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There’s Something About Mezcal

 Breaking News
May 23
07:21 2017

(Drinking Trends) Sat at the bar in a late night drinking den I asked a fellow spirits professional “Why are we drinking mezcal?” “Because it’s delicious, obviously” he answered without hesitation. With a nod of agreement, I replied “Yeah I know that. But why, when there are so many other niche spirits to choose, are we so infatuated by this smoky elixir?”

So, what is it about Mezcal? Plenty of other niche spirits have come across my radar over the past decade. Indeed, a magazine called Drinking Trends wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting ten or fifteen years ago when most bars and bottle shops stocked the same dozen or so spirits – familiar favourites of your parent’s generation, perhaps joined by a new super-premium vodka or lurid coloured shooter. But fast forward to today and you will find an unfathomable amount of different gins, rums, and lots of new arrivals that were barely heard of a few years ago: Whether it is aquavit, arrack, pisco, amaro, absinthe, or whisky from places you didn’t realise existed, there are a hell of a lot of different spirit categories on the rise right now.

But one, in particular, has come from nowhere. Literally risen from the ashes, and spread like the fire used in its making.


For those who haven’t felt the warm and smoky embrace of Mexico’s oldest and boldest spirit, simply put mezcal is the ancestor from which tequila evolved, but made on a much smaller scale in rural communities using ancient methods, unchanged for 400 years. This includes the smoking pit that gives its distinctive, inherent flavour. It’s also made from agave, but instead of just one type like tequila, it can be made from any of the multitudes of different varieties that grow across the country.

Less than a decade ago mezcal was barely consumed outside its spiritual homeland of Oaxaca, and a few other remote corners of the country. Most Mexicans drank tequila and imported spirits – mezcal was only seen fit for the poor. Abroad only the most ardent booze enthusiasts knew of mezcal, and then they had probably only tried the dubious worm infested type.

But oh, how the tides have turned. Nowadays, rich residents of Mexico City sip exuberantly priced mezcals in “mezcalerias” (bars dedicated to the spirit) dotted around every hip neighbourhood in the city; a trend reflected across the nation and around the world. You can find these embassies of mezcal everywhere from Portland to Paris, Manchester to Melbourne, and new ones pop up on an almost daily basis. Today mezcal is not just the talk of spirits enthusiasts and those in the know, but has smashed its way into the wider consumer sphere. It’s likely even your nan has heard of it.

If there’s one thing you notice when drinking mezcal with spirits enthusiasts, it’s the sheer passion they have for it. For those of us who have fallen for its complex smoky allure, we don’t just like mezcal: We LOVE mezcal. It’s not simply a spirit we enjoy, but a deep fascination with cult-like devotion, which shines in the eyes of the converted whenever the spirit is mentioned.

So, what has caused this dramatic rise, and what is it about mezcal that has its advocates so besotted? What have been the deeper trends fanning the flames? Here’s why we’re drinking mezcal…

It’s Truly “Craft” / “Artisanal” / “Hand Made” / “(insert overused post-hipster marketing term here)”

Gone are the days of “Super Premium” or “Ultra Premium”. That’s so last decade. Today’s buzzwords are “Hand Crafted” and “Artisanal”. Once the domain of hipsters and those in the know, this movement has now hit the mainstream. No longer do people want the flashiest – They want the most authentic. Rather than standardised machine made products in glitzy packaging, today’s consumers want real things made by actual people.

But unfortunately, these once meaningful descriptors have been misused to the point of banality. If I had a shot for every time a marketing exec misappropriated them for a new spirit brand made in a large industrial distillery, I would be a very drunk man. This misuse has inflicted a great disservice upon true artisans, and no spirit deserves the term “hand crafted” more than mezcal.

To understand why, cast your mind to rural Mexico: Down dirt track roads, in agave filled valleys, high up in the fresh crisp air of mountain forests, and in hot dusty dry riverbeds, you will find thousands of “mezcaleros” (mezcal makers). Some using little more than a few rocks, a stack of logs, a clay pot, and a hole in the ground, they make it on a tiny scale with each batch requiring more than a month to make. Every step of the process takes more time, sweat, and sometimes blood (as anyone who has harvest razor sharp agave will profess) than any other bottle you will find on your spirits shelf.

Firstly mezcaleros have to plant the tiny “hijuelos” (baby agave) in the dry sandy soils before the rains come. They care for and protect them, praying the little pups will flourish into majestic mature “magueys” (the name agave plants go by in Mexico), patiently waiting for a minimum of eight years, but for some agave species up to twenty-five. And then begins the really hard work: the harvest. For this, the Mezcalero will muster as many relatives and friends as possible and head to the fields, spending days to cutting back the green sword like pencas (leaves), and wrestling each back-breakingly heavy pina (agave heart) from the earth and onto their truck, or for some their mule. Once you have enough to make a batch, it’s time to find a shady spot to take cover from the relentless heat of the unforgiving Mexican sun, and of course wet the dry lips with an earlier batch of mezcal.

Back at the palenque (Oaxacan name for a small traditional distillery, known in other regions as tabernas or vinatas) the Mezcalero transforms their crop into mezcal, a process that takes over a month. Using knowledge and traditions that have been passed from one generation to the next, the first day is spent preparing the roasting pit: Laying oak logs in a conical hole in the ground, setting them ablaze to warm the surrounding heat-retaining rocks. Once the flames have subsided, the weighty pinas (agave hearts) are carefully loaded one by one into the smouldering pit, heaped on top until you can fit no more, and covered with agave fibres, a sheet, or earth. Over three or more days the hard raw agave hearts will slowly roast, softening and breaking down their sugars, filling the clean country air with tantalising sweet and smoky aromas. It takes another day to cool, and then the cooked flesh is crushed to extract the syrupy juice. For mezcal’s more famous cousin, tequila, there are a small handful of distillers who still crush their agave with a “Tahona” (a stone wheel pulled around a pit on a central pivot by a horse or mule), and are revered for maintaining this ancient method, but only the large successful mezcaleros can afford such a convenience. Many mezcaleros have no more than mallets to beat the juice out with, which will take another few days of hard work. Once the juice is extracted, it’s poured bucket by bucket into a rustic wooden vat, or sometimes cow hide, and fermented naturally, typically for around ten days but sometimes for as long as a month, with the mezcaleros periodically poking and prodding it to aerate. Finally, the mosto muerto (fully fermented agave juice) is passed twice through small stills made of copper, clay, or even wood. The skill of the Mezcalero lifts the essence from its mildly alcoholic constraints into a clear spirit that embodies the plant, the land, the years it’s taken to grow and produce, and centuries of family tradition.

Still not convinced? Well let’s put things into cold hard numbers: Around 1,000,000,000 litres of scotch whisky are produced each year by just over 100 distilleries – An average of about 10 million litres of whisky per distillery (this includes Scotch grain whisky and malt whisky distilleries combined). Around 225,000,000 litres of tequila are produced each year by just over 80 active distilleries – An average of about three million litres per distillery. But there are only about 2,500,000 litres of mezcal produced each year by around 1200 recorded mezcal distilleries.

The entire mezcal industry is making less than just one average tequila distillery.

For me, mezcal is irrefutably the most handcrafted of all spirits, and after all that time and effort, next time you fill your glass with mezcal perhaps think carefully about sinking it back so quickly!


The Ultimate Character

If there was a one drinking trend that I’m glad we left behind in the 20th century, it was the dominance of lightly flavoured booze. Drinkers chose alcoholic beverages that were easy on the senses: Neutral tasting vodka, lager, less characterful blended whisky, and lightly flavoured rum. They shunned more interesting and complex tipples, and many of our once popular bolder spirits were cast aside, solely to be found in granddad’s drinks cupboard. Craft ale drinkers were an outcast minority group of bearded anoraks, and if you drank smoky Islay whisky people thought you were mental.

But the past years have shown a dramatic departure from the bland. 21st Century drinkers want flavour. They are choosing gin over vodka, craft brew over lager, and demand for single malt, especially those big peaty flavour bombs, exploded beyond everyone’s expectations. Big, complex, flavours are in.

And again, mezcal is the ultimate expression of this trend. Open a bottle and the aroma fills the room. Take a sip and you will still taste it the next day. Some people may decide they don’t like it, but it’s guaranteed to cause a stir.

And it’s not just the amount of flavour: It’s the complexity that sets it apart. Mezcal is truly multi-dimensional, with layers upon layers of flavours, usually showing sweet, savoury, smoky, earthy, spicy, mineral, acidic, fresh, fruity, nutty and herbal tones, coming in waves, taking drinkers on a journey through the senses. This complexity isn’t surprising when you bear in mind that agave is THE most chemically complex plant we make alcohol from, and it spends longer than any other soaking up influences of its environment – Grapes have only a few months absorb terroir, agave plants have years or even decades. Also, the traditional methods used in its making impart more complex tones: Pit roasting gives not just smoke but earthy, dried chili, woody, and even chocolatey tones. Natural fermentation imparts fruity, floral and bold tones, and small scale distilling to a low level of purity ensures a full spectrum flavours are preserved in the spirit.

But don’t just take my word for it: Scientific research points to mezcal being the world’s most complex spirit. For his thesis, President of the CRM (Mezcal Regulatory Council) Dr. Hipocrates Valsaco Cancino analysed mezcal using chromatography comparing it to other spirits, including vodka, gin, rum, tequila, and whisky. Peaks shown on the resulting graphs represented each of the different chemical components, or what we know in tasting terms as “congeners” (flavour compounds). Mezcal showed more than 600 of these, more than any other spirit, including whisky.

So, if you like your spirits bold, full of flavour and complex, mezcal may be the ultimate spirit for you.

It’s Natural

Reflecting the trend for “natural wine”, there is a growing trend for “natural spirits”. And again, mezcal is as natural it gets.

Although very few undertake the expensive process of being certified organic, the vast majority of mezcal would qualify. In fact, the idea of using pesticides or chemicals hasn’t even occurred to most mezcaleros. The extra expense simply wouldn’t be worth it: Agaves have a highly developed immune system, and can fend for themselves. If they had been over-cultivated and protected by pesticides like many other cops, their natural defences would have become sluggish and resistance against invading insects and disease would be diminished, but the human demand on this crop has been low so the natural cycle has not been disturbed.

Also, mezcal is one of the very few spirits where natural fermentation using wild yeast is the norm. For tens of thousands of years humanity had been drinking only naturally fermented beverages, but during the industrial era a need for speed, efficiency, and standardisation lead to almost all the world’s alcohols switching to commercial fermentation, using cultivated, often genetically modified yeast strains. The time required to ferment went from one week to one day, and the lighter flavour suited the consumer preference of the times. But the price was a move away from nature in terms of flavour, and perhaps more: It’s said naturally fermented spirits give you an entirely different feeling than the industrially produced, and less of the bad side effects. Many claim mezcal gives them a more calm, content, and energised feeling, and never gives them a hangover. There have been no scientific studies to back this up, but anecdotally it’s professed by thousands of “mezcalistas” (mezcal fans), and speaking from experience, I agree with them.


It Benefits The People and Their Traditional Communities

In a time when consumers are becoming more conscious of whether what they buy is ethically produced and fair trade, there is one thing you can be sure of: Mezcal supports more jobs per bottle than any other spirit. Recent research shows this micro-industry supports over 26,000 families.

However, the debate about mezcal’s fair trade credentials is a contentious issue: Some mezcals carry a pretty hefty price tag, with some breaking the £100 mark. How much of this money actually makes it back to the mezcaleros? Well, to understand this we need to consider the journey mezcal takes to reach us.

Making mezcal takes a lot of time and dedication, not leaving much for the huge task of creating a brand and making a success of it, so the industry evolved to deal with this: Almost all of the mezcal brands on the market are not owned by the mezcaleros themselves, but by independent bottlers, and are the equivalent to what the French know as negociants. Often Mexicans or Americans, but increasingly from countries all over the world, these businessmen and women are responsible for creating the brands, finding the mezcaleros, buying and bottling the mezcal, organising and deciding upon bottle design and branding, taking care of all of the relevant forecasting, logistics, dealing with international distributors, and marketing it around the world. This is neither a cheap nor easy feat and obviously, they need to make money in the process, but it’s also their responsibility to make sure the mezcaleros are paid fairly.

Most of these people are in the mezcal business because they have a great passion for the spirit and respect for those who make it. If their main aim was to make money, there are many more profitable ventures than mezcal. Because they want a steady and consistent supply, they have an interest in paying a fair price for the mezcal and forming long lasting relationships with the mezcaleros they partner with. Esteban Morales Garibi, owner of Mezcal Derrumbes and La Venenosa Raicilla, known for his commitment to fair business practice and strong relationships with mezcaleros and tabeneros (Raicilla producers), explains his approach, “We treat the producers as a partnership in the business. We go through all the costs – marketing, bottling, labelling, transportation, taxes, importer and retail markups – so they understand all the steps that the mezcal goes through to be in front of the customer, and understand if they charge this many pesos, why it will cost $80, or £60 on the shelf. They are always kept informed about how much money is being made.”

Also, he is careful to minimise disruption to their way of life: “There is concern of taking care to make sure there is enough for the local community. When they set the price, we show the possible growth forecasts based on that price, and if that amount of production isn’t possible we increase together the price, to put it exactly where it needs to be to control the demand and keep safe the size of production.”

But respect for the mezcaleros is the heart of their business practise: “When we hear people saying they are “helping” them, we feel they are just killing the pride of being a mezcaleros. We don’t do social work like an NGO or charity. We are doing business with them but in a respectful, sustainable way”.

Not all mezcal brand owners are this considerate, with some unscrupulous individuals paying mezcaleros woeful amounts for the efforts of their labour and fail to promote sustainability, but from speaking with mezcaleros and hearing their stories, these make up a small minority. Overall the mezcal boom has had a hugely positive effect providing a well-needed boost to the economies of impoverished rural communities. One story I’ve heard time and time again was that before these good times young people leaving their villages in droves. This was not because of a desire to travel and see the world like many teenagers and twenty-somethings here, but because a lack of jobs meant there was little choice but to head to either the sprawling urban jungle of Mexico City, or pay the coyotes to take them on the perilous journey across the northern border. This broke up communities, leaving an ageing population to carry on the tradition of making mezcal. But luckily for many mezcaleros this story has a happy ending – The boost from increased mezcal sales is drawing youngsters back to their homeland, and giving the next generation the means to stay. The rise of mezcal is not just providing work on a production line or bottling plant, but allowing them to carry on the traditions that their forefathers have maintained for hundreds of years. Extra money in the bank has also allowed many mezcaleros to send their children to school and university, much improving the long-term prospects for the region.

Now that’s something I’ll drink to.


And, Well, It’s Mexican!

There’s something about Mexico. Whether it’s their laid-back culture, flavour packed spicy food, or colourful fashion, Mexiphilia has swept the West and beyond: Faux-mariachi bands, street tacos, and Mexican Cantinas can be found in almost every major city, and it’s not surprising that over the past few years more new Mexican themed eateries have opened in the UK than any other cuisine type. And as usual, food and drink go hand in hand.

Over the years, the Mexican themed bars, cantinas, and restaurants leading this trend have upped the game when it comes to their food offering, cooking up more authentic cuisine with complex flavours, using more varied ingredients. This has been reflected in the drinks offering, with more and more varieties of mezcal adorning the back bars, usually at the expense of a number of tequila brands stocked. Once the spirit of the Mexican food trend, tequila is now having to share the spotlight with its older sibling.

This move isn’t surprising: Mezcal draws the attention to a different side of Mexico. It’s not sombrero-clad cliché, but an effortlessly authentic embodiment of Mexico entwined deep in its history and identity.


An Endless Variety and Much More Yet to Come

Some people say mezcal is just a fad, a bubble that is already beginning to burst. I would argue it’s just beginning. Why am I so confident that mezcal has legs? It has almost limitless variety to keep its admirers discovering new styles.

Every time we think we have tried it all, something entirely different comes along and smashes our previous perceptions: In the early days we thought that mezcal was just a smoky curiosity, then “Single Village” mezcal hit the market, and we discovered there are hundreds of villages each with entirely unique styles. Just as we thought we knew that we discovered mezcal is made from dozens of different varieties of agave, again all with hugely varying characteristics. Then that there are different states that produce it – Unique flavours from Michoacan, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi and others showed us something completely different from what we thought we knew was mezcal. Then we discover there’s also Raicilla from Western Jalisco, Bacanora from Sonora, both essentially mezcals but going by different names, with various sub-regions and different styles of their own.

And trust me, there is so much more to come.

When you bear in mind there are over 3000 distillers of agave spirits in Mexico, more than any other spirit in the world, using massively varying techniques – Some smoking the agave, some not, some distilling in ancient clay pots, wooden barrels, or copper alembics. And they’re spread across one of the world’s most climatically and geologically varied countries – Mexico isn’t just cactus filled desert: Mezcal is made in high altitude pine forests, hot sticky tropical valleys, grass filled plateaus, and everything in between. The mezcal Denomination region currently covers an area over 500 times the size of the Cognac region and around 7 times the size of Scotland. This includes nine Mexican states, but it’s expanding to others that traditionally produce the spirit, which is thought is almost all of the country’s 31 states. They’re using dozens of varieties of agave, each with many sub-varieties… Many people have tried to count how many exactly are being used for mezcal, but there are so many, spread over such a wide area, and also they are geomorphic, meaning the same plants may look (and taste) completely different in different regions. It’s likely we will never have an accurate answer.

There are so many variables, no two batches of mezcal will ever be the same, so you could drink something truly unique for every day for the rest of your life.


So, next time you raise a glass of mezcal, it may be the boldest, most complex natural spirit you ever put to your lips; it’s the result of hundreds of years of tradition, countless lifetimes of dedication, hard work and crafting, and decades of Mexican sunshine, all concentrated by one amazing plant. You can feel good that your money has gone to preserving one of the spirit worlds’ most historical and dedicated cultures, supporting a traditional way of life that, fortunately for us, makes damn tasty booze.


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Images:  Anna Bruce Photography

Video: Vimeo / Eric Wolfinger


The post There’s Something About Mezcal appeared first on Drinking Trends - News and Trends for Bars, Pubs, Cocktails, Mixology, Spirits, Wine and Beer Worldwide..


Industry Expert

Tom Bartram

Tom Bartram

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