All you need to know about Mezcal. Read on as Phil Bayly breaks it down for us.
We have to admit, we have been terribly intrigued and seduced by Mezcal in the last year or so. On a recent trip to the Netherlands, we were introduced to some fiery mezcal cocktails by our friends Riccardo at Vesper, and Wouter and Lucas at Rosalia’s Menagerie. This was obviously triggered by our own interest in the spirit and all the millions of questions we’ve been carrying around with us to bars we go to and bartenders we meet. For us, Mezcal has been the high priestess on a night out. The mysterious temptress discreetly calling out to us from the back bar. A fine artisanal spirit with a rich history to match.
There’s a certain allure surrounding this spirit. In our opinion, Mezcal has been The Godfather of agave and its several lieutenants. Other lesser known agave sprits like Raicilla, Pulque, Sotol, and Bacanora still do their rounds in Mexico and neighbouring areas but Mezcal has found a special place in the bars and hearts of people around the world. While most bartenders are familiar with Mezcal, the person sitting across the bar is usually unsure of what it is and whether to order it. The skepticism often stems from the misconception that Mezcal is some variant of tequila and let’s face it, tequila can bring up some pretty unsavoury memories of total memory obliteration. How’s that for an oxymoron?
Recently, we were fortunate enough to be introduced to Phil Bayly by our main man, James Estes of Jack Rose.
Born in South Australia and with a formal training in the arts, Phil has travelled extensively throughout Mexico, Asia and the Pacific. Phil has been involved in the Agave Spirits industry (Tequila & Mezcal) for the last 38 years.
Together with his partner Tomas Estes, they have opened 18 Agave spirits bars in over 6 countries including Café Pacifico London. Phil opened the first Agave bar in Australia which he managed for 16 years. He was awarded the Outstanding Contribution Award at the Australian Bar Awards in 2009 for his work in education of the category of Agave Spirits and has been listed in the ‘Top 10 most Influential’ in the Australian Bar Industry a number of times in recent years. He is the founder of ‘Agave Love’, a program involving unbiased and in-depth seminars with leaders of the Agave Spirits industry in and around major cities in Australia, Singapore, Macau and Hong Kong, Helsinki, Minsk, St Petersburg, Kuala Lumpur. He has been officially recognised by the Mezcal Regulatory Council of Mexico as the first Global Mezcal Ambassador.
Read on as Phil shares a wealth of information about Mezcal. It’s just what we need this weekend.
DEMYSTIFYING MEZCAL – LET’S BREAK IT DOWN
Ok let’s start with the raw material, the Agave or Maguey as it is also called, dates back 12 million years and is indigenous to the Americas, it is found in its natural habitat from the south of the US all the way down to the equator but the majority of the approximately 200 species are found in Mexico.
When Cortez conquered Mexico he discovered the Aztecs amongst other indigenous peoples using the agave to make a fermented drink from the plant called pulque, a low alcohol fermented drink, with the knowledge of distillation brought with them from the Spain it wasn’t long before they started cooking the sugar rich plant and fermenting and distilling the juice to make alcohol. This liquid was called Mezcal, in fact it was called Vino de Mezcal.
One of the 200+ varieties of agave is known as blue agave or ‘Tequilana Weber Azul’ which grows in the western part of Mexico around the state of Jalisco. Around the late 1700’s it was decided that the vino Mezcal made from this particular plant was very different and popular and Tequila was born, coming from the town with the same name, similar to cognac or champagne.
These agave spirits gained popularity during the Mexican revolution of 1910 and became the national spirit as a movement against the Spanish, however it remained a poor man’s drink up until the mid 1990’s when it regained popularity and we saw the rise of Tequila as a quality spirit taking presence in trendy bars around the world. Mezcal, which was considered an even poorer man’s drink suddenly gained popularity around the early to mid 2000’s and now is often more acclaimed than Tequila as a quality artisanal spirit.
To explain Mezcal you have to understand the different types and classes of Mezcal, here is a brief explanation.
There are 3 types of Mezcal
- Mezcal – a (industrially produced) spirit made using similar industrial processes as Tequila
- Artisanal Mezcal – a spirit made using more traditional processes such as small copper stills and traditional methods, most mezcal fit into this category
- Ancestral Mezcal – a spirit where no metal is used in the process so cooking underground, crushing with mallet or stone tahona, fermentation in animal hides or wood tanks with fibre, distillation in ceramic stills (Filipino stills).
There are 6 classes of Mezcal
- Blanco – unaged mezcal like tequila
- Madurado – mezcal aged in large glass bottles for a minimum of one year in dark places or underground
- Reposado – mezcal aged for a period of 2 – 12 months in barrels using any type of wood
- Añejo – mezcal aged for a period of minimum 12 months in any type of wood
- Mezcal con – mezcal infused with fruit or other gusanos etc. to add flavour and colour
- Distilado con – mezcal distilled with fruit or chicken or turkey, rabbit etc. Pechuga is an expression of this class.
MEZCAL IS NOT TEQUILA. HERE’S WHY.
The difference between Tequila and Mezcal is quite simple.
There are basically 3 main factors:
The first is the agave itself. Mezcal can only be made using 100% Agave were as Tequila can be legally made using only 51% agave. Tequila may only be made using the Tequilana Weber Azul Agave grown and produced within the 5 states of the Denomination of Origin, Tequila that covers over 70,000 sq. kilometres. Mezcal can by produced from any variety of agave within the 9 states of the Denomination of Origin Mezcal that covers over 500,000 sq. kilometres (the largest denomination of Origin in the world).
The second is that Tequila is an industrially produced spirit using large and mechanised production processes to make it similar to other spirits. Mezcal however is predominantly made using tiny artisanal processes by typically indigenous communities in remote villages. For example the average size of a Tequila still is around 3-5 thousand litres, the average size of a mezcal still is about 150 – 200 litres.
In 2016 there were 273 million litres of Tequila produced and only 2.7 million litres of mezcal.
The third main factor is that Artisanal Mezcal (not industrial Mezcal) is typically over 45% ABV, distilled to strength and not watered down. This makes Mezcal much more intense and complex as a spirit added to the fact that the different agaves used have their own unique characters and flavour profiles making Mezcal more like a single malt scotch, complex and rich in flavour.
WHY IS GOOD MEZCAL EXPENSIVE?
One of the main reasons why Mezcal is more expensive is the raw material. The Tequilana Weber Azul needs about 8-10 kilos to produce 1 litre of tequila.
Espadin the most common variety of Agave used for making Mezcal requires about 10-12 kilos to make a litre of mezcal and from one average size agave, you can make about 7 litres. Compare this with some of the other varietals such as Tobola that takes about 17 years to mature and from the same amount of agave will produce about half a litre of mezcal or Tepeztate a variety of agave that can take up to 35 years to mature and requires about 15-20 kilos of raw material to produce 1 litre of mezcal.
I already mentioned the size of the stills where an average size mezcal still is about 150 – 200 litres built into adobe wood fired ovens, the mezcal is generally distilled to proof whereas most tequila is distilled to 70% ABV then watered down. For mezcal, agaves are cooked in underground ovens for an average of 5 days and then crushed using either wooden mallets in open pits or with a Tahona (large stone wheel pulled by a small horse or donkey) the cooked agave is then fermented with the fibres in animal hides or small open wooden vats using wild airborne yeasts that can take anything from 5-7 days to ferment , depending the time of year. Distillation can be in Copper of in some cases 80 litre ceramic stills known as Filipino stills.
Wait, there’s more.
Production volumes are tiny with some producers averaging only a few thousand litres a year. Many villages are remote and use wild agaves that must be found on foot or donkey in hard to access areas. In the state of Oaxaca where 80% of mezcal that is exported is produced, it is made by indigenous communities of Zapotecan or Mixteca or Mixe Indians, with the craft being handed down from generation to generation, these processes have not changed.
Mezcal was traditionally made for the village by the village for births, deaths, marriages and special occasions. It is considered taboo to drink mezcal to get intoxicated; instead it is consumed to a point where one reaches a higher level of consciousness. As they say in Oaxaca,
“para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien, tambien”
(For everything bad, mezcal
For everything good, the same.)
Remember you can buy cheap mezcal just like you can buy cheap wine, but don’t forget, when you pay peanuts, you get monkeys!
HOW TO DRINK THIS FINE SPIRIT.
Drinking Mezcal is an art.
The traditional mezcal glass is called a Veladora and is basically a small church candle glass.
This is one of the best glasses as it has a wide open rim and is squat, like a small rock glass or similar, Because of the high proof it is necessary to give it lots of air so as not to get palate fatigue from the high alcohol.
Blanco is the main expression because the agave flavours are so intense and complex, it is a pity to disguise them.
However for non straight-spirit drinkers, any classic gin cocktail will work well with Mezcal. My favourite example of this is the Mezcal Negroni, which also works well as a Smokey Margarita, a Mexican mule Mezcal Sour. The most important thing is that if drinking straight, it should be sipped and savoured, never drunk as a shot.
PICKING UP THE RIGHT BOTTLE.
A good bottle of Mezcal should in my opinion be at least 45% ABV. It also requires certain legal information on the bottle including:
- Denomination of Origin
- Category of Mezcal (Mezcal Ancestral, Artisanal or Mezcal)
- Commercial Brand Name and NOM number
- State produced
- Net Contents
- Place of Origin
- CRM Hologram
- Class of Mezcal (blanco, reposado, madurado, añejo, abocado con, distilado con)
- 100% Maguey
- Varietal of Agave
Some of the best mezcals have also gone to the extent of being as transparent as possible as to where and how it is made, by listing all the details on the label. The information will often include the name of the distiller, state of production, name of village, type of agave, type of oven used, type of crushing, type of fermentation, water source for fermentation, type of still, number of distillations, adjustment of the alcohol with heads and or tails, date of distillation, alcohol proof, litres produced, Lot number, bottle number, net contents, commercial brand name.
This also shows the unique qualities of the spirit that will change from batch to batch due to the terroir and individual characteristics of each agave.
Mezcal is a craft spirit like no other, this is because good mezcal is being made by people who are not doing it because its trendy and cool, they are doing it because that is what they have always done, and they are doing it in a way that follows a tradition that is labour intensive and done with passion but has no substitute for quality.
We feel enriched by Phil’s knowledge on the subject and are ready to dive head first into the world of Mezcal. Now that we are better equipped with this information, we’ve learned to love Mezcal even more and can’t wait to get our hands on the next bottle of this fine artisanal spirit.
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