Words by Gary
I’ll admit it from the outset. I wasn’t instantly taken by mezcal and needed convincing. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, I didn’t have the faintest idea what mezcal was, what it stood for and how it made you feel. Secondly, I was a tequila loyalist and thought her lesser known cousin was an inferior drop. Thirdly, and most importantly, the early mezcals I tried were nasty. And like any seminal lesson in life, first impressions count for a lot.
So my second admission is that I judged prematurely and fast forward a few months I’m now a fully fledged mezcal convert. In fact, tequila may well have been usurped. Nah, blow that thought. I have a lot of loves in life and I’m content for them to sit comfortably side by side without rank, prejudice or bias.
What was it about my first mezcal experience that made me reel with horror? In short, it was downright crude. A potent smoke bomb bereft of flavour that barked: “stop pussyfooting and drain me!”. It was the beverage equivalent of a blunderbuss. Nothing refined or discernible except for the burn factor. If I like something I’ll typically ask for seconds. Not on this occasion.
It was during an indulgent late afternoon lunch at Los Danzantes in Coyoacán with two very good Mexican City friends – one of which consumes her fair share of mezcal – that the needle gently swung in this tipple’s direction. The restaurant had its own distillery in Oaxaca and to accompany dessert I had the pleasure of sampling a reposado and an añejo. A bit of age and so a little more approachable. It’s like the oyster eater who goes kilpatrick first in the quest to attain natural status. There’s a widely held view that mezcal is best consumed as a blanco and barrel ageing erodes its essence. My simple and uneducated view is if it taste’s good, drink it. The Los Danzantes pair had a lingering finish that completely agreed with me and pricked my curiosity. In a few days we were off to Oaxaca – home of mezcal and gateway to a budding new romance.
Here’s why I’m now a converted mezcal drinker. In many ways it relates to my love affair with wine, the whole maturing and ageing process and the relationship between plant and earth. The ‘terroir’ if you like. I don’t care what anyone says, cellared wine delivers a better drop in nearly every instance. For me mezcal’s real appeal is its diversity. The agave’s used in the high-end mezcal’s such as Tepeztate and Arroqueño take a minimum of 20 years and up to 40 years to grow! Go figure.
No wonder there are real concerns that demand will soon outstrip supply. There’s a lot to be said about the rewards of patience and the romantic notion that so much time has been invested in each bottle. And its soaring popularity is largely due to the fact that it’s scarce, hand-crafted, family owned and organic.
Whereas true tequila uses nothing but the blue agave, mezcal is open slather, and can be made from 30 other species of the agave plant. It’s this variation that gives it greater complexion and layering. At maturation the agave piñas are hacked to small pieces and thrown into an earthen stone pit. Here they’ll cook for around 3 days before being crushed, fermented and then distilled. It’s the roasting or barbecuing of the agave hearts that gives mezcal it’s smoky, earthy flavours.
And the state one finds themselves in after sampling a special drop? A gentle, floating feeling with a tinge of elation. You find yourself quickly contended, lucid and soon wanting another. Each of your five senses is serenely called to action.
Traipsing the cobbled streets of Oaxaca town you are forever teased with the throng of mezcalerias courting your company. The town is supremely proud of its reputation as the mezcal capital and has a serious number of boutique bars and incredibly knowledgeable scholars that sweetly profess their teachings and passion for this drop. I came across a number of locals, expats and travellers who were completely besotted by mezcal, spoke of it in a poetic manner and studied it with the rigour of a Shaolin monk. Again reminded me of the way wine wankers behave, oh, that’d be me…..
We met three downright sassy mezcal drinkers and devotees: Xavier at Los Armantes, Jason at El Distilado and Bobby at Mezcalogia who helped with our pilgrimage to the new fluid state. They loved everything about mezcal and it showed. There was a hint of the evangelical in their musings. During a memorable late night Arroqueño at Mezcalogia we invited Bobby to cruise with us the following day and check out some of the local palenques (distilleries). He happily obliged and what an asset he turned out to be.
After a fine tasting session at Los Armantes he directed us to the town of Santiago Matatlán – the bona fide capital of mezcal- and more importantly to the palenque of the highly regarded De Cortes family.
We tried the full ensemble on offer and proceeded to have countless profoundly spiritual and all consuming moments. It didn’t feel dissimilar to an extended wine tasting session. Just like a Shiraz tastes different to a Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon, side by side we began to discern the differences between an Espadín, Tobalá or Madrecruixe, each with it’s own distinctive flavour and characters. We learned there is an agave for every mood and occasion. We soon realised we were in the company of a seriously talent mezcalero (head distiller) and were privileged to be tasting their exquisite portfolio with him.
No surprise then that we loaded up the car boot and left with the feeling that we’d received more than just a tasting session. We’d got a real glimpse at the magnetism that mezcal holds. As Xavier from Los Armantes eloquently put it during an impromptu tasting session one lazy afternoon in the mezcaleria: ‘you don’t choose the mezcal, the mezcal chooses you’. How very true.
When in Oaxaca visit:
Do yourself a favour and buy any bottle from the De Cortes range