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Remember that scene in the movie where a mysterious car drives up to the protagonist just at the right moment, the door opens and a voice inside says something like "no time to explain, get in!"? This is kinda like that but for mezcal. So you get in the car and we start driving. Cue epic road trip playlist.
We'll start, like many mezcal trips start, in the central valleys of Oaxaca. There are dozens of small towns and villages in this region with hundreds of producers, most of them following the Artisanal style that has become the staple and most widely talked about, so much so that most people think this is the only way to make mezcal. In fact, there are many different variations on the Artisanal process, all within the scope of the regulatory norm (or NOM) and the Denomination of Origin (DO) that define what mezcal can and cannot be. I'm not going to go into detail about the NOM and DO because 1) it's a bit of a downer and 2) there's not enough word count, but if you got into my car for this road trip then you probably want to know all about mezcal and the DO is one of those controversial and heated topics to discuss. Let's just say it's flawed. Very flawed. But it does some work towards "protecting" the category of Mezcal while at the same time hurting a lot of small mezcal producers. (The capital M is the clue.)
Anyway, the process. In these central valleys of Oaxaca, the Artisanal process means: cook the agave in an underground oven, mash it with a horse-drawn mill, ferment it in wooden tanks with wild yeast, and distill it twice in a copper still. As you travel down the highway towards Tlacolula and Matatlán (self-proclaimed World Capital of Mezcal) this is the kind of process that you will find being used in all the distilleries, be them road-side craft shops or small family homes. There are only two notable exceptions on that highway and they are hard to miss because both of them are warehouse monstrosities where a large quantity of the industrial Mezcal is made. Stainless steel, controlled fermentations, diffusers, acid wash, huge column stills and all the things you'd expect from a production that favours volume over quality and consistency over flavour. Enough said about them, we drive on.
Tlacolula has a wonderful Sunday market and a delicious food market in the center of town, the sweet bread and ice creams are amongst the best in the country. Then there's Matatlán. Nothing here but mezcal and its people. I won't speak about any of them in particular but I can paint most of them as honest, giving, full-hearted, and above all, hard-working. That's the case everywhere and with almost all the families I know that work the land for agave and mezcal, truly wonderful people. But there's something else about the people in Oaxaca, something that sets them apart from producers in other regions like Puebla or Estado de México to name a couple of them, and it's that they have been doing this for generations. The current producers learnt from their parents or grandparents in some cases where the family skipped a generation because someone travelled north to risk a better life across the border. They know the process by memory and, most admirably, know it without much or any knowledge at all about the science involved in the process. Chemistry, microbiology, thermodynamics, it's all part of what they do every day and they have no clue about it. They are not encumbered by checking pH levels, reflux rates, controlled fermentations, trying to control the temperature of the still or measuring the ABV of the spirit as it flows out, they are simply guided by smell and taste... mostly anyway. Yes, there are some who are under "contracts" with bigger brands where they have to provide a certain volume and this often reflects in their distillation practices or in adding water to reach a particular volume and ABV, and perhaps the number of these cases is growing but you can still find plenty of producers with their own family brands without the compromises implicit in an economy based on marketing and global demand.
We enjoy some mezcales and some tacos in Matatlán and drive on through a highway flanked by agave fields. Not too long ago the land was mostly unworked or in some areas it had more trees but now there are parts of that highway where you are surrounded by agaves almost as far as the eye can see. It's starting to look like Tequila territory and not in a nice way. Sure, the scene is picturesque and beautiful in many ways but don't get me started with the damage being made to the soil or to the plants themselves. There's no such thing as sustainable mezcal. Thankfully there are many initiatives and groups making a big effort trying to improve this situation but the bottom line is that sustainability is a very long way off. Anyway, we drive south and then make a right turn heading west into a dirt road which will take us to San Dionisio Ocotepec and San Baltazar Chichicapam, both famous for their mezcal and here, far away from the more touristy places, we begin to see a couple of variations on the Artisanal process: the mechanical shredder and the stainless-steel still (say that fast three times and have a sip of mezcal after each one). There are examples of it in Matatlán and Tlacolula too, of course, but here it's a bit more prominent and both are a case of government incentives for the Mezcal industry.
Some people will argue for hours that the mechanical shredder makes mezcal taste different and that "it's not the same" as a horse-drawn mill, often quoting the famous dilemma of the tomato salsa mashed by hand in pestle and mortar vs one done in a blender but if you can find a trained sensory analysis panel that can distinguish between the two with a 100% rate of accuracy, then you have found a modern miracle and gods and goddesses walk amongst us once more. The stainless-steel still on the other hand does change the flavours and aromas of mezcal. It also lacks a chemical reaction that happens with its copper counter-parts which reduces the quantity of sulphur compounds in the spirit, this is not a good thing. Why do they have them? Well, as I mentioned earlier, they were government funds mostly and you know what they say about a gifted horse. However, after realising that their products tasted different, many producers changed back to copper stills or made hybrids mixing pieces of the two, sometimes using a stainless pot and copper head and sometimes keeping the full stainless-steel still (last time, I promise) and using a copper worm-tube condenser.
Drink another mezcal or two and back on the dirt road heading west, this time we'll make a very important stop because at Santa Catarina Minas, Artisanal gives way to Ancestral Mezcal. The main differences between the styles are in the mashing and the distilling stages; instead of using a horse-drawn mill, the Ancestral category requires the mashing of the agave to be done by hand. This is usually achieved by placing the cooked agave inside a small hole or inside a "canoe" (carved out of a tree trunk) and then repeatedly smashing it with a hammer or a mace. It's a very labour intensive work and it's easy to see why many producers are moving away from it, usually into a mechanical shredder. The distillation step is also crucial for they must distill twice in clay pots rather than use the copper stills. This particular type of distillation is the cause of much controversy; some people take it as a sign that distillation predates the arrival of the Spaniards, making mezcal truly an ancestral spirit, yet others argue that the uptake of clay distillation happened during the prohibition times where it was easier to hide clay pots than copper stills. Either way, for all the work and care involved, clay distillation gives mezcal a particular sensory profile and the commercial label of Mezcal Ancestral.
Minas is not the only place in Oaxaca that produces Ancestral Mezcal. You can find examples of the same process in other regions, perhaps most notably further to the southwest in and around the now famous Sola de Vega, and some examples of it can also be found in places like Matatlán where some producers have recreated those techniques in order to have access to the Ancestral category but there is no highway connecting Minas and Ocotlan to Sola de Vega so for the sake of this road trip we go north. Well past the city of Oaxaca and from there to the west into the state of Guerrero.
Until recently, Guerrero was a state that I didn't normally visit. I was invited years ago by the government of the state to meet some of their producers, guide some tastings and give some talks, but my visits were usually done in a bit of a hurry and always to locations with a good security team. I'm partly sad to admit it but at the same time there's no point hiding some of the realities of the country. Anyway, mezcal in Guerrero is a whole different game of taste and aromas than it is in Oaxaca. This is due to two main reasons: 1) the main agave tends to be of the Agave cupreata species rather than the Agave angustifolia in Oaxaca (but they both posses many other varietals and several "wild" agave species); and 2) the type of soil and diversity of regions in the state. The mezcales produced in the east have a different profile to those made in the coast, which are more mineral and almost salty. Then there is a region in the west which has an abundant presence of citrus trees which also shows in the flavours of the mezcal as hints of lime or lemon, always fresh rather than the ripe orange or pomelo flavours common in Oaxaca. We sip on these mezcales and enjoy the local flavours while also enjoying some seafood brought from the coast, mezcal is a great pair to seafood in general as well as fresh salads and fruits. The orange slice and worm salt? Marketing. A fresh ceviche or shrimp tacos is where it's really at.
Next we jump on the car and keep heading west into Michoacán, a state of rivers, lakes and coniferous forests. For all the bad fame and stigma surrounding Guerrero, it has been here in Michoacán where I've had the most encounters with drug gangs. I won't go into detail but suffice it to say that the producers are all very aware that these groups are there and live in a "we don't mess with them, they don't mess with us" situation for the most part. It's part of the "adventure", the harsh reality of the country and the socio-economical conditions of the rural states, and mezcal certainly plays a part in all that, a discussion for another time perhaps. For now let's focus on the road and the flavours. The lakes, rivers, and abundance of water (i.e. dams built in Guerrero but which benefit Michoacán the most) all influence the quality and flavours of mezcal done in the state. It has a minerality and freshness that is rather unique and which is only rivalled (imo) by the water quality used by the producers in the Estado de México which are located close to the volcanos and which has been filtered by that particular soil and collected at one of its natural spring sources. As for agaves, Michoacán has A. cupreata, a local varietal called Agave inaequidens, and in the west where it meets Jalisco there's plenty of Agave teauilana Weber to be found. Some say it was always there and it's part of the local flora but the huge plantations actually come from the time when Tequila had a huge boom and no agave to produce anymore, from that point on it was forced to open the production of its agaves to others states (Michoacán and Zacatecas most noticeably) but didn't open their DO to allow production of Tequila itself. They also changed their NOM so that they could produce Tequila made of only 51% agave while Mezcal remains 100% agave. Anyway, enough about Tequila.
To round up the agave in Michoacán there's also Agave americana, which is found almost everywhere in México, and some Agave angustifolia too, which is also widely spread in the country and just as the A. americana it has many sub-varietals and hundreds more if we go by local names. Take an A. inaequidens, add some fresh river water and the secret ingredient (plenty of pine leaves), follow the Artisanal method and... hang on, fermentation didn't start. Ah yes, I forgot to mention, Michoacán has the water, the forests, the agave... and it's chilly. Temperatures can be cold enough that fermentation does not like to start; the yeast and other microorganisms like a warmer temperature range for the most part, somewhere between 20-24°C. In order to make up for this, and to give the fermentation a head start in microorganisms, many producers add some pulque to their tubs. Pulque, yeah we can talk about that one another time too.
So in summary of Michoacán we have: fresh flavours from the water, a piney character from the forests, the native agave varieties with multiple profiles, the lactic and acidic notes from a Pulque driven fermentation, and the woody characteristics from the wood still. Yes, stills are made of wood. No clay here, and copper is only used as part of the bowl under the wood part of the still and/or as the top plate that serves as a condensing element from which the spirit might flow into a worm tub condenser or simply flow out of the still and be collected as it is with clay pots. It basically looks like a big barrel or a hollowed-out tree trunk with a condenser on top. Artisanal yet some are mashed by hand but the law does not permit for them to be called Ancestral, one of its many little complications.
Sip on this mezcales for a while and just when you think it couldn't get more "fresh" or refreshing in flavour we get back on the road and head north, Guanajuato and San Luis Potosí are next. I'm putting this two together for two reasons; the simple one is that they share a species of agave which is very special, and although examples of it can be found all the way through Edo. Mex, Puebla and even Oaxaca, it's in Guanajuato and San Luis where the agave seems to adapt better and it certainly reflects in the flavour. The second reason is that, unlike Oaxaca, the rest of the states that produce Mezcal cannot do it in the totality of their territories. There are small regions or municipalities accepted into the DO in each of the other 8 states (and growing) and only if the agave is grown, produced, and bottled within these limits can it be called Mezcal. The regions accepted for Guanajuato and San Luis are very close to each other, however, they have plenty of differences in how they process their shared agaves.
Guanajuato is (mostly) a region where the Artisanal method is followed to the letter; underground oven, horse-drawn mill, wooden fermentation tanks, double distillation in copper stills. There are some industrial examples too but not good enough to mention in detail. San Luis Potosí, on the other hand, has a very unique method in one of its regions called Palmar II. Here the production is a strange hybrid of Ancestral and Artisanal, and again the NOM says it must be labelled as Artisanal but let me tell you why that might be unfair. To begin with, the cooking is done in an oven that is almost underground, except it isn't. It looks like an underground pit just like the ones in Oaxaca but when you go around it there is usually an entrance on the other side and the whole thing is resting in a small hill. What this means for practical purposes is that you can enter through the bottom of the oven to load/unload the wood without moving the stones that get heated up in order to cook the agave. Another peculiarity of the oven is that they use more of the agave leaf than every other region where it's always impressed upon that all the leaf must be shaven from the agave core least you add some highly citric and almost acidic flavours to your spirit (there's also a problem with pectins and methanol but don't get me started there). The mashing is done with a horse-drawn mill and the fermentation in wooden tubs but in the distillation things get funky again. They use a clay pot which is long and tall rather than short and stout, and the spirit does not leave the still as it condenses but is collected inside of it instead. The notion of "efficiency", especially as described by the larger spirit industries around the world, is completely unknown to them. If only their mezcal was as valued as it should be.
The road is still long from here. We could go back west to Jalisco for Raicilla or Tequila, and we skipped Puebla and Edo. Mex in the south. We can keep going north into the secluded regions of Tamaulipas with its endemic agaves and tropical climate or northwest to Durango with its delicious Agave durangensis and desert landscapes and from there to Sonora to talk about Bacanora. If we go that way we would probably have to go all the way across the border to talk about the new agave spirits being made there and in other countries around the globe. There's so much to explore and so much to drink. Take one last sip of mezcal, get back in the car and ride into the sunset. Cue epic road trip playlist finale and fade-out.
Text and pictures by Alejandro Aispuro.
Alejandro is a consultant distiller with a MSc in Brewing and Distilling from Heriot-Watt University. Co-founder of Agavache with experience in mezcal and agave spirits for a bit over 7 years. He used to host a 5-star mezcal tasting experience with his own private collection of over 150 agave spirits from small producers and has given tastings and masterclasses in several countries. He has produced Scotch whisky, gin, and won an award from The Worshipful Company of Distillers. A storyteller at heart with an unshakeable belief that the fundamental unit of everything is the Story.