As you know by now, I’m in the middle of moving after eight years at the same address. And with moving (especially after eight years! ;) comes the tedious chore of going through everything one has accumulated since the last move and getting rid of at least a third of it. Out with the old, in with the new. And that includes the liquor cabinet. So I dusted off a few exotic bottles I’d only opened once — or in some cases never yet — to give them a proper sendoff. In the order tasted, they were:
This is a distilled spirit made out of honey from the pollen of the xtabentún flower. It comes from the Yucatán Peninsula in eastern Mexico, and the name (like the recipe) is Mayan. It goes back more than a thousand years and was once a libation offered to the gods. Xtabentún, according to our good friends at Wikipedia, means “vines growing on stone”, which reminds me of the Scott Smith novel The Ruins (now a Hollywood film). Fortunately, Xtabentún is not so insidious, but it is every bit as potent at 30% alcohol by volume.
It tastes just like you’d expect — like fermented honey, with just a hint of cough medicine, hae. It’s very sweet and syrupy, and it’s a pale straw-gold in color. The bouquet (have I crossed over into total pretentiousness yet? :) is very herbaceous, and reminded me at once of Drambuie. Overall: pretty good.
Chinese Honey Wine
A friend brought this bottle back to me from a visit to mainland China. He told me it was between this bottle (a completely clear distilled honey wine) and the bottle that was full of actual bees. I wish he’d picked the bee-filled bottle, if only for shock value, but a gift is a gift. I never could read the Chinese label, though, so I can’t tell you much else about this one, except that it’s a completely transparent spirit, with a fainter nose than the Xtabentún, a drier flavor, a less syrupy viscosity, and probably a higher alcohol content (I’m guessing 35–40%). Overall: not bad; better in some ways, worse in others, than the Xtabentún.
Gusano Rojo Mezcal
One of the better known of the genuine Mezcals from Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not in Tequila that you find the infamous worm (the Mexican bottling authority prohibits insects in Tequila — funny that somebody felt a law was necessary for that!); it’s in Mezcal, of which there are probably as many varieties as there are species of the agave plant from which it’s made. Again, thanks to Wikipedia, there are two common types of “worm” used in Mezcal (and actually, neither one is really a worm at all). In my case, the gusano rojo is “the caterpillar of the Hypopta agavis moth, one of the several kinds of ‘maguey worm’, found on the agave plant.” Bottoms up!
First, let me say this: if you haven’t tried Mezcal, you’re in for a shock. I’ve tried a few, and (paraphrasing George Orwell), drinking a shot of Mezcal feels like being hit in the back of the head with a rubber mallet. God help those who drink an entire bottle! I can’t understand the appeal of it, to be honest. It tastes terrible — however, it’s even more potent than Tequila, so I suppose it’s alluring to anyone with something to forget. Whatever else it is, Mezcal is not subtle. It’s 40% alcohol by volume, but it feels much worse. Anyway, this Mezcal was a pale yellow in color (a little paler than the Xtabentún; perhaps it was añejo), with a pale white “worm” and a packet of salt and ground chili pepper to chase it. And it needed chasing, let me assure you! As bad as the Mezcal tasted, the worm was nothing at all. It was soft and basically pickled, and I chewed the fellow up almost without realizing it.
El Señor Mezcal (con Scorpion)
Andrew Zimmern, look out! I saved the “Fear Factor” shot for last! Most Mezcals are made con gusano (“with a worm”), but on a trip to Mexico, I saw this bottle, con scorpion (“with a scorpion”), and simply could not pass it up. It made for quite a conversation piece on our wine rack, let me tell you! A buddy and I drank a shot of this a couple of years ago, but the scorpion was safely chillaxing at the bottom of the bottle ... until now.
This Mezcal, at a disingenuous 40% alcohol by volume, was completely clear (joven or reposado, I expect), the better to highlight the critter at the bottom. The scorpion was a good deal bigger than the worm, and the second biggest scorpion I’ve ever actually seen with my own eyes (the biggest was the “pet” of an old high school and college friend). See the photos below for an idea of what I was up against! But down he went! The Mezcal was just as bad as ever, and this time, the critter was worse. Years of pickling had done nothing to soften this bastard’s exoskeleton, so the crunchy texture was the worst part about it. As to the taste (the worm had none), eating this fellow was rather like chewing up tree bark, and I was picking bits of him out of my teeth all night. More than you wanted to know, I’m sure!