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Mezcal as Medicine

It’s 2 pm and the sun’s relentless force blankets the field of agaves sitting outside the small palenque. The dogs are overheated and lay in the shade of a tree while Israel Santiago tells me about his horse. He talks a lot about the large white stallion that resides in the stable next to his home. “The horse is my spirit animal,” he tells me. “We all have connections with animal spirits, they can be guides for us.”

Israel is an elegant and articulate mezcal producer, who was born-and-raised in the small town of Matatlan located in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. He is native Zapotec (the indigenous group that makes up most of the local population), and has integrated a lot of native knowledge into his production of mezcal.

“Mezcal has always been a tool for medicine.” Israel explains, “We have been using it for generations, to heal, and to stay healthy.” In a small room next to heaps of cut agaves waiting to be roasted, Israel shows me his immense collection of mezcals. But unlike many of the other producers in the area, Israel has a collection of oddly special mezcals. Light leaks through a window and illuminates the contents inside each bottle. Floating in the clear alcohol are various leaves, roots, insects, meats, and even a few snakes.

“Each plant or animal offers a different medicine” he says, “depending on what you are experiencing in your life, there is a mezcal for it. We use the meats and fats of these animals, to protect our health and our finances.” He takes a large glass jar off the shelf and holds it up to the light. Inside are a few large branches with easily identifiable flowers. “Cannabis” he tells me with a smile.

While agave is the main product grown within the hills near Matatlan, there are a few patches of wild-grown cannabis as well. When infused in mezcal, the plant offers pain relief. “If you have a sore muscle,” Israel explains, “you can rub this on your skin and it will help the pain go away.” He takes my arm and pours a healthy amount of the infused mezcal on it. “Where there are toxins, the mezcal will open the pores of the skin and reduce inflammation in the area.” Israel then pours some of the elixir into two glasses for us to share. “It also helps to drink it,” he says laughing.

Next Israel shows me a bottle filled with small spiky seed pods. I recognize the seed pods from growing up with the plant in Colorado, but can’t imagine what it’s doing in a bottle of mezcal. Toloache, or ‘Datura’ as it’s known in the US, is a highly psychedelic plant, that is reported to be one of the most hallucinatory plants in North America. As a kid I remember hearing tales of teenagers eating the plant and tripping for days, usually ending up naked and miles from home.

“It is used by curanderos (traditional healers) to cleanse the spirit,” Israel tells me as he pours two glasses. “It has some hallucinogenic properties, which help you deal with existential questions.” A boyish grin shows up on his face again, and we slowly finish our glasses of hallucinogenic mezcal. The taste is sweet with a bit of tart herbal flavors. Before I could ask how potent the medicine is, Israel was on to the next.

“And now for the most powerful medicine I have!” Israel brings out a large bottle which holds a coiled rattlesnake inside. The snake is nearly a meter long, and its fangs can be seen through the clear yellow liquid. “Drinking this will produce antibodies in your body that can fight against viruses.” He explains, “Rattlesnake is a very strong medicine, and can sometimes treat cancer.”

The snake’s body jostles in the bottle as Israel pours a couple glasses of the powerful medicine. I’m not sure if it’s the trippy mezcal that I had just finished, but I swear I see the snake move on its own. “How did you find the snake?” I ask. “He came to me,” Israel responds, “He slid right into this room. He was lending me his spirit.” Israel hands me a glass. “Salud!” he toasts. The mezcal tastes like a dusty meat, and burns my throat as it goes down.

Israel continues to bring down bottles, explaining their various uses: one for an upset stomach, one for headaches, another for love. After a few more samples, he takes me outside into a field of agaves for a traditional Zapotec cleansing.

Israel tells me to relax, as he takes a large pull from a bottle of mezcal, filling his mouth with the alcohol. He then forces the mezcal out of his mouth in a forceful spray, creating a fine mist which covers the front of my body. He then moves to my backside, and does it again, casting another precise spray of mezcal all over me. And that’s it. My spirit is clean.

With the plant medicines and rattlesnake booze still kicking around in my head, I left Israel with great thanks for sharing his knowledge and incredible mezcal. I still see Israel quite often, and each time he seems to have a new concoction for me to try. It may be the reason that I’m still in good health.

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