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Gift from the Goddess
by Rachel Barron
Salud! To Mayahuel, the Aztec goddess who bore 400 gods, provided sustenance to Mexicos people and from her bosom oozed the first alcoholic drink of the Americas. Known as pulque, this 2000 year-old, white, foamy, viscous beverage of four to eight percent alcohol, is the mother of mezcal and the abuelita of tequila, Mexicos national drink.
Like their country of denomination, the history of these spirited drinks reflect the turbulent growth of Mexico herself. Originating in the indigenous populations, transformed by foreign invasions, and finally building identities of their own after a revolution, the offspring of pulque are emerging as the worlds greatest new spirits.
Although mezcal and tequila have been the most under-appreciated and misunderstood spirits on the market, this past decade may well be tequilas golden age, an era of enlightenment. People are educating themselves about the creation process and flavor complexities of mezcal and tequila. No longer is mezcal the drink you race to the bottom of in order to eat the worm. Nor is tequila a drink merely to be tolerated and masked by a lick of salt and a bite of lime. On the contrary, people are eschewing chasers and opting for these Latin spirits to be served in brandy snifters to enhance the true nose, as they sip and savor every drop.
The tantalizing tang that separates mezcal and tequila from any other libation is an honor owed to the magical flavor of the agave plant. Agave, meaning noble or admirable in Greek, is also called maguey, a word derived from the Náhuatl language. Commonly mistaken to be part of the cactus family, the agave plant is a member of the agavacea family, whose characteristics can be likened more to lilies and aloe. While nearly 400 different agave varieties exist, only a handful are used to produce 100 percent agave spirits.
Today, mezcal and tequila connoisseurs are not only savoring premium brands, but many have taken it upon themselves to put an end to beliefs that have tarnished these spirits reputation. Some have even gone so far as to introduce public re-education programs on the merits and rituals of drinking Mexicos original spirits. Julio Bermejo of Tommys Mexican Restaurant is known as the tequila disciplinarian of San Francisco and yes, he does have a whip. The first lesson to be had by Mr. Bermejo is, you can drink the wrong tequila and you can drink the right tequila, and the right tequila is always 100 percent agave. Since actions speak louder than words, Julio has stocked his bar with one hundred and sixty 100 percent agave products, offering the largest selection of premium agave drinks outside of Mexico.
Understanding peoples lack of agave spirit knowledge, when time permits he holds class at the end of his bar. Assisted by flash cards and a red laser pointer, Julio takes any patron with a serious desire to learn through an overview of tequila and mezcal production. For those who wish to pursue a higher education, Julio offers a tequila club that extends into Ph.D. and demigod levels. But for those who respond better to tough love, Im going to charge you $15 for two ounces, Julio tells those who try to order a drink like Cuervo Gold, which is cut with sugarcane alcohol. Thats more than the wholesale cost of the bottle, as a penalty for being a dumb-ass and ordering a shitty tequila in a place that has such a spectacular collection.
Tequila, Mexicos national drink is an alcoholic spirit made in Central Mexico from the distilled sap of the Agave tequilana Weber, blue variety. Tequila owes its existence to the evolution of mezcal, a drink that originated when the conquistadors were in search of a stronger beverage than pulque. So they began distilling it. The most pronounced difference between mezcal and tequila is that mezcal offers a bold smoky flavor a result of roasting the agave before distillation. With tequila, the plant is steamed before distillation, allowing the agave itself to be the prominent flavor.
An often misunderstood technicality is that all tequilas are mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequilas. Mezcal describes and defines an entire family of distilled spirits made in Mexico from the agave. Hence, tequila is a kind of mezcal. In the late 19th century, distinctions defining tequila began to be put into law. Today tequila can only be produced in the Mexican state of Jalisco and specified counties of Tamualipas, Guananjuato, Nayarit and Michoacán. As legislature further defines these spirits, tequila and mezcal are being viewed as distinct products, differentiated by production methods and taste.
LA VERDAD AND LAS MENTIRAS ABOUT TEQUILA AND MEZCAL
Before this article proceeds further, lets clear up some common, erroneous and often far-fetched information that has tragically stripped tequila and mezcal of their proper standing in the world of fine spirits.
For the record, tequila is not rot-gut cactus juice that can only be tolerated with the most potent chasers. Premium tequilas are finely crafted sprits that are as complex in taste as single-malt scotch, and cognac. They are heavily regulated by the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (C.R.T.), which some people say is the only branch of the Mexican government you can trust.
Premium tequilas are not to blame for those horrendous crippling hangovers. Perhaps mixto tequilas, or mixed tequilas, which contain less than 100 percent blue agave, can intensify morning pains after a belligerent night out. In truth, all 100 percent blue agave premium tequilas are double-distilled, a process that greatly diminishes the drinks impurities. It is this distillation method that makes tequilas among the least toxic spirits in the world, and enables drinkers to avert many a hangover.
Upon the mere mention of the word mezcal, many peoples faces will contort into a morbid look of disgust as they recall an evening spent intoxicated on the drink with the worm in the bottle. Lets get this straight while were at it: mezcal is not Mexican backyard moonshine that only comes with a limbless invertebrate in the bottom. Premium mezcal is a smoky elixir often produced using traditional hand-crafted methods.
The worm, formally called the gusano, is actually a caterpillar that feasts on the agave plant. To some, the gusano in the bottle is proof that the drink is real agave. Others contend that placing the gusano in the bottle started as a marketing ploy in the 1940s or 1950s to increase sales. Either way, most likely you will not find one of these grubs in premium exported mezcal.
Finally, you wont see flying monkeys if you drink mezcal. Sorry, wrong drug. For those types of apparitions you will have to hit up the local shaman for a vision quest and get some mescal. More commonly known as peyote, it is the mescal plant, not the mezcal plant, that holds hallucinatory powers.
Who knows how many stories have been shared relaying memories of a hellish evening spent at the mercy of one of these two Mexican spirits. Its time to be honest, folks. Many times the true cause of your singing in your underwear in public while trying to convince people that you are mariachi musics next best thing was most likely the manner in which inebriation took place. Eight to ten shots of any hard liquor in an hour is likely to bring out the diablito in anyone.
Like many exceptional spirits, premium tequila and mezcal are meant to be sipped and savored. To fully appreciate the bite of tequila and the smokiness of mezcal, an understanding of the agave is in order, to establish proper reverence for the plant and the gifts that it bestows.
HOW TEQUILA AND MEZCAL ARE MADE
With sword-like arms that can extend higher and wider than a grown man, the agave plant protects its most precious organ, its heart. This sweet, juicy agave core weighs in at a hefty 80 to 175 pounds. Since putting on this type of weight doesnt happen overnight, eight to twelve years of careful monitoring and growth are needed before harvesting.
As soon as a greenish-yellowish color shows itself inside the leaves close to the plants heart, this signals the jimador, the harvester of the agave plant, that its time to start hacking. Grabbing a tool sharper than a butchers knife called a coa, the jimador sheers away leaves until the heart (also known as the piña for its pineapple-like features), is removed and taken to the distillery. Unlike other alcoholic drinks such as wine, whose plants will be able to produce again, the harvesting of the agave is a sacrificial undertaking. Once the piña is removed, the plant is gone forever.
Upon arrival at the distilleries, the piñas are cut in half and cooked. Here is where mezcal and tequila part ways. Mezcal piñas are roasted in stone-lined pits that are covered and left to smolder for two to three days, creating mezcals distinctive smoky trait. Tequila, on the other hand, is slow-baked in steam ovens for 50 to 72 hours. Many large distilleries opt to cook their piñas in autoclaves, which act like pressure cookers, to cut down on time.
After cooking, the piñas are transported to the tahona, a giant grinding wheel, weighing up to two tons, that is often pulled by beasts of burden. Modern distilleries use mechanical crushers or shredders to remove the juice, known as aguamiel, honey-water in Spanish, from the piña.
After a thorough thrashing, the aguamiel is separated and transported to large wooden or stainless steel vats where water and yeast ferment the agave juice. The fermentation process takes seven to twelve days. Some distilleries accelerate the fermentation process to only two to three days by adding chemicals that stimulate rapid yeast growth. However, modern biotechnology does not mean better longer fermentation results in a more robust body.
Once fermentation is complete, the mosto (fermented juice averaging 5-7 percent alcohol) is ready for the final stage of production. Mexican law requires tequila must be double distilled, making it one of the purest spirits in the world. Like tequila, many premium mezcals also double-distill.
All tequilas and mezcals are clear after distillation. Any color comes later, from aging in wooden barrels or adding artificial ingredients like caramel or wood essence.
KNOW YOUR TEQUILAS AND MEZCALS
The first, and perhaps the most important, distinction to be made is that there are tequila and mezcal bottles labeled 100 percent agave and there are bottles that are not. Any tequila or mezcal with less than 100 percent agave is referred to as mixto, and are required by law to have 51 percent fermented agave juices. More specifically, tequilas must always include at least 51 percent fermented blue agave juice. The remainder 49 percent can be other sugars added during the fermentation process, like sugar cane or molasses. Thats why 100 percent agave tequilas and mezcals are considered premium spirits. To protect the reputation of the countrys national drinks, 100 percent agave tequilas and mezcals must be aged and bottled in Mexico.
For all intents and purposes there are four classifications of tequila. Depending on the ingredients and production method, tequilas will find themselves categorized as a joven abocado, blanco, reposado or añejo. By understanding how various types of tequilas play on the palate, you can quickly discovery your favored style and brand.
The name says it all young and adulterated in Spanish the joven abocado goes straight from the still to the bottle, where colors and flavors are added to simulate aging and smooth out the intense alcohol edge. But dont be fooled by this styles fabricated efforts to match the flavor of pure agave. Drinking joven is more like a physical test to see who can endure chemical fire-water. Rumor has it that jovens were created for the export market. Dont expect to hear many Mexicans ordering this one. But if youre compelled, the only way to drink a joven is to slam it like you were at a fraternity party or serve it in a mixed drink.
Another one straight from distillation to the bottle is the untamed blanco. The purest of all tequilas, this clear spirit comes out swinging. Its macho style pushes the drinker to withstand the harshest bite of all premium tequilas. But dont be too quick to pass on the blancos confrontational nature this tequila will win anyone over with its ability to express the natural taste and aroma of the blue agave.
Once a soft spot for the blanco has developed, drinkers find that this rowdy type provides a lifetime of vigorous floral, herbal, and peppery flavors subdued by the agaves inherent sweetness.
If the feisty demeanor of the blanco is too wild for the moment, try a shot of something a little more relaxed. Spanish for rested, reposado tequilas spend at least 60 days aging in wooden barrels. The result: Less edge than the feral blanco. As the oak softens the bite with hints of vanilla and spice, agave barely manages to hang on as the prominent flavor.
Ranging in hues from pale straw to glistening gold, reposado builds up character as it spends time aging in anything from large wooden storage tanks that hold up to 30,000 liters to small oak barrels.
Spanish for aged, añejos are similar to other aged spirits like bourbons and whiskies, where time spent in wood barrels creates a sophisticated smooth, oaky body and rich, bold flavor. These viejos usually spend one to four years aging in government-sealed barrels no larger than 600 liters and no smaller than 55 gallons. The smoothest and most expensive to produce, añejos lose their youthful agave fruitiness to maturity, becoming a robust spirit full of oaky properties and influence.
Just because its aged doesnt mean its better. Unlike like wine, more time in the barrel or the bottle does not mean a richer and more complex beverage. On the contrary, tequila lovers view blanco, reposado, and añejo tequilas as equals, each possessing their own merits and personality. In the end, it is the drinkers taste and mood that will dictate which style of tequila should be served. But if the selection process becomes too overwhelming, just remember to look for the 100 percent agave on the label.
MEZCAL TYPES AND CLASSIFICATION
Like tequila, the best mezcals say 100 percent agave. Several species of agave are used when making mezcal, most derived from the Agave angustifolia. Laws regarding process and classification of mezcals are not as defined as they are with tequila. To soften the aroma, modern mezcal distilleries filter mezcal through charcoal, cellulose, or through sand to refine the texture and clarity. Mezcals, on average, are not aged. However, some premium brands give their mezcals time in a barrel, infusing the liquors defining smoky flavor with oak properties.
TASTING RITUALS: LEARNING THE ART OF SAVORING THE AGAVE FLAVOR
Those in hot pursuit of the best 100 percent agave spirits have developed methodology and specific descriptors to assist them in comparing bottles. Because they contain 40 percent alcohol volume, tasting distilled spirits is a little more difficult and needs more preparation than tasting wines or beers, says Julio, San Franciscos tequila disciplinarian. So pay attention remember, he has a whip.
When Julio goes to taste tequila, he carefully selects his glassware. Although many aficionados pour a blanco and even a reposado in a traditional shot glass and turn to a snifter to capture the nose of an añejo, Julio tastes all his tequilas in a whisky glass or snifter.
When at tastings, I always look at color first, says Julio. With the exception of Herradura, which reflects a light golden hue from time spent in oak, if its a silver, it should be radiant and clear, he says. For reposados and añejos, again color is important. Depending on how faint or dark the color is, it will be an indication of the type of wood that was used to age the product.
Next, Julio uses scent to help recognize a tequilas qualities. I like to swirl it around and smell it, he says. My mouth is always open when Im smelling. With the honing of ones sense of smell, some can even tell if a tequila is a lowlands or highlands product. As a general rule, the area around the town of Tequila is considered lowlands. Lowlands products, says Julio, tend to be more vegetal and more earthy. Agave products from the Highlands, which lies 40 miles east of Guadalajara, should have some fruit component.
Finally, and perhaps the most important element of evaluating tequila the tasting. Tasting is pretty much the same for anything, says Julio. The only thing I would definitely make sure people do is acclimate their palate. Julio tells people to take a sip of spirit, and without forming an impression, swallow it and drink a lot of water. This helps the mouth move past the shock of the alcohol and on to the flavors. From here, Julio takes tastes, and analyzes what part of the palate the tequila is hitting. Hell observe whether the attack is harsh or soft, and what flavors such as citrus, wood or spice can be detected.
Jake Lustig is a Latin market specialist at Southern Wine and Spirits of Northern California and owner of the Don Amado mezcal label. He approaches tasting like a Zen master approaches meditation. With all his attention focused on the task at hand, Jake invokes his ritual of agave spirit tasting.
With every movement carefully calculated, Jake first focuses on the breath. Breathe a couple of times. Then, take a deep breath. Hold the air in your lungs. Not an extremely deep breath, but have some air in your lungs. Next he raises the glass to his lips. Take a sip of tequila, and rather than swish it left to right, move it forward to back, and forward to back. Repeat this four or five times, either spitting or swallowing the tequila after each taste.
Reintroducing the breath, Jake instructs to exhale very, very slowly over your tongue through pursed lips. He explains that by having moved the tequila forward and back, youve coated your tongue and the roof of your mouth, so that when you breathe through that slowly, youre picking up a lot of the flavor.
Its a ritual that takes time and practice to perfect, Jake contends. The point being that you dont actually taste tequila or spirits on your mouth. Its all in your palate. And with enough air you can keep your palate open.
Those who can pass on elaborate tasting rituals, like Lucinda Hutson, author of Tequila! Cooking with the Spirit of Mexico, often pay little heed to intricate systems. Although Lucinda has her own methodology for tasting agave spirit, giving special attention to color and nose, she questions if the whole thing has gone a little overboard. Sometimes, she just wants to ask, You know, man, wheres the tequila?
Lucinda is an advocate for personal taste determining the ultimate quality of a spirit. What I like doesnt mean its the best or what everybody is going to like.
When sipping fine mezcal, you really taste the agave in it, says Lucinda. You taste the smoke, the fire, and the way in which piñas are baked underground.
Before tasting, selecting the right glassware once again plays an important part in setting off the flavor of a spirit. Agustín Gaytán, a chef who specializes in Mesoamerican cuisine and libations, suggests that when tasting mezcal, its best to use traditional Mexican clay glasses called jarritos. Mezcal is good out of those glasses, says Agustín, because there is something about the combination of the clay and the smokiness of mezcal that really goes to your head.
The same techniques used to evaluate tequila can be used to evaluate mezcal. The difference is that not only is there agave flavor present, but the level and smoothness of the smokiness must be taken into consideration.
Not everyone acquires a taste for mezcals smokiness. Its like when you crave a cigar, says Agustín. You dont crave a cigar every night. Well, some people do. Your body has to be ready for that flavor, that experience.
CLEANSE THE PALATE
Just as in wine tasting, when sampling a variety of tequilas and mezcals, the palate must be cleansed between each new tasting. Lots of water and vegetables like cucumber or jícama that consist mostly of water can eliminate the flavor and nose from the last spirit sipped. A simple bite of a flour tortilla can also disperse any remaining agave flavors.
Jake Lustig (Zen master of tequila tasting), uses a ritual learned from Mark Miller, chef and owner of the Coyote Cafe. Once again integrating the breath, Jake shares a rather awkward but effective method to reset the palate. What I usually do, says Jake, is to breathe through the top part of my shirt sleeve. Because its by your armpit, its got your own body smell, thus overwhelming the previous scent and resetting your palate, he affirms.
If by chance you are wearing a sleeveless shirt or the company you are in wouldnt quite understand the value of such a technique, Jake says its also perfectly fine to breathe through a dinner napkin.
THE ORDER OF TASTING
When tasting more than one kind of agave spirit in a night, there is a favored progression in which to serve. When he offers his four-hour tequila, mezcal, and appetizer demonstrations, Chef Agustín Gaytán follows a traditional method of sampling tequilas. First he serves jovens, then reposados, and finally añejos. Through tasting and discussion, Agustín helps develop peoples palate for tequila.
It is at this point that Agustín pulls out a few bottles of mezcal. Because people have already shown an interest in tequila, you dont need to convince them, you need to educate them, he says. And learning to appreciate the rich smokiness of mezcal is his next lesson. As far as the order of serving mezcals goes, Agustín says since there are very few, you just give them the best.
Getting back to those who vowed never to touch tequila or mezcal again, Mauricio Piccone of San Franciscos restaurant Maya, says that with the right coaching, anybody can come back to the agave fold. The trick, he says, is to break the psychology of that bad experience. When theyre expecting a sip of a drink that they think is going to be hell and back, I serve them a very smooth añejo, he says. Thats the best way for them to understand that there is a lot more about tequila than they previously thought. And once they are surprised, then theyre all mine, boasts Mauricio. Thats when they understand that the Pepe López they had in Tijuana wasnt really tequila, just a bad joke.
LEARN WHAT YOU LIKE
With more than 600 brands of tequila and mezcal available, deciding on a bottle can be a monumental task. You can seek out a local bar with an impressive agave selection and sample their beverage menu in alphabetical order. Or hold a tequila and mezcal party, an excellent way to survey the agave market.
Get a group together and splurge, says Lucinda. A 100 percent agave fiesta allows people to experiment and figure out which brands they favor. It makes for an expensive evening, she says, since a good bottle of tequila or mezcal can cost $30 and up. But you end up getting to go home with a lot of the bottle, too.
The ultimate sampling ground can only be found in one place, Mexico. Unlike other countries that sell their best to foreign markets, Mexico keeps its finest for home. Perhaps this is why Agustín insists that tequila and mezcal taste better in Mexico.
For the last ten years, tequila and mezcal have made their way into more and more glasses.
The rate of tequila sales is growing faster than any other spirit in the United States. Despite a ripe market, tequilas future could be in jeopardy. Currently, a shortage of blue agave is sweeping over Mexico. In 1997, El Niño chilled temperatures so low, that a frost formed in agave country killing whole fields of young plants. Compounding the problem, an insect plague has hit fields, too. Burrowing its way into the heart of agave, this bug is responsible for the loss of hundreds of plants. Combined with an unexpected boom in the industry, prices for tequila are going through the roof .
Until the tequila crisis is over, if there is a brand you really like, its a good idea to sit on a case of it, advises Jake Lustig. As prices soar, many people ask when and if the shortage will end. Jake estimates that the shortage will probably last until the end of 2002. By the beginning of 2003, youll start seeing a lowering of agave prices, he says, since the growth of new plants will be able to catch up with agave demands.
Despite the crisis, tequila is going to take over the world, claims Mauricio. A tequila invasion is not entirely implausible. The people who generally have a very open mind, and enjoy the good things of life, says Mauricio, are the ones who take tequila. People who are curious by nature, he says, will get into tequila and really enjoy the full experience of it.
And as for mezcal, perhaps it will never share tequilas popularity. But a following is growing over this smoky elixir.
One by one, people have begun to move past preconceived notions and the obvious harshness of high alcohol content in order to take pleasure in the complex flavors of tequila and mezcal. As more people find their palate won over by these two Mexican libations, they discover that they are not just sipping the fruits of premium liquor. More than that, people find that their first discerning taste has led to a gift from a goddess, the spirit of a country and to one of the worlds last great undiscovered spirits.