mezcal

Your Mezcal Might Literally Be Made with Love

Back in the day, people working the fields would carve their lovers’ names into agave leaves, hoping for good luck in romance. Some of those same plants could have been used to make the mezcal you sip today.

by Natalie B. Compton
22 March 2017, 10:18am

There is no spirit like mezcal. It's pure romance. An agave plant spends about a decade growing in the gorgeous Mexican countryside before a highly skilled mezcalero gracefully harvests it for our mezcal-drinking pleasure. Then there's the incredible amount of painstaking effort behind every bottle. Oh and you're supposed to give mezcal a kiss when you drink it. Swoon.

But there's another love story behind mezcal. Back in the day, people working in the agave fields would write their lovers' names into the agave pencas, its leaves, for good romantic luck. The tradition was put on the map when Vicente Fernández put out the jammer "La Ley del Monte" in the 70s.

Mezcal: not fucking easy to make. All photos by the author.

Grabé en la penca de un maguey tú nombre / Unido al mío, entrelazados / Como una prueba ante la ley del monte / Que allí estuvimos enamorados, the song starts.

Translation: "I engraved our names in the penca of an agave, next to mine, intertwined. As proof that we were both here, in love, under the law of the mountains."

The sleepy town of San Baltazar, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Espadín in the field.

In a sun-soaked agave field outside of San Baltazar, Oaxaca, Mexico, I walked through rows of espadín agave that would one day become El Silencio mezcal. I paused to crouch down and carve the name of my own lover on a blade-like branch. You know, when in Rome.

I went and joined El Silencio's master mezcalier Pedro Hernandez and his team in some nearby shade. We ate oranges and talked about the tradition. Almost all of the men in the group had done it before, but no one took it very seriously anymore.

Rows of espadín growing to make El Silencio mezcal.

My own carving.

Hernandez's father had taught him the move when he was a kid. "He said there weren't phones and stuff before, so you had to prove your love differently," Carlos Ochoa, El Silencio's director of field operations, translated for me.

"He says you used to walk around and all of the pencas used to have names carved in them because everyone would do it."

Hernandez cleaning up some plants at the El Silencio agave nursery in San Baltazar.

The men behind the mezcal.

Hernandez estimated that he had carved name into about 10 percent of his plants. Some of the women weren't stoked to be involved. It was like someone calling dibs on you.

"Has anyone ever written the name of a woman and then ended up marrying her?" I asked the group.

Everyone fell silent and stared at the ground thinking. Finally they erupted in laughter.

Old carvings in an agave penca.

"I'm taking that as a hard no," Ochoa said.

It seems that the method didn't actually work.

Back in Oaxaca city, I grabbed burgers with my friend Juan De Dios Cruz. I asked him if he'd ever tried the tradition. "Of course not, that's not the way I am," he said. "I tell them, or write it in a letter. And we have WhatsApp." Fair enough.

Ochoa carving a note for Catherine Zeta-Jones.

In the picturesque Oaxaca springtime glow, I thought about all of those romantically graffitied agave plants aging for ten, 20 years that eventually become an ingredient for mezcal. There's a chance that when you drink mezcal, you're sipping on a declaration of someone's love, an added bonus to an already magical beverage.

But the guys at the agave farm were right—the old trick really doesn't work at all. No joke, I got dumped a week after I wrote my lover's name out there in the agave field. Now that I think about it, maybe it does the exact opposite of what it's supposed to do. At least I still have mezcal.