Mezcal of Michoacan
What is Michoacan known for? Well, mezcal of course! Also, there are majestic mountains made for hiking by people like me, huge lakes, awesome waterfalls, national parks, wild and natural beaches and… avocados. Michoacan is the avocado capital of the world! They are everywhere….just waiting to be eaten on toast with smoked salmon, or made into delicious guacamole! There is even avocado ice cream!!
Michoacan is located between Mexico City and the Pacific coastline to the west of the country. Its capital is the beautiful Morelia, the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its well-preserved colonial buildings, pink stone cathedral, historic centre, and aqueduct.
There are 8 Pueblo Magicos (Magical Towns – towns recognised by the Mexican government for their cultural significance and beauty), more than any other state in the country. It’s a dream for weekend adventures.
Michoacan is also home to the Purepecha people. An indigenous group dating back to pre-hispanic times. Their culture is strong and you will find many opportunities to see their craftworks ,visit their fantastic historical sites, and enjoy their delicious foods.
Speaking of food, in 2010 when UNESCO deemed traditional Mexican cuisine a cultural treasure, it was Michoacán’s food traditions that were specifically praised.
The Soul of Mexico
The state is also home to the annual monarch butterfly migration. At this time you can see millions of butterflies swirling around the magnificent forests in the mountains. One of the most amazing shows you could see put on my nature.
Then, there is the Day of the Dead. Maybe you saw the movie Coco? It used Michoacan as its inspiration. The event is bigger, more colourful and with more history here than any other part of the country. A moving and beautiful occasion at the start of November each year.
Michoacan is known as “the soul of Mexico” with good reason.
Oh, and there is mezcal. Not just mezcal though, Michoacan is the only state that can officially produce mezcal, tequila, and the sugar-cane based charanda.
History of Mezcal in Michoacan
Michoacan was only granted its Appellation of Origin in 2012. In other words, this is when it was first recognised as a region that makes mezcal. Despite the fact that the stuff had been made here for the last 400 years or so, it has only been relatively recently recognised as such.
It has been pretty tough going here. In fact, in the 1960’s apparently many producers had their vinatas (locations where mezcal is made) smashed to pieces by government authorities looking to prevent the production of illegal alcohol. Allegedly. I would never criticise the government here. I like living here.
In some cases this resulted in the loss of centuries of family tradition.
Fight for Recognition
So for many a year…centuries in fact, mezcal was produced here in Michoacan. Without recognition or certification. A huge tradition of family businesses and mezcal-making secrets. Deemed illicit by the powers that be. Why? Well, some might say the process of obtaining official recognition was super corrupt and rather political. Shocking I know! Of course I would not say such a thing. I really do like living here.
Producers in the Mezcal power state of Oaxaca are also renowned for lobbying hard against the extension of the appellation to zones outside their area.
Also, it was very expensive to gain accreditation, which made things rather difficult for the poor agave farmers of Michoacan. The battle to obtain the Appellation of Origin has high stakes. Without it, producers cannot legally produce or export ‘mezcal’, they can only sell their product as an ‘agave distillate’. This has huge ramifications on the likely success and survival of their businesses.
Ruta del Mezcal (Mezcal Route)
With its young official history, mezcal in Michoacan is ready to really take off. The place is buzzing about mezcal.
One big step in this process is the creation of the Ruta del Mezcal, which was launched in August 2018 by the State Union of Mezcaleros of Michoacan.
The aim of the Ruta is to give the general public the opportunity to understand the industry better….the production process, family traditions behind it all, and the chance to enjoy the towns and amazing Mexican country side where all this magic happens. It is also of economic benefit to the many local workers involved in the industry.
You can join a group of people to watch Mezcaleros creating fire pits and burning the agaves in them underground, ask questions about the process and of course….the best bit….sample the products!
Getting to the vinatas is super easy. Generally, they are located within an easy one hour drive of Morelia.
This initiative is still in its early days but is already proving popular, and will continue to grow.
The Mezcals of Michoacan
It was known as Burning Water before it was officially recognised as mezcal….but the locals always knew of its fantastic quality. Anyway, I like a bit of burn and bite in my mezcal, and food.
Much of the mezcal is produced in and towns such as Indaparapeo, Piedras de Lumbre, Oponguio, Etucaro and Tzitzio. Quiet places surrounded by forests and mountains. Fresh air, with the waft of subtle agave smoke. Delicious.
Michoacan mezcal has its own style and flavour. It is different to the mezcal in Oaxaca. Mezcal, in many ways is like wine. Flavours are affected by the type of agave, climate, altitude, production methods…..and many other factors.
In Oaxaca agaves such as espadin, tobala and arroqueno are commonly used.
Whilst there are a number of types of agave used in Michoacan, easily the most commonly utilised is cupreata. Mezcals from Oaxaca are often fruity and sweet, but the cupreata of Michoacan is typically earthy and smoky. Mmmm smoky.
The other commonly used agave here is Inaequidens. This agave must be grown in shaded forest areas and tends to have earthy and citrusy characteristics. Mezcal in Michoacan is also produced from the Cenizo, Tequilana and Americano agaves. Each has their own unique Michoacan characteristics.
Mezcal in Michoacán is often produced in a very artisanal (handmade) and unique way. Distillation may occur using the Phillipino method, which predates copper-pot distillation. This technique requires the body of the still to be made from wood, with the alcohol vapours condensed by a copper pot full of water that sits at the top of the trunk. This process adds to the particular mezcal taste only found here in this state.
Of course, taste is always a personal thing…and whilst Oaxaca and other states have some amazing mezcals…more and more people are discovering and loving the unique flavours of Michoacan!
Now and the Future
Mezcal has been an important part of the cultural fabric of Michoacan for a hell of a long time…in fact for as long as 400 years. Since it was officially recognised in 2012 however, its popularity and recognition has started to rise dramatically.
It is now increasingly popular at fancy restaurants and mezcalerias (mezcal bars) in Morelia. It has become the third most recognized and consumed mezcal after Oaxaca and Guerrero.
There are a large amount of producers in the state, but at this time only a very small percentage of the mezcals are exported. This in many ways is exciting, as people are regularly discovering new producers and mezcals. Flavours they have never experienced before, created by techniques unique to Michoacan.
As more producers here become certified and officially recognised, more product can be exported. More of the world can try this mezcal. Different tastes will be noted. Different flavours achieved through different methods.
I’m like a kid in a candy store here. I’ve stumbled onto something pretty amazing. My mezcal adventures have just begun. So much exploring to do. So many new experiences await.
I look forward to bringing you more information about the producers and mezcals here. I will be reviewing products, mezcalerias and interviewing key people in the industry to provide the latest updates in this region.
Mezcal is booming in Michoacan.