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Mezcal 101

March 12, 2016

Mezcal is timeless. Channeling centuries of ceremony and culture, it is big, bold and vivid . . . exemplary, potent and singular. Mezcal is not tequila, it is a true, living antiquity, a magnificent, mystifying panacea forged in a style that glorifies the peoples of the mountains, the plains and the fertile valleys in and around Oaxaca where it was created centuries ago. Mezcal is exciting the tastebuds and affections of spirits cognoscenti all over the world one sip at a time. The reason for this growing enthusiasm is simply that 100% agave Mezcal is the purest, most natural spirit on earth.

It starts with hand harvested maguey (agave), which is cut down to the piña (agave heart), split in half and delivered to the palenque (the mezcal production facility). Once at the palenque, fully mature agave is roasted for several days in a fire-heated earthen pit to imbue earthy, smoky flavor into the magueys and convert the complex starches into accessible sugar for the fermentation process. Even before the roasted agave is mashed, it begins its natural fermentation with airborne wild yeast. This is a slow and lengthy process. It is key to the myriad of daedal, exquisite flavors. Complexity takes time, patience and skill; these are the earmarks of the master Mezcaleros of Oaxaca.

In the next step of the process, the roasted maguey is placed into a molino (a cement well with a centered post and a horse drawn stone wheel) to be crushed, or it is put into a wood trough to be pulverized by hand, or then it is shredded. The mash is placed in wooden vats to ferment with wild yeast for 3-10 days. The ferment is then distilled twice in small copper pot stills or clay stills. This again is where the mastery of the Mezcalero shines. Certain parts of any distillation will carry over the more ‘ugly’ parts of the ferment. The practiced expert distiller will discard these, saving only the heart of the distillation where the best tasting, cleanest part of the ferment has been concentrated into gorgeous Mezcal.

This method of Mezcal production has remained unchanged for centuries. Throughout that history, Mezcal has proven to be the drink of the people. It is incorporated into their daily lives in many ways: for celebrations, social assemblies, ceremonial gatherings, spiritual events and even for medicinal purposes. The mystic philosophers of Oaxaca have a saying about Mezcal: “Por todo mal, Mezcal. Para todo bien, tambien.” (For everything bad and everything good, Mezcal.)

Mezcal comes in 2 classes: 100% Agave, or 80% Agave 20% other sugars. These 2 types come in 3 different age groups: Joven or blanco: clear, unaged mezcal; Reposado (also called madurado): aged in wood barrels for two to eleven months; Añejo: aged in wood barrels for a minimum of twelve months.

— Forrest Cokely

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