I know wine is good. Heck, I’ll go as far as saying that it is quite good. But allow me to challenge you with an idea. Drink Mezcal! And if you already do…Drink More!
Why am I so adamant about this? Why am I using so many exclamation marks? Because it’s delicious! Thanks for reading. See you next time. Ok ok fine…Here is a extremely powerful reason if that didn’t convince you.
Mezcal is made from a plant called agave. It is the same type of plant used for Tequila. But where tequila can only be made from Blue Weber Agave and is usually steam cooked, Mezcal is made from fifty-ish types of agave. Each of which has its own unique characteristics and signatures. There are far more than fifty species of agave. But similar to the way we have learned that certain grapes make better wine than others, they have also deemed certain varieties of agave not fit for mezcal production.
The Step by Step Cheat Sheet to Mezcal Production (with pictures!)
- Agave is harvested at its peak point of ripeness (7-30 years depending on the species)
- Agave is split by hand and roasted in an earthen pit for 3-6 days
- Cooked agave is cut up and milled by horse/mule drawn stone wheel or by wooden mallet
- Milled agave is fermented naturally with ambient yeasts that start a wild ferment
- Fermented agave and its liquid are both distilled in small copper/clay alembic or pot stills.
- Distillate is bottled without aging or moved to vessel (oak/glass) for aging
*All photos were taken on a recent trip to Oaxaca
All of this is done by hand and without the use of computers/electricity. Take that “craft” distilleries of America.
Talk to a winemaker and you will learn two things: 1) Making wine sounds awesome and 2) So much of the complexity and uniqueness of a wine is driven by the terroir of what grapes are planted and where they are planted. It's an addictively romantic idea - to work with your hands using ancient methods to coax the character of a tiny little plot of earth and its planted fruit out of the ground and into a bottle.
Taste the same type of agave made the same exact way in the same distillery but grown mere miles away and you will taste a world of difference.
The romance that exists in the wine world is 100% true of the mezcal world as well. Taste the same type of agave made the same exact way in the same distillery but grown mere miles away and you will taste a world of difference. Terroir is most certainly real and wine lovers may be shocked to know that mezcal is one of the best ways to prove that point.
Similar to the wine world, there are small family-run producers of mezcal and large industrial concerns. As a true lover of spirits in many forms, even I have to admit that the process in which spirits are made can be less romantic than winemaking. It is heavily industrial most times and doesn’t exactly connect you to nature the way winemaking can. This is however, NOT the case when it comes to traditionally made mezcal.
Most of the distilleries don’t even have running electricity.
While there are some less than quality mezcals being made in an industrial way (please avoid anything that has a worm in the bottle), this is certainly not the norm. Traditional mezcal is still made using the same methods from 300 years ago. Literally. Most of the palenque (distillery) don’t even have running electricity at their facility. They don’t have any use for electricity.
Terroir - A Deeper Dive
Similar to wine, Terroir, or “Tierra” as the locals say, is very important to the agave plant and extremely expressive in the final product in the right hands. In Oaxaca alone (just one of 8 states mezcal can be made within) there are so many different microclimates it’s insane! There are more climates there than crazy things on the Q train at midnight. And agave grows all over. In the hills, the fertile plains, along the rivers edges and even out of the boulders high in the mountains. Think about Italy and how there are grapes EVERYWHERE! All the Mezcaleros talk about their environment the way a wine maker does. They emphasize their soils and the minerals present in them the climate, whether the agave was cultivated or grown wild. What else was growing around the agave and the importance of biodiversity.
The climate, the soil and the life of the plant are so impactful on the final product. So is the makers influence though. It is true that grapes are picked every year from the same plant and agave can only be harvested once after years and years or maturing, but choosing when to harvest is still of the utmost importance. And then your methods of fermentation. Wild ferment or commercial yeast? How long to let the ferment run? What method in which you crush and extract after the ferment? All the way to the aging vessel! Do you bottle it young and fresh, age in a neutral vessel or let some oak influence play with the purity.
All of the mezcals we sell at Vanderbilt Wine Merchants are made using these traditional methods. Pop in and our staff would be happy to find you a great one, answer your questions or point you to the best local watering holes that carry a plethora of mezcal.