What is Mezcal?
Both mezcal and tequila are made from the agave plant, but tequila production is restricted to the blue agave, grown largely in the Jalisco region, while mezcal distillers, who tend to hail from Oaxaca, can ferment and distill from many alternative varieties. The agave is a marvellous plant, it copes with punishing, arid conditions and takes years to reach maturity, it uses the sun to build a sugary core in its huge bulb and this bulb is the starting point for all agave spirits.
To access these sugars, the agave is handpicked by skilled jimadors and then baked for both tequila and mezcal. But while with tequila is cooked in brick or steel ovens, in the case of mezcal the producers use huge, earth pits. These large holes are dug and lined with stones and heated using open fires, the flames are dampened with agave fibre and the cut agave are then piled on top and covered with soil.
Baked over days, they are then unearthed and crushed by a large volcanic stone wheel called a tahona, slowly squeezing out the sugary liquid. The juice ferments in open tanks with wild yeast, and this low alcohol pulque is then distilled on copper pots, heated by open fires.
From start to finish, the methods are beautifully bucolic, all performed on basic kit and shrouded in eye-stinging bonfire smoke. The result is a spirit with a rich agave sweetness, but also a smoky quality.
Mezcal is one of the last true bastions of untouched tradition in the world of alcohol and our own epiphany came during a visit to Oaxaca. There we were hosted by Carlos Mendez Blas who runs a palenque (distillery) in Santiago Matatlan, Oaxaca, producing Quiquiriqui mezcal. One of the more consistently available mezcals in the UK, this brand was launched by Melanie Symonds, an enduring and passionate advocate of the spirit.
We met Carlos at an agave nursery where we learned more about his methods of cultivation and efforts to champion the preservation of wild agave. Carlos is amongst the producers trying to address challenges like agave shortages and works to protect rare agave species. He collects wild seeds from the hills, cultivating and nurturing them in safe conditions before reintroducing to the wild. He showcased a vast array of varieties, the espadin and Tobala agaves, which are more common in mezcal, but also rare varieties like Papalometl and the arroqueño, which can take 20 years to reach maturity.
Carlos produces a range of mezcals at his palenque, and it is a mind blowing scene. The relatively small, bare-earth space is covered in rudimentary corrugated iron, but in one compact space, we witnessed all the traditional methods come to life. From building of an open fire for agave baking, to a horse crushing agave with a tahona, and coal fires heating the stills. Carlos still uses every traditional method, but the no-frills nature of the set up was particularly incongruous when we tasted his final product, which proves complex and refined.
Carlos was kind enough to take us to the palenque of his friend Felix Angelese, a few hours away in the hills. This remote set up proved even smaller, Felix’s baked, thin and long Agave Karwinskii lay drying in the sun and he was distilling on small, clay stills. We sipped eye-watering and potent samples poured from petrol containers, and as we did, we thought we were flirting with some slightly hallucinogenic journeys. Regardless, it was authentic and further enhanced our affection.
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