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I couldn’t believe my eyes as I stepped over the stone rubble and passed through the gate. This was supposed to be a well-regarded "mezcaleria," but what stood before me looked more like a war-torn, abandoned building in disrepair. Fallen walls, crumbling stairs and piles of rocks were everywhere, and in between were loads of what looked — and smelled — like burnt coconut hides.
I would later learn that the hides were the thrown-out remains of agave plants after they had been cooked and the juice extracted. At that moment, though, it was a confusing part of the scenery at Hacienda de Penasco, an old building in San Luis Potosi (SLP) that seemed like it was on the decline. But, in fact, the mezcaleria is part of a reemergence.
Today, most of the mezcal on the market is produced in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. But it wasn’t always that way. In the hundred or so years leading up to the Mexican Revolution, the city and state of SLP was Mexico’s largest producer of the smoky liquor. Back then, nearly every hacienda in SLP had a mezcal production facility attached to it, taking advantage of the dozens of workers it had on hand. The spirit was known as the “worker’s drink” and was sold to nearby mining towns, such as Real de Catorce in SLP, Zacatecas and Guanajuato.
Business was good until the Mexican Revolution; the 10-year political crisis brought about extreme consequences for SLP. At its end, land owned by wealthy proprietors was split up and divided amongst workers and peasants. This drastically effected the output of agriculture in the region and led to the end of mezcal production.
“The fallout of the revolution worked against the owners of the haciendas in SLP,” said Ramon Parra, head of production at Hacienda de Penasco, which officially opened in February. “When the land was divided, the haciendas were raided, and the machinery was broken. In Oaxaca, most of the mezcal production was small and family-owned, so it was more or less able to continue as usual.”
As mezcal has risen to international favor over the last 15 to 20 years, many haciendas in SLP have been motivated to revive their traditions. However, while they have tradition, they don’t have money, which is why numerous production facilities, such as Penasco or Santa Teresa, look rough around the edges. Many have huge piles of stone and rubble; large holes or missing sections in the ceiling and walls; and dust and dirt coating the machinery, which is often more than 100 years old.
As I toured some of SLP’s mezcal haciendas, I found it hard to believe that something I put in my body can be made in these conditions — much less something so tasty. But then, I sampled the liquor, and I realized that while the structures might need some work, the recipe doesn’t. This is handcrafted, quality mezcal made in the most unlikely of conditions.
Though Penasco is just getting started, Parra says he has big plans for the hacienda. He says that maybe he’ll export the spirit, or perhaps open an official tasting room. And that dream is not unrealistic. Laguna Seca, another mezcaleria in the region with longer standing, has received gold and silver medals from Tastings, a beverage testing institute in Chicago.
As of now, though, you can still show up with an empty plastic bottle and get it filled to go. (This is the cheaper, local take-home method here, although most mezcalerias do sell official, packaged bottles, as well.) I took another sip of mezcal, and my taste buds predicted that a bright future is probably not too far off for these production facilities.
But at the moment, I was happy to just be standing there, experiencing the conditions in which the beverage is made today. Because there’s just no way I would have believed it otherwise.