Photos: Anna Bruce
The word mezcal has its roots in “Nahualt”, an ancient language spoken by the indigenous people of southern Mexico. It means “cooked agave”
However, there are around 200 species of agave in the world, 150 of which originated in Mexico. In Oaxaca, mezcaleros use 25 to 35 different species of the plant, merging the unique botanical profiles of each with the terroir of the village to create highly distinctive and complex flavour profiles. The lone ingredient of mezcal, the agave plant, requires 7 to 20 years to mature, depending on the species. A few varieties, like Espadin, are cultivated, but others must be harvested from the rugged wild lands that embrace the tiny villages. A single batch of perhaps 1200 bottles of mezcal begins with a harvest of 10 tons of pina all of which is cut and dug up by hand. The pina are cooked for several days in a large earthen pit lined with hot stones, then crushed, usually under the weight of a massive stone wheel drawn by a horse or burro.
The crushed pina are transferred to large wooden fermentation vats where ambient yeast converts the sugar to alcohol. After several days, the mezcalero will determine by sight, sound and smell that the product is ready for distillation. It is then transferred to traditional copper or clay alembiques or stills and heated over carefully controlled wood fires.
Artisan mezcal is a highly complex spirit crafted in small batches from 100% AGAVE; the work is hard, the process unhurried. It is a centuries old art form that is bringing the soul of the earth, the scent of the fire, the history of a people to the lips of strangers thousands of miles away. Steeped in wisdom and weighted with patience, the coveted recipes and methods have been handed down from father to son for centuries. To change them or cut corners would be disrespectful to all who came before. It is, therefore, both an honor and a great responsibility to assume the mantle of maestro mezcalero [master mezcal producer]; every bottle that is filled, every cup that is shared, is sacred – a connection between his hands and yours.
Seven factors that affect the quality and flavour of the mezcal
Plant Species – The plant variety is important as each one gives different flavours
Altitude – it’s here the airborne microbes plays their role and at every 300 feet up (100m) its different species of microbes. These airborne microbes affect the fermenting. In commercial tequila and mezcal production chemicals are used but in the production of Del Maguey mezcal’ they wait between 4-30 days to let the airborne microbes start the fermenting. That’s a handcrafted spirit!
The soil – Different soils are used, and soil definitely adds a flavour component. Del Maguey agaves grove in a soil type that is called tierra amaria. It’s a well drained granite-rich soil thus letting the water drain off fast which is very important as water from the soil is not good for the maguey as water through the roots and up in the plant makes it bitter. Instead the plants open up its pores in the night and absorb moisture
Wood – the kind of wood that is used to heat the rocks that roast the hearts on gives off different flavours
Water – the water of the village also has a flavour effect and the water is used after the hearts are ground and everything is placed in tanks or vats. Different village waters affect the flavours
The hand of the maker – This is that magic personal touch that every producer of mezcal adds to the product and it’s possible to by blind tasting tell which village and which specific producer has made a certain mezcal
Time – is one of the most important factors in a good mezcal – as mezcal is a real slow-food product – this is how flavour is made
Source: Jon Anders