Think of mezcal as you would a single malt scotch, or better yet when comparing red wines of different vintages from the regions of France. Or perhaps grape varietals from the diversity of valleys and coastal areas in Australia. Forget about the worm for the time being, and forever the reputation with the college crowd of mezcal's better known sister, tequila.
Mezcal is made from the agave plant, often referred to as maguey. Its production, according to most recent evidence, actually pre-dates the Spanish Conquest. Many of today's facilities use the same age-old technique, although some of the tools of the trade have been changed, for example from the use of clay pots for manufacture and storage, to copper serpentine for distillation, and oak and glass for aging and transporting.
It is estimated that there are about 5,000 production facilities in the State of Oaxaca (where most mezcal is produced), less than 150 of which are members of the regulated association. Most are tiny mom and pop operations serving a local community and its hinterland, some produce the spirit for distribution in primarily the City of Oaxaca, and there are a handful catering to the export market. However, in all three instances there is a broad range of quality in terms of smoothness, flavor nuances and smokiness. In fact the well-entrenched tradition of Oaxacans discerning personal palate-worthiness of different mezcals, manifests not through sampling store-bought designer bottles with smart labels, but rather from acquiring multi-liter receptacles from towns and villages in different regions of the state.
Product diversity exists for three primary reasons. Firstly, as is the case with grape varieties in wine production there is a range of agave suitable for mezcal production. Secondly, we find micro-climates yielding plants with subtle differences based on for example soil composition and length and quality of growing season, again similar to what we find regarding vinyards. Finally there is significant variation in the means of production as determined by the mezcalero, or brewmaster if you will. Each decision is crucial in determining the quality of the finished product, beginning with choosing the precise time when the plant is ready for harvest.
In Oaxaca there are well over 50 varieties of maguey, roughly 18 of which are used in the production of mezcal. However, about 90% of mezcal is made with the espadín agave, perhaps 5% uses tobalá, and the remaining types, found predominantly in the wild, comprise the balance. Espadín is similar to the blue agave traditionally used in the production of tequila. However, since blue agave grows in different climates than does espadín, the geographical distinction alone is enough to create a differentiation in taste. But the main difference between mezcal and tequila is that the latter is produced using stone ovens or stainless steel tanks for cooking, while the former in most instances still employs the centuries old method of baking the agave in an in-ground oven over firewood and river rocks.
The investment of time required to produce a bottle of mezcal begins with 8 years, being how long one must usually wait between transplanting a tiny agave plant produced from runner or cut from its tall stock, and harvest. Towards the end of the growth period, the stock shoots up, signifying the initial stage of readiness. The stock is cut down, and for several months thereafter nutrients gather in the base of the plant known as the piña because of its appearance once the leaves are removed. It is this central core of the agave which is transported by truck or on the backs of donkeys to market (the factory), and not the spiny succulent leaves which in effect are discarded once cut from the piña, the spherical form of which is only then revealed. It takes approximately 7 tons of raw piña to produce 1,000 liters of mezcal, depending on the type of mezcal being produced.
A pit dug into the earth and measuring about 8' deep by 12' in diameter is preheated for a couple of days with thick smoldering logs, on top of which are then placed river rocks. After the rocks have become red-hot, a thin layer of discarded fibrous material from another stage of the process is often placed atop, serving to insulate the rocks from the piñas which are piled on top of the heated rocks, forming a mound, perhaps 4' - 5' above ground level. Traditionally the small hill would then be covered with a woven palm leaf mat known as a petate, but now a sheet of synthetic product such as grain sack material is used, sometimes in conjunction with the petate. Then all is covered with earth so as to ensure the contents of the mound remains airtight. Finally and for good measure a few logs are placed on top of the heap of earth.
The agave bakes for 2 to 3 days, absorbing the characteristics of the earth, any clay brick used to line the pit, charred wood and smoke. (It's important to keep in mind the particulars of each step during which distinct flavor and smokiness may be imparted.) Carbohydrates or starches are converted into fermentable sugars. With its now carmel-like sweetness, the piñas are ready to be removed, then cut into small pieces with the use of a machete, and thereafter crushed by a horse or donkey dragging a multi-ton circular concrete wheel over a round, low-walled area in which the charred piña pieces have been placed.
Baked agave piñas being crushed
The fermented by-product at about 6% alcohol content is then placed in a brick still, heated with firewood. The vapor rises into copper piping which leads to a companion vat filled with water and the continuation of the copper piping, serpentine in shape entering the tank of water. The water cools the vapor in the tubing. A small spigot at the bottom allows a liquid, mezcal, to slowly drip out into a provisional receptacle. It is normally distilled for a second time, often with the addition of further fermented agave, using a recipe determined by the master mezcalero, to bring the finished product to the desired alcohol content, usually about 40% alcohol by volume. Mezcal is now in its purest form, known as blanco, before aging or the use of additives such as herbs, fruit or the worm.
The gusano worm is in fact not a worm, but rather a caterpillar, an infestation to which the agave plant is susceptible. However, in the production and sale of mezcal it has served three primary functions over the years. Firstly, prior to there being any labeling or regulation of mezcal, a gusanito was inserted into a bottle of mezcal as proof to the purchaser that the liquor had a sufficiently high alcohol content. The worm's preservation in the mezcal, without any decomposition, signified that the alcohol content ought to be acceptable to the purchaser. Secondly, today the worm is a valuable marketing tool. Often the one to finish the bottle is expected to ingest the gusano remaining at the bottom. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it adds a distinct and appealing flavor to the mezcal as well as smoothness, particularly crucial if the mezcal is otherwise not particularly suave or has not yet been aged in wood.
The gusano has been a staple in Oaxacan cookery for generations, often purchased live in the marketplace, or dried, sometimes with 100 strung up into a necklace. Some of the finest prepared salsas are made with ground gusano. And of course there is sal de gusano, a combination of salt, chili and worm, used not only in the ritual of imbibing, but also to bring out and add flavor to fruit, to rim glasses used to serve other alcoholic beverages, and more.
The three main types of traditional mezcal one encounters are blanco or joven (young), reposado and añejo. The first represents mezcal which has come directly from the still without any aging whatsoever, except while in glass or plastic receptacles awaiting bottling or sale. It can be quite sharp or strong, but is also encountered in a rather smooth state depending on the skill level of the mezcalero, percentage alcohol, number of distillations, and so on.
Reposado literally means lying down, resting, or reposing, so when one finds mezcal reposado it's been aged, in theory in oak barrels anywhere from 3 to 18 months or so, but frequently simply allowed to sit for a period of time with fruit in it which imparts flavor and smoothness. Añejo, by contrast, signifies mezcal which is mature or aged, having been kept for 3 or more years in French or American oak barrels sometimes previously used for wine or brandy, or perhaps charred inside to produce a distinct taste. A good añejo which has been carefully distilled and aged has a fine, smokey essence and is extremely smooth.
One can encounter joven or reposado with gusano, but virtually never an añejo with the worm because the latter has already had a great deal of time and effort expended in producing a product of the finest of quality. Notwithstanding that industry controls are by and large lacking apart from with those producers which are members of the association, it's rare that one finds a small operation which even purports to produce añejo. However they may have other varieties in addition to the foregoing three or four staples.
Cremas de mezcal
The balance of mezcals one is apt to taste fall into two broad categories. The first is a spirit similar to the above-noted selections, with no additives except a particular herb or fruit zest. Regarding the latter, one well-known producer, Mezcal del Amigo, has a citrus mezcal. Similar to the citrus mezcal is cedrón, a local herb producing a pleasant lime-like aroma. Then comes the more herbaceous products such as poleo, often also used to make a tea to cure stomach ailments. The sweet mezcals, referred to as cremas are made with a range of exotic fruits, but almost always contain a sweetening agent, most often honey, sugar or cane alcohol. The percentage mezcal used in such production is frequently quite small, and in fact there is currently controversy in the industry regarding whether or not the word mezcal ought to be used in labeling the beverage. Some cremas are made with cream or milk, while others are not, but can nevertheless be mixed with either, perhaps on the rocks, or in making desserts, for example poured over vanilla ice cream. Those who reside in Oaxaca have the opportunity to purchase bulk blanco mezcal and experiment with their own private recipes such as peach-honey, raisin-apple, guava, rosemary, and innumerable others.
Regardless of any preconceived notions you might have about mezcal, have a taste, whenever the opportunity arises, and of whatever is being offered, if only enough to discern differences and develop a palate for one or more types you prefer from the broad array of flavors, agings and degrees of smokiness.
Alvin Starkman, owner of Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast, tours couples and families throughout the Central Valleys of Oaxaca and into the nearby mountains, to visit small mezcal operations at various stages of production, and for tastings.