An Education In Mezcal

mezcal

I inhale. The scent is earthy, smoky. I take a sip, rolling the liquid around my tongue, exploring its flavors. Per instruction, I gurgle. My mouth explodes, the alcohol transforming into a liquid fireball that burns the insides of my cheeks. It takes a few minutes before the sensation expires.

There is a saying: “para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también.”

For everything bad, mezcal, and for everything good too.

In Oaxaca, mezcal is as much a part of the landscape as the mountains, textiles and colonial architecture. Legend has it that a form of the tequila-like liquor existed prior to the Spanish conquest of Mexico, but mezcal as we know it was first distilled by the conquistadors in the 17th century. It is a generic name for spirits distilled from the agave plant, or maguey as it is traditionally called, of which there are 11 types. The state of Oaxaca is the traditional home of mezcal, and the countryside is littered with small family distilleries.

But not all mezcal is created equal. There is a difference between artisanal mezcal and the touristy stuff sold in bodegas across the city. I learned the difference at the Mezcaloteca, a tasting library run by a group dedicated to the preservation of traditional mezcal production.

It turns out, pure artisanal mezcal isn’t brown – it’s clear. And those larvae at the bottom of the bottle? Pure marketing, intended to bait unassuming tourists with the promise of a G-rated “Fear Factor” experience. (“I can’t believe you actually ate the worm!” your friends back home will gape.)

No, the best artisanal mezcal is crystal clear and worm free. David, our bartender-cum-teacher, filled us in on some other ways to tell the difference.

  • Look for the words “100% agave,” which signifies that the liquor is pure and not mixed with cheaper additives.
  • Make sure that the stated alcohol content is 45% or greater.
  • Check the label for the state of origin, type of agave plant and name of the maestro mezcalero, or mezcal master.
  • Shake the bottle and see if bubbles arise – they should, unless it is a mezcal with more than 55% alcohol content, in which case the bubbles only arise when you stir it.
  • Do not buy mezcal that is reposado or anejado in barrels – the wood destroys the distinct flavors and aromas of the mezcal.
  • Rub a drop of mezcal between your fingers to evaporate it – the scent should be of cooked agave.

Now for tasting the mezcal.

  • Mezcal is traditionally consumed from a gourd or wide-mouthed cup.
  • Pour the drink from one cup to another to see the bubbles rise.
  • Inhale the mezcal. Try to find the aroma that you smelled when you rubbed the mezcal between your fingers. Then inhale with your mouth closed and try to discern other smells. You’ll notice that there is a difference.
  • Sip the mezcal and rinse your mouth for 10 seconds without swallowing. Exhale through your nose. Feel the flavors on your palate.
  • Take another sip, rinse your mouth for 10 seconds, then swallow and feel the burn.

According to David, these flavors are the essence of mezcal.

The Mezcaloteca is located at Reforma 506 in central Oaxaca. Tastings are available by appointment only, though you may be able to piggyback onto another group’s tasting if you swing by at the right time. Prices vary, but a basic four-pour tasting cost us 150 pesos (about US$12). Call +52-01-951-5140082 or email mezcaloteca@gmail.com for reservations.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

The Spirit(s) Of Christmas: Great Distilled Gifts To Give

bourbonThe holidays are stressful for many reasons, one of which is gift pressure. Host(ess), Christmas and Hanukkah gifts, gifts for neighbors, obligatory “thank you for the great mail delivery/haircuts/massages gifts.”

You know what makes for a thoughtful gift that reduces stress? A bottle of something delicious. Unless, of course, your intended recipients don’t/aren’t old enough to drink. I can’t help you with that. But I can provide you with a list of great, small-batch spirits to give to those who’ve been appropriately naughty or nice this year:

Black Maple Hill Small Batch Bourbon
This stuff sells out quick, so when you see it at your local liquor store, snatch it up right quick. The bourbon lover in your life (I would gift this to myself, hint, hint) will savor the vanilla, clove, licorice, black cherry and petrol notes. Made from sour mash, and aged for eight years in white oak, this heavenly elixir is made by Kentucky Bourbon Distillers, Ltd., which specializes in producing small-batch bourbons for brands that include Noah’s Mill and Willett.

Leopold Bros. Three Pins Alpine Herbal Liqueur
One of Colorado’s top distilleries is this family-owned Denver company. They make a mean gin and whiskey, as well as other spirits, but Three Pins is a ski-town favorite. Made from a proprietary blend of over a dozen herbs and regional alpine flowers blended with spices and other botanicals, it’s slightly sweet and syrupy, with refreshing citrus and herbal notes. Use as you would Benedictine – as a digestif, to add depth to a cocktail, or as a surprisingly compatible pairing with a mellow blue or goat cheese.

Ron Zacapa
If someone on your list has the hots for rum, this is the gift that will keep on giving far longer than its under-$40 price tag would suggest. A premium Guatemalan sipping rum made with high-elevation-grown estate sugar cane, Zacapa is made according to the same Sistema Solera process used in sherry production. The rum is blended and aged in American whiskey, sherry and Pedro Jimenez wine casks of varying ages. The result is a rum with deep, complex aromas and flavors reminiscent of raisin, honey, spice and oak. If your recipient is extra special, get them the Ron Zacapa 23 (as in years). Simply luscious.

Crop Vodka
I’m not a huge fan of vodka, but was pleasantly surprised by the cucumber and tomato flavors from this certified organic brand from Minnesota. Lovely on the rocks, in a gimlet or Bloody Mary, or with a splash of tonic, these refreshing garden varieties are like summer, er, distilled in a bottle.

Sombra Mezcal
Mezcal is the new tequila (technically, tequila is mezcal; both are made from blue agave, but tequila is produced in designated regions within Jalisco state). Or, look at it this way: it’s the Scotch-drinker’s white spirit. Smoky, peaty, and world apart from the firewater swill with the worm in the bottle, today’s premium mezcal’s are often sourced from single villages located near the small distilleries. Sombra, produced in Oaxaca with high-elevation, estate-grown agave, is oaky and smoky, with notes of spice and pineapple. Masculine and sophisticated; serve with a smoking jacket or … velvet slippers?

[Photo credit: Flickr user fd]

A Guide To Drinking Tequila In Mexico

tequila While tequila is typically thought of as something you took too many shots of during a crazy night out, the drink actually has a deep cultural meaning, rich history and a proper way to be sipped. To help you get better acquainted with the libation, here is a guide to drinking tequila in Mexico.

History

Originating in the northwestern state of Jalisco, tequila is North America’s first distilled and commercially produced alcohol. It is distilled from the blue agave plant, which produces sugar and is native to Jalisco. Tequila’s roots reach back into pre-Hispanic times when the Aztecs fermented sap from the local agave plants, long before the Spanish arrived in 1521. Then, when the brandy the Spaniards had brought with them ran out, they began to distill the agave plant to make tequila.

By law, tequila can only be called “tequila” if it is made in Jalisco. The first qualifications for the drink were written in 1947, and have been constantly updated ever since. If you’re looking for top-shelf tequila, make sure it’s made with 100% blue agave.How It’s Made

According to tequila distillers Daniel Osuna and Alfonso Pelayo Osuna, there is a very specific process for making tequila. First, the agave is cultivated for seven to eight years, before the spines are cut off and the piñas are transported to the distillery. Once this is done, there are four steps in the production process.

1. The piñas are roasted in the oven. This is to change the starch into fermentable sugars and to soften the piñas’ texture to be able to extract their juice.

2. Now comes the sugar extraction, where the largest amount of sugar within the agave is extracted.

3. Fermenting is the most important stage in the process for obtaining the desired characteristics of the tequila. The sugar is isolated to allow it to change to alcohol and for the pleasant aromas to appear.

4. Finally, the product is distilled. This is when the tequila is refined for perfect flavor and aroma in oak barrels. The alcohol absorbs the oak, allowing the tequila to have perfect body, softness and texture.

blue agave Classifications

There are two basic classifications of tequila, “100% blue agave” and “tequila mixto” (mixed). Mixed tequila contains at least 51% blue agave, with the rest typically coming from cane sugar. Other ingredients you may find in this type of tequila include caramel color, oak extract flavoring, glycerin, and sugar based syrup. This type does not need to be made in Jalisco. The other classification, 100% blue agave, will read “Tequila 100% de agave” or “Tequila 100% puro de agave” on the bottle. If it simply says “tequila,” it’s probably mixed.

From the two classifications there are five sub-classifications:

  • Tequila Silver – Blanco – Plata – White – Platinum: This type of tequila is in its purest form. It usually isn’t aged, with the true flavors, intensity and sweetness being present.
  • Tequila Gold – Joven – Oro: This type of tequila is usually mixed, with added colors and flavors. Most times, this type of tequila is inexpensive and used for mixed drinks in bars; however, there are exceptions to this, like when silver tequila is mixed with a reposado and/or añejo tequila. By doing this, you’re still keeping the product 100% blue agave.
  • Tequila Reposado: Known as an “aged” or “rested” tequila, the drink is aged in wood barrels or storage tanks from anywhere between 2 to 11 months. It’s usually gold in color and has flavors of agave and wood. Sometimes, the tequila will be aged in a barrel that once contained a different spirit like whiskey or wine, giving it some of those tastes, as well.
  • Tequila Añejo: This “extra aged” tequila is aged for at least one year. The liquid usually takes on an amber color that is more smooth, dark and complex than the other sub-classifications.
  • Tequila Extra Añejo: Known as “ultra aged,” this tequila is aged for three years or more. The extended aging gives it a very dark color, and the flavor is often hard to distinguish between other high-quality aged spirits. After the aging process, distilled water is added to dilute the tequila.

The Difference Between Tequila and Mescal

Today, majority of mezcal is made in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. Unlike tequila, there are five varieties of agave mezcal can be distilled from. Additionally, while tequila is double and sometimes triple distilled, mezcal is usually only distilled once to give it a stronger taste. Currently, more than 500 different brands of tequila are on the market, while mezcal boasts only 100.

To make mezcal, the sugar-rich core of the agave plant called the piña, is baked in a rock-lined pit oven over charcoal. It is covered with layers of palm-fiber mats and dirt, giving the drink a strong, smoky flavor. Locals in Oaxaca drink mezcal to calm their minds and lift their spirits, as well as stimulate their creativity. Moreover, the libation is made by hundreds of small family businesses called “palenques,” which preserve traditional methods of mezcal production.

barrels How To Sip Tequila

Typically, tequila is sipped slowly and enjoyed without salt and fruit. People began doing shots in this fashion because, in the past, the liquor was so strong drinkers needed to take the salt and lemon or lime to make it smoother. Specifically, tequila used to be made with 55 to 60º of alcohol, while today it is made with 38 to 40º, or 80 proof. To properly enjoy tequila, you should follow these steps:

  • Purchase the bottle of your preference
  • Pour a small portion into a globe glass, which keeps the aromas inside for you to enjoy
  • Swirl the drink around like you would a fine wine
  • Smell the tequila with your left nostril, then with your right nostril, to discover hidden scents
  • Tap a small sip and swirl it around your mouth, swallow and take a deep breath. You’ll hopefully be able to taste some flavors of wood and melchonte, or cooked agave.
  • Drink slowly and enjoy how the flavors and aromas interact with your senses

Distillery Tours

The Tequila Express (or Tequila Train) is a Mexican regional train service that operates from Guadalajara, Jalisco, to the municipality of Amatitán, Jalisco. Why is it called the Tequila Express? Because passengers will be given tequila tastings, ride through blue agave fields and end at the Tequila Herradura distillery at the San José del Refugio Hacienda. Prices are $850 M.N. (about $65 USD) for adults, and $480 M.N. (about $37) for children 12 and under. Children under 5 ride free. You can purchase tickets on Ticketmaster’s Mexico website or call 333-818-3802.

[Images via Photomag, Mexico Tourism Board, Mexico Tourism Board]