Some of you may never have heard of mezcal and others might just have a murky painful memory (or two) of some bygone hangover that involved it or its deadly compadres tequila, that most notorious firewater of Mexican extraction.
Mezcal and tequila are indeed similar spirits, and with most considering tequila to be a type of mezcal (means “oven cooked agave” in native Nahuatl). Essentially both are distilled from types of agave, though Tequila can only be made from blue agave, while Mezcal has more than 30 types of maguey (Agave Americana) to choose from, with most made from Agave Espadin. Mezcal is produced in eight Mexican states (mostly in Oaxaca), tequila five, but the production process for both begins with harvesting the hearts of agave or the piña. For most tequila the next step is for the agave to be pressure cooked in large stainless steel ovens. Mezcal differs in that it tends to be more artisanal in its production, with methods that go back centuries, having been passed down through generations. The technique of baking small batches in the earthen pits or stone ovens (for three to four days) is an ancient one. Industrial crushing and fermentation takes place on the large scale, but smaller producers crush the maguey in stone mills with the help of a donkey or horse with the resultant juice left to ferment for one to two weeks.
A wander through history tells us the Aztecs saw the maguey as mythically powerful plant and produced a fermented beverage from it called octli (later called pulque). However things changed (not all for the better, but that’s another story) with the arrival of the Spanish and the introduction of distillation, thus bringing mezcal into being.
Now I don’t claim to any kind of an expert (far from it), but I did learn a lot while at a masterclass of bespoke producers Alipus and Los Danzantes. The event was hosted by importer and retailer extraordinaire Amathus at their Wardour St shop; where I arrived a few minutes late. Spotting what looked to be the last empty place at the long tasting table (wedged between chatting factions of bartenders, it being an afternoon affair), and using my “ninja skills” I managed to slip into the seat practically unseen. As I settled my finely tuned reflexes must have sensed danger because my left arm flicked out at blinding speed knocking over one of my full tasting glass and smashing another. Smooth, very smooth. After a few jokes that I hadn’t even had a drink, some blushing, tidying and a refill we began tasting:
We got started with a trio of Joven or young spirits from Alipus:
San Baltazar (pine vats) – 48.1% AVB – Tannery and gamey aromas with the similar pear flavours to the San Juan but a smoky edge with a longer finish.
San Andres (cypress vats, agave crushed by hand) – 48% AVB – The nose is instantly more exotic and complex than the previous two: whiffs of soft peach, pear and perfumed elderflower. In the mouth it’s creamy stone fruit, warming hot cedar and a delicious smooth finish. A beauty!
Next was Los Danzantes (Organic and fermented by naturally occurring wild yeasts):
Joven – 42.5% AVB – The nose is wild (those yeasts), hot spicy and a kind of boozy that reminds me of grappa. Sippin it I feel as though I am in a dry hot smoky sauna made of pears.
Reposado – 43.2% AVB – Reposado means aged and in the case of this mezcal that translates to 11 months in new French white oak barrels from the Nevier forest (oh my!). Sharp eau de vie nose, tasting it there’s plenty of earthy smoke, but for the first time I can actually taste baked agave (reminded me of aloe), then lovely caramelised pear and a full sensual round finish. Yum E!
I was deeply impressed with the complexity, texture and character of the mezcal, especially the Reposado and San Andres. These hand crafted spirits had nothing in common the kinds of beverages dished out at dodgy TexMex joints by scantily clad gals (guys) in a holster full of shot glasses. Alipus and Los Danzantes are most certainly special sippers deserving of a decent size glass for swirling with perhaps a slice of orange rather than a salty hand and a wedge of lemon. Such premium quality does come at a price, with these bad boys retailing between £52-65. But if you are a fan of mezcal or known someone who is, it’s certainly worth picking up a bottle or would make a great gift.
Though none of the mezcals tasted contained any, many of you are probably thinking: What’s the deal with the worm?
Well firstly its actually a butterfly larva and is more associated with mezcal than tequila. The larvae bore into the agave heart and so were often cooked up with the maguey, with some feeling the little grubs added to mezcal’s flavour. Then sometime around 1950 some guy in Mexico city decided it would make a great gimmick to put a bug in the bottle and needless to say it has stuck.
As I stood to leave the fact that mezcal is considered to have somewhat more of a psychotropic effect than the usual inebriation was made plain. That sensation of being a bit “high”, I felt invigorated and left smiling with that most famous Oaxaca saying ringing in my ears:
“para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también” (“for everything bad, mezcal; for everything good, the same”).
*Feature photo is of Gustavo Muñoz, founder of the Los Danzantes Group