Mezcal, commonly thought of as tequila’s ugly little brother, is in actual fact culturally more significant, and has more variety and depth than common tequila.
My last trip to Mexico in 2019 was a true eye opener to this significance. Oaxaca, the home of mezcal in central Mexico, was one of my favourite booze related destinations. Mezcal has been top of my spirits list ever since a Mexican friend, Jose, introduced me to it in 2016. Mezcal has so much emotion and connection, with the terroir and with the individual distiller’s personality creating key components of the finished product.
A friend in Australia, Jorge, put me in contact with Usiel, a Mexican who served as my guide, and we headed off to Santiago – about an hour’s drive from Oaxaca City. After being pulled over by the police and paying the obligatory bribe, we made it to Santiago to the El Jolgorio Distillery (Palenque) on the outskirts of the town. There I was introduced to Jose number 2, a softly spoken and passionate local, aided by a regular companion street dog named Dog, who showed us around the rustic Palenque. It was here that my senses were enticed by the mezcal, which gradually revealed its story throughout the experience.
The agaves used in the making of the mezcal are grown close to the Palenque where they are harvested, then cooked/smoked using local timber in an underground oven (similar to a hangi, for our Kiwi friends) for up to 10 days. This slow cooking process releases the sugars and instills the smoky flavour that mezcal is famous for. Next the agave hearts are crushed using a giant grinding stone, then fermented in open barrels. Finally, the agave beer is run through a copper still to finish the process. Mezcal is traditionally unaged, so the rawness of flavour is prominent.
Mezcal is created using a vastly different array of local agave plants, some cultivated and some wild, whereas tequila is made with just the blue agave. Mezcal is the wine of spirits made from 30 different agaves such as espadin, tobaziche, and jabali, from different areas in Mexico,and each mezcal made exhibits its distiller’s personality. Mezcal is a very sustainable industry and most Palenques plant two agaves for every one they harvest, including the wild grown agaves that grow up in the mountains. The focus is on handmade small batches and each edition has its own story and taste.
So how does the worm crawl its way into this mix? Well… the worm in the bottle was a marketing gimmick, and no mezcal worth its weight in salt would be released with an insect contaminating the product.
My favourite mezcal of those I tried – Tobaziche. The Tobaziche agave takes upwards of 12 years to grow, and the spirit is made by mezcalero Pablo Vasquez Garcia. He was not at his Palenque when we visited, however his 9-year-old daughter sold me a bottle, her ambitions of becoming part of the growing number of female mezcaleros written all over her face. Usiel and I shared the Tobaziche at a very special spot in the hills while munching on Oaxacan cheese and chili fried grasshoppers, morsels traditionally enjoyed with mezcal. I can still taste the rich smokiness today and still feel a warm connection with this magical place where the remnants of a three hundred year old Palenque are carved into the stone where we sat.
So next time you want to try some handcrafted Mexican goodness, ask for Mezcal, the gourmet Mexican spirit.