Mezcal: all about heart.
Words by Timo Janse
Photography by Ming Chao
Recently we had the pleasure of talking Mezcal with Asis Cortes Tepeztate and David Trampe. It was a day all about the emotion surrounding this spirit, focusing on the Espadin agave particularly.
There are a lot of misconceptions about Mezcal which this article will clarify so read on!
When discussing mezcal one should first consider how rooted this spirit is in the regions in Mexico where it is made.
When drinking mezcal, the first drop is dropped on the ground to honor the earth and the gods this spirit derives from.
To toast mezcal you say "Dixeebe", which means, roughly, "to one collective life".
Mezcal is always to be savored in sips, never in shots!
"Growing up it was normal for any big event, such as dios de las muertos, village festivities and weddings to go from house to house, enjoying home made mole and enjoying sips of mezcal all day long, after which respect was due to the pater familias of each family." says Asis. A Mezcal producer was held in high regard as this was part of the social lubricant within a community.
Mezcal is the distilled spirit made from any certified agave in Mexico. The agave can be wild or harvested (Espadin is commonly harvested), there are over 200 types of certified agaves, and was given its own AOC,Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée ,a way of internationally protecting things made in a specific region or way from counterfeits with a Geographical Indication of which the state of Oaxaca is the main one (the others being Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosí, Puebla and Zacatecas).
Like Tequila, it is governed by the NOM (Norma Oficial Mexicana) since 1994 and by the industry under the Consejo Mexicano Regulador de la Calidad del Mezcal A.C. (COMERCAM, the Mexican Regulatory Council for Mezcal Quality) since 2003. "but regulations were not very effective until 20017, when the CRM (or COMERCAM) started working together with the government" says Asis.
"I welcome the new regulations, as they set a quality standard and enables us to keep this quality." Asis continues.
Agave spirits not made in either tequila or Mezcal regions have to bear the name Komil (from Nahuatl language) since 2015. This new rule is under some discussion by smaller producers fearing for loss of sales because of this little known name for their product.
"The danger lies in the increased international interest in the product since 2009, as exports started to pick up. However, the region is not ready for such upscaling in production. It is still a category rooted deep in family values and traditions, not commerce." says Asis.
"in the 70s, there were over 400 producers around me, as everyone locally enjoyed it. There were no brands however, only family names" says Asis. There was a specific person in the family appointed as the middle man. this person would take orders from neighbours and have the producing family member produce accordingly, after which it was distributed.
There was a large feeling of trust as far as the quality of the spirit went as these were your neighbours.
Then it all went south. "the market in the 80's became filled with inferior product, not made with 100% agave, in some cases not using any agave at all, often infused with herbs and fruits to mask the horrid taste" Asis recalls.
Because of the lower price point, this product pushed family production to cease, as was the case with Asis' father.
"I am not a mezcalero. Our family distillery ceased production when i was 15 in 2002" says Asis.
Before the Spanish arrived, the agave was considered the holiest of plants by the locals, providing food, clothing, needles, and pulque, a beer-like substance made from the agave juice. It takes between 7-50 years for an agave to reach maturity, depending on the type of agave. Espadin takes between 7 and 10 years, and each agave is ready for harvest at a different moment, making it a very labour intensive product to handle.
After harvesting by the jimador using a so-called coa, the heart or piña is cooked in pit ovens. "Extremely hard work in very hard conditions. I was forced to wear gloves, whereas the professional jimadores could do it without" says David.
The roasting is where the smokey flavour sometimes found in Mezcal is created. "However, not all mezcal is smokey. It is all about the flavour and balance" says Asis. Then the piñas are juiced and fermented, often in open wild fermenters. "even the air around is important at this stage. For instance if the villagers are drying peppers the same time as the fermentation and distillation period this will have an effect on the flavour of the mezcal" says Asis.
Next is the distillation. Unlike almost every other spirit in the world this is done by instinct, experience and feeling. "Mezcaleros don't blend batches. We appreciate the diversity nature gives us. Therefore distillation is done by feeling." says Asis.
Tequila is a type of mezcal, but due to its geography and use of the blue Weber agave and history it has its own AOC. Similar to how Cognac is a brandy, but not each brandy is a cognac.
Next is the bottling. Usually the liquid comes off the still at 47-49 ABV, and is sometimes bottled at that strength, or brought down due to costs or taste. in the 50s, as tax inspectors started checking on mezcaleros to tax them, the mezcaleros hid their product in large glass bottles to evade paying it. They found that after some years the taste improved this way, so nowadays some producers decide to age their product in glass or clay before selling it.
The traditional way of checking the proof of a bottle of Mezcal is either shaking the bottle in a similar way as is custom with moon shine distillers in the US. Watching the way bubbles form inthe bottle is a good way to check proof for the trained eye. Another way is to use a long wooden straw, sucking up the liquid by mouth on one end and letting the liquid drop. Again, the size and amount of bubbles formed gives a good estimate of alcoholic proof.
When judging the quality of a mezcal, one should approach this product as one would a wine. "Climate, soil, terroir, placement on the hill, elevation, placement along rivers; all of these play a part in the creation of mezcal" says David.
"But most important is the heart. The heart of the distiller. His passion, his expertise" he continues.
"We believe in sharing the moment. To live in the now. This moment will never return so appreciate it to the fullest with a good mezcal. There are no bad producers in the region just different styles." says Asis.