Mezcal is a spirit made from the heart of an agave plant. The agave, also known as maguey, takes many years to grow, which is why most mezcal is unaged to allow the taste of terroir to fully shine. For Mexicans, mezcal is an important part of their cultural heritage and therefore it is very important to follow the traditional production methods that are passed from generation to generation. In fact, Mezcal is the oldest distilled spirit in the Americas, dating back some 500 years.
There are three mezcal categories: mezcal ancestral, mezcal artisanal and mezcal (industrial). In this article, I will focus on the first two as these are the more traditional ways to create mezcal. The devil is in the details, so this may seem a bit technical, but the more you understand the production methods, the more you will appreciate the spirit itself and its unique flavours.
Most mezcal goes under this category.
Artisanal mezcal uses pit ovens, some of which are lined with volcanic rocks or above ground masonry ovens. The majority use the pit oven, where the fire is lit at the bottom of the pit before a layer of small stones is added. The piñas, the hearts of the agave plant, are cut evenly and placed in the oven when the rocks are hot enough. The smokiness of mezcal comes from slow roasting these piñas.
Prior to this, some 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 prevent the hearts from burning. Some producers, however, prefer more charring. This step will have a significant impact on how smoky the final product will become. 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. Shredders are allowed for the grinding process, although the most traditional, and most common, way is to use a stone wheel (known as Tahona), which is turned by horse, donkey or tractor.
The next step is to mix the crushed hearts with water and leave them to ferment. Various traditional methods are permitted, but the majority utilise small, open-topped wooden vats. Never in stainless-steel tanks. Yeast is rarely added, and fermentation is allowed to occur naturally. After one to two weeks, the liquid is added into a wood-fired copper or clay still and distilled twice. The type of still will have an impact on the flavour profile. The leftover fibre from the fermentation can also be included in the distillation, but this is not mandatory. If used, the fibres are removed after the first distillation.
The rules are much stricter when it comes to the production of ancestral mezcal.
The cooking must be done using underground pit ovens. Like with artisanal mezcal, first there is a bonfire and once the fire dies down, stones and, if preferred, wet agave fibres are added. Next, go in the agave hearts and the pit is covered properly.
Once the agave is cooked, it must be crushed either using the Tahona method or with mallets (by hand), with the latter regarded by many as the ultimate hand-crafted approach. The fermentation happens naturally in wooden vats, although stone, clay or animal skin can also be used. The maestro mezcalero will be able to tell when the fermentation is finished by simply using his senses to analyse the process.
To make ancestral mezcal, the distillation must include the fibre of the agave, not just the juice. The distillation can only be done in traditional wood-fired clay pot stills. The clay contributes to a more earthy spirit and adds minerality.
El Corte Vetusto – The Ancient Cut
The main difference between artisanal and ancestral mezcal really comes down to the type of still used. But what if you were to use both a copper pot still and the clay pots?
Corte Vetusto is an artisanal mezcal range that only uses traditional production methods. They use proper pits to cook their agave hearts (lined with volcanic rocks) and a horse to help crush the cooked maguey. Wooden vats are used for fermentation and wood-fired stills for distillation.
All their mezcal is double distilled, but what really makes it special is that their Tobalá and Ensamble expressions are distilled using both copper and clay stills. The first distillation is done in 250-litre copper pot stills, followed by a distillation using an ancestral 70-litre clay pot still. This is something no other mezcal producer does, making Corte Vetusto Mezcal truly one of a kind.
By using the copper first, the agave notes are more prevalent and will carry though the whole tasting experience, compared to pure clay-pot-distilled mezcals.
Unfortunately, the mezcal cannot be labelled as ancestral, but each step is steeped in tradition and completed by hand by Maestro Mezcalero Juan Carlos Gonzalez Diaz and his small, but skilful team.
Corte Vetusto also use a combination of cultivated-, semi-cultivated- and wild agave to create their mezcals. Espadín is made using highly select mature agave, Tobalá is solely from 10–14-year-old wild agave and Ensamble is made from a blend of semi-cultivated- and wild agave, ranging in age from 10 to 35 years. The blend varies from batch to batch, as traditional mezal did originally.
They have also recently released their first Ancestral Mezcal. This tiny 59L batch of pure Sierra Negra was made by Maestro Isidro Damian in the region of Sola de Vega, in Southern Oaxaca. It is available exclusively at Harrods.
If you are based in the US, you can find the full range of Corte Vetusto at Curiada.
Ancestral Mezcal is made with pit-cooked agave, hand or stone milling and wood-fired clay-pot distillation only. The use of stainless steel is not allowed. The agave fibres are left in during distillation.
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. Fermentation is mainly done in wood and no stainless steel is allowed. Copper stills with swan necks are accepted.
There is also a category simply known as Mezcal, which covers industrial-level equipment that isn’t allowed in the categories above. For example, column stills, stainless-steel tanks and autoclaves for cooking the agave.
If you’d like to learn more about mezcal, check my previous article A Quick Guide to Mezcal.
You may wonder why they would even bother with all these rules and regulations when the artisanal category is the most common within mezcal producers.
It was not that long ago that many people hadn’t even heard of mezcal. Today, the spirit is growing in popularity. And fast.
Mezcal has always been a big part of everyday life in Mexico. Mexicans consider it as a part of their cultural heritage, and 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. Production has simply remained local and very small scale. Now you have people all over the world wanting to drink this unique agave spirit. The only way to cope with the demand was to approve the use of some industrial equipment to allow faster and larger production.
But you don’t want to lose the tradition either and that’s where the artisanal and ancestral categories come in, to allow the safekeeping of these old recipes and methods. Luckily, most of the artisanal mezcals still focus on the use of old-style equipment and skilled individuals monitor the production each step of the way.
Have you tried artisanal or ancestral mezcal?
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.