The Mexican city of Oaxaca is known for its mezcal, a smoky Mexican spirit made from agave. I recently visited Oaxaca and participated in the mezcal tasting at the best Mezcaloteca in town. Mezcalotecas promote maestro mezcaleros and their traditional way to produce. It is a great place to learn the basics of mezcal, as experts certainly impart their knowledge here. You can have a flight of mezcal chosen for you and the server explains the methods of production and the variety of agave that make each mezcal different.
I also happened to stop by the Mezcal Palenque, the mezcal-making field and witnessed the whole process. Mezcal is made from the agave plant and different varieties of agave can be used in its production. What is unique about the agave is that it flowers only once in its lifetime, putting forth a tall stem from the centre. The plant dies after flowering. And then the spines are removed to extract the fruit called pinas, which look like pineapples. The pinas are cut into half and are roasted in a stone pit for a few days. The pinas are then crushed in a grinding mill and placed in barrels to ferment. Hot water is added to the barrel and left for a few days, and later, the barrel is filled with cold water and left to ferment for more days. After fermentation, the mix is distilled. The first distillation yields low-grade alcohol. The fibres are removed from the still and the alcohol is distilled a second time. After the second distillation, the mezcal is blended to obtain a consistent grade of alcohol. Later, it is either bottled to get an unaged mezcal called the joven or blanco, or is left to age in oak barrels. As you drink mezcal, you understand that this highly potent drink can hit you hard if you are not a regular drinker like me.
Guide to identify and sip traditional mezcal…
1. Ensure that the label reads ‘100% de agave’. This indicates that the mezcal is made purely of maguey.
2. The minimum alcohol content should be 45%.
3. The label should indicate the exact provenance of the mezcal, as well as the type of maguey used and the mezcal’s craftsman, or maestro.
4. Gently shake the bottle to check for the formation of bubbles, or ‘pearls’. If no ‘pearls’ are formed, do not buy, unless the alcohol content is 55% or higher.
5. Avoid buying mezcals that are rested ‘reposado’ or aged ‘anejado’. These can be recognized by their amber colour. The wood used in these processes destroys the flavours and the delicate aromas of mezcal.
6. Try rubbing a few drops of mezcal in between your hands. As it evaporates, you will be able to smell the aroma of cooked maguey.
7. Mezcal is best enjoyed in a wide–mouthed glass or ‘jicara’.
8. Before you actually start to drink, pour some mezcal from one glass to another, in order to check once again for the formation of ‘pearls’.
9. Get a whiff of the mezcal before drinking it. You shall most likely find the aroma which you sensed when rubbing it between your hands. Keep your mouth closed as you initially breathe in the aroma, and then open it to fully savour and recognize that aroma.
10. Take a small sip, rinse your mouth with the mezcal for ten seconds, exhale its vapours through your nose. Then, swallow the first sip and focus on the flavours that come to life on your palate.
11. Take another sip and savour it for ten seconds before swallowing. Take note of the flavours rising from your stomach, as they are mezcal’s finest and most exquisite. After several minutes, your palate will start to blossom with the flavours of cooked maguey.