Words: Henry Yuen Pix: Santiago Barreiro & S. Yuen
When communication methods were so primitive and languages so different; and nations lived so far apart and never even once encountered each other, there was no way for them to share any culture and knowledge. The theory derived here is also the fact - centuries ago and even in ancient times, our ancestors of different cultures of different continents; cultivated similar traditions and developed similar wisdom in the science of doing things, all on their own!
What am I referring to here, you wonder? Distillation of various ingredients to make alcoholic beverages, that is. Regardless of what language they spoke and where they were, our ancestors knew how to make wines and spirits using what nature had given them. The Chinese produce rice wine, the Japanese brews Sake, the Italians make Grappa, the French have Cognac; Scotts have Whisky, and the Mexicans? Oh yes, they have Tequila and Mezcal! And I am pretty sure; other ethnic cultures have their very own national drinks. The ingredients, methods, alcohol contents and flavours may be different, but they do share more or less of the same principles.
Let’s talk Mexican Mezcal. A popular and well-regarded spirit on home soil, Mezcal is distilled from agave plants. Like grapes, agave plants offer various species. Different species of different regions with different soils and climates will render different taste profiles. They stand to create their own uniqueness once distilled. Many of the Mezcal houses are still using organic and traditional methods to dig, roast, ferment and distill. Behind each Mezcal logo, there are histories, habits and folklores to tell.
To make Mezcal, the base portion of the agave plant known as the “head” is harvested after the stem or flower portion has been removed for over a year. It takes 8 or 9 years, sometimes 20, 30 years before the plant is ready for harvesting. The plant is then roasted in the oven for up to 8 days. The roasted plant is ground manually in a stone mill to extract the juice. Water is now added to the juice to obtain the desired consistency, followed by the fermentation process in order to get the concentrated mixture ready for distillation. The Mezcal is now ready for enjoyment.
Certain Mezcal master-makers prefer to conduct one more step by aging the Mezcal in oak barrel to achieve complexity, smoothness and smokiness; as well as his own signature onto the spirit.
Mezcal tasting is no different than wine tasting. The “nose” is important so grasping the aroma of the drink is only the beginning. The final product in Mezcal bottles usually contains over 40% of alcohol, it is important to take it easy, allow time for the nose, tongue and palate to get use to the strong alcoholic flavour and burn sensation. First take a small sip but let it sit in your month for 8 to 10 seconds before swallowing. This is to condition the mouth and the palate to receive the flavour and let the contact do the job slowly. Once swallowed and mesmerized by the profound structure of Mezcal, feel free to take a bigger sip. Not a bad idea at all to enjoy with colourful Mexican fares.
Do talk to the Mezcal pourer who often is a member of the production team and kows the story and the people behind that particular bottle of Mezcal. Listening to their description of the agave, the harvesting patience and distilling process is part of the enjoyment. The fact is, different agave plant species produce unique flavours and characters, and different master-makers apply their own traditions and culture throughout the process, ergo not all Mezcal is the same. A side-by-side comparison is a good way to enhance the taste profile each wine brings forward and that’s truly is an integral part of the fun.