The similarities with wine are obvious but after researching mezcal’s history and production it seems it has much in common with another spirit rooted in rural communities with a rich history and culture, moonshine.
Del Maguey, is one importer of artisan mezcal. Founded by mezcal guru and obsessive, Ron Cooper, Del Maguey has Fair Trade agreements with 8 villages in the southern state of Oaxaca, where the most distinctive mezcal is found. All are still using traditional production methods. In these rural villages dotting the mountains and valleys, some without main roads or even telephone access, palenqueros farm the agave plants and mezcaleros or mezcal makers have passed down the rustic art of mezcal distillation for generations.
Recipes are closely guarded and start with wild agave, sometimes with the addition of fruits, nuts, and grains either infused or added during distillation. Some recipes involve the ancient practice of ‘meat distillation’ where a skinless chicken breast is hung inside the top of the still for the vapors to pass through to balance out flavor with a savory element. These are called pechuga (Spanish for breast) and can fetch $200 a bottle. The spirit can be made from one type of agave, for instance a 100% Espadin agave or from blends of agave.
Most of Mezcal’s production is still very small scale due to the slow and primitive methods employed in the villages.
The agave plant itself is slow, producing fruit only after six to eight years, before dying. The fruit of the plant, the piña, is cooked for 2 or 3 days over wood fire, caramelizing sugars and creating that distinctive smoke, in pits lined with stone. They are then ground, usually by stone, mixed with water and left to naturally ferment before being distilled in copper or clay and then aged. Aging varies depending on the type of mezcal:
- Joven (young, unaged)
- Reposado (aged in oak 12 months)
- Añejo (aged 12-36 months)
- Extra añejo (aged beyond 36 months)
McDermott uses Del Maguey’s entry level Vida for mixed cocktails (editor’s note: I love it straight! So silky!) as the pricier and complex mezcals they produce are better enjoyed like a fine bourbon, sipped and savored. In Mexico people sip it at room temperature with a sweet orange slice or more reverently, out of clay bowls.
So later tonight when you mosey up to the bar order a mezcal, look your companion in the eye, and say Stigibeau! (pronounced stee-gee-bay-oo) a Native Zapotec word toasting to the health of each other, the earth and Mexico. But please sip, don’t shoot.
Mezcal Sazerac Variation (thanks to Danny McDermott)
2. oz Del Maguey Vida mezcal
.5 oz gomme syrup*
Bittermen’s Xocolatl mole bitters
Rinse a rocks glass with green Chartreuse, fill with ice and set aside. In a mixing glass or tin, add the gomme syrup and mezcal. Fill about 3/4 full with ice and stir until well chilled. Dump the ice from the rocks glass, and strain the mixture therein. Garnish with orange twist and 5 drops Bittermen’s xocolatl mole bitters.
Combine gomme arabic and water (a lot of stirring is required), and let sit for 24 hours (at room temperature). Combine sugar and water over heat, until combined. Add gomme syrup base (from step 1) and stir to combine. Skim off foam.