the mouth"
I finally decide to listen to Pugilist and sip it slow. Winding up as a headline in a small local paper is not something I want work to find out. Elixer de agave is like that. I know this though, I will never go to a party that has sotol in cans, not without wearing a .45 revolver, an extra six rounds and wear it on the hip. One minute people are standing up and laughing and the next minute those same people having over-indulged in sotol are either laying around passed out and slobbering on themselves or they're chasing your wife or girlfriend. Trust me, the party WILL get out of control.
This strangeness continues when I look up and notice two hours have passed. Pugilist and I have talked and laughed and I can't even remember about what. My body feels like rubber and I haven't moved much of anything but my mouth and bending elbow. I don't feel my legs and I don't care either. With sotol you can saw your legs off and bleed to death in a messy blissful state with a smile.
I decide I've had enough, gone too far with this and turning all of it back is impossible. I am going to lose it into the swirling oblivious chaos. I see Pugilist and I declare to him that he now has two heads and I'm crosseyed. "Let me help you to your cabin" I hear him say, in a voice that seems far off and echoing from a distance. I tell him I am fine, just a little tired from the trip and in need of some desert air.
I stand up from the kitchen table fully expecting to take two steps to go out the kitchen door. As I try to take the first step my knee buckles and I fall backward. I almost land flat on my ass but Pugilist catches me, props me back up. "You sure you don't need any help?" he asks as I step out the kitchen door. Sotol (mezcalito) creeps up on you oh so gentle and then hits you in the back of the head with a bat.
In the night desert air, things are clear. All one's thoughts vanish to allow for the next moment of realization. A deep breath of it can clear one's mind of all thinking, the mind becomes peaceful and at rest. In this state, there is always a brief moment when the world stops and the universe is frozen in time, in its vastness. It is then that you see the spirit of your soul and then, just as quickly, it flits away to leave forever.
I trail off to my cabin for a peaceful night's sleep. In my dreams, I dance and I fly.
Mescalito has opened up my eyes
Mescalito has set my mind at ease
Mescalito has opened up my eyes
Set my mind at ease!
1. DO NOT go to Mexico and try to score some moonshine. You DO NOT know how it is made and you could go blind and worse DIE. See NOTE 10 instead. You can purchase commercial sotol and not cause serious injury to yourself. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED! Not to mention getting arrested by the judiciales and getting thrown in a Mexican jail, and getting the daily "soda pop" treatment and trying to figure out Napoleonic Law.
2. Highway map of Pinto Canyon Road. Another map, leading from Marfa, TX
3. Mezcal is not the same as mescal. Mescal will be another story
4. The Mexican state that makes more mezcal than any other is Oaxaca. The most notable mezcal from there is Gusano Rojo, Red Worm mezcal.
5. The best web site for tequila on the WWW is this Tequila web site. It includes a small section on the mezcals. Also included is how tequila is made. Highly recommended if you are interested in the tequila mystique
6. Blue highways are U.S highways that are scenic and NOT part of the U.S. Interstate system. On many service stations' maps they were marked in blue
7. The Chihuahuan Desert is THE largest desert in North America.
8. 102 degrees F == 38.9 degrees C
9. Spanish pronounciations: sotol: soe TOLE accent on 2nd syllable, chihuahua: chee WAH wah, solamente: soe lah MAIN tay - only, de: day - of, elixir: ay LEE here, agave: ah GAW bay, hecho: AY choe - made, en: ain - in,
10. Since this was written (some time ago) I have discovered a sotol mezcal here . I have never tried it, maybe someone can and let me know. I am going to see if it can be ordered locally where I live. My guess however is that 100+ proof (50% alcohol) sotol mezcal takes one to another level.