What is Mezcal?
Mezcal is a spirit from Mexico made from the heart (piña) of an agave plant. It takes from six to 35 years for an agave plant to grow. No other raw materials used to make a spirit take as long to mature.
Mexicans consider mezcal to be part of their cultural heritage as for centuries the spirit has been integral to many events within the indigenous communities. The traditional production methods and recipes have been safely guarded and passed from generation to generation.
“Tequila is to wake the living, Mezcal is to wake the dead.”-Oaxacan proverb
Unlike tequila, mezcal can be made from around 30 types of agave, each of which will bring its unique notes to the spirit. Due to the large size of the country, the climate can differ a lot between the northern and southern regions. This will have an impact on terroir, which then contributes to the agave plant and from there to the spirit itself.
Most mezcal is made from Agave Angustifolia, better known as Espadín. Other popular varieties include Tepeztate, Tobalá, Arroqueño, Bicuixe, Madrecuixe… You can also find mezcals made with a blend of agave plants. These blends are known as Ensamble.
There are around 1,200 mezcal distilleries in Mexico and mezcal has the largest Denomination of Origin (DO). It can be made in nine states of Mexico, leaving out hundreds of traditional mezcal producers. The states included are Oaxaca (90% of production), Guerrero, Puebla, Michoacán, Tamaulipas, Guanajuato, Zacatecas, Durango, and San Luís Potosí. Those outside the DO must use the term destilado de agave.
There are a few ways to make mezcal: ancestral, artisanal and industrial.
Ancestral Mezcal is made the traditional way with pit-cooked agave, hand or stone milling and clay-pot distillation only. The use of stainless steel is not allowed.
Artisanal Mezcal production prohibits the use of autoclaves, diffusers and column stills. Crushing can be done with mechanical shredders, but the traditional stone wheel is commonly used. Copper stills with swan necks are accepted.
Industrial Mezcal allows modern production methods, using diffusers and stainless-steel columns.
Let’s look into the artisanal production in a bit more detail.
The smokiness of mezcal comes from slow roasting the hearts of the agave plant, the piñas (they look like pineapples). Artisanal mezcal uses pit ovens, some of which are lined with volcanic rocks. The fire is lit at the bottom of the pit before a layer of small stones is added. The piñas are cut evenly and placed in the oven when the rocks are hot enough. Prior to this, some Maestro Mezcaleros choose to add a layer of leftover mash from previous production to cover the stones. This creates a protective layer between the agave and the stones, which will create more subtle smokiness. It will also prevent the hearts from burning. Finally, the oven is covered with earth and the agave is left to cook for three to seven days.
When the roasting is finished, the agave hearts are crushed. The most traditional, and most common, way is to use a stone wheel (known as Tahona), which is turned by a horse, donkey or a tractor.
The next step is to mix the crushed hearts with water and leave them to ferment in small wooden vats. Yeast is rarely added, and fermentation is allowed to occur naturally. After one to two weeks, both the liquid and the fibre are added into a wood-fired copper or clay still and distilled twice. The fibres are removed after the first distillation. The type of still will have an impact on the flavour profile.
Mezcal must be 36–55% ABV. The right ABV is measured by eye. The Maestro Mezcalero will take the spirit straight out of the still and pour it from a height to create bubbles; it is by these bubbles that the person can tell (surprisingly accurate) alcohol levels.
Ageing is not considered an important part of mezcal production, even if there are the same classifications as in the tequila category. Many believe that maturation will take away from the terroir found in mezcal.
Joven (Blanco): unaged, bottled directly out of the still
Reposado: aged two to 12 months in wood
Añejo: aged over 12 months in wood
Madurado in vidrio (Matured in glass): Stored in glass for 12+ months, traditionally underground to avoid variation in light, temperature, and humidity. Glass ageing is used to soften the flavour without lowering the alcohol content.
Abocado: flavoured or infused mezcal
Destilado con (Distilled with): A second or third distillation is done with other ingredients in the still itself. These may include anything from fruit to meat and herbs.
Corte Vetusto Mezcal
All Corte Vetusto mezcals are handcrafted by a fourth-generation Zapotec Maestro Mezcalero, Juan Carlos. He uses only artisanal methods, from pit-cooked agave and horse-powered crushing to using both clay and copper pot stills (something no other Maestro does!). Juan Carlos gets help from Don Santiago, a man with remarkable knowledge of agave and exceptional machete skills. His skills come in handy for the agave harvest as, depending on the species, the piña can weigh from 25kg to 350kg!
The Corte Vetusto range includes three expressions: Espadín, Tobalá and Ensamble.
All three mezcals are Joven (unaged) to showcase their agave-forward flavour profile. The smokiness is subtle, allowing other flavours to shine. These are complex and well-balanced mezcals, made for sipping.
Espadín, 45% ABV, is made using cultivated agave with a touch of wild agave for a refined flavour profile. It is double distilled in a 250-litre copper pot still. You can expect delicious, sweet agave notes, rounded with delicate smoke. The mouthfeel is soft and creamy. I truly recommend this if you are new to mezcal and want something gentle to start with. I could keep nosing it all day long as the salted toffee aroma is just heavenly, and that sweetness comes through nicely on the palate as well.
Tobalá is solely made from 10–14-year-old wild agave. To create a unique flavour profile, the first distillation is done with the 250-litre copper pot still, followed by a distillation using an ancestral 70-litre clay pot still. The copper contributes to bright and crisp flavours, which are then made earthier and more complex with the second distillation. Again, the smoke is very gentle. Slightly peppery finish.
Their Ensamble varies from batch to batch as it is made using a blend of wild agave plants, ages ranging from 10 to 35 years. Make sure to check the label for details. The mixture of agave is cooked, milled, fermented and distilled together to guarantee an equal marriage of flavours. Like with Tobalá, the first distillation is made with the large copper still, followed by the smaller clay pot.
How to drink it
Mezcal is best served neat at room temperature. There are different levels of smokiness in mezcal, which means it can vary from gentle smoke to in-your-face levels. Think of it like a peated scotch; some are intense and medicinal, others only come with a hint of smoke. Don’t be defeated by it, you just need to find the right style of mezcal for your palate. Corte Vetusto use a layer of bagaso (agave fibres) from the previous distillation to cover the pit when cooking the agave hearts. This prevents the agave from burning and resulting in an overly smoked or bitter-tasting mezcal. Hence their mezcals have gentle smoke throughout, making them very easy sipping.
Start by gently nosing the mezcal. Swirl the spirit in the glass and inhale again. Place a few drops into the palm of your hand and rub your hands together. Cup your palms and breathe in the aromas. Next, take a sip and coat your tongue with the spirit. Take another sip. Now your palate should be ready to start to fully appreciate the flavours of the spirit.
When drinking mezcal, for authenticity, invest in copita, a clay cup. Just make sure it is glazed to avoid getting flavours from the clay. Alternatively, use a tulip glass for tasting or a small, short glass for sipping. In Mexico, mezcal is often served with fresh fruit such as pineapple chunks, slices of orange, grapefruit or tomato, sprinkled with worm salt. You could also use ground chilli and salt or even cinnamon. Dark chocolate also pairs well and cleanses the palate. The same goes for mezcal and tonic (or soda water) – simply garnish with a fruit slice and enjoy the complexity of the spirit.
Of course, mezcal can be used in many cocktails. Not just as a replacement for tequila but in drinks like Old Fashioned, Negroni or anything that mezcal’s earthy and herbaceous flavour profile can complement.
Tropic Like It’s Hot
25ml Corte Vetusto Espadín
15ml Dried mango-infused tequila blanco (I used Pancho Datos)
25ml Passion fruit liqueur (I used Nunquam Passiflora Edulis)
10ml Fresh lime juice
Agave syrup to taste (optional)
In a cocktail shaker, combine all but the Prosecco and shake well with ice. Double strain into a coupe and top up with the fizz, if used. Garnish with a lime twist.
Earth, Wind & Fire (White Negroni riff)
30ml Corte Vetusto Espadín
15ml Dry Vermouth (I used Dolin)
10ml Green Chartreuse
Orange peel for garnish
In the glass part of your shaker, combine all ingredients and stir well with ice. Strain into an ice-filled tumbler and garnish with citrus.
You often hear people discussing the price point of mezcals. However, the price is easily justifiable if you consider the spirit as similar to rum or scotch, for example. They are mainly aimed to be served neat to fully appreciate the layers of flavours and, in mezcal’s case, the terroir. Agave takes decades to grow and most mezcal is made using artisanal production methods, which are extremely hard work, time-consuming and steeped in tradition. The skills and craftmanship of the Maestro Mezcaleros are exceptional, especially when you consider most do not have access to any modern equipment.
Next time you are trying mezcal, think about these traditions and take your time to appreciate the unique flavours of the spirit.
Have you tried mezcal? How do you like to serve it?
Disclaimer: In paid collaboration with Corte Vetusto. Some of the links used are affiliate links. If you buy through the links, I may receive a commission for the sale. This has no effect on the price for you.