First Real Mezcal Trip
Yes folks…It has finally happened. My first real mezcal trip!
Mark it down in your diaries, the special date was Saturday September 26, 2020.
As my loyal followers would know I previously undertook a fun, but ultimately unsuccessful trip captured here in My First Mezcal Trip.
This time things were looking much more promising.
First stop for the day was at Tata Mezcaleria and restaurant. Tata had put the day together… and organised everything from transport, hiking, eating, drinking, drinking…and drinking a little more.
I first saw the advertisment for this trip to Desentierro whilst we were dining at Tata waaaay back in February. A day of exploring the Desentierro Vinata and hearing about the mezcal making process and traditions from the chief mezcal maker sounded absolutely horrible. So much so, that I immediately paid the deposit.
Tata is a mezcal heaven right in the heart of Morelia. They have around 160 different mezcals…an amount that will challenge the best of any mezcaleria in Oaxaca. Then there is the food. The menu is packed with amazing, gourmet Mexican (funny about that) food…a real fusion of traditional and modern.
The meeting time at Tata was 9.30am. I arrived at 9.23. I was a little excited. I wasn’t the only one…there was a strong wiff of mezcal adventure anticipation in the air!
The plan for the day was outlined by Fermin, the Tata chef and our guide for the day.
The easy 45 minute drive up to Tsitsio would be followed by a leisurely hike through a national park (whilst sampling our first mezcal for the day), a tour of the Vinata including the agave nursery…and an explanation of the fermentation and distillation processes. Then tacos, followed by more tacos. And mezcal.
So, we piled into our transport for the day and slowly wound our way up the beautiful mountains of Michoacan.
Before we knew it, we had arrived in Tsitsio…in the heart of the Ruta del Mezcal. The Ruta has been developed by local mezcal producers with some help from the government, and is aimed at drawing more interest to the industry. Well, it’s sure got my interest!
First stop was the National Park and in typical Michoacan fashion it was absolutely beautiful. Think crisp clear air filled with nothing but the scent of pine trees. Oh, and the burritos we received on arrival. Delicious!
Also greeting us when we arrived was Don Lupe. That’s right, a real life mezcalero responsible for producing the fantastic mezcal at Desentierro.
Here in Michoacan mezcaleros are like rock stars. They just have that sort of presence. I used to tell people who asked me what I would do if I had the chance to live my life over again…that I would like to be a rock star. Now, I would say a mezcalero. Well, maybe a mezcalero who could shred guitar like Hendrix.
At this point Don Lupe provided us with our first sample of mezcal. It was the joven cupreata, and honestly…after he poured it into my glass using his hollowed out mezcal bamboo didgeridoo (ok, probably not the technical name for this implement…I will do some research!) it just melted in my mouth. Super smooth.
The views from atop the mountains were majestic. The town of Tsitsio could be seen in the valley between the trees, and eagles soared high above us. Talk about tranquillity.
Now, we were ready to travel to the Desentierro Vinata. Boy was I ready.
After driving for ten minutes we passed a rather large rock…which had written on it, “Vinata El Desentierro Mezcal – 400 meteres.” We had arrived!
The first thing I noticed was the nursery “Vivero”, home to the young agave. Naturally, the vast majority of the agave babies were cupreata. The local agave which is famous for producing smoky mezcals with hints of herbal and citrus notes. There is something magical about seeing these young agave planted in neat rows, with a backdrop of mountains and beautiful old trees steeped in many a year of history.
We walked up the hill towards the distilling area and there was Don Lupe again.
Behind Don Lupe was a distillation vat in which a mezcal pechuga was being distilled. Mezcal pechuga? Literally, pechuga refers to chicken breast…but in the whacky world of mezcal it refers to any mezcal which has had its flavour influenced by some type of animal. Mezcaleros hang the carcasses of various types of animals including rabbit, chicken, deer and iguana above the open distillation vat to give the final product some extra kick. It makes for some interesting drinking experiences, although is not particularly vegan.
Annnnnyway, this pechuga had been crafted by dangling venado (deer) and iguana above the mezcal. My first iguana pechuga!
Needless to say, I was more than ready to give it a go.
Don Lupe used his bamboo didgeridoo to extract the mezcal out of the vat and into a large test tube. He then observed the amount and quality of bubbles (pearls) at the top of the container to roughly determine the alcohol level. His verdict? 72% proof!
OK, I was ready.
Don Lupe poured the pachuga into my shot cup, which was ingeniously attached around my neck by way of a ribbon which would ensure that I would never be separated from my beloved mezcal. What will they think of next?
So the first thing that struck me as I took my first sip was…it was hot!
Hmmm, maybe something to do with the roaring, wood-fuelled fire which was below the distillation vat. I never claimed to be the sharpest tool in the shed.
I had previously read about this but had completely forgotten. It was hot, smooth and delicious! It was easy to forget about the high alcohol volume and it was super easy to drink. Did I want more? Yes. Thank you.
As mentioned in this post…What the Hell is Mezcal… once distillation is completed its commonplace for mezcaleros to gather around and share the rewards of their hard work.
This time, I was fortunate enough to be included in the party!
It should also be noted that the distillation vats were made with copper, meaning that the mezcal at Desentierro is artesenal.
Next, The Don took us for a leisurely walk through the Vivero.
The young agave are kept here in the nursery for the first 6 months of their lives, and then between the ages of 6-12 months they are grown nearby the Vivero…before being planted in the wild after 12 months…and then finally harvested 8-15 years later.
He explained that whilst cupreata was the dominant agave here in Michoacan, they had recently been planting some other types as well. This piqued my interest…and when he mentioned that included in the extra agave types was Tepeztate…well, I was beside myself with excitement.
That was until…with my limited mathematical skills I calculated the following: My current age (51 years) plus average time to grow tepeztate (25 years) = well, I will be very old when the tepeztate is ripe for the plucking!
Still, my understanding is that drinking mezcal on the regular expands your life expectancy by around 30 years.
Once we had finished exploring the Vivero, Don Lupe directed us to the Horno (oven pit) and explained to us how this (most exciting part!) of the process works.
After the cupreata have finally matured, the leaves are unceremoniously hacked away with a machete by a worker known as a Jimador (I’m sure it is done with lots of love). This leaves us (pun intended) with the pina (pineapple), the heart of the agave plant.
Next, the Horno is lined with volcanic rocks which are then covered with items such as leaves and wet hay. This ensures that the agave does not directly touch the rocks. The pina are then piled into the Horno, dirt is used to cover the pit, and the 3 day long process of cooking them begins.
Now we can see why the indigenous meaning of ‘mezcal’ is oven cooked agave, and where mezcal gets its reputation for delicious, smoky flavours.
After 3 days of this wonderous process, the pina have softened considerably and the sugars within it have changed.
Over the years at Desentierro, many different means have been used to crush (mill) the agave…but now this part of the process always occurs using tools which smash the pina inside a hollowed out tree trunk. I’m sure the donkeys are relieved.
Now we are ready for the fermentation to take place.
The pina, which now resemble the consistency of pulled pork… are now placed into large, open fermentation tanks. This is possibly the most impressive part of the process for me.
Why? No yeast is actually added to the tanks to kickstart the process. The mezcalero completely relies on wild, natural yeasts from the surrounding environment to trigger the fermentation.
As with distillation, the tanks are completely open and therefore influenced by the environment.
Depending on the weather conditions fermentation will take around 7-10 days (hot weather speeding up the process).
The final piece of the puzzle of course is distillation.
As outlined above, at Desentierro they utilise an artesenal method…and always a double distillation is used. The second distillation removing any leftover roughage and creating the final, smooth product we all know and love.
Desentierro produce joven, reposado and anejo mezcals…they are all of a high quality, but as I’ve pointed out before…I’m generally partial to the jovens, and this is no exception. It really is fantastic!
It is almost sweet to the taste….but has lost none of its agave character or complexity.
Perhaps the most exciting part of the trip was a visit to Desentierro’s very own Mezcal Cemetery!
You may recall from my post Mezcal Traditions Buried but not Forgotten that Mezcal Cemetery’s are a significant part of the history and traditions of mezcal here in Mexico….and that Desentierro themselves play a large part in this.
Every year prior to the Day of the Dead celebrations here in Michoacan they bury a number of bottles which will then be dug up again in time to mark this special occasion.
Soooo, yes…we got to bury our own bottles in the cemetery!
We each purchased 1 litre bottles of mezcal, noted the date and our names on them…and buried them in anticipation of returning next October to collect our treasure! What a great tradition.
I have to say it was the most glee-filled burial at a cemetery I have ever witnessed!
I will be super interested to sample the mezcal after 12 months and note the changes it has undergone.
After the not-so-sombre mezcal burial, we sat down to some delicious traditional Mexican food. The highlight for me were the Gorditas…a type of enclosed taco stuffed with goodies such as pork, beans and vegetables. Really fantastic, and lovingly prepared by people from the town of Tsitsio.
The accompaniment? Mezcal. Desentierro mezcal…what more could you want?
After lunch we enjoyed some card games, more food…and perhaps a little more mezcal.
Then…it was time to head back to the beautiful Morelia.
Tata was once again the venue for more amazing food, and the chance to make our own mezcal cocktails. This was a lot of fun, and really highlighted the different, amazing flavours you can experience when adding mezcal to your cocktail.
After maybe 4 or 5 last drinks (one more….hmmm, how about just one more?)…we staggered home very satisfied with the day we had just experienced.
I could not have asked for anything more for my first real mezcal trip. Everything was planned perfectly…and I must give a big thank you to both Tata Mezcaleria and Desentierro Mezcal.
This will be the first of many mezcal trips for me here in Michoacan. As I’ve mentioned before there are many opportunities to find genuine mezcal experiences here. The industry is still growing…and is not overdeveloped…it is open and very welcoming.
Mezcal is booming in Michoacan.