If Guadalajara, the base city of tequila, is modern and alive, then Oaxaca, the city of Mezcal, is ancient and preserved. Walking between its graph like streets and its monumental plazas is a very different experience to seeing the open, rolling boulevards of Guadalajara. In Oaxaca everything reeks of the ancient, the architecture, the trees the land. It is a city seemingly devoid of modern industry, one that has come to rest on the great laurels of tourism in order to survive. It is here, on the outskirts of this ancient and beautiful town that mezcal is made. If we imagine that tequila is Mexico’s Cognac region, a traditional but refined drink, one associated with noble intent and respectable apreciation, then it is easy to see mezcal as Mexico’s Armagnac. That is, a rustic and simple drink, often boisterous and dangerous, a drink made by peasants for peasants. now obviously these associations are incredibly loose and based on some outdated historical notions about the various regions and styles. However, it remains true that mezcal is indeed, tequila’s dirty and more unruly distant sibling. Perhaps a word or two on production is needed here.
Like tequila it all begins with the agave, but not the blue agave, in Mezcal they use a sibling variety know as the ‘Maguey’ agave. Its process is similar, this agave once fully mature at around ten years of age, is stripped down to pineapple form than baked to concentrate its moisture and sugars. However, this is where the most crucial difference is born. In Mezcal they bake the agaves underground using smoke rather than steam. This is how they do things as the ‘El Rey’ distillery that we were fortunate enough to visit.
This enlongated process using the smoke from the wood that is burned slowly, results in a base product with a whole host of phenolic compounds and flavour elements that will give the mezcal its distinction. These baked pineapples are then crushed using an old stone wheel, a process that is about as old school as it’s possible to get. At El Rey this is what the milling wheel looks like…
After the baked agave plant is suitably crushed and macerated, the flesh is placed into a wooden fermentation vessel where it is left to ferment naturally, all that is added is boiling water to make up the liquid content…
The fermentation process at El Rey takes at least 15 days, a length of time that whisky production hasn’t seen since before the second world war at least. After this is complete the alcoholic liquid is drianed off and fermented in either copper or clay pot stills, at El Rey a very small copper pot is used. in fact the resemblance to the various old illicit stills once common in Scotland that I’ve seen is uncanny…
The liquid is distilled only once but very slowly and barely reaches above 55% alcohol, most mezcals don’t go above 55%. The still is wood fired and the condenser is a small copper worm running through surprisingly warm water. The resulting distillate is hot and powerful stuff, full of oily, smoky and richly medicinal flavours.
After distillation the spirit is either put into cask or diluted and bottled at Blanco. However, unlike tequila, there are many other variations and definitions of mezcal. Different types like Minero and Gusano, amongs many others, are achieved by variations in the sub species of agave used and the relative proportions thereof, you might call it a ‘mashbill’. Also the fermentation can be infused with different fruits and spices to lend other flavours to the fermenting juices. All these variations are accounted for in the names of the various types of mezcal. Although they also share the same basic definitions of Blanco, Reposado and Anejo as tequila.
One thing that the representatives of both tequila and mezcal share, is a deep rooted desire to get all of their visitors absolutely gubbed (to use a Glasgow expression). As we approached the tasting room/shop, it’s funny how all the shops in mezcal and tequila so closely resemble bars, it was clear we weren’t going away clear headed. They were keen that we drink, not taste but drink, at least a single hefty measure of each of their various products. Not only the range of mezcals from the Blanco to Anjo Gran Reserva but also the multitude of sickly sweet flavoured mezcal liqueurs. I did my best to be sensible but lunch was definitely required immediately after departing the distillery. We were fortunate enough to be offered more mezcal tastings at the buffet restaurant we went to. For various reasons that I can’t be bothered to explain here I managed to write proper tasting notes for these ones before I got around to writing the notes for the official El Rey bottlings. So to finish this post here are my notes for three assorted and interesting mezcals…
El Famoso. ‘Minero’ Blanco. 100% Agave. 40%. 1 litre.
Nose: Immediate strong notes of plastascene, brunt wash, acrylic, some very earth agave qualities, fresh tar and masses of medicinal hospital aromas. Gauze, floor cleaner, Listerine, antiseptic, mercurochrome, all kinds of medicinal aspects. I wouldn’t say that it’s complex, just intense and focused. It’s also very earthy and farmy, it doesn’t seem to have any of the saline coastal notes that can be found in the tequilas. Mashed potatoes, mustard seeds, motor oil and camphor. This has many similarities to peated new make Scottish spirit.
Palate: Sweet and earthy with more antiseptic notes. Also Euthymol Toothpaste, some green banana skins, burnt brown sugar and a very farmy style, cloying smokiness that sticks to the roof of your mouth. Big notes of gentian root, some mint and more thick oiliness.
Finish: The sweetness is short but the smoke and medicine flavours linger warmly for a long time.
Comments: A fascinating drink and definitely one to try if you like Gentian Eau De Vie. It would also be fascinating to compare to most peated new makes from Scotland.
Don Lucio Reposado. 100% agave. 38%. 75cl.
Colour: Pale straw
Nose: Imagine if you took a farm with all its manure, machinery and stables, smoked it for a few days and then mixed it into a smoothy, you might get something that smelled a little like this. This is extraordinarily rustic, stinky, oily, farmy, incredibly smoky and medicinal. A real earthbomb as it were, some green notes in there as well, quite vegetal and thick with aromas of salt, sandalwood, black pepper, peat oils and some curiously yeasty, autolytic notes at the back. This smells like it could be a very young but very good Islay malt. Further notes of margherita, cucmber and lime juice.
Palate: On the palate it is curiously subdued, it doesn’t live up to the intensity and character of the nose. The palate is thin and bland by comparison with some disappointing notes of butyric, cardboard, stale malt (???) and mushy peas. Not particularly inspiring and lacking much complexity. Given time it improves a little with some nice notes of mint but otherwise it is still a bit disappointing.
Finish: Decent length but unfortunately on the same flavours.
Comments: This was a bit unfortunate. The nose was fantastically exciting but the palate just didn’t deliver. Maybe Mezcal is better without age?
El Famoso Gusano. 100% agave. 40%. 1litre.
Colour: White wine
Nose: This is completely different, it smells more like a tequila with a huge initial saltiness, bags of preserved lemons, citrus oils, lemon wax, chocolate limes and thick vegetal cactus notes. It must have something to do with a mix of different species of agave in the mash which is the definition of a ‘Gusano’ mescal. Very earthy and rustic this one, a big departure from the others in that it is not as intensely smoky or medicinal. Those elements are still there but they play a more background role.
Palate: Big notes of soap and lime, literally like chewing a bar of citrus soap, but not in a bad way if that’s possible to imagine. Very oily and earthy still but also surprisingly fragrant. Some notes of creosote and tar begin to come through making it more classical in style. Camphor, hessian, grassy, green smoke notes, very unusual all round really. Quite a ‘difficult’ mescal I’d say, not that I’d really know mind you.
Finish: Long, lemony, grassy and even slightly mineraled. Fascinating.
Comments: It’s difficult to know what to say about a spirit like this let alone what to score it. It has some fascinating characteristics and seems to be quite different from other mescals I’ve tried, almost a perfect combo of tequila and mescal. It’s tricky to know what to say about a spirit that clearly flaunts characteristics that in a Scotch would be major flaws, I’m thinking the big soapiness for instance. Yet here it seems to work. I think most whisky drinkers won’t like things like this, you kind of need to recalibrate you taste buds to accept a different drink profile entirely. I think it’s good but, more importantly, I think it’s a fascinating drinking experience. They probably don’t make more rustic, old style spirit anywhere else in the world. (with the possible exception of certain Alsatian Eau De Vies).
Score: 75/100 (please take this with a massive spoonful of salt)