Artisanal Mezcal and Northwest Tequila Fest 2014

Setting up for the artisanal mezcal tasting

Mezcal is one of those spirits like smoky Islay Scotch that evokes strong opinions from anyone who’s tried it. It has bold flavor, and like Islay Whisky, the most common description that comes to mind is “smokey.”  Beyond that, however, the tastes are very different. I’ve dabbled in mezcal for a while, but recently attended a Northwest Tequila Fest session here in Seattle, where I gained a whole new level of understanding and enthusiasm for mezcal. Here are some highlights and takeaways from the event, including why mezcal is among the best values in spirits today, despite its relatively higher price.

While most people are least passingly familiar with tequila, mezcal is relatively unknown: The older sibling with a bad reputation, occasionally spotted on the wrong side of town. Most people I talk to are surprised to learn that mezcal and tequila have a very similar story. One simplified perspective is that mezcal is the broad category of Mexican spirits made from the agave plant, while tequila is a specific variety from a particular region. From this angle, all tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. It’s analogous to brandy and cognac, where cognac is a type of brandy from the Cognac region in France, but with further requirements before it can be legally called cognac.

The mezcal and tequila production process begins with agave plants that are harvested and cooked to convert the starches to sugar. The resulting mash is then crushed, fermented, distilled, and (sometimes) aged before bottling. In this regard, agave-based spirits are similar to most other base spirits, with the main distinction being the material used in mash. Agave, molasses, potato, grapes, corn, rye…all are starting points for making spirits using the techniques of fermentation and distillation. Agave makes tequila or mezcal, molasses makes rum, and so forth.

It’s the details of the production process that give mezcal and tequila different flavors. In tequila production, the agave plants are cooked in ovens, smaller producer using brick/clay ovens, and larger producers using autoclaves. The resulting distillate is relatively “clean,” as no outside flavors go into the resulting mash. In mezcal production, the agave plants are cooked in earthen mounds over stone-lined pits. Burning wood is used for heat, and the cooking takes around three days. The resulting agave has a wonderful smoky essence that carries through to the finished mezcal.

There’s more to what defines mezcal and tequila besides the agave cooking method, however. Both have their own norma, which are Mexican government regulations regulating which ingredients are used and where and how each is made. The mezcal and tequila norma have rough equivalents in the rum world, where the French AOC defines what can be called “agricole rhum.”

The tequila norma states that to be a 100% agave tequila, it must be (among other things) made from Weber Blue Agave and produced in the state of Jalisco, as well as various municipalities in the states of Nayarit, Guanajuato, Michoacán and Tamualipas. Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made from roughly 30 different type of agave plants, and as I learned first-hand at the event, the type of agave used has a dramatic impact on taste. Officially certified mezcal can be made in eight different Mexican states, although today most mezcal comes from the Oaxaca region.  Unofficially, and currently just outside of the regulatory system, mezcal is produced throughout most of Mexico.

A Maestro Mezcalero

While the vast majority of commercial tequila uses mass production techniques to allow many millions of liters to be produced, the maestro mezcaleros who oversee the production process still make their mezcal the way they have for hundreds of years. The prime example of this is crushing via the “tahona”, a stone wheel pulled around an upright axle by donkeys to crush the cooked agave. The relatively crude stills used are pot stills or similar, so batches are typically in the hundreds of liters, a very small amount all things considered. Often, a village will pool their resources to create larger batches of mezcal.  Given the labor intensiveness and small scale of production, it’s a minor miracle that you can buy a fairly nice bottle of mezcal in the U.S. for as little as $35.

Clayton Szczech

While there is an ever-expanding variety of mezcals available from various villages and distilleries, there are many, many more that don’t have broad distribution. At the “Artisanal Mezcal Tasting” event, part of Northwest Tequila Fest, we were able to taste four different mezcals, only one of which is currently available in the U.S. The remaining three were “suitcase mezcal,” brought to the States by Clayton Szczech, owner of Experience Tequila / Experience Mezcal. Clayton’s primary business is providing educational tours of tequila and mezcal producers, and based on the photos I saw, I definitely want to book one soon!

Although I already had a reasonably good understanding of mezcal, Clayton’s walk-through of the mezcals we tasted, their production process, and a good slideshow taught me several new things worth sharing:

The juice from the cooked, crush agave isn’t pressed to extract the fluids for fermentation. The whole mash goes into the fermentation vessel. The photos of fermenting agave mash very much surprised me.

Yeasts aren’t added for fermentation. Instead, naturally occurring yeasts in the air and vessels are enough to induce fermentation, which usually takes between three days and three weeks. Tests have shown that each distillery has its own particular set of yeasts, even when located in close proximity to each other. The natural yeast differences contribute to the different taste from distillery to distillery.

Most mezcal stills used are very crude, and many are made from clay — far more rustic than even the very old stills found in Caribbean rum distilleries. Modern techniques just aren’t a part of artisanal mezcal production.

Between the first and subsequent distillation runs for a particular batch, a mezcalero may infuse the distillate with fruits, vegetables or spices to add new flavor elements. This is analogous to gin production, where juniper and other botanicals are introduced to provide additional flavors.

To determine the alcohol content, the mezcalero pours the distillate into a hollowed-out half of a dried gourd. They then draw up the distillate in a large wooden straw and release it quickly back into the gourd. Based on the size and duration of the bubbles that form, the mezcalero can determine the alcohol content with surprising accuracy.

Drawing mezcal into a wooden straw for determining alcohol content

A gourd for examining the mezcal bubbles to determine alcohol content

While some mezcals are aged in barrels, it’s not nearly as common as in tequila, where barrel-aging creates the anejo and reposado expressions. Conventional wisdom is that anejo and reposado are “better” than blanco, but aficionados know there are great blancos out there also.

In mezcal, the unaged variety is called Joven, meaning young. While aging can smooth out a spirit, it can also subdue some very nice flavors, and for this reason, joven mezcals aren’t necessarily considered inferior to barrel-aged mezcals.

The four mezcals we sampled

The four mezcals we tasted had very distinct flavors, although each was easily recognizable as mezcal. They were:

  • Vago – Elote
  • Siniestro – Madrecuixe
  • Sanzekan – Don Refugio
  • Sanzekan – Don Ciro

The Elote from Vago is the only one available in the U.S.  It’s distilled three times in copper and originates with Espadin agave, the most commonly used agave for mezcal. Between distillation passes, the Elote is infused with roasted corn.

The Siniestro was the most interesting to my nose and palate. I got strong earth and stone elements which were odd at first, but I came to enjoy them. This is mostly the result of using Madrecuixe agave, which is very skinny and produces a very low yield of mash. The Siniestro is distilled twice in copper.

The Don Refugio and Don Ciro come from the same brand but have an easily detectable flavor difference. Both originate with Papalote agave and are distilled twice in copper. However, they come from different mezcaleros, and the Don Ciro is rested for three years in glass, giving it a smoother flavor.

My key takeaway from this experience is that mezcals are an extreme bargain considering the small scale production process and relatively long time from harvest to bottling. At $35 per bottle, I don’t mind mixing cocktails with it. Even nicer expressions are found in the $50 – $150 range, which I enjoy neat to savor all the flavor. I believe we’re in a mezcal golden age. The availability outside of Mexico has never been higher, and production (for the most part) hasn’t been taken over by the large liquor conglomerates who will no doubt simplify, automate, and strip out the artisanal aspect in an attempt to bring you a cheaper bottle. My advice: Buy and enjoy mezcal now, and stockpile a set of nice bottles for a future day when prices on the better mezcals catches up to their actual value.

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2 thoughts on “Artisanal Mezcal and Northwest Tequila Fest 2014”

  1. Fantastic post!

    As the owner of a bar that arguably has America's largest traditional mezcal collection, I am more and more encouraged by stories such as this one. At Liberty, we encourage people to seek out and learn more about the traditionally-made agave spirits – especially mezcal. Every day, another difusor-made tequila comes out, cheaper to make and with a far greater chance of success than the more costly artisanally-produced agave distillate. With posts like this, perhaps we can encourage people to pay more attention to the quality products that are available. Well done.

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