“Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien, también.” (For all ills, mezcal; and when all is well too)
Most countries have their panacea and their toasting beverage. In Scotland, one drinks Scotch. In Cuba, it’s rum. In Mexico, it’s tequila – or is it?
In the Southern state of Oaxaca, it’s mezcal.
While both tequila and mezcal are made from different varieties of agave, the processes are very different. Traditionally, mezcal is handcrafted by families with dozen of palenques (mini operations) in each village using methods passed down from for generations. Santiago Matatlan, a small village off the beaten path, is considered the ‘cradle of mezcal’.
There is much to commend this drink. “Mezcal is completely natural and organic; there are no chemicals,” explains Walter Castellanos at La Reliquía’s tasting room in Huatulco. “It’s an artisan product.”
There are several steps to making mezcal which, by the way, has no psychedelic substances or mescaline.
As it matures, the agave forms a “piña” or heart in the center, a process that takes seven to 10 years. The piña, which weighs about 40 kg, is roasted for three to seven days in a pit with hot river rocks, palm branches and soil. This gives mezcal its distinctive earthy, smoky flavour.
The roasted hearts are then crushed and mashed by a stone wheel turned by horse power, and the resulting mash is fermented in round wooden vats.
The final step is distillation in a still. Young mezcal “tastes like wet earth and agave, a little smoky,” explains Walter. No kidding! It’s very earthy and frankly, not particularly appealing. And to make it even less attractive, one can get this first flush of mezcal – called Silver here – in a bottle with its own caterpillar.
The caterpillar might be just a marketing gimmick but according to Walter, it adds flavour. I taste it. Nope, same dirt flavour to me!
There is one variety of mezcal in which the moth larva has been replaced by a scorpion. I heard two stories about this. The first, with typical Mexican machismo informed me that the worm is for wimps….scorpion mezcal is for real men! The second informed me that these are not for internal consumption but apparently excellent for arthritis. Hmmm!
Move beyond this silliness and mezcal’s next level becomes worthwhile.
Aging of the liquor in oak barrels creates a beautiful, smooth flavour, reminiscent of cognac or single malts. Really fine mezcal is aged up to 12 years. I taste a 7-year-old whose slightly oaky smokiness reminds me of peaty single malts like Laphroaig.
While tequila is the main ingredient of Mexican cocktails, good mezcal is rarely mixed. Apparently the traditional way to imbibe is with sliced oranges sprinkled with a mixture of ground fried larvae, ground chili peppers, and salt called ‘sal de gusano’, (worm salt). Charming!
Frankly, I’d rather relish it the way the Scots enjoy their ambrosia, with no outside interference.
By the way, according to Walter, mezcal has one big advantage over tequila. “Being totally natural, there’s no hangover,” he assures me. Now that’s definitely a plus!