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.

Bartender! There’s Chile in my Tiki Drink (The Aztec Warrior)

Recently I had the good fortune to be at Rob Roy in Seattle on a night that Brady Sprouse was tending bar. I’ve enjoyed Brady’s previous work at Smith and have wonked out on a few occasions with him about craft cocktail ingredients and such. After the abnormally busy Thursday night crowd died down I asked Brady to make me something off-menu and of his choosing. What he delivered to me was a mezcal-based Old Fashioned variation that included Ancho Reyes Chile Liqueur.

Ancho Reyes is a relatively new spirit from Mexico, flavored primarily by the ancho chile. Up till this point I’d never tried it so Brady offered me a small sample of it, neat. I anticipated that it was going to be fairly spicy but I was pleasantly surprised when it had a mild to medium heat and enough sweet and other spice elements to make it easily sippable.

As I nursed my drink, the thought “Hey, this might be interesting in Tiki!” popped into my head. I mentioned this off-handedly to Brady and he immediately replied “I’ve got an interesting idea along those lines if you’re willing to try it.” Never one to forego mixological experimentation I said “Sure!”

Brady went to work with his magical bottles, and other then a quick dash of Smith and Cross at the end, I saw no rum appear. What he eventually set in front of me had the full on Tiki mug treatment, so that was encouraging. I naturally asked about the ingredients and was most surprised that he used the Ancho Reyes as a base spirit. Turning back to the Ancho bottle in front of me, I saw it was indeed 80 proof, and subsequent research shows that the primary ingredient is “neutral cane spirits”, which I’m going to call close enough to rum for this discussion.

Finally taking a sip, a smile crossed my face. The chile spice is definitely present but doesn’t dominate and it’s unquestionably a tiki-style drink. Brady was nice enough to jot down the recipe, which he quickly dubbed the “Aztec Warrior.” If you’re a tiki-wonk you’ll notice a certainly similarity to the Jet Pilot, one of the house specialties at Casa CocktailWonk. The primary difference between the Aztec Warrior and the Jet Pilot are that the rums are swapped out for Ancho Reyes and Batavia Arrack.

Aztec Warrior (Brady Sprouse)

  • 1.5 oz Ancho Reyes Chile Licor
  • .5 oz Batavia Arrack
  • .5 oz rich cinnamon syrup
  • .5 oz Falernum (Use alcohol-based, house made, rather than Velvet Falernum)
  • .75 oz grapefruit
  • .75 oz lime juice
  • 2 dashes Angostura bitters
  • .25 oz Smith and Cross (for the float)

Combine everything except the Smith & Cross. Shake, pour over crushed ice. Float the Smith & Cross, then garnish with a dash of Angostura Bitters and whatever Tiki-like garnish you like.

South of the Border Zombie

With Mrs CocktailWonk off in Europe this week touring faucet factories and perusing liquor stores on my behalf, I’ve been catching up on some quality bar time around Seattle. However I’d been ignoring my home bar and by Friday I was feeling some homemade Tiki was in order (surprise!) but with an upcoming visit to Tacoma Cabana in my very near future, I knew the rum bases were covered. I’ve always considered rum and tequila to be kindred spirits and I enjoy a hearty, smoky mescal nearly as much as an ultra-funky Jamaican rum. My mind went to the Zombie and the wheels started to turn.

The short version of the Zombie recipe is multiple rums, Apricot Liqueur, pineapple and lime juice. My goal was to replace them with ingredients more associated with Mexico while keeping it balanced and hewing to the Zombie pattern, and I’m pretty happy with the results:

South of the Border Zombie

South of the Border Zombie

  • 1oz Cabeza (blanco tequila)
  • 1oz Sombra mescal
  • 1oz Del Maguey Crema de Mezcal
  • 1oz Damiana
  • 1oz Grapefruit

Shake, pour over crushed ice in a chilled glass. Liberally dash Peychaud’s bitter over the top of the ice.

The Cabeza is a good quality blanco tequila, singing background to the other players here. The Sombra provides a healthy dose of mezcal smokiness. To me, it’s the mescal equivalent of Smith and Cross rum.

The Crema de Mezcal bears special note here – It’s not a regular mescal. Rather, it’s 90% mescal, and 10% agave syrup so it’s much sweeter than a mescal. It’s fantastic to sip straight or simply add a bit of lime juice and you’ve got something akin to a smoky margarita. I relied on the Crema de Mezcal sweetness to help balance out the sour from the lime, so factor that in if you substitute for it.

For the pineapple juice component of a Zombie, I used grapefruit juice like the Paloma, another well-known Mexican drink. Grapefruit juice isn’t as sweet as pineapple juice, but the Crema de Mezcal helps to bring up the overall sweetness. Lastly, the Damiana replaces the Zombie’s apricot liqueur. Damiana is a Mexican herbal liqueur flavored primarily from the Damiana tea leaf. It falls into the same herbal flavor category as spirits like chartreuse or Benedictine, and is moderately sweet in its own right.

The South of the Border Zombie is well balanced and with four different spirits, packs a punch like the original Zombie. You get a dose of smokiness but it’s not overwhelming. It’s not overly sweet, and some people might enjoy it with a touch more Crema de Mezcal or simple syrup to up the sweet to sour ratio.