Nov 15, 201209:33 AM
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Mezcal Myths and Tequila Truths, Explained
mantomalac, stock.xchng, 2006
It may have happened in college, or possibly it occurred early in your working career when you were young and low on the company totem pole, but there were those “special” times when you simply overindulged in a particular spirit. You have regretted it ever since.
So much so that the mere mention of the beverage causes physical stress, either way up here or way down there.
We all have a similar tale. Chances are that our shared-but-separate well-remembered overindulgence started out being a very good time with gin, tequila or mezcal. Friendship flowed and so did the drinks. There was no stopping us because at the moment it was all particularly wonderful, until the moment stopped being so grand, very suddenly.
And thus like the responsible mature human beings we all are, we told ourselves, “Never again.” We won’t touch (fill in the blank) for the rest of our lives. Can’t handle it. Avoid at all costs.
But, and here comes my quite compelling argument, times have changed. You’ve changed. The spirits have changed. You are now a saner person with style and grace. More good sense. Well, we can only hope. Most certainly there has been a change in mezcal and tequila.
You and your now better-educated palate are missing some pretty interesting beverages if you have not recently tried these quality products from our neighbor to the south. No, not Braithwaite, we’re talking Mexico here.
The initial confusion about what is tequila and what is mezcal is easily explained. For the most part, all tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. See, you’ve got it figured it out already.
Both spirits are made from the agave, a succulent that despite outward appearances is actually a lily, not a cactus. The agave, in a cycle that can last about 12 years, shoots out a long flower stalk which is immediately cut. The plant then creates in its center a large pineapple-like bulb, weighing 25 to 100 pounds, known as a piña.
Keep that in mind. We will be returning to it in just a moment.
All tequila has to come from the Blue Agave. And all tequila has to come from defined fields surrounding the town of Tequila as well as in the highlands around the town of Jalisco. Period. If you have a fermented beverage made from the agave and it is not from these areas, then you have a mezcal, not a tequila. As simple as that.
Also a lot of mezcal is made from the maguey, a relative of the agave, but not exactly that genus. The town of Oaxaca is the center of the mezcal-producing area. Incidentally, before y’all start to bombard me for using the “z” in the spelling of mezcal because your spell check tells you it’s mescal, it’s either way, and I just prefer the “z.” Don’t use that key much anyway and I was deeply affected by Zorro when I was a child.
Back to the process of making the beverages. When the piña is harvested from the plant, they are cut into quarters. For tequila they are placed into steam ovens (auto-claves) and are baked until all of the starches have been converted to sugar.
Mezcal does, in essence, the same process but a different way. The piña is buried in a pit fired by wood charcoal. This is what gives mescal its smoky aromas and flavors, which, to many people, makes it seem like a less-expensive, less-quality product, but this is not so. It is merely the result of a different process that results in an earthier spirit.
After baking/steaming, for both beverages, the piña is crushed/shredded/mashed under large rolling stone wheels going in a circle, sometimes powered by horses or mules. The liquid that comes from the piña is gathered and allowed to ferment with its own yeasts and sugars.
Distillation then takes place, usually with two passes for tequila and one for mezcal, another key difference between the two products. Also, mezcal tradition allows for the addition of herbs and spices, which not all producers do, but many like what cinnamon, coconut, Sherry and other flavorings or aromatics bring to the party. Often you cannot specifically taste or smell these additives but they are there giving structure or interesting aspects to the final product.
The distillation goal with both is about 110 proof, or 55 percent alcohol by volume.
Both spirits are inherently clear, so whatever color they have at time of purchase is due either to the addition of caramel or because of being aged in a barrel. This is also done with brandies in other countries.
Tequila is designated as either “agave” or “mixto,” the latter indicating that there is a blend of other sugars in the product which still must be at least 51 percent agave. Tequila is also graded by time aged or spent in barrel. Silver or Blanco, a very popular choice, spends 60 days in stainless steel tanks, hence the lack of color. Gold at the lowest level is unaged silver; up two notches is Reposado, spending a minimum two months in wood, and finally Anejo, aged at least 12 months and up to four years for Agave, all in used Kentucky or Canadian Bourbon barrels.
If you want to save yourself some money that may not need to be spent, you should know that many tequila experts consider that anything over four years is not best for the tequila as the effects of oak overwhelm what the producer is trying to accomplish with his agave.
Mezcal also is denoted in two categories, Maguey and Mixto, and the aging designations are similar to tequila. Recently for Mezcal there have been some village designations which are meant to denote that certain areas within the countryside are producing finer examples of the spirit than others.
Okay, if you’ve stayed with me to this point, let me get to the “elephant in the room,” or in this case, the worm in the mezcal. If there is a worm in your mezcal, and you are not involved in a fraternity initiation ritual, put the mezcal down and move up to another mezcal without the critter.
The worm is actually larvae from a moth, and is indicative of a sick agave or maguey plant. You don’t want to be eating insect larvae from sick plants in Mexico. I don’t care how long the little bugger has been soaking in alcohol. Don’t do it for the simple reason that this is a marketing ploy and is usually indicative of an inferior mezcal.
As for where mezcal fits into your drinking regime, I like what the smokiness does to my margarita, and I am happy to substitute this spirit in any cocktail that calls for tequila. I still, however, love tequila. Hope you appreciate my dilemma.
Both of these excellent and fun spirits from Mexico are equally pleasurable. They bring wonderful flavors and nuances to many cocktails. Neither one of equal ranking is quality-wise better than the other.
It’s all matter of taste. Yours. Experiment with both. They are not expensive. Could be fun. But not the “fun” you had before. This is adult, watch-your-intake, drink-smarter kind of fun.