Agave Spirits - Part I: Understanding Mezcal

I have big plans for the K&L Spirits Department in 2014. One of those plans is to seriously expand the number of agave-based products we carry. However, you can't build an interest for odd and esoteric booze unless people can comprehend it. While many of us discerning drinkers have to come an understanding of tequila--its cultivated blue agave and its industry-standardized flavors--the mezcales of Oaxaca are more of a mystery. There's so much variety that one hardly knows where to begin! They can be smoky, tangy, saline, sweet, wildly-expensive, and can be labeled by region, type of agave, or brand. It's all very overwhelming when contrasted with the mandatory practices of other spirit categories.

Since I'm headed to Mexico this weekend I decided to leave you all with a few interesting posts before I go, to help clarify some key points concerning one of Mexico's rising beverages. I called my friend Jake Lustig this afternoon, owner of the brands Don Amado and Mina Real, to gain some insight into mezcal and how we as consumers can differentiate between various expressions.

Here's our conversation below:

David: How would you differentiate tequila from mezcal for those looking to move beyond Jalisco and into Oaxaca. Let's assume we're talking about someone with a working knowledge of agave.

Jake: I guess I would say that tequila has very specific standards and practices, with standard methodologies, and there are interesting variations on those standards, but there are broader options in the less-developed spirits of Mexico. You've got a pull towards the center in terms of practice. The more esoteric the distillate, the less hegemony there is in the methodology. There's the option to explore many of the nuances with mezcal that aren't available in the realm of tequila.

David: I would compare that to wine where you've got thousands of producers making cabernet, merlot, and pinot noir wines, but then different producers on the fringe making wines from interesting or rarely-heard-of varietals, bringing bold new flavors to the spectrum.

Jake: Right. Mezcal offers more variation, clearly in the type of agave being used and the way those agaves are used. There are different methods of cooking agave. Some bake it--like Fidencio--where as in my projects we use both steam and smoke. You can use different wood to smoke your agave. There are so many possibilities.

David: What about the agave itself? What are the main types of agave being used?

Jake: Espadin is the common type of agave being used in Oaxaca. All of the others are being used to a much lesser degree. The big division in Oaxaca is if you're talking about cultivated agave mezcal or wild agave mezcal. But when you're talking about 95% of the agave in Oaxaca you're referring to cultivated espadin. The primary wild agave species being used are arrequeño, which is probably the most prestigious. Then you've got tobalá, which is the most scarce. Agaves like sierrudo are huge, have good output, and aren't so ultra-scarce, but they're not cultivatable, so you have to find pockets where they exist indigenously.

David: Let's say you're going to release a line of mezcales. You've got different routes you can take to distinguish them from one another. Del Maguey, for example, distinguishes between their products by the village of origin. That's the French approach to wine as well, using the region to distinguish between the style. Fidencio, as we mentioned earlier, uses the species of agave: tobala, espadin, etc. You could also mention the style of the mezcal, like pechuga, which macerates the spirit with raw chicken or fruits and nuts. Are we missing any further styles of classification?

Jake: A key distinction would be geographically. You've got three broad styles of mezcal depending on the three large valleys in Oaxaca, that convene in the city of Oaxaca, and then shoot off into different directions: one shooting up north towards Mexico City, one going due south to the isthmus of Oaxaca, and one heading towards the coast. Over the last hundred years three different methodologies have emerged, which would be an early way to classify mezcal.

David: Is anyone still differentiating their mezcales that way?

Jake: I don't know of any project doing that now, but there are indigenous cultures that live in these regions that still practice their own style of production. There are markedly different styles between the different valleys.

David: If you were to start breaking these styles down to explain them to a newcomer, going from village to village, are there distinctively different styles being made in the different communes?

Jake: This could be disputed by others, but I would contend that there's not a huge difference from village to village. Within the municipalities there are trends and tendencies, but the differences are more family to family. There are families in each village that have their own recipes for mezcal, like any family does for their cooking, and those specific preferences are what will dictate style. In French wine there are certain districts that use the same grapes, but each family or producer will eventually make their own style of wine.

David: What about from agave to agave? Are there inherent flavors that should be present in an espadin mezcal across the board?

Jake: With espadin agave we're talking about such a functional, utilitarian species that the main concern is suitable sugar for fermentation, rather than any particular nuance from the plant. This could also be a point of contention with others, but I would say that espadin doesn't really have any site-specific characteristics. 28 Brix sugar at 4800 feet won't taste all that different from an agave with 28 Brix sugar at 3800 given the same production style.

David: So if someone is paying more for a mezcal made of tobalá, what are they paying for?

Jake: Scarcity. Tobalá is a non-cultivatable species of agave. It takes an extremely long time to grow and produces an extremely small amount of spirit.

David: Is there any commonality of flavor between tobalá mezcales?

Jake: There is, but there are variations between species of tobalá. It's also tough to know if any of the production methods between producers are standardized.

David: I think selling something like that, a $100 bottle of tobalá mezcal, to someone simply because of the rarity is a tough marketing job--especially when the flavors aren't necessarily more pronounced, or richer, or smoother. Even more so given the fact that espadin mezcales are often smoky and flavorful.

Jake: Ha! Being both a cultivator of agave, a producer, a distributor, and a brand owner, I'm looking at that statement from so many different angles. It's nearly impossible really to compare similar products between producers, the way you might compare two pinot noir wines from Paso Robles. One wine from Paso Robles might share similarities with another and you could celebrate the characteristics of the region, but with mezcal there's so much variation at every level of the production. In whiskey you might talk about pot still versus column still, but with mezcal you've got ceramic pot versus alembic pot. Then you've got people using alembic stills with different necks and condensers. And that's just with distillation. Then there's massive variation in how the agave is cooked, and then what type of wood you're using if you're smoking it. In all honesty, all of these measures are so much more impactful on the final product. What one might conclude are due to variations in agave might actually be variations in production: the cooking, the fermentation, and the distillation methods.

David: So, really, someone looking to understand mezcal might do better to look at each producer independently rather than for commonalities between region or species of agave.

Jake: Right, and what we have to remember--because we're still in our infancy here of understanding mezcal in the U.S.--what may emerge eventually are consistent and compliant distilleries that run healthy, long-term operations and over time garner attention for being quality producers, even with the variance in the distillate. This as opposed to a collection of more rustic producers. Look at something like a Cognac house--they can celebrate different brands and styles under one roof and therefore can present a style to compare and contrast. That garners confidence in the brand--that what they make is of quality and dependable. Rather than an independent bottler, so to speak, amassing different styles of mezcal that differ wildly in quality and style.

David: I can see where it becomes more important to have some kind of consistency--via blending or whatever--rather than making something distinctive of a certain style, vintage, or terroir.

Jake: Right. I've long maintained that mezcal needs some kind of pillar--a benchmark--to which other things can be compared. Since mezcal has no real benchmark brand, so much is really at whim and novelty.

David: Put on your brand owner hat for a minute. How would you distinguish Don Amado from other brands of mezcal.

Jake: Well, we try to start with heritage and tradition and go from there. After evaluating more than sixty different producers in the early 90s, I concluded that the Arellanos family was the best at what they did. It's important to achieve a standard of quality both for yourself and in the marketplace.

David: How do you describe the flavor profile of Don Amado and what is it the result of?

Jake: Mezcal all starts with a distiller's vision: where do you want to go? It's a march towards an objective. We wanted a controlled level of smoke, or a tempered level.  We thought it should be sought in order to allow some of the more delicate, nuanced aromatics and flavors of the agave to be displayed. We felt that those two characteristics--one stemming from the cooking of the agave and the other stemming from the cultivation--will inevitably compete, but they need to co-exist in the final product. After years of trial and error, we tried different methods to make sure we thoroughly cooked the agave without charring, so we wanted to integrate steam into the cook. We came up with a way to integrate steam into the final stage of an earthen, firewood roast to soften the last bit of smoke that the agave might absorb.

David: What type of agave are you using?

Jake: Espadin.

David: And it's cultivated?

Jake: Yes. So the house style of our distillery--Real de Mina--would be widely agreed upon as being light in smoke, while brightly displaying the flavor of the agave.

David: It's almost like single malt whisky where there are certain aspects of terroir--like water, peat, and barley--and then there are the practices of the cook--like smoking the barley or fermentation time--and then you also have the search for a house flavor that might come through blending or other methods to ensure consistency. It's not necessarily any one thing, but rather a combination of things. That's definitely the case with most single malt whisky.

Jake: We enjoy a very bright, clean, dry, flowery agave essence that espadin can show when you get about 28 brix of sugar and harvested with little water. You get honeysuckle, jasmine, very floral aromas. We've always had that common pursuit in mind at Don Amado and we strive to bring that out in our products. Secondary flavors are coming, not so much from agave species because we're really just using espadin, from the type of still and the type of roast.

David: This has all been super helpful. I think perhaps the most important point you made was the fact that no brand has been able to emerge as the epitome of what mezcal is or should be. There's no Don Julio or Cuervo to work against or towards. That's allowed a whole market of diversity to emerge and forced customers to decide what ultimately does and doesn't work. However, it's tough to navigate that market if you don't understand it. This hopefully will add a bit of clarity.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll