Mezcal: The Making of a Masterpiece
Some of you love it, some of you hate it. Whatever your sentiments towards mezcal, you can’t help but admire it. Unless, of course, you don’t know anything about this majestic spirit. I aim to change that with this blog and cultivate, if not a love for the taste, at least an appreciation of how it is made. So let’s jump into a brief overview of the making of a masterpiece.
First off, mezcal is not tequila. (If you want to make our staff cringe, refer to it as such). Tequila is, in fact, a type of mezcal. Mezcal simply signifies an agave distillate, and tequila is one of those. Just like Bordeaux is a kind of wine. The vast majority of tequila, however, has become incredibly industrial, whereas much of mezcal remains artisanal (even ancestral), and many of us aim to keep those traditions alive and thriving.
How It’s Done
** Featuring photos of our super handy guide, Penelope #17 - 2a parte, Oaxaca, Julio, 2013. Illustrator: Viyegax **
Agaves are harvested by hand (this is also true of tequila). The “leaves” are removed and the heart of the agave is transported to the palenque (the place where mezcal is made).
To make a mezcal the traditional way, you roast it underground. This is one of the main differences between tequila (which is roasted in masonry ovens, or today more commonly in industrial steel ovens) and mezcal. A pit is dug, a fire lit, and rocks added. When the rocks are hot enough, the hearts of the agave are added and covered with palm leaves and dirt. The roasting process usually lasts between 3-10 days depending on a number of factors.
Once roasted, the agaves are pulled out, cut in smaller pieces, and crushed. In Oaxaca they typically use a large stone wheel (called a tahona) pulled by a mule. In Guerrero and many other places they’ll simply do it by hand with an ax.
Ancestral and many artisanal mezcals use natural fermentation: no yeasts are added to the process. The mezcal fibers (bagaso) and water are put in a barrel and allowed to ferment in the open air with whatever yeasts are around. This is one reason a varietal of mezcal can taste so different from batch to batch. Even if it’s the same species from the same hillside, made by the same mezcalero, with the same process, the yeasts one month could be different from the previous month. This is what prompted one Seattle wine importer to claim “Mezcal is more like wine than wine is.”
Once fermented, the bagaso and liquid is ready for the still. Most makers these days use copper stills, which is more efficient and allows a larger batch distillation than the traditional method of clay pot distillation. Copper also pulls out the sulfate compounds, giving the mezcal a leaner, brighter taste than claypot’s more earthy, rounder taste. The bagaso and liquid are placed in the still which is heated over a fire. The liquid evaporates, travels up and along the tube until it reaches the condensation coils which are in a cold water bath. The cold causes the molecules to condense and out comes the mezcal. Well, first comes the methanol, which is thrown out, then the mezcal, then water. The mezcalero will either distill to proof or combine different stages of the process to achieve the alcohol % and taste desired.
CLAY POT DISTILLATION: Cold water drops from the tube above into the metal pan. When the evaporated liquid hits the bottom of the pan inside the pot, it condenses and come out of the tube attached to the pan.
We have our mezcal! And now we drink. Traditionally, mezcal is served joven (young, unaged). That’s how we prefer it at El Refugio as we find it more complex and interesting. Some people will age in the bottle, and a very few artisanal mezcal brands will make a reposado or añejo.
It sounds like a simple enough process, but in fact, to make an excellent mezcal requires a good 20 years of experience under the belt.
Now tell me: how many other beverages do you drink that are THAT artisanal? How many spirits on the shelf of the liquor store have nothing extra added, and are made from start to finish by hand (or mule)? And that, my friends, is just the beginning of the rabbit hole. Alice has a loooooong way to fall yet before she learns all there is to know about the wonderous world of Mayahuel.