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Here's how a time-honored Mesoamerican process brings more flavor to tortillas and whisky

The rewards of nixtamalization range from improved flavor and aroma to greater health benefits. (Photo: Emily Faber, Sinclair Broadcast Group)

NEW YORK CITY (SBG) — The key to taking a shot like a pro, according to Cesar Sandoval, is to breathe out of the mouth.

I'm inclined to trust Sandoval, given his lengthy background in the hospitality industry, one that he traces all the way back to helping his mom prepare for parties and dinners as a kid. With no shortage of experience working in restaurants and behind the bar since then, Sandoval, a first-generation American who credits his Mexican heritage for installing in him such a strong desire to host others, seems to know a thing or two about the correct way to drink alcohol. And Sandoval's current position as a brand ambassador for Mexican farm-to-bottle spirits producer Casa Lumbre is another sure sign of his experience, particularly when it comes to the pale gold liquid in the glass in front of me.

"A lot of people, when they take shots, they make it worse by going like this," says Sandoval, replicating the exact face that I'm confident I make any time I've fallen into the trap of thinking that I can handle 1.5 ounces of alcohol in one gulp — nose scrunched, eyes narrowed, and mouth twisted into a grimace of burning pain and regret. "Any time you taste, breathe out instead, and you’ll let that heat out as well."

For those who wince at even the mere thought of taking shots, it's a tip that you would be well-served to remember when reaching for the whisky bottle this Cinco de Mayo.

If you believe that drinking whisky on Cinco de Mayo is a contrarian, inauthentic way to celebrate the Mexican Army's 1862 victory against the French in the Battle of Puebla, you'd find plenty of company among the millions of Americans who suck down jumbo margaritas adorned with overturned Corona bottles on the early May holiday. Whisky — or whiskey, depending on the country of origin — has its place elsewhere on the calendar. After all, there was a whole winter of hot toddies, followed by St. Patrick's Day in March and the Kentucky Derby this past weekend. And should you have missed all of that, World Whisky Day is just around the corner on May 15.

It's easy enough to see why tequila, not whisky, is overwhelmingly the spirit of choice for Americans on Cinco de Mayo. While whisky was actually the second most consumed spirit in Mexico in 2018 according to Statista, nearly all of the country's whisky is imported from elsewhere. Meanwhile, tequila and Mexico go hand-in-hand. Both tequila and mezcal, the latter of which refers to a broad category that technically encompasses the former, comes from the heart of the agave plant, and agave has a storied history as a sacred object in Mexico. According to Aztec mythology, agave has tragic origins in a tale of two lovers being torn apart. In the legend, the goddess Mayahuel and the creator deity Quetzalcoatl join themselves together into a tree, but Mayahuel's demon grandmother destroys her branch.

From Mayahuel's bones and Quetzalcoatl's tears, the agave plant came into existence. From the compassion of the gods, agave gained special properties intended to bring some comfort to Quetzalcoatl's grief. And from this popular legend, among others, came pulque, a beverage with ancient ritualistic roots made by fermenting the sap of the agave plant. Then, there was mezcal, followed by tequila.

And then, the multitude of bars across America offering tequila specials on May 5 to customers looking for any excuse to get day drunk off of overly sweet margaritas and soak up the alcohol with platefuls of nachos.

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Whisky may not have this same level of tradition in Mexico, but corn definitely does.

Aztec legend again turns to Quetzalcoatl, telling the story of how the deity mixed sacred bones from the Land of the Dead with his own blood to form human beings. After noticing that the new humans were weak and in need of food, Quetzalcoatl took a cue from a red ant carrying a single kernel of corn and turned himself into a black ant to embark on a difficult journey to a mountain containing maize. In one variation of the myth, Quetzalcoatl carries a grain of corn in his mouth back from the mountain to the humans; that grain is then planted, providing the humans with endless sustenance. In another, Quetzalcoatl enlists the help of the Fifth Sun god and the rain gods to crack open the mountain and distribute the corn.

Corn also plays a significant role in the Mayan creation story — after failing to make satisfactory human beings out of mud and wood, the deities used corn to create human flesh.

To this day, corn has remained an integral part of Mexican culture in a way that's far removed from how corn is typically regarded in the United States. In the U.S., corn is a crop that plays an undeniably major role in the country's economy with millions of acres planted across the Corn Belt and billions of bushels exported each year, but despite this importance, it has little personal significance for most. In fact, the sweet corn on the cob slathered with butter that might inspire feelings of nostalgia for summer cookouts represents only a tiny sliver of the corn grown in the U.S. The rest, accounting for 99% of corn production, is field corn, or dent corn, that is used for things like animal feed, ethanol production, corn starch, and corn syrup.

In Mexico, corn is deeply embedded into the country's identity and loaded with historical significance. Maize is a gift from the ancestors, a sacred symbol of survival whose seeds have been passed down from one generation to the next for thousands of years. It was a staple of the region's diet long ago and remains a staple of the diet now, tying together the country's past and present through the perseverance of culinary traditions and forming the basis not only for tacos, tamales, and chilaquiles but for cherished family memories of joyful times.

But when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect in 1994, Mexico began importing large quantities of yellow corn from the U.S., enticed by the low prices of the heavily subsidized corn. While free trade-related threats to the genetic diversity of maize had already been cause for concern prior to NAFTA, the flood of cheap corn entering Mexico as a result of the agreement further jeopardized the longevity of the country's small corn producers. If the trends continued in that direction, there was a very real possibility that dozens of endangered varieties of heirloom corn would ultimately go extinct after centuries of survival.

Recently, there has been a significant push to save these treasured heirloom varieties. In 2007, a campaign called Sin Maíz No Hay País launched with the goal of fighting for food sovereignty and strengthening peasant production; its name, which is also a saying in Mexico, translates to "without corn, there is no country." There are also several companies, such as Tomoa and Masienda, that have been launched in an effort to help small farmers keep operations running by paying a fair price to the farmer and distributing their heirloom corn varietals to restaurants around the world. And some have turned toward innovative new ways to showcase heritage corn, like Mexican designer Fernando Laposse who created a material called Totomoxtle that is made of corn husks and can be assembled into furniture.

There's also whisky. In a town north of Mexico City called Jilotepec, a relatively new distillery is dedicated not to tequila or mezcal but to corn whisky. The whisky is called Abasolo, and it's made out of cacahuazintle, an heirloom variety of white dent maize grown in elevated valleys throughout Mexico. While many other corn whiskies are actually a mixture of corn, rye, and barely, Abasolo is truly 100% corn, making it the first of its kind in Mexico.

The spirit, introduced by Casa Lumbre last year, is also the only whisky in the world that calls upon the traditional and time-honored Mexican technique of nixtamalization to uncover the deeper flavors of the cacahuazintle.

To connoisseurs of Mexican cuisine, nixtamalization is the secret to the perfect tortilla.

The process, whose name comes from the Nahuatl words of "nixtli," meaning ash, and "tamalli," meaning dough, specifies that corn should be prepared by first cooking it in an alkaline solution, usually made up of water and either slaked limestone or wood ash, and then leaving it to soak in warm water for an extended period of time. After, the nixtamalized corn is washed by hand to remove the kernel's outer layer. The technique dates back thousands of years, originally developed in Mesoamerica with very little concrete information available today as to its exact origin date or how it was discovered (one predominant theory is that the Mesoamericans actually stumbled upon nixtamalization by accident when someone inadvertently added wood ash to their cooking water).

Through nixtamalization, the corn undergoes significant chemical changes, resulting in marked benefits that have allowed interest in the laborious process to endure into the present day. For one, the flavor and the aroma are improved, inviting a commonly used analogy of comparing freshly baked bread to Wonder Bread. Abasolo leans on this when marketing the whisky, promising that the technique will uncover authentic corn flavors; the process also helps to create notes of sweet corn in Nixta, the distillery's Mexican corn liqueur. Less relevant to whisky but essential to tortillas is the fact that nixtamalization allows for the more easily ground corn to form a dough that will stick to itself.

Nixtamalization also offers health benefits. While maize contains a good amount of niacin, also known as vitamin B3, most of the niacin in untreated corn is not bioavailable, as the human body is unable to break the binds between the niacin and the starches. But when corn is nixtamalized, the alkaline solution frees the niacin from its binds and enables humans to absorb it. In addition, studies have shown that nixtamalized corn has a higher calcium content, increased protein availability, and reduced levels of mycotoxins.

At For All Things Good in Brooklyn, the nixtamalization process typically begins in the evening. At the end of service, the dry corn, a constantly rotating list of varietals imported from Mexico, is simmered in an alkaline solution and soaked overnight. In the mornings, the nixtamalized corn passes through a volcanic stone mill, resulting in fresh masa to be used in tetelas, quesadillas, tlayudas, memelas, tlacoyos, sopes, and, although they weren't originally part of the plan, tacos.

Matt Diaz, co-owner of For All Things Good, thinks that corn's public image needs a shot at redemption.

"I think about how we look at corn here in the U.S., and it’s a demonized crop. 99% of the corn we grow in the U.S. is one single type of corn. That’s so crazy to think that our entire continent was built off the back of this extremely diverse crop. How did it get so terrible for us?" he said.

Diaz and his business partner, Carlos Macías, began working on For All Things Good just prior to the pandemic, their idea to open the Bed-Stuy molino inspired largely by the stark contrast that they had personally observed, and tasted, between tortillas in Mexico and tortillas in New York City. They wanted to bring a good tortilla to Brooklyn, one that would fully honor the process of nixtamalization that's so often skipped stateside in favor of faster and cheaper results. And that tortilla would be used for pretty much everything but tacos, highlighting the many uses of masa beyond many American's go-to Mexican dish.

Having officially opened last July, For All Things Good is still in what Diaz calls an "experimental phase," meaning that the corn varietals will periodically change. To source the corn from Mexican families, Diaz works with both Tomoa and Masienda. "Starting out, we used Masienda quite a bit for logistics reasons. They have a warehouse in Pennsylvania and a warehouse in California, so it’s just a bit easier to get it physically to our store," he said. "From Tomoa, we order the corn directly imported into the U.S. We’ll get an update about what families they’ve spoken to and what corns they have available, and we just rotate through it."

The menu at For All Things Good is largely plant-based in recognition of the milpa farming system, a style sometimes referred to as "The Three Sisters" that calls for several plant species to coexist. The milpa system dates all the way back to the domestication of maize, when the Mesoamericans discovered that growing beans, corn, and squash together would help each "sister" to grow and thrive through a mutually beneficial relationship and that a diet consisting primarily of these three plants would allow them to meet their nutritional needs. It makes sense that a molino that pays so much respect to the ancient process of nixtamalization would extend that same respect to other Mesoamerican techniques.

And while tacos did eventually find their way onto the cafe's evening menu, they're listed alongside less familiar options like tetelas (corn masa pockets stuffed with hibiscus flowers) and sopes (thick corn cakes filled with savory toppings). No matter what dish you order, the amount of time, effort, and care that goes into the tortillas ensures that masa remains the star.

Standing next to Diaz in the small kitchen at For All Things Good, I watch as he demonstrates the process of making a tortilla. He rolls the masa between his palms, making sure that any dry parts are integrated into the wetness of the dough, and then shapes the small piece of masa into a log. The log goes into the center of the tortilla press, and he pulls on the handle to flatten the log into a circular shape. Diaz seamlessly slides the thin masa onto the palm of his hand, leaving part of it dangling off.

From there, the dough is placed on the comal, a smooth griddle that can be traced back to the Aztecs and remains widely used in Mexican homes today. "The first time that it hits the comal, you’re just searing the outside," said Diaz. "As soon as you see that it’s starting to be cooked and it’s peeling off the comal, you’re going to lift it up, and you’re going to flip it. The second time that it hits, you’re now actually cooking the tortilla. And then when we flip it the very last time, that’s when you’ll see it puff."

It's my turn, and it's immediately evident that Diaz's ease in making the tortilla was a product of his expertise. Mine does turn out to be the right shape, but I hesitate when dropping it onto the comal, and parts of the once-perfect circle poke up away from the heated surface, escaping the searing that's supposed to happen. Diaz swoops in and saves it.

After my brief stint in the kitchen, the time has come to taste the whisky, and I'm worried that I won't be much better at that than I was at making tortillas. But the surprising smoothness of Abasolo, coupled with Sandoval's advice to breathe out the mouth, helps the drink to go down without so much as a flinch.

Whisky and tortillas may not have been a combination that was ever on my radar, nor is it one that will be anywhere near as widely celebrated this Cinco de Mayo as that of tequila and tacos, but it's one that's certainly deserving of a greater deal of consideration. Especially as distilleries like Abasolo lead the charge in showcasing the potential of Mexican-produced corn whisky and molinos like For All Things Good continue on the pursuit of creating perfect tortillas in places outside of Mexico, combining the two can feel like an ode to the sacred history of maize and the heirloom varietals that have withstood the test of time.

And it's through these efforts and others like them that, even in a world of industrialization that too often prioritizes cheap, fast methods over higher quality processes, there remains plenty of hope for maintaining the genetic diversity of maize and guaranteeing the survival of nixtamalization for years to come.