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Mezcal – the liquid pride of Mexico

National drinks are part of the identity of countries around the globe and say a lot about the respective attitude to life - indeed, the soul - of a country. Scottish whisky, Japanese sake, Italian red wine - and in Mexico ... mezcal. Ambassador of Pleasure (“Genussbotschafterin”) Annick Seiz takes us to a new land of spirits with a 400-year-old tradition.

Annick Seiz
Annick Seiz
Genussbotschafterin Annick Seiz - Genussbotschafterin
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A mezcal bar with a “Mexico is Mezcal” neon sign "Mexico is Mezcal" - the spirit made from agave is part of the country's identity (Photo: Marlon Michelle Corado, Unsplash)

What is the difference between mezcal and tequila?

 

Typical local spirits based on grapes (Cognac or Armagnac from France), grain (Scottish whisky or German Korn) as well as sugar cane (rum from the Caribbean) have already acquired a valuable premium image within the international connoisseur and bar scene and no well-stocked bar can be imagined without them.

Tequila and mezcal, the traditional Mexican distillates from the agave plant, are different. Despite their 400-year-old tradition, they are still considered an insider tip among gastronomy professionals. For end consumers, the word "tequila" often causes painful memories of long-forgotten youthful sins ... and mezcal is an absolute newcomer to spirits for most private connoisseurs. 

Even professionals are hardly able to explain the difference between these two categories in detail. So that you can have your say in the future about these exciting trend drinks from Mexico, here is a summary of the most important characteristics and differences.

 

Lots of flavour - even without salt and lemon

 

Agave distillates have been the official national drink of the Mexicans since 1911, and since World War II, the USA has been the undisputed number one importer of tequila and mezcal. It was (so they say) none other than the cult band The Rolling Stones who made it famous in Europe with the cult drink "Tequila Sunrise"!

"Tequila plays on a par with gin, rum and whisky in the sophisticated cocktail arena," reads Mixology magazine.

Surprisingly, agave distillates of the premium class have flavour patterns that are already known from other alcoholic beverages:

fresh, fruity, grassy notes - similar to white rum/rum;
Caramel and honey tones - similar to brandy or brown rum;
spicy sweetness - similar to bourbon;
Smoky notes - similar to whisky from the Scottish islands.

So as a fan of the highly aromatic classic spirits, you can also venture into the subject of agave and possibly (re)discover the national drink of the Mexicans for yourself in a completely new way.

 
A rider with a cowboy hat in an agave fieldA field of agaves in Mexico (Photo: David Garcia Sandoval, Unsplash)

What you should know about Premium Tequila

Tequila has been produced traditionally as well as industrially from the blue Weber agave since 1964 within the framework of a protected designation of origin (five regions: Jalisco, Nayarit, Tamaulipas, Michoacán, Guanajuato). For saccharification, the crushed parts of the plant are steamed under pressure for a few hours, and only some of the sugars and flavour carriers contained in the fibres are activated. Cane sugar is therefore added to some tequila mashes.

Pure cultured yeasts are usually used for the subsequent fermentation. The distillation of tequila is done traditionally as well as in a modern way (column). The minimum alcohol content is 38 percent by volume. Cheap tequila can be marketed in bulk (bulk container), premium tequila is bottled in Mexico.

Premium tequila is best enjoyed neat and at room temperature. A Reposado is served in a sherry glass, a Tequila Añejo in a cognac snifter. Those who still want to try sociable rituals beyond salt and lemon can enjoy a premium tequila with an orange slice/cinnamon and coffee bean or order a so-called "bandera" (flag of Mexico), consisting of three shot glasses filled with lime juice, tequila and spicy sangrita and drunk one after the other or together.

 
Close-up of a Mezcal label on which you can see the bottle numberFor a top-quality mezcal, the bottle number must be on the label (Photo: Yayo Davila, Unsplash)

Mezcal - mysterious masterpiece of Mexican craftsmanship and distilling art

 

If you place a lot of value on pure craftsmanship, tradition and aromatic complexity when choosing your spirits, you should look into mezcal!

Mezcal was the original collective term for all agave spirits and has only been a protected designation of origin since 1994 (Oaxaca region and other federal states). Different Mexican agave species are used for mezcal, usually wild varieties such as Agave angustifolia (the original form of the Weber agave).

The terroir, i.e. the agave variety, the region, the climate, the soils and the processing by humans, play a significant role in the multifaceted aroma of mezcal. The plants come exclusively from small-scale farming and are processed in the traditional way.

The agave hearts are steamed and roasted whole at low heat for up to five days in handmade earth ovens for optimal saccharification, which enables maximum activation of all aroma carriers. Premium Mezcal does not require any foreign sugars or cultivated yeasts for fermentation - thanks to natural cultivation and gentle processing, the wild yeasts and microorganisms from the air and from the agave surface are sufficient. Mezcal is traditionally distilled at low heat in clay stills or copper stills using fibres and liquids. The minimum alcohol content is 36 percent by volume. Mezcal may only be bottled in the country of origin, Mexico. The maximum bottle size is five litres.

You can recognise top-quality mezcal by the following criteria:

At least 45% alcohol by volume;
high viscosity in the glass;
when shaking the bottle and pouring over it, bubbles (perlas) must form, these should be small and as persistent as possible;
on the palms of your hands you smell cooked agave, not sugar cane;
the place of production, the name of the master distiller and the bottle number are written on the label;
the bottle price can be upwards of 60 or even 80 euros.

 
A worker removes the leaves from the heart of an agave with a special macheteThe agave hearts are harvested by hand and weigh up to 80 kilograms (Photo: Rudy Prather, Unsplash)

Mezcal production requires hard work

 

The production of mezcal is absolutely hard work! The agave plants are harvested before the first flowering and are between six and ten years old. Each agave heart processed by hand weighs around 80 kilograms, and workers process up to seven tonnes of agave hearts per batch.

The fibrous leaves are cut off by hand with special machetes weighing several kilos (a chainsaw would break in the process). The harvesters have to be extremely careful, because the resin that escapes burns the skin.

To split the carbohydrate chains and achieve perfect caramelisation, the heart, which looks not unlike a pineapple, is smashed into pieces and steamed and roasted in earth pits (palenques) up to three metres deep for up to five days on glowing stones, earth and under palm mats. This is where the earthy and smoky aroma typical of mezcal is created. Then, in particularly traditional farms, the agave pieces are processed into pulp with a millstone (tahona) moved by horses.

Spiritual assistance is also provided, as a wooden cross is often placed above the hole in the ground, decorated with a Niño Palenquero (a Jesus doll) to keep the devil and the women, who are not supposed to be present during mezcal production, away. Now everything can bake and cool slowly in peace for a week and then be processed further. 

An agave plant photographed from aboveThe agaves are harvested before the first blossom (Photo: Clay Banks, Unsplash)

There's the worm in it - or is there?

An interesting variation is the "Mezcal de Pechuga" (with breast). For this, fruits, spices (for example sultanas, cinnamon, pineapple, banana, apple) as well as sugar are added to the still and a raw chicken breast is hung in the steam.

The famous "Mezcal de Gusano" (with worm) contains firstly no worm at all, but a butterfly caterpillar and secondly is a supposed marketing trick of the 1950s for a rather cheap Mezcal. The protein ingredient is harmless (not yet proven to promote potency) and can be interesting in terms of taste when powdered in salt. Definitely not premium, but fits quite well with the current insect trend ...

Premium agave distillates are already a trend in the best bars in the world and should also receive more attention in this country.

 

Find out what else Mexico has to offer in terms of beverages at Beviale Mexico, which will be held as an eSpecial on 16, 23 and 30 March 2021: https://www.beviale-mexico.com/