Tequila 104

by Russ Motley, Akumal Investments  (May 2012)

Tequila 101 covered the different types of tequila and their related characteristics. Tequila 102 went into some of the background and history of tequila, and then moved into the production side of the liquor. Tequila 103 looked into pulque, and now Tequila 104 looks at mescal.

Mezcal (also mescal or meskal) is a spirit distilled from mash made out of the steamed hearts of various species of agaves. The word mezcal comes from the Aztec language, the Nahuatl, and means "cooked agave": mezcalli from metl = agave, ixcalli = cooked. Historically, mezcal is the general term for all kinds of agave spirits made in Mexico. Since 1994, however, there is a protected denomination of origin for mezcal.

Mezcal is not the same as tequila, and the two should never be confused. Technically, tequila is a form of mezcal, more properly known as "mezcal de tequila."

The Mexican state of Oaxaca is the official home of mezcal and a traditional center for mezcal making in Mexico, producing 60 percent of the country’s mezcal. Mezcal is another name for the maguey plant. Additionally, mezcal is the generic name for all spirits distilled from the agave, as well as the name of a regional beverage, similar to tequila, but made mostly in the state of Oaxaca. Mezcal is also native to the states of San Luis Potosí, Michoacán, Jalisco, Durango, Morelos, Nuevo León, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas.

Mezcal is made from the agave plant, often referred to as maguey. Its production, according to most recent evidence, pre-dates the Spanish Conquest. Many of today's facilities use the same age-old technique, although some of the tools of the trade have changed. Clay pots originally used for manufacturing and storage have been replaced with copper serpentine for distillation, and oak and glass for aging and transporting.

Most mezcal is produced in the state of Oaxaca, where it is estimated that there are about 5,000 production facilities. Fewer than 150 of these are members of the regulated association. Most are tiny mom-and-pop operations serving a local community and its hinterland. Some produce the spirit for distribution primarily in the city of Oaxaca, and a handful cater to the export market. In all, there is a broad range of quality in terms of smoothness, flavor nuances and smokiness. In fact, the well-entrenched tradition of Oaxacans discerning personal palate-worthiness of different mezcals manifests itself not through sampling store-bought designer bottles with smart labels, but rather through acquiring multi-liter receptacles from towns and villages in different regions of the state.

There are three major reasons for the diversity of mezcal. Firstly, as is the case with grape varieties in wine production, there is a range of agave suitable for mezcal production. Secondly, there are microclimates yielding plants with subtle differences based on, for example, soil composition and length and quality of growing season, again similar to what we find regarding vineyards. Finally, there is significant variation in the means of production as determined by the Mezcalero, or brewmaster. Each decision is crucial in determining the quality of the finished product, beginning with choosing the precise time when the plant is ready for harvest.

The Agave or Maguey Plant
The agave or maguey (pronounced muh-GAY) plant is part of the Agavaceae family, which has more than 120 subspecies. The mezcal maguey has very large, thick leaves with points at the ends. When it is mature, it forms a "piña” or heart in the center from which juice is extracted to convert into mezcal. It takes seven years for the plant to mature.

In Oaxaca, there are well over 50 varieties of maguey, roughly 18 of which are used in the production of mezcal. However, about 90 percent of mezcal is made with the espadín agave, perhaps 5 percent uses tobalá, and the remaining types, found predominantly in the wild, comprise the balance. Espadín is similar to the blue agave traditionally used in the production of tequila. However, since blue agave grows in different climates than does espadín, the geographical distinction alone is enough to create a differentiation in taste. But the main difference between mezcal and tequila is that tequila is produced using stone ovens or stainless steel tanks for cooking, while mescal, in most instances, still employs the centuries-old method of baking the agave in an in-ground oven over firewood and river rocks.

Agave/maguey fields are a common sight in the semi-desert areas of Oaxaca state and other parts of Mexico.

The agave, or maguey, is cultivated on plantations for eight to 10 years, depending on the type of agave. When the plant reaches sexual maturity, it starts to grow a flower stalk. The agave farmer, or campesino, cuts off the stalk just as it is starting to grow. This redirects the plant growth into the central stalk, swelling it into a large, bulbous shape that contains a sweet, juicy pulp. When the swelling is completed, the campesino cuts the plant from its roots and removes the long sword-shaped leaves, using a razor-sharp pike-like tool called a coa. The remaining piña ("pineapple"—so-called because the cross-thatched, denuded bulb resembles a giant green and white pineapple) weighs anywhere from 25 to 100 pounds.

It takes approximately seven tons of raw piña to produce 1,000 liters of mezcal, depending on the type of mezcal being produced.

First, the agave piñas get slowly steam-cooked to turn the carbohydrates into convertible sugars. To do this, a hole is dug in the earth, hardwood ignited inside and stones piled over and around it to hold the heat. When the wood has completely burned down and the stones are red hot, the hearts of the agaves are spread out on top of them. A layer of moist agave fibers protects the plants from the hot stone and keeps them from burning.

Approximately four tons of agaves can be treated during every process. The pile gets covered with another layer of dry fibers and is finally buried under a thick layer of earth. It rests like this for three to five days to allow for a complete and slow conversion. After this steaming process, the oven gets dismantled and the piñas are stored in a clean and dry place. The flesh of the plants is now soft, dark brown and sweet smelling from fresh plant sap and caramel. It has also acquired tones from wood, smoke and earth, all aspects of the process.

To prepare for the fermentation, the plants are cut into pieces approximately the size of a hand, and unusable parts are discarded. The usable material is milled into a fibrous pulp (bagazo) by a stone mill (tahona, molino egipcio or molino chileno). The mill wheel stands upright in a shallow basin containing the agave pieces and is connected to a central pole by a horizontal beam. It is drawn in circles by a mule, and the pulp shredded to extract the sweet juice, called aguamiel (honey water).

The pulp produced by this molienda is now mashed in tanks of different types, depending on the region, its traditions and material availabilities: dugout trunks, stone pits, and many more, but mostly big, wooden vats. These containers are always open to allow natural yeasts to begin fermentation. Cultivated yeasts are not used in producing traditional mezcal. Depending on the size of the vat, outside temperature, humidity and the types of agaves, the fermentation takes between one to three weeks. Its end is marked by decreasing sounds inside the vat, the shape of the openings in the pulp floating on top of the vat (both caused by the expulsion of CO2), the smell and temperature of the mash, as well as the taste of samples taken on different levels of the container. When all sugars are converted, the mash has about five percent alcohol and is ready for distilling.

Traditionally, mezcal has been distilled in pot stills to 110 proof (55 percent ABV). Usually copper pot stills (alambiques) are used for distillation, but there are also clay pots (ollas) or pots made from different plants (reed, agaves, bamboo, wood, etc.). All of these forms don't allow for continuous distillation, which means that each portion has to be distilled completely before opening the still to refill it. The most popular still is the alembik from copper with a container for the mash (olla, cucúrbita or retorta), a separable helmet (cabezote, montera or capitel) on top of that which leads the vapors into a tube, ending in the worm condenser (serpentín or culebra).

Mezcal minero is produced in stills from earthenware pots. The container for the mash is an amphora-shaped clay pot, which is fixed into a mud brick oven, heated from below with firewood. A clay pot with openings at both ends (montera) is placed on top of that to receive the vapors. The condenser, a copper pan (cazo), is placed on the upper opening and contains cold water. On its curved bottom the condensed liquid gathers and drips into a wooden spoon (paleta) fixed underneath and then is led by a hollow reed to the outside of the still. The spirits produced this way have a very individual character and an extraordinary grade of purity. Therefore, minero is considered one of the best mezcals available. The challenge in producing it is in the handling of this unusual still and its delicate clay pots.

Usually mezcal is distilled twice in the region of Oaxaca, along with the solids from the fermentation. In other regions, however, distillers prefer to use only the liquid parts, as tequila-producers do.

First Distillation: The still is filled with the liquid parts of the mash and—in Oaxaca—with the solids to equal parts. During the heating process, a liquid containing around 20 to 30 percent of alcohol is obtained (ordinario, común or shishe), similar to running a wash still in whisky production.

Second Distillation: The second run (rectificación) produces heads (puntas or cabezas), heart (cuerpo, corazón) and tails (cola). The heart is now also called mezcal and has a graduation between 45 and 55 percent of alcohol. It is consumed at the strength it comes out of the still, without being diluted with water.

The resulting spirit is clear, but contains a significant amount of congeners and other flavor elements. 

Color in mezcal comes mostly from the addition of caramel, although barrel aging is a factor in some high-quality brands. Additionally, some distillers add small amounts of natural flavorings, such as sherry, prune concentrate, and coconut to manipulate the product's flavor profile. These added flavors do not stand out themselves, but instead serve to smooth out the often hard-edged palate of agave spirits.

Finally, Mezcal
Mezcal, like a whisky or scotch, has many variations and characteristics. The priciest mezcal, smooth, amber-colored and aged in oak barrels, can sell for more than $60 a bottle. Pictured is Mezcal Añejo Zignum ($67.00), mezcal aged over 12 months in white oak barrels. It is made of 100% Agave. 38% alc/vol. It has a beautiful, bright amber color and complex aromas with notes that exude smoldering. Smooth and thin on the palate, it is rich and persistent. To appreciate this mezcal, the best way to serve it is in a short glass with a little ice.

At the lower end of the spectrum is the clear, throat-burning mezcal that usually has a worm. That product is labeled "joven," or "young." Similar to special European products of origin, such as wine and cheese, mezcal is protected as an "appellation of origin." The Official Mexican Standard (Norma Oficial Mexicana) acts as a form of support in the process of certification, verification and monitoring of mezcal.

There are three categories for mezcal according to their age, similar to tequila:
•    Joven: Unaged, of clear color.
•    Mezcal reposado: Aged minimum two months in containers of holm oak (encino—Quercus ilex) or white oak (roble blanco—Quercus alba), light caramel in color.
•    Mezcal añejo or añejado: Aged for minimum 1 year in similar containers, limited to a capacity of 200 liters. Dark caramel in color.

All three types can be processed to mezcal abogado, which allows certain natural products to be added, such as colorings or aromas. Mezcal de gusano ("with worm") is a mezcal abogado.

Mezcal should not be consumed like a shot. Like other premium spirits, it needs to be relished out of a glass that allows air to make contact with the beverage in order to develop its full flavor, like armagnac, cognac, or grappa glasses. First impressions are of smoke and earth, obtained by the cooking of the agaves, followed by caramel and fresh greens and, depending on the kind of agaves used, various others like citrus fruits, mint, vanilla, marzipan, fig, honey, cinnamon, mango and many more flavors.

Everybody may decide for him/herself if he/she likes aged mezcals, but there are fine tones lost in favor of the stronger flavors from the barrel. In any case, strange gimmicks like insects and the like should be avoided. Worms and larva belong on a plate, not in a bottle! This is also true for other strong-tasting side orders like sal de gusano, sangrita, peanuts, lime and others, because they adulterate the original flavors. A glass of water and some bread are recommended.

The Worm
Another interesting error is an urban legend related to a worm. The worm-in-the-bottle myth is old and tired. The truth has been broadcast and expounded for years by the cognoscenti of tequila, in newspapers, magazines and on the Internet. Yes, it's true, some American-bottled brands put one in their bottle to impress the gringos and boost sales, but it was a marketing ploy developed in the 1940s, not a Mexican tradition.

Sometimes however, there is a worm, properly a butterfly caterpillar, in some types of mezcal. You may also get a small bag of worm salt and chile powder tied to a mezcal bottle. There are two types of worms in mezcal: the red, gusano rojo—considered superior because it lives in the root and heart of the maguey—and the less-prized white or gold gusano de oro, which lives on the leaves. The red gusano turns pale in the mezcal; the gold turns ashen-gray. Both larvae are commonly eaten as food and are sold in Zapotec markets.

Yes, you are supposed to eat the worm in mezcal. Do not worry; it is quite well pickled and free of pesticides (they are often raised just for use in mezcal, cooked and pickled in alcohol for a year). However, dispel any idea that it has any magical or psychotropic properties, that it is an aphrodisiac or the key to an "unseen world." It is merely protein and alcohol, but it is very rich in imagery.

Watch for Tequila 105.