Mezcals are incredibly complex and contain a full spectrum of flavors that reflect everything invested in making them. They’re actually more similar to wine than other spirits because they are so delicate and express a dictionary’s worth of flavors.
The key difference between Mezcals and any other spirits, or drinks for that matter, is that they’re made from agave and that’s why Mezcals taste so different from other spirits.
There are at least 20 different types of agaves used to make Mezcal and each has it’s own varietal character like different types of wine grapes.
Main types of Agave used for Mezcal
Tobala, very small basketball sized agaves that grow only in Oaxaca and tend to create sweet and vegetal Mezcals.
Cuishe or Karwinskii family of agaves which look more like small palm or Yucca trees than that classic idea of a squat agave. These are also found only in Oaxaca. Frequently Mezcals made with these varietals have a more vegetal or herbal flavor.
Cupreata agaves are commonly grown in Michoacan and Guerrero and usually have a very distinctly sweet flavor and large mouth feel.
2. Location, location, location
Where an agave is grown and under what conditions has everything to do with how the final Mezcal will taste. Critical factors to consider are elevation, rain fall, and mineral content in the soil. These factors can change from town to town and year to year which means that Mezcal have wonderful variations across vintages and farms.
While it can be very difficult to track all these details bottle by bottle many Mezcal makers are getting much better at putting this information on labels so that you an look it up or your bar tender can do that work for you.
Oaxaca is the state where most Mezcal is produced, at least now, because this may change in the future. Since it sits at a high elevation and is relatively arid Oaxacan Mezcals tend to focus flavors on the mineral and vegetal spectrum. Of course there are wild variations even within Oaxaca so take that as a starting point.
Mezcals like Raicilla made from agaves in coastal areas tend to receive much more rainfall and grow at a lower elevation. This lends itself to much fruitier flavors. Raicilla is an appellation in the far west of the state of Jalisco right by the coastal resort of Puerto Vallarta.
Mezcals made in Sonora from the agave Pacifica are called Bacanoras. They tend to be very herbal, vegetal, or mineral reflecting their desert origins.
Then there’s Sotol which is generally welcomed in the Mezcal world even though it’s not made from agave. It’s actually made from a plant called the “Dasylirion wheeleri” which, for those keeping score at home, is a distant relative in the asparagus family. Most people call it a Mezcal because the plant actually looks very similar to an agave and it’s produced in the very same manner as a Mezcal. Since these are mostly produced in far northern state of Chihuahua where it’s arid those mineral and vegetal flavors tend to predominate.
Wait, there are still more variables to how a Mezcal tastes! How a Mezcal is made is almost as important as everything else because you can easily cancel out distinctive agave flavors or their terroir if you just want to get something alcoholic from it.
But most distillers really want to preserve the terroir so they exercise very judicious care in how they produce Mezcal.
The first thing to consider is that the entire production cycle for Mezcals is actually part of a local tradition. When we think of distillation the image that comes to mind is of a gleaming copper still with a goose neck pipe spiraling out of the top and into a bath of cold water.
While these are definitely used in the Mezcal world, they are part of a universe of distilling techniques. And, distillation is only the end of a four or five step process.
Once you have harvested an agave you need to cook it in order to render all the carbohydrates into sugars which can be fermented and distilled into alcohol.
The traditional way of cooking agaves for Mezcal is digging a pit, lining it with rocks, lighting a huge fire, putting more rocks on top of that fire, then placing a bunch of agave hearts on top, and then covering them with a layer of soil.
This is called an underground oven because it roasts all the hearts of agave underground for a number of days, usually 3-5. It’s quite a scene.
Once roasted the agave is so sweet that kids eat it as candy. Incidentally, it’s this direct contact with smoke that delivers a characteristic smoky flavor to Mezcal.
But that doesn’t mean that smoke is the predominant flavor, many distillers want some smoke in the flavor but just enough to highlight all the other flavors that they are pulling out of the agave.
Once your agave is roasted you have to crush them into a mash that can be fermented. The traditional and most common way of doing this is by using a donkey to pull a stone wheel around a crushing trough. After a while all the agave is crushed into a fibrous mash.
But there are a number of ways of doing this, some people prefer to crush the agave by hand because it’s their local tradition and they think it contributes a unique flavor to the Mezcal.
This is back breaking work so very few people continue to use the process. Actually many people are adopting mechanical shredders to speed the process and make it easier on everyone, including the donkey.
A mechanical shredder is basically the same machine you see used to shred trimmings from trees. One was made famous in Fargo when it was used to dispose of something else entirely.
Ok, we’re getting close to the finish line because now the agave is roasted and crushed we can ferment it. This is one of the most critical parts of the entire process and yet another element of the process that makes it so unique.
Traditional, and that’s most of them, Mezcals are fermented in wooden tanks open to the air. You simply pitchfork the crushed agave into the tanks, fill them up with water from the local river or spring, and walk away. Wild yeasts attracted by the sweet agave then convert it all in a low percentage alcohol mash.
This is the critical part because those yeasts really are wild. They appear out of the surrounding environment so each distiller is keenly aware of the local plant life which contributes to entire local biosphere.
We’ve encountered cases where a Mezcal always had rose or mint notes, then when we visited the distillery we were surprised to find roses or mint growing everywhere around the fermentation tanks. It can really be that distinctive!
Needless to say, the use of wild yeasts in Mezcal differentiates them from pretty much any other spirit or alcoholic drink. Since they are quite literally wild the yeasts can change and be more or less pronounced which means that each batch will be unique.
It’s time for the main event - distillation. This is the step in the process that trips most people out because it tells you just how easy it is to distill and demonstrates how many people have been using the most basic of tools to do so.
Sure, much of the Mezcal made today is created using copper stills but they’re very different from the gleaming pots or towers that spring to mind.
Generally they are simple copper cylinders that can handle at most 100 liters in a batch and they are fueled by wood. Yes, that’s right, the distiller will light a fire under the still and control the distillation process by moving coals around. None of that fancy high tech stuff like using natural gas, that didn’t exist when people started distilling.
Since this process is so nuanced it also means that you get incredibly distinct flavors and keen attention to detail because someone has to tend the fire, day and night, whenever distilling.
There are some real enviromental issues with this process because burning wood constantly adds carbon to the environment and chopping all that wood removes trees from forests but the industry is working to address those problems with lots of native innovations.
But wait, that’s not all! The copper still is the, pardon the metallurgic pun, gold standard of the business but it’s not the most traditional and only one of many different distilling techniques. Copper definitely gives Mezcals a sleek flavor.
Look out for Mezcals distilled in clay pots a method also called “en barro” which is traditional in a number of areas and yields amazingly distinct minerality. Still others use wood stumps and other incredibly inventive home made stills. After all, a still is just a way to vaporize an alcoholic mash so that you can collect the concentrated liquid.
Now, you can and should drink Mezcal right from the still. That warm nectar is amazing and definitely sparkles because it’s also part of a state dependent memory.
But think about it, you have just subjected this spirit to an incredible set of chemical changes. It’s all riled and shaken up. So, why not let it rest a while and come back to its senses? That’s exactly what most distillers do.
They’ll put their Mezcal in large glass containers and let them sit in a garage for a while until it’s deemed ready to drink. Some even bury their Mezcals underground because their local tradition dictates that this is the right way of doing things.
Looming over all these steps is the most important piece of the Mezcal, the distiller or, in local parlance Maestro Mezcalero “Master Mezcal distiller.”
These are the makers who understand every part of the process who have spent most of their lives learning from their elders and making batch after batch of Mezcal.
It’s a grueling process that frequently relies on the slightest bit of intuition to adjust a still, roast, or fermentation. And each maker has a different goal. Each wants to create a unique Mezcal which means that there is a universe of flavors out there as diverse as the number and distribution of Maestro Mezcaleros.
For you this means that you should pay attention to the name on the bottle. If it doesn’t name a Maestro Mezcalero you may want to look for another bottle.
And most high quality Mezcals will now tell you about how they are made by enumerating the steps we have detailed above exactly because everyone knows that these are the critical components in creating a spirit of unique quality.
Variety is the fruit of life
There you have it, Mezcal in a nutshell which is to say this is only a brief introduction to the possibilities in the world of Mezcal. There really are an incredible variety of flavors that span the spectrum. A Maestro Mezcalero is truly the master of the process so pay close attention to their names, just like wine makers each has a style that shines through, a unique identity for the Mezcals they produce.
In cooperation with our friends from Mezcalistas, we have selected some really distinct bottles in our Mezcalistas Tasting Box to get you started - and they’re guaranteed to get all those silly ideas about worms, smoke, and Mexican stereotypes out of your head because these are true sippers to rival any spirit in the world.
Enjoy your tasting, we’ll be there with you in spirit! Remember the famous saying about Mezcal “Para todo mal, Mezcal, y para todo bien, tambien.” And if you really want atmosphere play Lila Downs’ “La Cumbia del Mole!”