A bloody tourist guide to Mexican Mezcal

A Mexican landscape with agave plants

When we visited Oaxaca, we ended up partying. Unintentionally. While Mexico’s’ national beer Corona is surely irresistible, it was the mezcal that threw us off our feet. Not our fault: with each second beer, many bars offer a mezcal for free.

We did it all wrong. Behaving like a bloody tourist, we treated our first mezcals like tequila in Europe: as a shot drink, followed by a bite in citrus fruit to kill the taste of the strong spirit as quickly as possible.

But mezcal is what is wine for the Italians: taste profiles differ with each palenque (distillery) to the other. Also the harvest year, region of origin, treatment and aging affects its quality. Distilling methods are passed over from generation to generation and for some it’s even considered holy as brewing mezcal leads back to the Aztec empire.

Mezcal is, just as tequila, made from agave, but here’s a common error — tequila can be called mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. The last lends itself better for industrial mass production, while the first stays handcrafted — very, very artisanal. Moreover, tequila is made from one variety of agave, while mezcal comes from different or even a mix of plants, contributing to its complex and unique flavours.

While sipping (slowly, thoughtfully) most distinctive is the smokey taste, caused by roasting the piñas, the hearts of the agave. After roasting, the piñas are crushed and mashed and left for fermentation. The liquid is collected and distilled in copper or clay pots, which further defines the final flavor.

“Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también.’’ 
A famous phrase in Mexico: for everything bad, mezcal, for everything good, the same.

Fortunately, we found time in Oaxaca to visit some Palenques. Stroked by the the handcraft that is been put into it, we searched for opportunities to import some bottles to our home country. We were not the only one; first in the States, now also Europe knows a true mezcal madness (see column). But production is limited — not only is the spirit made in Mexico only, it is also in the hand of 9000 small producers, barely able to meet the demand from abroad. And so, we only brought a bottle in our luggage and finished it soon after, in one night straight. Autch.

Mezcal mania
Hipsters love mezcal. Its popularity has everything to do with its artisan production: each brand has a unique story of traditional, small farmers working with generation-old brewing methods. Like slow food and hand-roasted coffee spots, now mezcal bars pop up in every decent sized city in Europe and the States. The scarcity of the spirit is part of its allure, but also puts pressure on distilleries to produce more. A typical agave plant takes between 8- 10 years to grow before it can be harvested. Just like with tequila, larger production causes soil erosion, pollution and displacement of traditional food crops. Some foreign importers now work together with the mezcalero’s to maintain its traditional, slow production. But big brands are watching. Will they jump in and dominate undercapitalized local producers?
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