A Taste of Mezcal

Exploring this traditional Mexican spirit with newbies at a Boston area bar
photo by Manny Gonzales

photo by Manny Gonzales

Quetzalcoatl (co-ex-all-cuat-ol) the feathered serpent god of redemption one day recalled his passion for Mayahuel (Maya-Who-Well) the goddess of fertility. Finding her asleep in the sky he awakened her and persuaded her to travel to the earth with him. There they joined into the union of a forked tree. When Mayahuel’s grandmother, an evil star demon awoke and found her gone she was enraged and dove straight from the sky to find the two lovers. She tore Mayahuel to pieces and ordered her servant demons to devour her body leaving a saddened Quetzalcoatl alone to grieve. In this state Quetzalcoatl gathered her bones and planted them in the earth. From her humble grave grew a plant, a simple spiny plant called “Maguey” which we now refer to as “agave.” And from this simple plant came a milky, viscous sap called “aguamiel” or honey water. Once fermented this brew would be known as Pulque, a true nectar from the heavens. When distilled this rich elixir took on a new life, one that transcended its godly status to reach the hands of  common men so they too could be in tune with Quetzalcoatl and his forlorn lover Mayahuel and this new life was called “Mezcal “.

Mezcal has become the new darling for the bar scene but this spirit has roots in ancient lore, tradition and memory. It is widely believed that the Spaniards brought distillation to the new world when they tried the Mesoamerican ritual drink of choice and immediately turned their noses not realizing or caring that Pulque was serious business and not a drink for

ctsy Arik Torren

ctsy Arik Torren

commoners. It was reserved for celebrations, ritual sacrifices and for the priests and kings. It was a celebration to the gods. Needless to say the Spaniards were not impressed with the milky elixir but saw some potential. Perhaps they were the first to distill  Pulque into a crude spirit that would later become Mezcal but some of the stills used are not the round, bulbous stills of Western Europe. May of these stills that are used today resemble those before  the middle ages when it had been theorized that the far east had already made contact with the “New World”  hundreds of years before the Europeans. There have even been leaves from the Coca plant found in the wrappings of ancient pharaohs so it is quite plausible that distillation predates the Spaniards in the Americas.

A few weeks ago I held a spirits class at the Saloon  and decided to entice tequila lovers with it’s forbearer: Mezcal. For those not familiar with Mezcal as some in the class, it is the heart of Mexico. It is intense, smoky, creamy and powerful. It embodies that beauty of Mexican culture. It is old, mystical and deep. Mezcal, like Tequila, comes from the agave plant which we will refer to by it’s traditional name – maguey, but Mezcal is different. Lets start from the start.

ctsy Joanna Pinneo

ctsy Joanna Pinneo

The hearts of the maguey, a relative to yucca and not  cactus, are first heated to help release sugars to start fermentation. In Tequila the hearts, or “pina”, are steamed and then crushed by a giant press. With traditional Mezcal they are placed in a deep earthen pit over smoldering embers of mesquite. Here they smoke for a couple of days.  Then they are taken to the tahona, a grinding stone which is powered by horse or mule to be crushed. It is then fermented and distilled in small alambic pot stills. The batches are tinny and rich. Agave does not ferment or distill to a high proof.  Whiskey can run off the still at 70% abv; Mezcal will run off at 55%. Many of the top Mezcals are around 50%-52% ABV which means that very little water is added to lower the proof. What you are left with is the pure, spicy and smoked legacy of centuries of distilling tradition.

photo by Arik Torren

photo by Arik Torren

On to our tasting:

Dram  1: Mezcal Vago, Mexicano, Oaxaca

Where Tequila uses a single varietal of Maguey, the blue agave, coming from a single place – Jalisco – Mezcal is much more varied with different varietals of maguey coming from 8 different regions, each with their own climate, texture, culture and terroir.

Mezcal Vago comes from Oaxaca (Wa-hawk-a) using a variety of maguey called Mexicano which has a sweeter, starchy quality with less of the pepper than the Espadín (the work horse of Mezcal and great grandfather to the blue agave). What is cool about this strain of maguey is that it is thought to originate on the very hillside where it is harvested. The mezcalero (the still master)  uses 90%  Mexicano with 10% Espadín to add a leaner body, giving the Mezcal a subtle spice. The palate has a warm sweetness. The story behind Mezcal Vago is a sweet story of love, hangovers, cock fighting and gasoline.

photo by manny gonzales

photo by manny gonzales

Many of the attendees were first time drinkers of Mezcal so I was not sure how this night was going to go. For one or two guests it was like jumping in ice water, the intense smokiness was a bit of a shock. There’s nothing more stressful than defending your spirit selections and tasting so it’s time to take another sip… better!

Dram 2: Mezcales de Leyanda, Guerrero

Mezcales de Leyanda (bronze medal winner of the 2014 International Spirits Competition) is a cooperative that sources from 3 of the designated regions. This one coming from Guerrero (just north of Oaxaca) is using the Cupreata maguey, which has a sweeter, almost fruity feel. I got a tons of fresh cut peaches, guava and strawberries on the nose.  

photo by Jordan McCusker

photo by Jordan McCusker

This one had some mixed reviews. A friend of mine whom I had worked with several years ago and who is a lover of Mezcal was not overly fond of it. It had too much fruit on the nose for her but a couple of newbie Mezcal drinkers had taken to it. Fortunately they were both Scotch drinkers and so the rich smokiness along with the sweeter mouthfeel made them feel right at home. One of the guests however looked concerned. She had never tried Mezcal before and seemed to struggle a little.

Dram 3: Pierde Almas, Tobaziche

Pierde Almas coming from Oaxaca uses a lot of wild maguey including the Tobaziche.  The wild maguey harvester covets their harvest point like white truffle hunters. It is very serious

photo by Arik Torren

photo by Arik Torren

business and even the distillers have no idea where it is harvested from but it is best not to ask or follow a man with a machete in the mountains of Oaxaca. Pierde Almas is all about the expression from year to year, so each release will vary from the next. Where many mezcaleros want to create a consistent Mezcal you can set your watch to, I really love the almost viticultural attitude towards Pierde Almas’ spirits. This style of Mezcal is bold and rich. The smokiness is relaxed and the palate focused.

It was at this point one of the guests who was having a hard time with the first two Mezcals gave me the best description I have ever heard. “This won’t make sense to you. I didn’t grow up here, I grew up in Ohio. One winter I went on a school field trip to the Governor’s mansion. This smells like the fireplace at the Governor’s mansion.” For me, this is why we should drink – to

photo by Manny Gonzales

photo by Manny Gonzales

take us back and remember. Letting it take her to a moment also gave her a better understanding of the night. Mexico is deeply connected to its past and at least for the moment, Mezcal was connecting her with her own, even if she was not overly fond of them.

Dram 4: Piedres Almas, Pechuga

So I know I am repeating the region of Oaxaca and the producer of Pierde Almas but their Pechuga is special. As I mentioned before, Mezcal stems from Pulque. Pulque was a nod to the gods. It was used at sacrifices. Pechuga refers to poultry breast. This is the sacrifice: The poultry breast (turkey breast here) is placed into the still with herbs, berries, nuts and spices. The still is now heated and the oils and aromas of the ingredients all run through the still and condense to an intense liquid.

When I first told the group how Pechuga was made more than one eyebrow was raised. The idea of drinking turkey seems not just odd, but rather off putting. After the first sip however, lips began to

photo by Manny Gonzales

photo by Manny Gonzales

curve to growing smiles. One of the guests who had some years ago spent time in Oaxaca felt connected to this one. Perhaps it has a sense of place and an affiliation with the Pulque which is its root – a nod to the gods and a fire inside.

Spirits tasting, especially a Mezcal like Pechuga,  is all about letting go of preconceived notions so you can approach what may seem unapproachable with an open mind.

Dram 5, La Venenosa Raicilla, Sierra del Tigre

Raicilla (Rye-see-a) is a new category in the North American spirits world and although not labeled as a Mezcal, they are in fact closely linked through history. In the 1700s, Spain had put a heavy tax on Mezcal. In the region of Jalisco where Tequila is king bee, a few distillers convinced the Spanish tax collectors that they were not making Mezcal  (even though they were) by changing the name of the spirit from Mezcal to Raicilla. This was the drink of the miners in the Sierras of Mexico. It is a mountain elixir made from a maguey called Inaquidens, known locally as “Bruto”. Where traditional Mezcal is smoked in earthen pits, Raicilla is heated in brick ovens. It is fermented and then it is distilled. This particular one is made in ancient Filipino clay pot stills and is one of the funkiest spirits I have ever tasted, but damn it is delicious. There was a rich creamy aroma and texture with hints of cedar and tropical fruits. Someone thought it smelled a little like Cheeto’s… I have to agree. Another smell of childhood.

photo by Manny Gonzales

photo by Manny Gonzales

This was one spirit where I had no idea what the reaction would be. Surprisingly, the guest who seemed to be having the hardest time with the tasting (I knew there would be a couple at least) feel in love with this. She even contemplated getting a bottle for her home.

Going through this tasting was a trip for the guests as well as for me. As I mentioned earlier, I was nervous about how people would react to their first experience with Mezcal. The group comprised of Scotch drinkers, Bourbon lovers, bartenders, world travelers and foodies who all had different experiences. But as their palates warmed up so did their appreciation for the spirits. We all think we know what we like but I tend to think that we like what we know. Mezcal and Tequila have a common identity and understanding and although Tequila and Mezcal are like kissing cousins, the spirits at our tasting lend themselves to great whisky. They are edgy, complex, smoky and real. Mezcaleros and lovers of the fire inside have protected these Mezcals from becoming an overly marketed, watered down industry. It is iconic, hard and like Mexico herself, seldom pretty but always beautiful.

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