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Tequila 101 covered the different types of Tequila and their related characteristics. Tequila 102 went into some of the background and history of Tequila, and then moved into the production side of the liquor. Tequila 103 looked into pulque, and now Tequila 104 looks at mescal.
Mezcal (also Mescal or Meskal) is a spirit distilled from mash made out of the steamed hearts of various species of agaves. The word Mezcal comes from the Aztec language, the Nahuatl, and means "cooked agave": Mezcalli from metl = agave, ixcalli = cooked. Historically, Mezcal is the general term for all kinds of agave spirits made in Mexico. Since 1994, however, there is a protected denomination of origin for Mezcal.
Mezcal is not the same as Tequila, and the two should never be confused. Technically, Tequila is a form of Mezcal, more properly known as "Mezcal de Tequila”.
The Mexican state of Oaxaca is the official home of Mezcal and a traditional center for Mezcal making in Mexico, producing 60 percent of the country’s Mezcal. Mezcal is another name for maguey plant. Additionally, Mezcal is the generic name for all spirits distilled from the agave, as well as the name of a regional beverage, similar to Tequila, but made mostly in the state Oaxaca. Mezcal is also native to the states of San Luis Potosi, Michoacan, Jalisco, Durango, Morelos, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas.
Mezcal is made from the agave plant, often referred to as maguey. Its production, according to most recent evidence, 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 changed. Clay pots originally used for manufacture and storage have been replaced with copper serpentine for distillation, and oak and glass for aging and transporting.
Most Mezcal is produced in the State of Oaxaca, where it is estimated that there are about 5,000 production facilities. Less than 150 of these 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 primarily in the City of Oaxaca, and a handful caters to the export market. In all, 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 itself not through sampling store-bought designer bottles with smart labels, but rather through acquiring multi-liter receptacles from towns and villages in different regions of the state.
There are three major reasons for the diversity of Mezcal. Firstly, as is the case with grape varieties in wine production, there is a range of agave suitable for Mezcal production. Secondly, there are microclimates 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 vineyards. Finally, there is significant variation in the means of production as determined by the Mezcalero, or brewmaster. 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.
Agave or Maguey Plant
In Oaxaca, there are well over 50 varieties of maguey, roughly 18 of which are used in the production of Mezcal. However, about 90 percent of Mezcal is made with the espadín agave, perhaps 5 percent 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 Tequila is produced using stone ovens or stainless steel tanks for cooking, while mescal, in most instances, still employs the centuries old method of baking the agave in an in-ground oven over firewood and river rocks.
Agave/maguey fields are a common sight in the semi-desert areas of Oaxaca State and other parts of Mexico.
It takes approximately 7 tons of raw piña to produce 1,000 liters of Mezcal, depending on the type of Mezcal being produced.
Approximately 4 tons of agaves can be treated during every process. The pile gets covered with another layer of dry fibers and finally buried under a thick layer of earth. It rests like this for 3 to 5 days to allow for a complete and slow conversion. After this steaming process, the oven gets dismantled and the piñas are stored in a clean and dry place. The flesh of the plants is now soft, dark brown and sweet smelling from fresh plant sap and caramel. It has also acquired tones from wood, smoke and earth, all aspects of the process.
The pulp produced by this molienda is now mashed in tanks of different types, depending on the region, its traditions and material availabilities: Dugout trunks, stone pits and many more, but mostly big wooden vats. These containers are always open to allow natural yeasts to begin fermentation. Cultivated yeasts are not used in producing traditional Mezcal. Depending on the size of the vat, outside temperature, humidity and the types of agaves the fermentation takes between 1 to 3 weeks. Its end is marked by decreasing sounds inside the vat, the shape of the openings in the pulp floating on top of the vat (both caused by the expulsion of CO2), the smell and temperature of the mash as well as the taste of samples taken on different levels of the container. When all sugars are converted, the mash has about 5 percent alcohol and is ready for distilling.
Mezcal Minero is produced in stills from earthenware pots. The container for the mash is an amphora-shaped clay pot, which is fixed into a mud brick oven, heated from below with firewood. A clay pot with openings at both ends (montera) is placed on top of that to receive the vapors. The condenser, a copper pan (cazo), is placed on the upper opening and contains cold water. On its curved bottom the condensed liquid gathers and drips into a wooden spoon (paleta) fixed underneath and then is led by a hollow reed to the outside of the still. The spirits produced this way have a very individual character and an extraordinary grade of purity. Therefore, Minreo is considered one of the best Mezcals available. The challenge in producing it is in the handling of this unusual still and its delicate clay pots.
Usually Mezcal is distilled twice in the region of Oaxaca, along with the solids from the fermentation. In other regions, however, distillers prefer to use only the liquid parts, as Tequila-producers do.
First Distillation: The still is filled with the liquid parts of the mash and –in Oaxaca- with the solids to equal parts. During the heating process a liquid containing around 20 percent to 30 percent of alcohol is obtained (ordinario, común or shishe), similar to running a wash still in Whisky production.
Second Distillation: The second run (rectificación) produces heads (puntas or cabezas), heart (cuerpo, corazón) and tails (cola). The heart is now also called Mezcal and has a graduation between 45 percent and 55 percent of alcohol. It is consumed at the strength it comes out of the still, without being diluted with water.
The resulting spirit is clear, but contains a significant amount of congeners and other flavor elements.
Color in Mezcal comes mostly from the addition of caramel, although barrel aging is a factor in some high-quality brands. Additionally, some distillers add small amounts of natural flavorings, such as Sherry, prune concentrate, and coconut to manipulate the product’s flavor profile. These added flavors do not stand out themselves, but instead serve to smooth out the often hard-edged palate of agave spirits.
At the lower end of the spectrum is the clear, throat-burning Mezcal that usually has a worm. That product is labeled "joven," or "young." Similar to special European products of origin, such as wine and cheese, Mezcal is protected as an "Appellation of Origin". The Official Mexican Standard (Norma Oficial Mexicana) acts as a form of support in the process of certification, verification and monitoring of Mezcal.
There are three categories for Mezcal according to their age, similar to Tequila.
· Joven: Unaged, of clear color.
· Mezcal Reposado: Aged minimum two months in containers of holm oak (encino – Quercus ilex) or white oak (roble blanco – Quercus alba), light caramel in color.
· Mezcal Añejo or Añejado: Aged for minimum 1 year in similar containers, limited to a capacity of 200 liters. Dark caramel in color.
All three types can be processed to Mezcal Abogado, which allows certain natural products to be added, such as colorings or aromas. Mezcal de Gusano (“with worm”) is a Mezcal Abogado.
Everybody may decide for him/herself if he/she likes aged Mezcals, but there are fine tones lost in favor of the stronger flavors from the barrel. In any case, strange gimmicks like insects and the like should be avoided. Worms and larva belong on a plate, not into a bottle! This is also true for other strong-tasting side orders like sal de gusano, sangrita, peanuts, lime and others, because they adulterate the original flavors. A glass of water and some bread is recommended.
Sometimes however, there is a worm, properly a butterfly caterpillar, in some types of Mezcal. You may also get a small bag of worm salt and Chile powder tied to a Mezcal bottle. There are two types of worms in Mezcal: the red, gusano rojo - considered superior because it lives in the root and heart of the maguey - and the less-prized white or gold gusano de oro, which lives on the leaves. The red gusano turns pale in the Mezcal, the gold turns ashen-gray. Both larvae are commonly eaten as food and are sold in Zapotec markets.
Yes, you are supposed to eat the worm in Mezcal. Do not worry: it is quite well pickled and free of pesticides (they are often raised just for use in Mezcal, cooked and pickled in alcohol for a year). However, dispel any idea it has any magical or psychotropic properties, that it is an aphrodisiac or the key to an "unseen world." It is merely protein and alcohol, but it is very rich in imagery.
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