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Mezcal: good drink, bad rap

Mezcal is finally being treated like the class act it is, and it's making its way north of the border.

March 05, 2003|Barbara Hansen | Times Staff Writer

Oaxaca, Mexico — MEZCAL has a terrible image. It's fiery stuff, real rotgut, with a worm floating in the bottom of the bottle -- at least, that's what most people think. Because mezcal sounds like mescaline, the psychedelic drug, it's surely hallucinogenic. Furthermore, it comes from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, where counterculture folk go to munch on magic mushrooms.

This, of course, is calumny. Like tequila, mezcal is a liquor distilled from the heart of the agave plant. Rather than rotgut, the best mezcals can rival a fine single malt Scotch or top-drawer Cognac. They're purer than tequila because they're made with 100% agave -- tequila can be legally diluted up to 49% with other types of alcohol.

Often, there isn't even a worm.

Americans don't know mezcal because most of them have never tasted it. Distribution is limited even in Mexico. For a good selection, you have to go to Oaxaca. And to get the purest artisanal mezcals, you have to bounce over rough, unpaved roads to villages where people talk in Zapotec, not Spanish.

This is going to change, and soon. A few artisanal mezcals have begun appearing on the shelves of good liquor stores, including Wally's in West Los Angeles and Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa. Twenty Oaxacan producers have recently banded together to promote their brands, and their mezcals may be in Los Angeles as early as June, according to Porfirio R. Chagoya Mendez, director general of the group and the producer of two brands, Donaji and Tehuana.

Advising the group is a savvy American businessman, Douglas French, who has lived in Oaxaca for 15 years. A mezcal producer himself, French has begun shipping his brands -- Scorpion (formerly El Senor) and Caballeros -- to the United States. "We'll ride in on the coattails of tequila," he says.

Compared with tequila, mezcal has an added smokiness and, often, a more pronounced agave flavor. The best mezcal should be sipped straight, like Cognac. In Oaxaca, lesser mezcal is used to make the Coctel Donaji -- a refreshing mix of citrus juices with a smoky edge.

The main difference between tequila and mezcal is the method of production.

Mezcal dates back almost 500 years to the arrival of the Spaniards, who brought the art of distillation to Mexico. Tequila came later. Originally it was called "mezcal produced in the town of Tequila," which is far north of Oaxaca, in the state of Jalisco.

Today, tequila is made in factories, in high volume, and known around the world.

But mezcal is still hand-crafted and rustic. Like tequila, it starts with the hearts of the agave plant, known as pinas because they look like enormous green and white pineapples. For mezcal, the pinas are roasted in a pit dug in the ground. A wood fire heats a layer of rocks, and the pinas go on top, protected from direct contact with the rocks by a layer of agave fiber. Covered with more fiber, and then woven mats or canvas and earth, the pinas roast for several days and are then crushed, fermented in wood tanks and distilled, usually in a copper still.

This process imparts a distinctive smoky flavor. To smooth the taste, some mezcal producers use triple distillation rather than double distillation, which is the norm.

"The taste is clean -- it has less bouquet, less flavor of smoke, for people who don't know mezcal," says Eric Adalid Hernandez Cortes of Mezcal MisticO, a small family-owned distillery near the city of Tlacolula, which is a center of mezcal production.

Some of the more modern Oaxacan mezcal distilleries, called palenques, employ charcoal filtration. Wood aging also sweetens and smooths the beverage. Joya gran reserva, from Ausencio Leon Ruiz y Sus Sucesores, spends 10 years in oak. Embajador produces a reserva aged in oak for seven years. French's anejos (aged mezcals) sit three years in American oak. To mellow the flavor, he combines pit-roasted agave with pinas cooked in a steam room.

While the best tequilas are produced only from agave azul, mezcal draws on five main varieties, with others allowed as long as they don't predominate. The most important variety is agave espadin. Another is tobala, a rare wild agave that grows in the mountains.

Don Amado, a brand developed by Jake Lustig of Northern California, contains one-third tobala, which is more pungent than espadin. This mezcal is produced at Real de Minas, a palenque at Santa Catarina Minas, near Ocotlan. The distilling takes place in clay pots, a technique that has almost vanished. German Bonifacio Arellanes Robles roasts the agave over wood transported by burro from distant mountains, a six-hour round trip. It takes one month to complete one batch, he says.

Some palenques crush agave by hand, some by machine, but horsepower is most common. At El Rey Zapoteco in Santiago Matatlan, tourists watch a horse pull an enormous stone wheel around a stone circle spread with roasted agave. A machine can shred agave in a few minutes. It takes the horse four to five hours.

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