What the Hell is Mezcal?
It’s a question I’ve been asked a few times. What the hell is mezcal?
The word mezcal is derived from a native, pre-hispanic language which means oven-cooked agave.
To be considered a true mezcal, it must be made from 100 per cent agave. It should have an alcohol percentage of at least 45%.We are playing with the big boys here.
It is also worth noting that tequila need only be made of a minimum of 51% blue agave. Unlike mezcal, the other 49% can be made up of various other additives.
So what’s agave? Well it’s the magnificent plant that is used to produce mezcal. It comes in many different shapes, sizes and looks like a cactus. But it’s not. It’s actually a member of the lily family.
Often in Mexico, the type of agave used to produce mezcal is referred to as maguey.
OK, so this is where things start to get interesting. Well for me at least.
Consider tequila. I like tequila. Quite a lot. In my experience however, they tend to be bad (rough as guts), or good (smooth as a baby’s bum). That is…in my humble opinion the differences between different tequilas centre around the quality of the product, but not really varieties of flavours or tastes.
This is where mezcal shines.
Tequila can be produced using only one variety of agave. The blue agave.
On the other hand, mezcal is made from up to maybe as many as 50 different agaves. Each agave has different properties resulting in different tastes. Combine this with the fact that altitude, weather, surrounding flora and fauna….and handmade techniques of the producers vary greatly….and you can get an idea of how much variety there is in the world of mezcal.
This may explain why it is so exciting for a relative mezcal newbie like myself to stumble upon this amazing drink. So much to learn…..so much to drink!
Types of Agave
There are lots. Heaps.
As I said before, up to around 50 different types of agave are utilised to make the stuff.
Later I plan to provide an in depth analysis of all agaves used in mezcal production, but just as a brief overview….a taster if you will….some of the more popular varieties are:
The vast majority of mezcal is produced from this agave. Maybe up to 90% in fact. It is a very sturdy plant and as a result it grows in many different conditions. It is pretty much impossible to describe its typical flavour as it is so versatile and producers use it in many different ways.
This is the second type of agave I tried after espadin. It really opened my eyes to how amazing mezcal can be. It grows in rocky, shady areas and must be reproduced through pollination by birds and bats rather than spreading its own seeds. I mean, how awesome is that? Mezcal is such an exotic drink! So much tradition and magic. Unsurprisingly I knew nothing of this when I savoured my first tobala, but it just tasted like something super impressive!
Generally, the taste is usually quite complex and fruity.
This might be my favourite. Maybe.
Much loved but difficult to find. Like trekking a leopard in Zambia…..not easy to stumble upon but worth the effort. It took me 3 trips to Africa to find my first, elusive leopard….and two trips to Mexico to discover my first tepeztate!
The wild agave required to make it takes at least 30 years to mature. Yes, 30 years. Quality like this takes time. It’s not two minute noodles folks.
Typically, the mezcal is very aromatic and intensely flavourful.
Could also be my favourite. In fact I think it is….maybe.
Renowned for having delicious combinations of flavours. Frequently has floral or vegetal tastes with a background of spicy, dark chocolate to complement it. Honestly, I would describe many of the arroquenos I’ve sampled as exquisite. Super complex.
It’s my local agave – from the hood. It has genuine character and….it’s a definite favourite of mine. Michoacan is very proud of its cupreata, and rightly so.
Frequently, the mezcal has a light smoky flavour with elegant herbal and citrus notes.
This is just a tip of the iceberg when it comes to all the agaves which are used to produce the mezcals of Mexico.
How is the Magic Made?
Mezcal is officially produced in 9 States of Mexico. Oaxaca being responsible for easily the largest quantity. Here in Michoacan it has been legally recognised as a mezcal producing state since 2012….although in fact production goes back hundreds of years uncertified.
Creating the magnificent elixir is a painstaking labour of love….a process developed through many generations. I will provide a pretty basic outline of the process, remembering that there are endless variations, and typing too long makes me tired!
The first step is to harvest the agave….which…depending on the type have been growing between around 4 to 30 years! When the time has come, a machete or something similar is used to hack away all the (sharp!) leaves….leaving just the heart of the agave. This is known as a pina….and in appearance looks like a giant pineapple. A big, delicious pineapple that makes mezcal. Good pineapple!
Next, the pinas are transported to the Palenque (the place where the mezcal is produced – known as a Vinata in Michoacan). This is done either by donkey (the traditional way), or truck (the modern and more comfortable way for the donkey). Keep in mind that depending on the agave type, each pina may weigh between 12 and 500 kilograms. Yes, 500. As a general rule 10 kilograms of agave produces 1 litre of mezcal.
Depending on the size of the pina, it may then be cut into smaller pieces. Occasionally, depending on the producer, the agave may then be placed into an industrial steam machine for 6 hours. However this is not the normal process. Generally, according to traditional practice, the agave is placed in an oven pit dug in the ground. The pit is filled with volcanic heated rocks (no wonder mezcal is so awesome), which are covered with various things such as leaves or wet hay. This ensures the agave does not directly touch the rocks. Once the agave have been placed inside the pit, it is then covered with earth and the fiery pit smokes away for 3 days….working its magic. This process is what results in the smoky qualities (of various different degrees) tasted in mezcal.
After 3 days the agave has softened. The sugars within the agave are changing. It is now time to mash the agave. Usually, and traditionally this is done without the use of modern equipment. The family who produce the mezcal painstakingly smash the agave with a rock connected to a stone, or enlist the help of a donkey. It is still common to see a tahona used, which is a large stone wheel which crushes the roasted agave as it is pulled by the donkey.
It’s now time for fermentation to occur, the process of turning the juicy agave sugars into alcohol. Mmmm alcohol.
The agave now has the consistency of pulled pork. It is now placed into large wooden vats to allow the fermentation to occur. Actually not just wooden vats…they also may be made from stone, cement, plastic or animal hide. Hollowed out tree trunks are also used.
The vats are completely open during the fermentation process, allowing the local environment to influence the taste of the final product. Some producers even dangle things such as chicken, deer or turkey above the vats at this time to add extra flavours. Generally fermentation takes around 8 -10 days. Wild yeasts in the air are often relied upon to kick start the fermentation. The exact fermentation time is dependent on the weather conditions….the process occurs more quickly in hotter conditions. Bubbles will occur in the liquid at this time, and the vats actually start to hum. Maybe they are just happy, thinking about what they are creating.
The final step in the process is distillation. During this time the liquid will turn clear and effectively become what we know as mezcal. Distillation can occur in various types of pots such as copper, clay, or stainless steel. Each method of course results in very different outcomes.
Almost always double distillation occurs. The second round removes any leftover roughage, and creates the final, smooth product. Undertaking a third distillation results in a distinct lack of agave taste. Not recommended.
At the end of this process, it is common for the mezcaleros (producers) to invite friends over to enjoy the first taste of their hard-worked-for new batch. I want to be invited to one of those parties one day! Please…..
To Age, or Not to Age?
Depending on the ageing process undertaken, or lack thereof…mezcals can be:
Also known as young mezcal, joven (which means young in Spanish) is unaged and clear in colour. This is the purists’ mezcal. Why? Because when drinking a joven you can truly taste the agave. The different agave qualities have so many flavours and nuances that it is simply not necessary to add an ageing process inside a wooden barrel to the equation. There are definite exceptions to this rule, but in the vast majority of cases, joven is best!
Reposado (rested in Spanish) is.…well…. rested in oak for more than two months but less than a year. This tends to result in a smoother, more subtle taste….but in my opinion usually lacks the real mezcal flavour and kick!
Anejo (old) is aged for one to three years….occasionally you might find an extra anejo, which is aged for even longer. Again, generally a bit too smooth and nice for my taste. Where is the agave? In fairness though there a couple of rippers on the market.
Things get a little complicated now, and I won’t get into too much detail here.
As there is so much history and tradition with mezcal….there are lots of ideas, and well….rules I guess….dictating what class of mezcal a particular product is. Basically, it is considered that there are 3 different categories:
Mezcal (well duh): This is the most industrial of the three. High-tech equipment can be used for roasting, fermenting and distillation.
Mezcal Artisanal: Underground pit ovens or elevated stone ovens are used. Fermentation occurs using wood, clay or masonry tanks, animal skins, hollows in stone, earth or tree trunks, and process may use agave fibres. Distillation is achieved by way of direct fire on copper stills or clay pots and coils made of clay, wood, copper, or stainless steel, and process may include agave fibres.
Mezcal Ancestral: Almost the same as Artisanal except fermentation and distillation must include agave fibres, and clay pot stills must be used.
The majority of premium mezcals are Artisanal under this definition.
What is behind its Awesomeness?
It’s the agave.
There is nothing like agave in the world.
It has very high amount of (magical) sugars, resulting in high alcohol levels. Its flavour is like nothing else.
Agave is completely different from pretty much everything else humans cultivate.
Consider the production of whisky, bourbon, rum, vodka, cognac…..the list goes on. All of these products are made by growing crops annually….grains, corn, sugarcane, potatoes, grapes…..harvesting them, processing them… and voila…..you have your booze of choice (although not the best choice!).
Agaves, well they are a very different beast. Mezcaleros need to wait, and wait….then wait a bit more. Anywhere from around 4 years to 30 years. It’s like a waiting for my football team to win another premiership. Get on with it Roos!
Once the agave is finally harvested, you need to wait all over again to mature the next batch!
It’s more than just a drink here in Mexico. Its creation is truly an art form, passed down from generation to generation.
Exploring it – and drinking it…is something special.