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The Beginnings of Mexico's Sacred Drink

The year was 1522. Hernán Cortés had only just conquered Mexico City (Tenochitlan) with a small band of soldiers, subjecting millions of Aztecs to Spanish rule. The regime change was demoralizing for the Indians who had been the masters of a large Empire that stretched from Central America to North America. Now they were subjects of Spain, a nation situated over 5,000 miles across the sea.

In spite of this, there were two reasons that the young Indian, Juan Diego, thought that his life wasn't so bad. First of all, he had made friends with the Franciscan missionary named Padre Zumárraga. This kind Spaniard was instructing him in the ways of the Catholic Faith, a religion that Juan Diego was beginning to appreciate for its compassion on the poor and downtrodden.

The other thing that Juan Diego had going for him was his small pulque factory, called a pulquería. Here he made the ancient Aztec beverage from the sap of the maguey (agave), which was fermented and served fresh as a milky white, alcoholic beverage. Before Cortés, this drink was reserved only for the Aztec aristocracy. They said it was too good to be wasted on peasants, like Juan Diego. The Aztec priests even claimed that pulque was shown to them by the goddess of the maguey, Mayahuel, who had told them that only they (the priests) should drink it, since it was a sacred drink.

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"Thank God for the Spaniards," whispered Juan Diego, "because now I can enjoy pulque." He even shared his little pulquería with Padre Zumárraga, who was very interested in the "Trago Sagrado" (Sacred Drink). The good Padre spent hours experimenting with the beverage, when he wasn't preaching. One innovation he came up with was to pass the pulque through a still. The "destilado de pulque" (distilled pulque) was okay, but the problem with it was that it could go sour quickly. Normally Mexicans drank pulque fresh because it doesn't last long. By the time Padre Zumárraga finished the distillation process, the product gave off an unpleasant sourness. He needed to try something different.

The idea came to the Padre when he saw a different variety of agave on his morning walk. "Why not extract the sap from different agaves and see how they taste?" He didn't have much luck at first, because most of the agaves are quite dry. One day, the breakthrough happened like a sign from Heaven. He came across an agave that had just been struck by lightening. It was split down the middle and still smoking. It actually smelled somewhat caramel-like, with a hint of smoke. "Delicious aroma," he said to himself. The Padre wanted to bring the agave back to the pulquería for experimentation, but couldn't carry the whole plant. He pulled out his knife and sawed off the long, pointy leaves. What he had left looked like a "piña" (pineapple). It was only the roasted heart of the agave that he brought back to the pulquería.

After some thought, the Padre decided to soak the agave heart in water to extract the flavors into the water. By this time, he had to get ready for morning Mass, so he left the chopped agave in a pot of water. It was 4 days until he had time to return to his pot. By then he noticed that the mixture had fermented. He took a sip to see how it tasted, and to his surprise, there was none of the sourness he expected. Pulque left for 4 days would be undrinkable, but this stuff tasted fruity and sweet, with a slight smokiness.

Very excited, the Padre strained the pot and began distilling the "vino de agave." The result astonished him; the first taste that humankind ever had of Mezcal felt like a true miracle. He thought to himself, "Here indeed is the true Trago Sagrado," (sacred drink).

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But the Padre hardly had time to celebrate because he heard a commotion outside. Going outside, he saw Juan Diego and Alberto, his two catechumens under religious instruction, having a grand fight. The Padre could see that they were serious, and the result would probably be the death of one or the other. All his efforts to stop them failed. When he tried to find out what the row was over, he could only make out something about a missing knife. In despair, Padre Zumárraga saw all his work among the Indians coming to nothing when it was discovered that his first two catechumens committed murder. Then he had a thought...

Racing back into the pulquería, the Padre snatched up his bottle of freshly distilled mezcal. Returning to the brawlers, he told them that if they stopped fighting and tasted his sacred drink, their problems would all be resolved. The two Indians were a bit skeptical, thinking it was pulque. But when they saw that liquid was as clear as spring water and smelled like toasted fruit, they agreed to taste it. Juan Diego put the bottle to his lips, then handed it to Alberto, who did likewise. They both looked at each other in astonishment. What was it? They had never tasted anything like it in their lives. Juan Diego asked for the bottle again. Alberto asked for the bottle again. Pretty soon they began smiling, and their eyes lost the evil glint of murder. Whatever had they been fighting over anyway? They couldn't remember, now that they had mezcal.

Padre Zumárraga was pleased. His new invention was an instant success, but he reminded himself that it not all his own doing. It was more like a discovery. The lightening from Heaven was proof that it had been a miracle, a gift from the true God. The goddess Mayahuel had given Mexico pulque, but this drink turned sour before you could finish the glass. The God of Spain offered something enduring. It actually improved with age, and never went sour. For this reason we call Mezcal "Trago Sagrado."

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