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Mezcal, Fire On the Tip of Everyone's Tongue

Mezcal, Fire On the Tip of Everyone's Tongue

Posted by Alejandra Romo on September 06, 2013

The wild but sophisticated bittersweet notes that characterize a quality mezcal, produced using traditional methods, is what has earned certain brands a place on the shelf alongside the most select spirits in the world.

by Sandra Roblágui / ProMéxico

Some 100 certified brands of mezcal are currently sold in delicatessens and bars in over 30 countries. Casa Mezcal in New York and La Botica de la Condesa in Madrid are among the chicest establishments dedicated to this Mexican elixir.

The success of mezcal can largely be attributed to the way it is made. Small-scale traditional processes are still favored because most producers believe mass production and marketing would jeopardize the flavor of a fiery beverage whose magic is the fruit of patience.

Each batch of mezcal has its own distinct flavor and aroma, depending on which one of 23 utilizable species of maguey plant –the only raw ingredient used in the making of mezcal– it is made from, the type of soil the plant grew in, the kind of still used and the master mezcal maker's touch.

According to the blog for Mezcalito a punto de veneno, a brand of mezcal from Oaxaca that is highly praised by connoisseurs, "the flavor and aroma of mezcal will vary depending on whether the maguey was harvested in the wild or cultivated; whether its flower stalk was cut or not; whether it grew on a hillside, a gully, high up in the valley or low down; and how much sun it received during its life span. Other factors include the water and type of soil it grew in, the species and whether or not one single species of maguey or several were used."

To cut a long story short, every time you take a sip of mezcal, you are sampling a boutique beverage.

Only regions that have been producing mezcal for centuries –the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosí and Durango and 11 municipalities in Tamaulipas and one in Guanajuato– were authorized to make mezcal under the 1994 denomination of origin decree issued by the Mexican government.

Mezcal as we know it today was first made in Mexico shortly after the Spanish Conquest, when Old World knowledge was applied to New World ingredients. The process has remained virtually unchanged since the agave of Mesoamerica was first distilled by the conquistadors using technology they had borrowed from Arab countries, according to Origins of Mezcal, an essay by Guillermo Marín, former director of the Center for Research and the Dissemination of Mexican Culture at the Oaxaca Institute of Higher Education (IESO).

It takes around eight years for an agave or maguey plant to become mezcal. The mature plants must pass through an oven, fermentation tubs and a still before they reach the bottle and are finally displayed on the shelves of exclusive bars in Mexico and abroad.

Even in its most traditional form, mezcal is experiencing a boom that started less than 10 years ago. In the words of a partner of La Botica, one of the first mezcal bars in Mexico City, "when someone would come into the bar and we'd tell them we only sold mezcal and beer, they'd leave. I had to sit down with each of those first customers and explain to them the origin and characteristics of what they were about to taste. I spent eight months in a drunken stupor, but it worked: those first customers came back with others and passed on the knowledge."
 

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