Mezcal, Tequila's smoky, savory cousin!
Tequila! The finest spirit made by our southern neighbor, is getting a run for its money. Mezcal, once known as that stuff with the worm in the bottle, is finally getting the respect it deserves. The history of Mezcal and Tequila is inextricably entwined, and Mezcal came first! When the Spanish first came to Mexico, they taught the native population European methods of how to distill the native fermented drink pulque, and Mezcal was born.
It can be made from any of 11 different types of Maguey, the local name for the Agave plant, including quishe, pasmo, tepestate, tobala, espadin, largo, pulque, azul, blanco, ciereago and mexicano, but most mezcal is made from the agave espadin.
Mezcal is made by taking mature maguey plants and roasting them in stone ovens or traditional pits to break down the complex sugars in the plant into something that can be distilled into alcohol. The ovens are believed to enhance the smoky flavors Mezcal is now known for. The roasted maguey hearts are then pressed, the resulting juice is then fermented with natural yeasts, traditionally in either clay or copper pots, and then it is all distilled twice to achieve the desired alcohol level.
There are three legal classifications for Mezcal: Mezcal, Mezcal Artesanal, and Mezcal Ancestral. The Mezcal class is the most modern of the three, and allows the use of column stills, stainless steel vats for fermentation, and Diffusers for roasting. Artesanal allows roasting in pits or ovens, fermentation in animal skins, pits, stone, concrete or earthen tanks,and distillation in Copper pot stills or Filipino style clay stills. Ancestral only allows earthen pits to roast, fermentation in traditional vessels, and distillation only in a direct fire Filipino clay still. Artesanal and Ancestral both allow Bagazo, the fibers of the maguey, to be added to the mash for distillation or fermentation stages. It is important to remember that the 3 levels are more about the style of the mezcal made, and have much less to do with the quality of the finished spirit.
Mezcal is crafted throughout 9 different states in Mexico (Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Michoacán, Oaxaca, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas and Zacatecas) but most consider the heart of Mezcal to be Oaxaca, which accounts for 60% of production, with Durango being next.
Over time, Tequila eclipsed Mezcal in demand, and transformed from a cheap and rough spirit to one of high class, akin to a single malt or a high end bourbon. And that desire for high quality tequila has energized the Mezcal world, with many family or craft distilleries coming to the America for us to try!
Here are some producers that are lighting up the Craft Mezcal landscape
- Mezcal del Maguey – Single village Mezcals bottled to show off the difference not only in the type of Maguey used, but also the point of origin. Start with Vida de San Luis del Rio, an 84 proof Mezcal Blanco made from Espadin.
- Gem & Bolt – Made in Oaxaca, this mezcal is distilled with the local herb Damiana, used by the Aztecs and Mayans for centuries as a euphoric and, notably, an aphrodisiac!
- Derrumbes Zacatecas Mezcal – Hand crafted Mezcals each representing the style of a different state, the Zacatecas is made from Tequiliana Weber agave grown in Hacienda de Guadalupe and uses copper pot distillation and is 96 proof!
- Mezcal Craneo – This is an Organic Mezcal that is a single village done the Artisanal method by David Ravandi, a mezcalaros in Santiago Matalan.
- Casamigos – One of the most popular quality tequila brands also makes a great Mezcal that is the perfect first step for those new to its delights!
- Rey Campero – Nestled into the southern mountains of Oaxaca, Rey Campero grows and distills many types of agave including rarities like Tepextate and Jabali, but his entire line is delightful!
Be sure to check your local Buy Rite to see what Mezcal’s they carry!