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By Barbara Schaffer

José Ríos, Juárez Market, Puerto Escondido

Drink one shot of mezcal before breakfast and one at night, in order to enjoy the full therapeutic value of this distilled agave (maguey) beverage. So recommends José Ríos, the proprietor of locale 53 in the market, and himself a mezcal enthusiast. He adds, it doesn't hurt to have a third shot with lunch, but it's not necessary.

Speaking of the medicinal uses of mezcal, José stresses its importance when dealing with a case of fright (espanto), which loosely translates as anything that raises your blood pressure.

It could be, I think. After all, drinking in moderation is good for your health, and the agave plant might have some special qualities. It's probably safer than a lot of the prescription drugs people take for stress and high blood pressure.

And, of course, José says, it's a great drink for socializing with friends. The best thing about it is that it never gives you a hangover.

I asked José if tequila, anther agave distillate, had similar medicinal properties. "No!" he exclaimed. "I wouldn't touch that stuff even if you were giving it away."

"And it's great for sex," he says. "Much better for men than those pills (Viagra), and it turns women on."

But "mezcal es traicionero" (it's a traitor), he warned. You can sit at a bar for hours drinking with your friends and feel totally lucid, but when you get up you fall flat on your face.

Not all mezcals are the same, however, and what he drinks at home is not the same as what he sells in his shop. The one that comes closest is a Tobalá that sells for 220 pesos a liter and goes down like nectar.

Tobalá is a wild agave and very much sought after. Although some distillers now use a domesticated plant, it is not as good as the wild variety. Which is not to say that all tobalá mezcal is of equal quality.

José will give his customers tastes of his tobal‡ from the gallon Carlo Rossi bottles he stores it in, but first he makes you taste what he calls commercial mezcal, which he also sells. The commercial stuff is coarse; it's what you get at most bars. He says it's what people drink when they want a cheap intoxicant.

Finally, José suggests a tonic of mezcal mixed with hot chili, lemon and onion juice, drunk slowly, as a treatment for fevers and the flu.

A Caveat

Be cautious, warns the notary Hugo Manuel Félix of Notaria 14, unregulated mezcal is often adulterated, sometimes with toxic chemicals. (So if you do get a hangover from drinking mezcal, blame the additives.) It takes around 7 years for a maguey plant to mature, but unethical producers use a young plant and then apply various ubstances to age it. So don Manuel recommends only drinking mezcal that has the government stamp of approval. Although for special occasions he does drink an artisanal mezcal he was introduced to 35 years ago in the home of a priest.

Stay away from any mezcal that hurts your nose or your throat, Félix urges. Mezcal should always be smooth. A good mezcal, he says, is like a fine cognac. Without wanting to recommend a particular brand, he did note that De la Vega was a good choice. He also noted that one or two shots a day was good for your health, if you have no medical reasons to avoid alcohol, as it relieves stress.

Sol de la Costa May 2009



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