Drinking mezcal in Mexico used to be so easy. You’d buy yourself a one week package to a bikini-laden beach that included airfare, hotel, all you could eat, and, most importantly, all you could drink.
Then, you just followed the daily regime: Drinks with umbrellas in the afternoon. Drinks with wedges of lime shoved down their necks in the evening. And, because you were too cool for tequila, drinks with worms swimming in the bottle at night. In fact, every bottle of mezcal I remember from those days had one of those squiggly worms.
I felt dangerous drinking mezcal. It was absolutely, definitely, unequivocally unavailable in Toronto. Because of its hallucinogenic properties we thought. Because we presumed it was made from peyote; but we thought wrong; mezcal is made from a totally different plant than what mescaline is made of.
In Puerto Vallarta, I learned the words sal de gusano, something else that perhaps also had worms in it. I sprinkled this special salt that tasted mostly of chiles on orange or lime slices to accompany my aguardiente, as we once called mezcal. I thought of mezcal as the most macho of drinks. Not sipped from fancy snifters but gulped from skinny shot glasses after which you’d give everyone at the bar your best James Dean or Marlon Brando and sneer, “Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien, también”, even though you weren’t exactly sure what it meant.
Oh how times have changed! There are now 19 different mezcals on the shelf of my local Toronto liquor store. There’s not one worm to be found in any of them. And what we used to pay about 10 pesos a shot for at beach bars now goes for somewhere between 650 to 3450 pesos a bottle (when converted from Canadian dollars).
In San Miguel de Allende, the selection, of course, is even more staggering. At local liquor store, La Europea, 112 different mezcals are listed (still a handful con gusano, with worms, by the way). They’re priced somewhere between 289 and 5680 pesos a bottle. If you cut that list down to a more affordable price category, say under 700 pesos, you’re down to about 70 bottles. But how do you sort through that shopping list to discover what’s best for you?
Now I am still very, very, very much a novice but, perhaps, I can play a tiny role as supply teacher for a short mezcal lesson.
I will start with a little bit of the basics about mezcal. First, the difference between mezcal and its sipping cousin, tequila. It’s mostly about botany and geography.
Mezcal can be made from any species or variety of agave plant of which there are at least 30 (though, so far, I’ve only tasted six). Tequila, on the other hand, can only be made from one specific agave plant known commonly as blue agave and officially as Tequilaña Weber Azul. So something labelled tequila is always a mezcal but something labelled mezcal is never a tequila.
As far as geography, it gets a little more…OK, a lot more…complicated. Mexican law states that tequila can only be produced in the state of Jalisco and a few limited municipalities in the states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. The more traditional and primary production areas are in and around the city of Tequila, about 65 kilometres northwest of Guadalajara, and in the highlands of Jalisco.
Mexican law also covers the production of mezcal. The agave plants that are used can be grown anywhere in Mexico. Mezcal, however, can only be made in the states of Oaxaca (where most of it is produced), Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Michoacán and Puebla but…and here’s where it gets very tricky…not necessarily in every municipality in those states. In San Miguel de Allende, for instance, even though it is in the state of Guanajuato, it’s illegal to make mezcal. But, fortunately, not to drink it.
Are you still with me. OK, then fasten your seat belts for the next part of our geography lesson. I’d like you to take a quick flight with me across the Atlantic to a place called France because, even though it may look like we’re making some distilled Mexican alcohol way too complicated, there is a good comparison to be made with the land of wine and the land of mezcal.
In different parts of France, they make different tasting wines, using different varieties of grapes, and somewhat different production methods. In different parts of Mexico, they make different tasting mezcals, using different varieties of agave plants, and somewhat different production methods.
So let’s zip back across the ocean to the liquor store and a look at those bottles again. To possibly put our little botany and geography lesson to work.
On a mezcal label you may see words like Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Puebla and Zacatecas. These are the states that the mezcals were produced in. Just like French Bordeaux is made from different grape varieties than French Burgundy and tastes quite different, the mezcal from Guerrero may be made with a different agave variety and taste quite different from a mezcal from Zacatecas.
On a mezcal label, you may also see words like San Baltazar, Chichicapa, San Luis Del Rio and Santo Domingo. These are not Mexican states but the villages (or perhaps towns) that the mezcals were produced in. Just like French Bordeaux has different regions like Saint-Émilion, Pomerol, Médoc, and Graves with somewhat different tasting wines, Oaxaca has different villages with somewhat different tasting mezcals.
The next few words we will look for on the labels are going to take us back to the botany portion of today’s day in mezcal academy. These are the words that identify what agave plants were used for the production of each bottle of mezcal. At muchoagave.com, I learned that, “The most common agaves (are) angustifolia (espadin), potatrum (tobala), karwinskii (berril), mexicana, americana, tequilaña weber, cupreata, inaequidens, maximiliana and salmia.”
On different labels of mezcal bottles sold at our local retailer, La Europea, I found the words espadin (a lot), arroqueño, barril, angustifolia, madre cuixe, weber (not followed by azul which would make it a tequila), rodacantha and tobalá (also a lot and often followed by the word sylvestre that suggests that the mezcal was made from wild not cultivated plants).
OK, just three more words then I promise, instead of just learning about mezcal, I will open a few good bottles and we can start drinking…or at least I will tell you where you can find some good bottles that you can start drinking. The three words are joven, reposado and añejo. The word joven, which I translate as young, appears on at least half of all mezcal labels and what always puzzled me was whether it referred to the age of the mezcal itself or to the age of the agave plant that was used to make it. So I asked Don Sibley, the bottler of El Dorado Mezcal and the bottles I am about to get around to and talk about, which one was it.
Don told me, “These terms apply to the age of the mezcal after it is produced. As an aside, the age of maturity for a particular agave or when it can be harvested to produce mezcal varies greatly. Some varieties, like the most common espadin, require at least seven to ten years before harvesting. Other varieties require 20 years or more to reach their maturity.”
Don continued, “Joven refers to mezcal that is young and has been aged for less than two months. Reposada means rested and is mezcal that has been aged from two to twelve months. Añejo means aged and is mezcal that has been aged for more than a year.”
As far as what mezcal is aged in, again there are similarities with wine.
“Typically, mezcal is aged in oak barrels”, said Don. “The clear mezcal will take on an amber to a darker bronze color depending on how long it has been aged. The aging process will take the edge off the mezcal for a little smoother taste. Some people prefer mezcal that has gone through this aging process while most passionate mezcal drinkers, including myself, prefer the jovens for their brighter, more crisp taste.”
Some of those “passionate mezcal drinkers” shout out there preferences a little louder than Don Sibley. I’ll quote Pedro Jimenez Gurria. Pedro is the founder of Mezonte, an organization founded to protect and preserve traditional mezcal:
“If a mezcal shows an amber colour, do not buy that mezcal. It’s either rested (reposado) or aged (anejado) in wood or artificial coloring. In either case, the flavor and delicate aromas of the mezcal are destroyed.”
Yikes, I’m a bit stuck in the middle on this one. I agree that, historically, at those palenques, the village farms where mezcal is made in Oaxaca, the liquid of the gods was never aged in oak barrels. But I’ve had some very good mezcal añejo, mezcal that brought thoughts of very good cognac and very good single malt scotch. So call me a semi-purist which, I guess, is somewhat like being a vegetarian who eats bacon. For now though, I’m only going to talk about non-aged mezcal with no amber color.
I met Don Sibley, one of three partners in the El Dorado Mezcal business at a presentation and tasting my old friend Ben Penman was hosting.
Over the last 40 or so years, Ben and I have been seriously sampling a lot of brandies, a lot of single malt Scotch, quite a few tequilas, and, recently, some mezcals. We call it an educational exercise.
I’ve been to a few mezcal tastings but this was by far the best because it included a very complete botany lesson…and the botany part of mezcal appreciation is far more important, in my opinion, than the geography.
For most of his working life, Don Sibley was a partner in Sibley Peteet, a very well-respected graphic design firm in Dallas.
“Life was good and the firm rode the high tide until 2012 when my partner and I went separate ways”, said Don. “I chose a simpler path and have worked as a one-man-band designer since then. I still retain a handful of clients back in the States but I have been a full time resident of Pozos since the beginning of last year.”
“Two summers ago I met Daniel Guevara, a 43-year-old Mexican who had recently moved to Pozos. Word got around town that Daniel was selling mezcal out of plastic vidones that he was sourcing from two mezcaleros in the state of Oaxaca. If you bought from him, you provided your own empty wine or liquor bottle. At this point in time, I hadn’t had a drink in over four years. I was a graduate of AA. But my wife was inclined to try Daniel’s mezcal. So we tracked him down, bought some hootch for my wife, and began a conversation about mezcal, graphic design, life in Mexico, and what I wanted to be when I grew up…though I still haven’t figured that one out.”
“A few days later, Daniel showed up at my house with the idea of me starting a mezcal brand with his help. I was intrigued and a week later we were driving together to visit Daniel’s mezcaleros. Before we left for the adventure I had already chosen a name for our brand: El Dorado, which happens to be the name of the mining company that operated on my Pozos property a hundred years ago. And of course I had already designed the labels for the bottles.”
“As I recall, I thought of this opportunity as more of a design project than a possible business venture. That first Oaxaca trip would prove to be a life-changing experience for me. Still on the wagon, I naively thought I could get involved in the mezcal business without tasting the product. That foolish idea passed very quickly. But to this day, the only alcohol that crosses my lips is mezcal.”
“We found two palenques that we liked, both run by guys called Garcia but unrelated and about half an hour apart”, Don told me. “They were pretty primitive operations primarily making mezcal for friends and family in the village. They were selling it in old wine and vodka bottles. But the product was right.”
“Daniel and I added another partner, David Moss, in the middle of last year. He runs the Sonder Bar in Pozos.”
Back to the…I know, a little bit boring…botany lesson. El Dorado has bottled mezcals made from ten different agave plants and, for the first time at Ben Penman’s tasting party (sorry, educational presentation), I was able to sample and discover the subtle differences in taste between mezcal made with one variety of agave and mezcal made from another. At Tres Hojas, the bar on Correo in San Miguel de Allende, they’re stocking four of those El Dorado mezcals so I’ll focus on those.
Arael Gómez Tello, operating parner of Tres Hojas and a guy who knows a lot more about wine than I do and an enormous amount more about mezcal than I do, told me, “Mezcal El Dorado in all its varieties shows the strength and depth of the real artisanal mezcals. From the espadín to the cuixe, all of them show the distinctiveness of a well-ripened wild agave.”
Espadin is the number one agave choice in Oaxaca. Compare it to Cabernet Sauvignon in Bordeaux. Don Sibley told me that 90% of all mezcal is made from espadin and, personally, I would start any night’s tasting with an espadin; it’s the yardstick with which all other mezcals are measured against. In El Dorado’s espadin, I felt I could actually taste the roasted piñas, the heart of the agave plant that’s used in mezcal production, while in other brands made from espadin, the taste can get lost in the alcohol.
“Espadin is a good choice for mezcal cocktails like a margarita, bloody mary, even a mezcal martini”, said Don Sibley. “It’s the least expensive mezcal style that El Dorado makes.”
Cuixe, the second El Dorado mezcal served at Tres Hojas had a herbaceous, green melon-like taste at first but as I did the wine-taster’s tongue swirl, I started to get the taste of mango or papaya. Cuixe is a plant that “is similar to the more familiar madre cuixe but is smaller in size”, said Don Sibley. “The taste is more herbal and robust than madre cuixe.”
Mexicano, the third El Dorado mezcal, is one of the favorites of Tres Hojas’ Arael Gómez Tello, who can usually be found bartending there on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights. Arael describes it as having “notes of spices and roasted peppers with a long and smooth after-taste.”
The fourth mezcal is, I expect, quite rare because, aside from El Dorado’s, I’ve only heard of one other arroqueño. Don Sibley told me it is one of the largest agave plants and “takes up to 20 years to mature. It’s very drinkable, floral, even vegetal, and slightly spicy; it’s also a good choice for mezcal cocktails since the taste is not over-powered.”
OK, I think I just heard the bell ring which means that school is out. I hope the mezcal class wasn’t too elementary, too rudimentary. I’m still learning as well, barely out of mezcal kindergarten despite my age. And please don’t forget to do your homework. All you have to do is give it a shot…or maybe four.