The state of Oaxaca, where roughly 85% of Mexico’s mezcal is made, is my bailiwick. I’ve spent the past quarter century promoting, teaching, and yes, continuing to learn about the agave distillate. And while my fount of knowledge continues to grow, one aspect of mezcal production of which I’m certain, and regularly expound to students of the spirit, is that no two batches of traditionally made mezcal can possibly be the same. By “traditionally” I refer to small batch production distilled in clay pots no larger than about 90 liters (referred to by the country’s mezcal regulatory board as “ancestral”), or distilled in copper alembics averaging 300 liters (“artisanal”). The regulation is much more complex, but those are the broad strokes.
It’s not that the mezcal aficionado, or novice for that matter, is flying blind whenever he makes a purchase, not knowing for sure what’s in the bottle because each batch is different. Regardless of the fact of uniqueness of every batch distilled, there is a consistency, predictability if you will, based on the broad character of the specie of agave used to produce the mezcal, the region where it is grown and distilled, and perhaps most importantly the reputation of the palenquero (traditional distiller). But each and every one of these maestro mezcaleros recognizes that he cannot replicate the same mezcal twice in a row. Contrast this with the distiller producing an industrial product; his aim is to ensure that every bottle of every batch produced from the same specie tastes just like the previous one. He has at his disposal the means of production and tools of the trade which enable him to do so.
Distilling in a 70 – 90 liter clay pot inevitably results in greater batch variability than in a 300 liter copper alembic. This is because of the nature of the clay pot and its housing. It is not to suggest that imbibers should shy away from clay. On the contrary; many mezcal drinkers “in the know” appear to prefer their agave drinks distilled in clay. However, while they are broadly different, one is no better than the other.
But let’s start at the beginning, with the maguey (a local word for agave) in the field. Oaxaca has a greater diversity of climatic zones than any other state in Mexico. While each agave specie has its preferred micro-climate, some species are highly adaptable (such as espadin). Within a small region we find extreme differences in the terroir, from iron oxide rich red clay, to fertile black soil, to steep rocky elevations. Each lends to different agave growth, reflected in variations in the ultimate flavor of the resulting mezcal. And more recently, with the ever increasing demand for raw material, palenqueros are sourcing their agave from further away from their palenques (small scale distilleries); from wherever it can be sourced at a “reasonable” price per kilo.
The growers from whom many palenqueros buy their agave are often subsistence farmers. Most of these campesinos cannot afford to wait the better part of a decade to turn their land into money. Between the rows of maguey they plant corn, beans, squash, garbanzo, alfalfa, to feed their families and farm animals, and to sell in local weekly marketplaces. Each crop impacts the soil differently, which impacts the growth of the agave, which ultimately impacts the flavor of the mezcal. Similarly, one often encounters goats and sheep grazing on weeds between rows of agave, fertilizing. By contrast, our highly commercial distiller would rarely if ever allow crops, weeds or farm animals between his rows of gold; for him, the maguey which a decade ago fetched a mere 1,200 pesos for a three ton truckload, is now agave worth 60,000. He wants to maximize profit, thus intent upon growing his succulents as big and as quickly as possible, not wanting weeds or crops to take away nutrients.
Such commercial operations prepare their agave in brick steam ovens or autoclaves, or diffusers, using exacting equipment to control temperature and doneness. Traditional palenqueros on the other hand, bake their maguey over in-ground sealed pits containing firewood and rocks. Despite best efforts to evenly bake and thus caramelize the raw material, typically insulating the pinyas (carbohydrate rich agave hearts) from the hot rocks using bagazo (discarded fiber from the distillation process), even cooking is elusive; no two batches of agave are ever capable of being baked to the same extent, despite best efforts and skillset; some piñas are always charred more so than others, and therefore taste differently. Temperature is virtually never controlled, or even ascertained.
Additionally, if you bake anything at all in a sealed chamber over firewood for five days, the type of wood employed will impact the flavor of what is being prepared. Palenqueros typically cook their agave over hardwood. But the type of log often varies from bake to bake. Sometimes it’s oak, other times mesquite, or eucalyptus, or from a combination of different trees. Of course the mezcal marketed by brand owners can indeed be roasted over the wood dictated by the entrepreneur; but if he’s not at the palenque overseeing the process, really, there is no assurance.
Similarly, the type of vessel used to ferment the carmelized then crushed maguey impacts the flavor of the ultimate distillate. Mezcal fermented in an animal hide is made available for sampling in some Oaxaca mezcalerias, as a means of illustrating how a mezcal’s flavor (and aroma) can be significantly altered based upon the fermentation medium. Usually in and around the central valleys of the state, wooden slat vats are used, but sometimes the palenquero utilizes a brick and concrete tub, clay pots, plastic receptacles, cured oil drums, stone below-ground pits, and even old washing machines. Palenqueros do not always use the same type of receptacle. If it’s a big batch, and the distiller has no wooden slat vats left for fermentation, he will use something else.
When the crushing occurs, just prior to active fermentation, there are at least two other variable impacts to the agave’s flavour:
- Some palenqueros wait a minimum of two weeks prior to crushing sub-species of Agave karwinskii (i.e. madrecuixe, barril, tripon, tobasiche, martenyo, and the list of names goes on based on sub-specie and village), during which time different molds form, each impacting the taste of the maguey which will then be crushed and further processed.
- Some of the pinyas end up being baked complete with gusanos (the larva commonly referred to as a worm). A few years ago a client and I each sampled pieces of baked agave from different espadin pinyas. She detected a very different taste than I found. As it turned out, one pinya had been significantly infested with gusanos, the other not at all.
The palenquero fabricating artisanal or ancestral mezcal aspires to make every batch as best as he can, recognizing that no two batches can be the same. The industrial / commercial distiller wants every batch to be equal to the last, and knows how to achieve that goal. He uses a particular yeast strain, and stainless steel fermentation vats which can be cleaned between uses; and he works in a relatively sterile environment.
Whether he employs open air fermentation, or covers his vats, the traditional palenquero relies on environmental yeasts to convert the sweet, baked, crushed agave, with water having been added, into a cider-vinegar-like product which is then distilled. These airborne yeasts are not only different depending on the micro-climate, but they vary from season to season, month to month, and in theory from day to day. And even if he were to otherwise try to control quality, he cannot control the yeasts. Similarly, different times of the year different insects get into the vats in their effort to feed off of the sugary liquid. Bees, knats, fruit flies; they all participate in the process at different times of year in the production of traditionally made mezcal, and each imparts its own distinct nuance to the ultimate flavor.
Water must be added to the fermentation vat. In the production of traditional mezcal, the H2 O is derived from a mountain spring, a well, or perhaps even a river. But despite the aforementioned scientific composition of water, the percentages of its chemical components always vary to some extent. As with yeasts, water quality is traditionally not controlled, and will be different, at minimum seasonally I would suggest, but in theory once again, on a daily basis. The palenquero who makes your favorite mezcal has never aspired to have his own water filtration plant, and even if the brand owner for whom he distills can afford to purchase one, the maestro would likely reject the suggestion.
We arrive at the last stage of production, that is, distillation and the mezcal’s rectification to the desired ABV (alcohol by volume) at the conclusion of the second pass through the firewood fueled clay pot or copper alembic. Some good mezcals are now being distilled in copper stills fired by fossil fuels, temperature and speed of distillation controlled by well calibrated equipment. However, the production of most agave distillates from Oaxaca continues to rely on the skill of the palenquero, passed down from generation to generation. The teen learns from his father, who has learned from his father. The palenquero carefully watches the speed at which the mezcal drips into the receptacle, and the intensity of the wood burning flame, making adjustments as prescribed, as learned. Speed of distillation impacts the ultimate nuance.
Just as importantly, the maestro mezcalero must determine how the cuts are made. When alcohol drips out of a still it is initially very strong, and as the process progresses the percentage goes now. And each phase, known as first head, then body, and finally tail, may have a constituent different character. And so there is typically a blending of the three to achieve the proposed ABV and attain the best possible flavor. Even if the palenquero uses an alcohol meter to arrive at the desired alcohol content as opposed to relying on taste, smell and/or the perlas (pearls or bubbles method), it’s his honed skill which is the ultimate determinant, rather than modern scientific equipment.
Finally, we return to the proposition that when distilling in clay, batch variability is greater than it is in the case of distilling in copper. There are at least three reasons:
- Clay is porous. Copper is not. Those readers who have witnessed traditional distillation have experienced the smoke billowing from the wood fueling the still. Once again the wood typically varies, and in this case is sometimes softwood, dried agave leaves or quiote (the agave’s flower stalk), or any other type of burnable material. The smoke rises beneath the clay pot, then to some extent passes through it and into the liquid, which then condenses. This, in the end, impacts flavor.
- When distilling with copper, at the conclusion of the process the bagazo is pitched out, and the remaining liquid is discarded by removing the plug from the tube at the bottom of the pot, the remaining effluent flushed out with clean water. The next distillation begins with a clean copper alembic. By contrast, with clay the water and bazazo are removed little by little, by hand, with no flushing. So when the next distillation proceeds, some from the previous inevitably remains, impacting the subsequent potful.
- Most palenqueros source their clay pots from the same preferred potter. However it’s not always the case, especially when the distiller’s go-to craftsperson is out of stock. Each excavates clay from a different hillside or plot of land, and both turns her pottery and fires a little differently. Accordingly each pot may be somewhat different in terms of its composition and shape. Each clay pot’s resulting mezcal is impacted in nuance by the particular vessel, the potter having left her mark.
Admittedly, each of the foregoing unique and different factors affects the resulting mezcal in a very small way. However, cumulatively the ultimate mezcal is inevitably a little different from the last batch. These enumerated impacts are merely illustrative, and are only some of the many other additional influences which support the thesis.
For those still a little skeptical of the proposition, a friend of a very popular, quality export brand of mezcal distilled by four different palenqueros, both ancestral and artisanal styles, periodically calls me, both excited and proud at the same time, exclaiming, “Alvin, you’ve got to come over to the office to try the new batch of Juan’s tobala.”