Sembrar/crecer - plant and grow. The rumors of agave's demise are greatly exaggerated. What is sometimes in short supply is the blue Weber, the only agave from which tequila can be made. Mezcal (of which tequila is but one subtype) can be made from about 30 different agave species. Pictured is a field of cultivated espadín belonging to my friend and talented mezcalero, Carlos Mendez Blas, owner of Palomo Mezcal. Espadín is popular because it is fast-growing, taking a mere 7-10 years to mature.
Cosechar - harvest. As plants mature, they send up a shoot called a quiote (pronounced like Cervantes’s character, Don Quixote) that, if left to grow, looks just like a giant sprig of asparagus (agaves are asparagacea). From these quiotes, both clones (last photo) and seeds grow. Agaves are pollinated by three things only: bats, moths, and the occasional hummingbird. Then the plant dies. If there is a glut of agave that season, the quiotes are cut off (and the plant is called a capón - castrated) and the plants left until the next year. Cutting the quiotes prevents sugars from being lost in the plants’ effort to reproduce. Good growers allow 5-10% of their crop go to seed/shoot. This ensures the bats return and genetic diversity can infiltrate the species. The magueyeros (people harvesting the agaves) know when to cut and they work really hard. The agaves are stripped of their fronds (pencas) with spade-shaped blades and the core of the plant, called the piña (because it resembles a pineapple) is carried to market. Piñas are heavy. I have seen piñas as small as 25 lbs and as big as 600 lbs. Agaves sylvestres (wild) are carried out on the backs of burros. It is back-breaking work. When you shake the hand of a magueyero, it is like shaking a leather glove stuffed with rocks. (Note the sticks driven into the piñas to facilitate tying them to the burro.)
Cocinar/hornear - cook/bake. In this stage the piñas are arranged in a below-ground pit to be cooked for 3-5 days. In the artesanal process, the pit may be masonry lined, whereas in the ancestral method it must be earthen (no lining). The mezcalero selects the wood he wants—usually pine, scrub oak, or mesquite—and starts a hot fire in the bottom of the pit. The fire is then covered with volcanic rock to retain heat and prevent the agaves from contacting the fire. Once the fire has died back to coals, the agaves are piled on, then the whole thing is covered with tarps and finally earth (or bagasso-the remaining agave fiber from previous batches). Cooking the agaves breaks down starch (inulin) into sugars, carmelizes some of the sugar, and imparts flavor. Don’t call mezcal smokey, though. That onluy happens when a newby mezcalero rushes the process and the fire has not been left to die back long enough. Good mezcal is seldom smokey; while some smoke may be present on the nose, mezcal should primarily taste and smell of agave. That’s the point, and why it is almost always consumed joven, not aged.
Molienda - the grind/maceration. Cooked agaves are removed from the horno and ground. Everardo, who makes my tobalá, lets the piñas sit for several weeks before grinding. (He claims this allows the deep tobalá flavor to develop and as he is the 6th generatio to do it this way, I’m a believer.) Industrial mezcals (I’m looking at you, tequila) are not only steamed instead of cooked over wood, they are ground by machine into fine particles and then put through a diffuser which uses chemical solvents to extract sugars. Real mezcal, uses a horse-drawn tahona (the big wheel), sometimes a wood-chipper, or a canoa and mazo (canoe and mallet) to grind. Artesanal mezcals may use a wood-chipper or tahona. Most commonly, it’s the tahona. Ancestral mezcals must use either tahona or canoa y mazo. Ángel uses the canoa y mazo, which is grueling work.
What’s the difference in grind method and why does it matter? The more rustic the technique, the bigger the chunks of agave, the more sugar remains locked up, which changes fermentation time and, importantly, total yield. All of which goes to flavor. Sip a quality mezcal next to any major-brand tequila and you’ll know immediately that you’ve had your last tequila.
Fermentación. No translation needed. After the grind, the cooked, crushed agave is placed into large wooden vats called tinas. They are topped off with water and left to ferment with whatever yeasts are present in the local environment. After 5-10 days, depending on ambient temperature, a “mud” cap forms on the top of the tina and as it pulls away from the edges, the mezcalero knows it’s done and ready to be distilled. The undistilled, fermented liquid is delicious and is called tepache.
In this stage, like all the others, there is great opportunity to manipulate flavor. Type of wood used to make the tina, the age of the tina, the source and minerality of the water, the starting temperature of the water (which determines how quickly the yeast gets rolling), the area yeast species, the season of the year, and so forth. Some mezcaleros don’t use wood tinas. Their local custom is to use cowhide fermentacion vessels. No two batches of mezcal are ever exactly the same.
Pictured below is a mountain spring considered sacred. The devout make regular peregrinations to it for bathing, payer and collection for use at home. It is considered healing and it is used in Ángel’s ancestral mezcals. I’ll just write that again, because it still floors me: Ancestral production mezcal made with sacred spring water.
Destilación Part 1. Mezcal is, as far as I know, the most variable and complex spirit. Every step in its production presents another opportunity for variation. Distillation is no different. Artesanal mezcals are most often distilled in copper alembic stills. While it is permissible under CRM regulations to distill in stainless, nobody serious about their mezcal does this. Ancestral mezcals are distilled in clay. This means a high risk for loss in the event that the clay pot breaks. Clay pots are also smaller in volume and have to be made by hand. All of this adds to the workload. However, clay retains characteristics of previous mezcals and produces outstanding final products.
All mezcals are distilled twice (every so often you will see one distilled a third time, and raicilla is often distilled just once using a double alembic still) and during the second process the mezcalero cuts the puntas (heads) and colas (tails), keeping the cuerpo (body), or main portion of the distillate. The puntas are cut because these contain methanol, aldehydes, high alcohols and other undesirable fractions. The tails are cut because they tend to have sour flavors and are higher in water. When the body is done, it is usually quite high in alcohol--80% or more. This means that the mezcal has to be cut down. For most domestic (to Mexico) mezcals, this is done according taste, not a target proof. Many producers who export do not wish to reproduce labels frequently (having to update proof information), so they dilute for proof. (I just print a new label and put up with the approval process. It's important to me that I sell a product made to taste.) Dilution can be done with colas or water. I strongly prefer water because I can detect colas easily and I don't like them. Some people swear they prefer cola-cut.
Whatever your preference, mezcal is famous for not creating a hangover. Whether this is due to double distillation, the cutting out of congeners, or something altogether different, I can assure you from experience that there is some truth to this.
Destilación Part 2 - Traditional Production. Makers of mezcal fall into one of three categories of production method: mezcal, artesanal, or ancestral. This is per the regulatory framework laid out by the Consejo Regulador de Mezcal (CRM). Purists distinguish between traditional and industrial--the CRM puts a finer point on things. The CRM is a voluntary organization that is becoming more of a requirement than an option. If you want your product to be called mezcal, well, then—you gotta join. Mezcal is a denomination of origin like Tequila or Champagne.
The first CRM-recognized method of production is permissive and, while I don’t as a practice, criticize other mezcals, the beverages made this way are industrial garbage. We don’t discuss them beyond that and after this post I’ll have little to say about them. The category should not exist; it is the realm of autoclaves, diffusers, 36-40% ABVs, most aged mezcals, worms in the bottle, yellow colorings, and other nonsense. These producers are wasting agave. This is the mezcal that afficionados fear other people will drink as their first mezcal; they bring shame and ill-repute to the DO. Enough with that.
The CRM's Artesanal method is where the bulk of the good to great mezcals are coming from. Copper stills, tahona crush (chipper allowed, seldom used), relatively small batches (sub 5000 liters, anyway). Truly exceptional mezcals can be made under the artesanal framework. My favorite mezcalero is artesanal. But even within this category there is a great range in quality.
The CRM's Ancestral method requires tahona or canoa/mazo, unlined hornos and clay pots. The mezcaleros using the ancestral method are dedicated with a capital D. The still pots are small, the labor is intense, and the risk of breakage and loss is high. These mezcals tend to be on the better end of the quality range because if you’re making mezcal this way, you are taking great care to get it right.
Technical details. Clay pots are arranged as follows: complete pot on bottom, sometimes with a copper metal plate to protect against flame; double mouth pot on top; cooling metal condenser pot (montera) on top of that. The troughs of water in the photos are there to add and drain cool water to the top condenser pot. This is where it gets harder to describe (see photos): there is an aperture in the top clay pot from which extends a hollow reed called a carrizo. Beneath the condenser pot, there is an agave frond (penca) that collects the condensate (mezcal) and funnels it into the carrizo. Into the carrizo there is a sisal or other agave fiber cord that conducts the drops of distillate into a receptacle pot.
Envasar - bottling. Between producing the mezcal and getting it to market there are a number of stages involving lots of paper work, safety testing and, bottling. Of all these, the only thing remotely interesting is the bottling. In this process the mezcal, a rustic product (as you know by now), is filtered, put into bottles, the bottles labeled, corked, inspected and then and sealed with a hologram, indicating authenticity.
There are two steps. In the first step, mezcal is filtered of particulates then used to rinse the bottles--in other words, we use mezcal to wash the bottles. That mezcal (about 3 liters) is continually recirclulated through the filter and set aside afterwards to be either bottled by hand, or distributed in the gray market to friends. I have lucky friends. In the second step, the bulk of the mezcal is filtered and injected directly into bottles. The bottles are corked with a ruberized plastic cork because real cork dissolves in mezcal and taints the product. It is then bottled, the inspector comes to take a sample (matched up with a sample back at the CRM lab), and delivers the holograms for seal.
Disfrutar - Enjoy. I dislike "you're doing [something everyone does] wrong" and "how to [also something irrelevant] the right way" think pieces (I hate think pieces, in general), so this post is about traditional consumption of mezcal. There is no right way. However you like it, that's cool with me.
On with the show... Traditionally, mezcal has been served in one of three types of vessel--the jicara, which is a tree fruit husk, halved, hollowed out, and sun-dried; the copita, which means little cup; or the veladora, which is the glass votive candle holder familiar to all Catholics. In bars in Oaxaca, you will be served in a veladora about 70% of the time, the rest of the time in a copita--usually glass, but often ceramic, too.
At bars, the drink will be poured in your choice of 1 or 2 ounces, and accompanied by a plate of orange slices and a flavored salt. Increasingly, bars are getting creative with this. More fruits are showing up and the salt is getting interesting, too. The salt is nearly always sal de gusano, or "worm salt," which contains equal parts salt, ground chili and ground agave moth larvae. You will also encounter sal de chapulin, which substitutes grasshopper for the larvae. I have seen sal de jamaica (hisbiscus flower) in increasing frequency, too. But--and this is important--at mezcalerias, you will probably just be poured your mezcal and offered no accompaniment at all save a small glass of water. This is because it is presumed that if you are at a mezcaleria, it is because you wish to taste mezcal. One bartender explained to me that the traditional orange slice and salt was a way to cover mistakes in distillation. I'm sure there's a bit of truth in that.
On the subject of cocktails, there are two strongly divided camps. One says never do it, the other, why not--just make sure it's a good damn cocktail. I like the creativity in the cocktails that are being made, so... come at me, purists!
Last point: Oaxaca is a city of sybarites and the mezcalerias there are invariably among the most beautiful bars you will ever see. It is like going into an agave church. If you've never been, you should get to one soon. With friends. That's critical!