We love mezcal. We’ve already written about it in relation to tequila, but with this post, we wanted to focus on the more cultural parts of mezcal production.
As luck would have it, our co-founder, Pedro, just visited the birthplace of mezcal, Oaxaca. There he saw first hand the dedication and talent of the producers, and learned about the blessings and tensions created by the huge surge in demand for the smokey clear spirit from the heart of Mexico.
“We stayed in Oaxaca city,” as Pedro tells it, “and sampled mezcals at Mezcaloteca "tasting room" (requires reservations) and Mezcalerita', local craft beer, mezcal bar in the city. Then we ventured to where it all started, the village of Santiago Matatlan, a small town an hour east of the city.”
Santiago Matatlan has the most “palenques” of any city in Mexico. Palenques are essentially to mezcal what a winery is to wine, the place where a plant is turned into an alcoholic beverage. Most of the producers he saw used very traditional method of grinding the agave using a horse powered mill. These millstones weigh at least half a ton, many much more than that!
“The beauty of mezcal is that it’s embedded in Oaxacan culture,” Pedro notes. “It’s an extremely labor intensive process that takes years. You have to love doing it to make it. Usually it’s families that’ve been doing it for generations.”
Recently, everyone wants mezcal, so a lot of these producers who’d only ever had to make enough for friends and family are now being asked to make enough to put on the shelves of shops like ours, thousands of miles away. While there’s been a lot of investment in helping them produce more, many also want to remain sustainable.
“This creates a lot of political tension, too, because everyone wants a piece of the mezcal pie. It’s kinda like with Champagne. True Champagne needs to come from Champagne. Legally in Mexico, 11 different states (new additions in 2018: Aguascalientes, Estado de Mexico) can produce mezcal. And they do it really well. But it’s originally from Oaxaca, and they have very old traditions that make their spirits special. So they feel that the government is kinda overstepping their bounds by letting other places legal to make mezcal. It’s all being pushed by the huge demand for the spirit.”
As Pedro mentions above, mezcal is really hard to make. First of all, the plant itself such as Espadín takes 3-5 years to ripen and other agave such as Tobalá (12-18 years) and Jabalí can take 20-30 years to ripen. Once you harvest, you kill the plant. In addition, to make something fermentable from agave, you have to mill it. Once you mill it, then you roast it. It’s back breaking, but very rewarding, work. This is why each mezcal is so different, and why many are so hard to get.
“Mezcal is like wine,” Pedro explains. “The type of agave plays a big role, mineral concentration, the way you cook it, they way you harvest it, sun exposure, altitude, rainfall, it all plays a big role. Agave is just as influenced by terroir as grapes.”
Most producers distill twice. After the first distillation, they remove the “head” (the first 20% or so) and “tail” (the last 10-15%) and redistill the “body.” To avoid waste, they use the head and tail for a variety of things, most commonly they mix it with fruits and sip on it as a dessert type of cordial.
So how does all this pertain to cocktails?
“They pretty much drink great mezcal neat, as should you. But I did have some really good cocktails with it while I was down there. Basically, they follow the fruit profile. Tropical fruits, oranges, tamarind, passion fruit, pineapple...whatever is local to them. I had a really nice drink that was orange juice, grenadine, lime and mezcal, with the rim of the glass rimmed with ‘sal de chapulín’ or grasshopper salt (we have this at the shop, btw.)”
Sounds delicious, Pedro! Visit him at the shop and ask all about his recent trip. And make a little piece of Pedro’s trip at home.
1 ½ oz Reposado de Gusano Mezcal
1 oz fresh squeezed orange juice
½ oz lime juice
½ oz grenadine
1 lime wedge (garnish)
Sal de Chapulín (rim)
Pour some Sal de Chapulín onto a plate. Line the outside of the rim of the rocks glass with lime juice and roll the glass over the salt. Garnish with lime and set aside. Add mezcal, lime juice, orange juice, grenadine and ice into a bar glass and stir for 15 seconds. Carefully strain into rock glass and serve.