If I remember rightly the mezcals on offer at El Rey were slightly different to the ones I got samples of later on that day in the restaurant. I didn’t bother to even try and record tasting notes at the time due to the immense quantity of awful, neon coloured, gel like, liqueur things they kept throwing at us. Obviously I drank them out of politeness but they were pretty foul. Thankfully I remember enjoying the standard mezcals a lot more but lets try them today and see what happens…
El Rey Mezcal Joven. 1005 Agave. 40%. 25cl.
‘Joven‘ or ‘young’, is the equivalent of a blanco, it is simply brought down to 40% abv with water and bottled as is.
Nose: Immensely farmy with huge notes of ‘medical soot’ if such a thing exists. Very clean, cereal smoke notes and lots of them with a big medicinal set of aromas underneath. Germoline, salt, fresh tar, cactus, little notes of petrol and diesel oil with rotting leaves and earthy notes. This is about as rustic as spirits get I think. There are some undeniably feinty aromas in this, really thick and oily with notes of paraffin wax, a hazy rubber quality and something vegetal and drain like. Again these would be major flaws in some spirits but in mezcal you just have to understand that that is what the classic profile is meant to be. You’ll either love its dirty, unrefined quality or hate it plain and simple.
Palate: Thick and vegetal at first with an aggressive spice note and a flurry of beefy medical notes. Heavy and clunky notes of bandages, TCP and iodine come along one after the other with a real dirty smokiness still sticking to the roof of your mouth. Makes your mouth feel like the inside walls of a grotty local pub that has remained uncleaned after decades of heavy smoking clientele. Something curiously menthol and gravely with more notes of decaying leaves, old mushrooms, mashed potatoes and gentian.
Finish: Medium to short with something like elastic bands, cold cuts of turkey and more cactus notes. Still incredibly oily and thick.
Comments: It’s very hard to know what to make of such a drink really. I absolutely adore how old school it is, you can taste how all those basic, hands on production methods contribute to the character of the spirit but it is also quite hard to enjoy it on a purely olfactory level. I would love to see what would happen to this spirit if you gave it 30 years in a refill hogshead in a Scottish maturation climate. A hard one to score but I think it is a good example of young Mezcal.
El Rey Reposado. 100% Agave. 40%. 75cl.
This one has spent six months in oak.
Colour: Very light yellowy green.
Nose: This one is greener, leafier, and mintier that the Joven and feels somehow much fresher. The medicine and the smoke qualities come across as cleaner and more pristine without too many pronounced feinty notes. There are even some very crisp phenols and little notes of peat in this one. Very nice on the nose so far. Becomes saltier with time and a little brinier with notes of lemon juice and lime zest. Very sharp and quite well composed I think. After a few minutes and if you dig your nose deep enough the feinty aromas start to emerge but they are quite delicate really.
Palate: Very sweet on delivery with some almost cloyingly concentrated smoke notes,liquid smoke with boiled cereals, cactus, lime juice, salt, cucumber, iodine, sweaty socks, drains, coal. All kinds of weird flavours here, some good some bad. Although I’m sure a mezcal enthusiast would tell me they all have an essential place in the profile. Very limey and very salty this one. Good but again, as always, very difficult stuff.
Finish: Lemons and limes and all things salty/feinty, stretched out to a good length though. Some quite earthy vegetal flickers in the fade.
Comments: Again it is very hard to know what to make of such a beast. The wood obviously made quite an impression during their six month chatter. However I wouldn’t describe the end result as balanced, I like the nose much better than the palate.
El Rey Anejo. 100% Agave. 40%. 25cl.
This one has lept from six months all the way up to five whole years in oak barrels so this should be a big departure form the other two…
Colour: Light honey
Nose: This is much softer and very different from the other two, new shoe leather, mead, toffee, eucalyptus, all kinds of oily notes, silky, fragrant smoke and some very green notes like aloe vera and freshly crushed cactus. Very pleasant actually. Now some soft notes of fresh butter, grass and light cereals come through, it’s odd how many of these mezcals can display a blatant cereal quality. Milk, muesli, fresh vegetables and a very thick smoky/medicinal combo, these smoky medical qualities are distinctive but much more elegant and controlled than in the younger expressions.
Palate: Again quite sweet but it is well tempered by spice, smoke and barley sugar notes and as such is not as cloying or imbalanced as the reposado. More big notes of fresh grass and aloe vera with something quite bitter like sap or tannins in the background. Hay, manure, engine oil, more very farmy qualities, a big industrial farm in a glass. There are still some very earthy and dirty feinty notes in there but I think this is an integral part of most mezcals’ natural character.
Finish: Quite long and silky on raw vegetables, smoke, grease, lemons and some interesting notes of marzipan.
Comments: I like this one a lot, it’s much better than the younger ones in my opinion. It seems that mezcal just needs a bit of careful age. Again, this makes me wonder about the potential of old wood plus long term cold climate maturation. Who knows…?
El Rey Anejo ‘Gran Reserva’. 100% Agave. 40%. 75cl.
This one is aged for a full eight years which should be interesting…
Colour: Dark Amber
Nose: This one smells like smoked treacle and kippers, a classic Scottish breakfast combo if ever there was one. It goes on with big notes of tobacco leaf, aloe vera, soy sauce, aged balsamico, leather, smoked mussels, ginger, boiled cabbage and, surprisingly, even some dark fruits like raisins and dates. Not much medicine in here, rather more notes of wood, smoke and spice, I suspect eight years in a barrel in the Mexican heat will involve a hell of a lot of concentration and evaporation. After time some odd notes of lavender and washing up powder with violets, caraway seeds, mushrooms and old pinot noir. It still has a very rustic, earthy, farmy edge to it. Fascinating nose.
Palate: Ok this is hard, it’s very extracted and woody but it has also seemingly gone back on itself and it is also almost exactly like sucking one of those pieces of freshly baked agave at the distillery. It has the same vegetal, stringy sweetness to it. Notes of dodgy caramel, burned sugar, toasted hazelnuts, creme caramel and bovril. This is weird. It even has some very unfortunate notes of sick in it as well. I think I’ll have to stop.
Finish: Becomes quite pleasant again for about a minute after swallowing but it is really cloying, sweet and extracted.
Comments: The nose on its own would have easily merited a score in the upper 70s but after what I would describe as a ‘unfortunate’ palate I think it’s going to be much lower. It seems that a divergence between nose and palate is very common with mezcal. All the ones I tried properly suffered from it. But then it is also worth remembering that, as a drink, very few of them are meant to be drunk in the same way as Scotch or Brandy. They are designed for mixing and swift, vigorous chugging. I think anyone interested in distillation and in spirits at all should try and taste things like this as they are very illuminating in their own right as well as often being fairly palatable if you can adjust your expectations and perceptions a little. I liked the Anejo the most I think, this one is just to wacky for me but it is very revealing nonetheless.
Score: 58/100 (the nose picks it up a bit but the palate really is hard)
So that’s the end of my Latin American adventures. At least it is until I decide to go back one day, which I inevitably will. It’s hard to sum up such a jam packed time. All I can say is that it was amazing. An experience I wouldn’t change for anything and the best decision I ever made. The countries in their own right are stunning, from the dust bowl of Pisco where I started to the plush and ancient beauty of a rapidly modenrnising Mexico where it ended. I would need a handful of lifetimes to truly know any of them, let alone all of them. All I did was skim the tops of a pair of endless continents. Shaving off in the process a handful of memories for myself. I take away from it some of the best photographs, hangovers, experiences and friends that I’ve ever had and above all it has made me understand that my own life is a very tiny thing. I met and saw countless people that live their entire lives invisible to the tick and consequence of the rest of the world. With as little knowledge and understanding of me as I will ever have of them. The accumulated rush of thoughts, ideas and feelings of the past six months is a deafening twine about the head and the heart, my life is small but it is also precious and I feel every moment I went through had some sort of value. One that isn’t quantifiable, just a feeling that you’ve done something pretty worthwhile, I think the word is humbling.
Anyway, next stop USA. Stay tuned…
The usual welcome at US customs is just one of many cultural highlights I have to look forward to.