So, what is Mezcal?


So, what is Mezcal?

Leave all your preconceptions at the door and embrace the succulent agave with new eyes and open minds, for it is the heartbeat of Mexico.

Boasting the largest selection of mezcals in the South; Ojo Rojo are on a journey to resurrect this characterful spirit and bring it to you on the South Coast.
Gone are the shooter days of mixto tequila and cheap mezcals, it’s time to appreciate this genre in all its glory.

AGAVE


There is evidence to suggest that agaves have been used as a source of food and artefacts for 11,000 years. In pre-Hispanic times, the agave was considered an incarnation of the goddess Mayahuel, the symbol of fertility and family. The intoxicating powers of mezcal and pulque can be traced back to the celebrations and spiritual rites of ancient cultures but have lived on to the present day, prevalent in rural communities where they still occur.

All agave plants are subject to their unique terroir (see below – The importance of terroir) until they reach full maturity. Remarkably, this can be anywhere from eight to thirty years depending on the species – this extensive lifespan along with its traditional hands-on distillation encourages a broad spectrum of extraordinary flavours to develop and take hold.

AGAVE SPECIES


The taste and aroma of each mezcal is influenced immensely by the type of agave it is made from and each agave’s micro climate shapes its flavour and characteristics.

It is believed that there is between 150 and 250 species of agave, but the exact number is unknown, mainly due to the amount of variations caused by the crossing between species.

The captivating creation of Mezcal uses up to fifty different varieties; wild, semi-cultivated and cultivated. Tequila must be produced from 51% blue agave which is usually cultivated due to high demand. The magic of this is that, as no two agaves are the same, no two mezcaleros produce their mezcal in the same way.

THE SPIRIT


Mezcal is the oldest distilled spirit in the Americas, dating back some 400 to 500 years. Any distilled spirit which is made from the agave plant is classed as mezcal, think of mezcal as a category of spirits that within it include tequila and mezcal as well as the lesser known bacanoro and raicilla.

The diversity of mezcal comes from a combination of many different variants which bring together a broad range of tastes and aromas. It’s said that there are three main sources of diversity in mezcal or agave distillates which can be used to classify the spirit: Agave variety, production methods and terroir.

Tequila and mezcal have different production methods which greatly affect the finished product. For tequila, the hearts of the agave, also known as the piñas, are pressure cooked in large industrial ovens or autoclaves. For mezcal, the piñas are baked in earthen pits which serve to smoke and caramelise the heart of the agave. The soil is excavated and a bonfire is made in the pit to warm the volcanic stones inside. Once the required temperature is reached, the agave hearts (or piñas) are placed inside, whole or in pieces. The oven is then covered with fibre mats and sealed with earth and stones for between three and five days after the agave is cooked. This way of cooking the piñas draws out the sugars and soften the agaves for crushing to extract the juices from which the spirit is distilled.

Mezcals tend to have a smoky, cooked agave profile, a wonderfully dark twist on tequila which is known for its peppery tang with green agave notes.

MAYAHUEL

The agave goddess Mayahuel is said to have 400 breasts to feed her many children; the Centzon Totochtin – the 400 Rabbits. These are thought to be responsible for causing drunkenness. The pulque-swilling Aztecs called their highest level of intoxication “drunk as 400 rabbits”.

THE IMPORTANCE OF TERROIR


Terroir is what gives a plant its distinctive character, a combination of factors that make up the nurturing atmosphere in which mezcal is grown, including soil, climate, and environment, The geography of Mexico’s mezcal-making regions is quite diverse, from desert to semitropical, sea level to nine thousand feet in altitude – this diversity shapes the nature of each mezcal from hill to hill and valley to valley.

It’s fascinating how an agave Espadin grown in one region will differ in taste from one grown 200 miles away even if produced in the exact same way. Even two agaves grown side by side will take on their own personality and differences. It is said that mezcal is the only spirit that is born in a mature state. Unlike grapes, corn, wheat or rye and other plants used to make spirits, mezcal can only be made from ripe agave, this maturation can take anywhere from eight years like agave Espadin, to thirty years, like agave Tepeztate! The other crops mentioned reproduce at least annually, but agaves only have one shot. They do say that good things come to those who wait.

If we take a look at wine for example, and the grapes that make it, all affected by the wind, rain, slope, sun, soil, hot, cold, air pressure, elevation and geography, all which lend the grapes unique taste for the annual harvest. Now multiply those affects ten to thirty times for the life of an agave.

It has a certain romanticism to it, and we are certainly seduced by this unique spirit.

AGEING


A little note on ageing:
Ageing was not originally used in production and was a practice copied from products like rum, brandy and whiskey. In the case of agave spirits, ageing is far from essential in achieving a beautiful end product, however it does add to its variety and offers another layer of intrigue to explore…

Joven, Blanco or Plata:
Unaged or aged no longer than 60 days, these have the most distinctive taste of pure agave. Typically floral and herbal with clean minerality and a peppery bite. All our listed Mezcals are un-aged unless stated.

Reposado:
Aged for a period of two months to one year in oak barrels. The aging process is designed to mellow the agave, creating sweeter notes of vanilla.

Añejos:
Aged for one to three years and exhibiting the true characteristics of their oak contact. Añejos are smooth and mellow with an oaky spice.

Extra Añejos:
Aged for more than three years, this is a rare but interesting style within the spirit genre and is attractive to all palates who find the complexity reminiscent of other dark spirits.

MEZCAL – MEZCAL


To summarise, Mezcal must be made within eight states of Mexico; Oaxaca, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas and Michoacan.

It can be made from up to 50 different agave varieties, most commonly agave Espadin. Its often smoky character is created from the wood fired earthen pits used to cook the agave before distillation. All of our Mezcals are un-aged unless stated.

Mezcal is not a bulk process, it is produced in a very small distillery called a Palenque and produces a bespoke, very much handmade spirit.

MEZCAL – TEQUILA


Tequila is a type of mezcal, it must be made within five states of Mexico with the most renowned being Jalisco, and the others being; Michoacan, Guanajuato, Nayarit and Tamaulipas. It must be distilled from a minimum of 51% Blue Agave and will most likely be cooked in autoclaves. All our listed Tequilas are made from 100% Blue Agave.

MEZCAL – RAICILLA


Raicilla pronounced rye-see-ya is a type of Mezcal but as it is not produced in a Mezcal DO (Denomination of Origin) state it cannot be labelled as such. Raicilla is produced in Jalisco and mostly associated with the Puerto Vallarta area. Primarily made from agave lechuguilla and agave maximiliana.

Whilst some Raicilla producers use earthen pits like mezcal to cook the hearts of the agave plants, the majority use aboveground ovens which means the final spirit does not take on the smoky essence like most mescal does.

MEZCAL – BACANORA


Bacanora is produced from the wild agave pacifica, a plant that grows in the mountain range state of Sonora, which is the only region Bacanora can be produced.

Like mescal, the hearts of the piñas, or agave, are roasted in earthen pits imparting a smoky flavour to the final product. Currently we are unable to source and stock Bacanora but it’s certainly a product of intrigue so watch this space.

SOTOL


In recent years the Desert Spoon plant from which Sotol is made from has been found to not classify as an agave species and is in fact a stem succulent related to the yucca and the agave so Sotol is not technically a mezcal. However many people still refer to Sotol as sub category of mezcal because of its close relation.

Sotol has a DO and can only be produced in the Northern Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango.

In general it takes one plant to make one bottle of Sotol, compared to tequila or mezcal where one plant can produce five to ten bottles, although there are exceptions. The piñas can be cooked in above-ground ovens which will create a product with flavour reminiscent of tequila or they can be cooked in earthen pits which produces a Sotol with distinct mezcal qualities.

Currently we source Hacienda de Chihuahua which uses above-ground ovens and is column distilled. There are many other agave distillates produced that are currently not within a DO state to be called any of the above. However as the popularity and knowledge of the Mezcal genre grows and grows we are sure to see more examples of this colourful and powerful spirit being exported and possibly as an addition to our menu at Ojo Rojo for you to discover.

Written by Gemma Terry

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