Mezcal Primer + Tasting Event in San Francisco

| July 17, 2012 | 4 Comments
  • 4 Comments

Mezcal in the street in Oaxaca  Photo: Susan CossMezcal, the Mexican spirit distilled from agave, is popping up everywhere. Some of the Bay Area’s top mixologists are using it; last year Mosto opened up as part of Tacolicious‘ move into the Mission and features an extensive tequila and mezcal selection, while bars like Emeryville’s Prizefighter and the Western Addition’s Nopalito each have fantastic selections.

A few months ago Susan Coss and I decided to launch Mezcalistas, a blog devoted to artisanal mezcal. Susan had spent a considerable amount of time in Oaxaca and had an early conversion experience to mezcal. Mine came rather recently but I haven’t stopped enjoying it since. As part of our general mission to explain and cover the world of artisanal mezcal we’ve held a number of informal tastings but this July 25th we’re taking the next step and throwing a public tasting with San Francisco’s The Bold Italic.

Mezcal bottles.  Photo: Susan Coss
Mezcal bottles. Photo: Susan Coss

At the event, we’ll taste different types of mezcal, talk about how they’re made and explain what you’re tasting. We’ll also be serving a cocktail to demonstrate how you can use it as a mixer and appetizers that will highlight its versatility as a food companion. In Mexico, many people drink mezcal or its cousin tequila with a meal, so food pairing is a particularly important part of the conversation. Now, to whet your whistle, here’s a primer on the wonderful world of mezcal.

An agave cut.  Photo: Susan Coss
An agave cut. Photo: Susan Coss

What Is Mezcal?
Mezcal is the distillate of fermented agave juice. Mezcal producers cut the leaves off agave plants, harvest the piná or “pineapple” heart of the agave, cook it underground, then ferment and distill it into a spirit that varies widely in alcoholic content but is usually about 40 percent and occasionally higher. Conventional wisdom in Mexico is that a mezcal needs to be at least 45 percent. You can take a look at the photo gallery we posted to get a sense for how basic this process is. Contrary to all the glistening stainless steel production facilities that usually produce culinary goods, palenqueros (traditional mezcal makers) are out there chopping agave by hand, building fires in pits to roast them and pushing mules around in a circle to grind the pinás into a fermentable pulp.

A mezcal still.  Photo: Susan Coss
A mezcal still. Photo: Susan Coss

What Does It Taste Like?
The variety of flavors in different mezcals, which can be distilled from various types of domesticated or wild agave, is one of the pleasures of the drink. Generally, what they share is a degree of smokiness and an agave flavor. How much and how it’s highlighted depends on the maker’s style, which can roughly be grouped into three strands. First, there’s the very traditional mezcal, which fills the mouth with a viscous body and a forthright agave flavor that includes herbal and vegetal notes. Another traditional form puts alcohol in the spotlight with a higher degree of smoke. The third is the popular, contemporary form, generally lower in alcohol, lighter in body and lighter on the smokiness.

Palenquero Chucho Sanchez making a blend.  Photo: Susan Coss
Palenquero Chucho Sanchez making a blend. Photo: Susan Coss

Why Is It Different?
Aside from taste, mezcals are severely limited in quantity since it takes so long for agave plants to grow (5-7 years for the domesticated espadin, as long as 12-17 years for the wild varieties) and because much of the production is still done in small batches. Nor are the agaves completely domesticated like the blue agave used for tequila, so source material is always an issue. Palenqueros are frequently inheritors of long family traditions. Each palenquero brings his own idea to the mix: espadin, silvestres, blends, high alcohol, heavy body, viscous, flavor variation.

Like many traditional distillates, palenqueros add things to their products. The most notable is a style called pechuga, where they add a turkey or chicken breast, sometimes even a rabbit, to the distillation process. It sounds almost impossible, but the meat adds an ethereal tone to these mezcals. Try one and you may never look back even if your wallet complains: Pechugas are extremely limited in production and therefore quite expensive. Then there are the fruit, herb and nut infused varieties. We have yet to see one of these commercially available in the U.S. but should you see one in Mexico give it a try.

The roasting pit at Fidencio.  Photo: Susan Coss
The roasting pit at Fidencio. Photo: Susan Coss

The Tequila Question
Tequila and mezcal are frequently mentioned in the same breath. Technically, any agave distillate is a mezcal, so mezcal drinkers love to point out that tequila is just another mezcal. Tequila drinkers love to point out that while all tequilas are mezcals, not all mezcals are tequilas. The main difference is that tequila’s production is very well-defined while mezcal allows much more flexibility to its makers. In the wine world it’s the difference between a well-defined appellation like Cotes du Rhone and an amorphous one like Vin du Pays.

Tequila has to be made almost entirely of a single type of agave, blue agave aka Agave tequiliana Weber, produced in a very limited geographical area dominated by the state of Jalisco in Western Mexico, and is roasted above ground in steam ovens or autoclaves. Mezcal can be made from 27 types of agave though generally from the Espadin. It is produced in seven states centered in Oaxaca and roasted however the maker wants — generally underground.

The way tequila and mezcals are roasted produces one of the major taste differences. Mezcals tend to pick up a distinct smoky flavor from their direct contact with burning wood while tequilas rarely have a hint of it. The fact that mezcal can be made from so many varieties of agave means that you can find single-agave mezcals of wildly different taste sensations, especially the wild or silvestres agaves which contribute a veritable constellation of flavors.

A tahona, the horse powered stone mill used to crush roasted agave into a pulp before it’s fermented and distilled into mezcal.  Photo: Susan Coss
A tahona, the horse powered stone mill used to crush roasted agave into a pulp before it’s fermented and distilled into mezcal. Photo: Susan Coss

There’s your introduction to mezcal. For more information and to experience mezcal come to our tasting and follow our blog. We’re planning to have many more tastings and we aim to keep you up-to-date on the world of mezcal.

Mezcalistas
Twitter: @mezcalistas
Facebook: Mezcalistas

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Category: bay area, Bay Area Bites Food + Drink, cocktails and spirits, events, food bloggers and social media, san francisco

About the Author ()

Max Garrone has lived in San Francisco for 15 years. He has worked for Salon.com and SFGate.com. Max has always been deeply interested in food, especially Northern Italian cuisine. The source of the Italian influence comes from his family roots in Piedmont where he frequently travels. Recently he's become obsessed with mezcal and writes the Mezcalistas blog with Susan Coss.
  • rmcmeans

    At least one Pechuga mezcal is in fact available in the U.S. – Del Maguey Single Village Pechuga. Available on line, I believe.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=702762556 Lance Walker

    Nice introduction, I spent a bit of time in Oaxaca myself and hit some of the various store/tasting rooms while I was there and developed an appreciation for it then. At the time Mezcal was essentially unheard of here in The States and the bottles I brought back with me were quite a hit. I should have started an import business back then, LOL. Keep up the good work, happy to see Mezcal getting some time in the spot light.

  • Max Garrone

    Hi there, Yes, there are definitely pechugas on the market in the US. The Del Maguey is the most widely available but Pierde Almas, Fidencio and a few others are also around albeit in more limited quantities. The things you can’t find are the fruit and nut infused mezcals. They just had a tasting of some of these in Mexico City which sounded really interesting. Here’s a link to the mention of that tasting http://bit.ly/Q9VVqZ Should you travel to Mexico I recommend seeking these out as they are some of the more interesting things being done with mezcal.

  • Max Garrone

    Thanks Lance. Yes, it’s taken quite some time for mezcal to evolve and enter the US market but it’s doing so now so you should be able to find some interesting bottles around, especially in major metro areas. If you need help finding anything give me a buzz and I’ll see what I can do.