Mezcal… understanding the new hippest drink in America

I watched as the young man, hoping to one day be called a maestro mezcalero waited nervously.  He’d come to In Situ, the mecca of mezcalerias where Ulises Torrentera, the Godfather of Mezcal in Oaxaca, holds court daily in his quest to show off some of the finest mezcals in Oaxaca and the great variety they hold.

And here he was offering a taste to this modern day romantic and Diego Rivera lookalike.  As Ulises tasted, he asked questions before offering his verdict.

For many Americans, the idea of mezcal conjures up images of Clint Eastwood in one of those old spaghetti westerns with a cigarette in one hand and a worm-laden bottle in the other.  But as Ulises explains, those days are long gone as mezcal is starting to take its rightful place among the worlds great spirits as it emerges from the shadows of its cousin, the better known tequila.

Mezcal, an intoxicating drink that can immediately transport you to a place of incredible memories is quickly becoming a spirit trend-setter in United States cities like Seattle and Chicago.  Part of the reason for this is the wide variety of mezcal that is being distilled across Mexico, but primarily in the southern state of Oaxaca.I recently sat down with Ulises to learn what makes him tick and see what I could learn about this great drink, for as my friend Paco Garcia says “Oaxaca is mezcal and mezcal is Oaxaca”, or as he explained it, “David, you cannot understand Oaxaca until you understand mezcal!”

In a wide ranging interview that went from terroir [it’s vitally important] to his desire as a young child to be a writer, we started with the early history of mezcal.

Mezcal… a look back

Mezcal as we know it has existed for over 400 years despite the insistence of some that it has become an overnight success. Discovered and distilled originally by the indigenous people of Mexico, mezcal has lived a checkered past.

For a while mezcal suffered the type of persecution more familiar to spirits in the neighbor to the north. Accused of being responsible for all types of evil, perhaps its biggest sin was that it was the favored elixir of the poorer classes for their fiestas and celebrations. The Spanish ruling elite of Mexico laid the blame for everything from childhood ills to local crime, violence and corruption at the feet of mezcal, which naturally led to its prohibition.

Fast forward to the mid 1940’s and the industrialization of tequila. Mexico, steeped in its macho culture embraced tequila, tossing aside the poorer cousin mezcal that was often seen as an unrefined drink for the lower classes.

It wasn’t until the mid 1950’s that we started to see the modern version of mezcal begin to take shape in an area east of Oaxaca City, known as Matatlán, the Cradle of Mezcal.The maguey and process

Brewed in clay and copper pots at local palenques, mezcaleros use the same methods handed down by their forefathers hundreds of years ago when the indigenous people of Mexico discovered that if you distilled the pulp and juices of the maquey you could make a powerful, and magical elixir.Once that maguey is harvested it is cooked in essentially an inverted volcanic oven.  It is then treaded out under a millstone before going into wooden vats to ferment.  Next, depending on the mezcalaro, it is distilled a number of times and then bottled for delivery.

As Ulises said, this process has remained mostly unchanged over hundreds of years.  Perhaps the biggest change being the addition of the copper still, although some palenques still use the classic clay pots.

There are three magueys used in the majority of mezcal from Oaxaca, the most popular being the Espadin.  This is what most Americans think of when they think mezcal.  Tall with spindles sometimes reaching over 6 feet, the Espadin takes over 7 years to mature. While the maturation process takes years, the good thing about the Espadin is that it is easily reproduced.  That is why you can see farms with literally hundreds of this type of maguey planted around the countryside in Oaxaca.Two of the other principle magueys used are the Madre Cuishe and the Tobala. These magueys are prized for the complex flavors they bring to mezcal. But there is a problem brewing.  Both the Madre Cuishe and the Tobala, and to a lesser extent, some of the other wild magueys, are less plentiful than the Espadin and can take up to 15 years to reach maturity, double the Espadin.  Despite efforts by some dedicated mezcalaros, notably the Alberto Morales family of Wahaka Mezcal, there has not been much success in reproducing or replanting either of these magueys.

Ulises calls this a looming crises.  If the efforts at reforestation of these magueys are not successful, there may not be enough wild product to satisfy the growing demand of people desiring the subtle nuances they bring to mezcal.  What will the industry do he asks if we suddenly find ourselves facing a shortage?  It is a question few really want to ponder, choosing instead to hope that somehow nature will solve whatever problems come.

Yet even as the mezcaleros face this issue, some are choosing to mix and blend other types of magueys as part of their strategy to survive.  These efforts at mixing flavors give us what Maestra Mezcalera Cecilia Rios, La Nina del Mezcal calls the beauty of mezcal.

Unlike tequila that strives for a certain consistency, every type of mezcal is different and takes you on another adventure.  And while part of that difference is due to the wide variety of magueys used for mezcal, another large factor is where the maguey is grown, sometimes known as terroir.

Terroir

To many, this is the central most important thing that influences the taste of the maguey and by extension, mezcal.  The environment, the soil, the altitude and the weather all combine to play a crucial role in the final product.

A finely tuned palette can taste the subtle differences in minerals, local flora and climate of the area where the maguey is found.

It’s one reason many believe that both the palenque and the mezcalero must be close to their maguey.  It is this proximity and familiarity that connects all of the dots.  By being at one with the land, knowing his plants, his local environment and using the same processes passed down through generations, the mezcalero closes the circle with their ancestors.

This, in Ulises opinion, is indispensible.

I asked Ulises if he thought mezcal would ever break out of its niche in the United States.  He said he hoped not because he wanted people to come to Oaxaca to try the great mezcals.

Why? Because Oaxaca is mezcal and mezcal is Oaxaca!

Measuring up

I watched as the young man, struggling to keep his composure, answered all of Ulises’ questions, knowing his future was on the line. And then came the moment of truth.  The taste.  Ulises swirled it around in the glass and smelled it.  He took one, two, maybe three sips before finally giving his verdict.

Yes, he’d be glad to put a bottle of this mans mezcal on the wall with some of the great mezcals in Oaxaca and thus was born another in the long line of maestro mezcaleros.

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5 replies

  1. Nice piece but PLEASE don’t confuse a producer from the noble Maestro Mezcaleros! Maestra Mezcalera Cecilia Rios, La Nina del Mezcal! How could you possibly give La Nina such a noble title? Sorry but hat ranks just above country western singer Toby Keith’s abominable press statement about why he decided to make Wild Shot Mezcal. Maybe we should give Toby the title Mezcalero too if we’re just handing them out. Boo!

    • Tory, perhaps I was being charitable regarding Cecilia… but… she is one of the few women working in a male dominated industry and I chose to honor that. I’ve been to her palenque and obviously she is not brewing personally, for lack of a better word, but to her credit, she is a great marketer of mezcal and has some good product available, even if Armando is making it.

      She’s quite a bit above Toby Keith though…

      But… I’ll be more careful moving forward… I’m surprised Ulises didn’t call me out on that.

      Thanks and I look forward to meeting in person one day.

      Dave

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