While a bikini-clad, shot-chugging, glut of Spring Breaking tequilas dominate the popular imagination, there exists no greater thrill than the grand daddy drinking, sipping-not-shooting experience of them all – mezcal.
A trillion times more robust than tequila and delivering an intensely warming experience through its formidable smokiness, mezcal’s arduous craftsmanship, made almost exclusively through small scale producers employing traditional techniques 200 years old and laborious history, make it a standout tour de force of drinking.
Made from the agave plant, Oaxaca and its unique topography serve as the epicenter of mezcal production. Grown for two years in garden plots, the agave are then uprooted, roots cut, leaves bound and left to heal in the shade for two weeks. They are then transported to the hills, where they are transplanted and left to grow for another four to ten years.
After harvesting, the cores are placed and buried in an eight feet deep pit, where a complex roasting/baking process lasts from three days to a month, imparting the flavors of earth, wood, smoke and rocks. After shade resting for a week and fermenting with airborne microbes, a horse powered stone wheel crushes the plant.
From there, wooden vats hold the fermenting liquid for four to thirty days. After being transferred to stills, a 24 hour wood fire distillation process, which happens twice, resulting in mescal. As you would expect, a process this in depth and labor intensive, coupled with the albeit limited export demand, provides vital employment for around 29,000 people. But when playing the numbers game, perhaps most remarkable is: of the the two million liters of certified production, only 434,000 of that is exported, meaning Mexico means mezcal.
When looking for a good bottle of mezcal, it’s important that it’s labeled “100% agave” as cheaper mezcal has an unfortunate history of color additives, including the marketing gimmick of a worm, which in fact used to indicate sub standard quality as that worm was a parasite from the plant. The purity of 100 percent agave is also fabled to be hangover free.
Not often found on menus, and lacking a signature genre defining cocktail like the margarita, mezcals are traditionally and best enjoyed neat, free from distractions. Del Maguey Single Village and Sombra are two highly drinkable names you’d do well starting with. Enjoy!