Forget the Worm. Everything is good of Mezcal again.
When I arrived at Mezcal Real Minero in Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca, for my first-ever palenque visit on a sun-soaked November afternoon, smoke was everywhere — rising from the still-warm earth-and-stone pit used to roast agave and from the clay pot stills, heated with wood fires and stoked by the breath of a palenquero.
As I toured around with Graciela Angeles Carreño, who manages her family’s fourth generation business, a honeyed funk hung in the air, wafting from neat stacks of cooked resting agave in all shapes and forms — long, slender Barril; plump and gorgeous Arroqueño; tiny Tobalá — and from the crushed agave fermenting in open wooden tanks marked with an auspiciously placed makeshift cross, destined to be distilled.
A few yards away in a sunken area with a roof but no walls, warm mezcal ran off of small stills, collecting in a crude wooden spoon before dribbling slowly into a plastic container likely intended for storing gasoline.
The entire method of traditional mezcal production can only be described as artisanal. Craft, small-batch, handmade: all of those hollow marketing buzzwords find genuine meaning here.
Sipping the intense new liquid, captured fresh off the still in a hollow gourd, was dazzling, enlightening, intoxicating (both in a figurative and literal sense).
Thus began my love affair with mezcal. I didn’t stand a chance.
the wonders of agave
Derived from an elision of the Nahuatl words for “agave” (metl) and “cooked” (ixcalli), mezcal has been produced throughout Mexico for the past 500 years. But the majestic agave plant had mystical associations and ingrained importance long before the Spanish introduced distillation in the 1500s.
Native tribes were privy to its wonders for thousands of years, using its resilient fibres for rope, clothing, instruments and arrowheads and fermenting its aguamiel or sap into pulque — a fizzy, sour, milky beverage consumed for ritual and medicine. (Still ladled out across Mexico, pulque is a sip of ancient history and a seriously acquired taste.)
“The agave — or maguey, as it’s called in most of Mexico — was so important and magical to the natives that they deified it in the form of Mayahuel [the Aztec fertility goddess],” explains Francisco Garcia, mezcal expert and co-founder of Wahaka Mezcal.
“But to me, and most Mexicans, it is more than just a spirit or a happy high — it is a product that is intrinsically linked to Mexican culture, history and to its peoples’ livelihood.”
Despite its anchoring stitch in the rich fabric of Mexican culture, mezcal was overshadowed during the long and storied ascent of tequila, left behind to eat dust as a lowbrow local drink. North American perceptions of Mexico’s original spirit were limited to plastic bottles of novelty swill leering from the dusty bottom shelves of tourist traps, larvae lolling in their depths.
“Ewww, how exotic!” Judy would inevitably squeal, three Margaritas deep. “I should bring some home to gross out the girls …”
In the past few years, thank Mayahuel, misconceptions have lifted as genuine curiosity has emerged. For the first time in its half-millennia-long status as an everyman’s drink, mezcal is cool.
As the tequila industry metastasized into an over-commodified Frankenstein’s monster, losing street cred for industrial practices renounced by a new wave of artisanally-minded drinkers, mezcal became the agave spirit du jour.
Game-changing Del Maguey, founded by legendary artist and mezcal advocate, Ron Cooper — along with other brands like Ilegal and Wahaka — popped up in Mexican restaurants north of the border and found their way into the eager hands of cocktail bartenders.
Gradually, the drink developed a persistent, albeit niche, presence in major cities like San Francisco and LA, Chicago, Houston and New York. (Canada’s late to the party, but we’re on our way.)
In Mexican and Oaxacan cities, hipster mezcalerias are co-piloting Mexico’s celebrated culinary scene along with a pack of young and highly acclaimed chefs committed to honouring their roots. Considering its heritage, it feels disrespectful to whittle the drink down to a trend when its collective merits are closer to ineffable. As Garcia suggests, mezcal is Mexico in fluid form: the land, its people, a manifestation of their charm, pride, talents and superstitions.
A common Mexican saying — para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien, también: for everything bad, mezcal, and for everything good, too — sums it up. Mezcal is all.
the politics of agave
Mezcal is an umbrella term for Mexican distillates produced from agave. Tequila, which gained notoriety in an eponymous tiny town in the hilly western province of Jalisco, is a specific type of mezcal made only from the Blue Weber agave.
Versatility is just one of its attributes. Commonly made from over 20 types of agave including silvestre or wild varietals, its range of styles and diverse spectrum of aromas and flavours — smoke and earth, fruit and florals, herbs and minerals, chocolate, coffee and petrol — is exquisite. No wonder it’s become tantalizing fodder for booze geeks.
A denomination of origin for mezcal wasn’t established until 1995, over 20 years after tequila became the first spirit outside of Europe to secure a DO. An official regulatory body, now called the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal or CRM, followed in 1997.
Currently, a bill labelled NOM 199 looms over the vibrant future of all agave spirits, effectively seeking to restrict the use of the words “agave” and “maguey” to distillates produced within pre-existing DO’s — even if they too are made from Mexico’s most revered succulent.
These would be demoted to komil, a general term for alcohol, effectively allowing large industrial brands to evade transparency on the topics of adjuncts and production methods, damaging small independent business and dismantling many of the ethical standards the industry has been striving for.
“To place these restrictions on such culturally meaningful spirits is unfair to their heritage,” says John McEvoy, author of Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal, one of a small handful of comprehensive books on the subject.
“If you’re going to produce a good mezcal, you can’t do it in an industrial setting,” he adds.
While Garcia notes that the large percentage of adulterated spirits on the Mexican market necessitates production laws and certifications in order to guarantee quality, he thinks that the bill is taking the wrong direction.
“Unfortunately, NOM 199 is overshadowing some great advances proposed […] by the CRM, laws that are strictly focused on mezcal which do try to even the playing field between small, traditional producers and the larger, industrial powers,” he explains.
Independent producers and supporters of authentic mezcal are hopeful that the legislation will be thrown out, citing the defeat of a similar bill in 2011 as encouragement. A petition is circulating via the Tequila Interchange Project for those who care to join the resistance (hint, hint).
Mezcal is officially produced in eight regions including Durango, Guerrero, Guanajuato, Michoacán, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas and Zacatecas; unofficially, it’s made all over Mexico. Its spiritual home lies in the mountainous, spell-binding southern state of Oaxaca, a cultural heartland as renowned for its craftsmanship and regional gastronomy as it is for its magical spirit.
Drinking mezcal gives you a natural high, a lifted elation that makes you want to laugh and dance all night, but its effects are just a by-product of what makes it an exceptional spirit.
Unlike other crops used in the production of spirits — corn, grapes, barley, etc. — an agave plant delivers no annual yield. Cultivating or stalking these starchy and magnificent spiked succulents is an extreme exercise in patience. In order to make mezcal, the agave’s sugary heart or piña must be uprooted before the plant has the chance to flower and seed.
Depending on the variety, agaves can take anywhere from six to 30 years to reach maturity. Easily cultivated Espadin, which accounts for around 90 percent of bottlings on the market, can be harvested within a window of six to 12 years. Wild agaves like the rare Tepaztate take their sweet time, ripening over the course of multiple decades.
Like tequila, mezcal can be aged in wood, but joven (“young” or unaged) expressions are the benchmark. The consensus amongst connoisseurs and fanatics is that cask influence compromises the pure flavour of agave. With mezcal, the most crucial aging process occurs al fresco — well before the distillation process, while the plant is still alive.
Considering the varietal and origins of an agave is essential to understanding the characteristics of specific mezcals. If you’re thinking terroir, you would not be wrong.
On a 2014 Guild of Sommeliers podcast, Bobby Heugel, mezcal expert and proprietor of Houston mezcaleria, The Pastry War, suggests that it’s a spirit that should be considered in the context of wine. “The agave plant takes so long to mature that the land in which it was planted and the minerality of said land certainly affects its taste,” says Francisco Garcia. “And, if it is a cultivated agave, it will even be affected by what plants were previously planted on the same land.”
It’s not only the place, but the people, that have a major impact.
Garcia stresses the importance of the mezcalero. Whether they choose to ferment in wood or cowhide, distil in copper or clay pots, mash by hand, tahona stone or shredder, dilute with natural spring or distilled water — all of these factors matter. Many are third, fourth and fifth generation producers executing a legacy’s worth of technique, style and tradition.
wild agaves and sustainability
Everything about mezcal takes time. Did the mom-and-pop industry foresee a ratcheted demand eight years ago? Decidedly not. To make things more complicated, many increasingly popular agave varietals were — and are — harvested in the wild.
“Before the current boom of mezcal that started approximately in 2010, no brand could foresee their agave requirements,” says Garcia. “It was extremely difficult for us to plant accordingly — in particular when you’re a fledgling company with the typical cash flow problems of a start-up.”
Now, more than ever, it’s vital to establish replanting and other sustainability initiatives. Every reputable brand has a program for giving back to the land and planning for the future. Wahaka’s sister non-profit, Fundación Agaves Silvestres, replants thousands of baby agaves raised from wild seed around San Dionisio Ocotepec, where they produce their mezcal.
But there’s a question gnawing at the secret heart of every mezcal lover: what if it becomes too popular? “I don’t know that it has the potential to be tequila in terms of sales and popularity, but do I think it can be a hell of a lot more than one percent of tequila sales in short order?” concludes McEvoy, “Yes.”
Whichever direction the mezcal industry takes, to whatever success and economic benefit, should ultimately be left in the hands of the people — and never the factories — that make it.