“…From Tequila your Mezcal…”
By: Luis Miguel Dorador
There are countless legends that tell the tale of the origin of mezcal, but all agree that it comes from the heart of the goddess Mayahuel (“metl” which surrounds the maguey and “yahualli” round in Nahuatl). The elixir that flowed from her heart had the special gift of making a human being happy by generating pleasure and joy. For centuries this sweet liquid that flows when extracting mead from the maguey and is then fermented becomes “octli” or pulque, a drink that was reserved for only the elite of the monarchs, priests and warriors in pre-Columbian Mexico. With the passage of time it became a faithful companion of men and women who celebrate victories and drown their sorrows, it has inspired poems and songs, and in the last decades it has distinguished Mexico as the prime producer of a very high quality agave distillate.
Since ancient times, the consumption of brandy was common in Mexico. When the Spaniards arrived they tried it, found out where it came from and called it “Agave”, the Greek word for noble or remarkable because of the multiple uses it bestowed upon them. The evolution of its production process included the introduction of the tahona for grinding, the wooden vats for fermentation, the copper still for distilling and the use of blown glass demijohns to store the agave brandy without modifying its color, aroma, body and flavor thereby achieving a pure mezcal.
At the end of the 18th century, Cenobio Sauza (Jalisco) and Nabor Mendoza (Baja California Sur) received recognition from the World’s Columbian Commission, organizer of the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893 for their exhibition of Mezcal Brandy (as it was known then). Mr. Sauza then embarked on a mission to improve the production of a type of mezcal using the blue agave (tequilana webber) that would become what we now know as tequila. However, the rest of the country continued to produce mezcal in different areas and the result was defined more by the type or variety of agave rather than any special technique. That is why we currently find Bacanora in Sonora, Sotol in Chihuahua, Raicilla mainly in Nayarit and of course Mezcal in the states of Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Michoacán, Oaxaca, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas and Zacatecas.
Mezcal production and availability is abundant in regions where agaves are grown including those areas where they grow in the wild. Maturation periods vary and range from 7 to 12 years for the Espadín and Salmiana variety, 12 to 18 years for the Barril and Tobala, and, the longest period can be between 18 to 30 years for the Arroqueño or the Tepeztate. Other elements in the environment in which they grow (the herbs and flowers that surround them), the type of soil (arid, mineral or stony), the topography (valleys, hillsides or cliffs), infuse each production process with its unique flavor and alcohol levels ranging from 38% to 55%.
Basically, there are three varieties of mezcal: young, worm and abocado. The Mezcal Joven – young mescal – is directly from the still: white, pure, and without modifications; Mezcal with Worm has a light golden color and its flavor is very distinctive due to the maguey worm that gives it that smoky and strong flavor. The Abocados are a long term family custom – somewhat personal – where, in the world of alcoholic drinks abocado means “sweet and dry”. These qualities are produced by infusing the mezcal with fruits, aromatic herbs, vegetables and even nuts or seeds. This is done almost ritually and the recipes go from generation to generation. Some of these Abocados are known as a home remedy to calm colic, aches and pains, migraines, hangovers, rheumatism and even for digestion problems. Just as each family has its doctor, each Mezcal producer has its own abocado.
So, the real question is: What is the difference between Mezcal and Tequila? Simply put: production. Tequila requires a process so technical that there are very few producers who continue to use the old, traditional methods. Tequila has become a more valuable distillate due to aging in barrels rather than the production process and each time a new improved production process is added, its value increases. Such is the case of the “crystalline” that is aged and filtered to eliminate any color absorbed from the wood of the barrels while aging.
When talking about mezcales, each batch is different from the previous one because the agave is not harvested on a regular timetable. Agave is harvested when it is ripe, and it is cooked using the same type of mature firewood each time, and nature is always respected. Some use the conical oven at ground level and others a brick oven; there are producers who do their grinding with mallets and others with tahonas (stone wheel) without the use of presses; depending on how rustic the ranch, the liquid is fermented in cowhide, or a stone, wood or steel tub; the distillation can be in clay pots or in a copper or stainless steel still. For each and every mezcal, you can spot the work of a Master Mezcalero by locating his or her signature on the finished product, which can be considered a work of art. The current trend of hand-made products, with no preservatives, produced with more natural and less industrialized processes gives mezcal the recognition it deserves on the international market that only the globally available tequila has known thus far.
Finally, it is important to know the proper technique of Mezcal tasting: “… choose a mezcal that talks to you” If you really like the shape of the bottle that makes your choice easy – but make sure you also check the label! Find out its alcohol content and which agave was used, serve it in a wide-mouthed glass so you can appreciate its smell, drink it like you are giving little kisses, very slowly, wet your lips, let it trickle down under your tongue and after swishing it about for a bit, you will sense the explosion of alcohol molecules and then, and only then, will you understand the true taste of agave. It is not strong, it is very smooth … given that it is as sweet as honey.
Luis Miguel Dorador is Master Mezcalier of La Damajuana, a boutique restaurant specializing in mezcales located in downtown Cabo San Lucas.