What is Mezcal?

Mezcal’s popularity has risen over the years and has become part of the cocktail culture. Mezcal is a Mexican distilled liquor with a smokey taste made from the agave plant with 80% to 90% produced in the state of Oaxaca. The production is still very much in keeping with traditional methods passed down through the generations.  As mezcal became more commonplace, it became a family business with specific techniques being passed down over the centuries.  Mezcal can be made from 11 types of agave that are native to Oaxaca, but mostly it is made from the agave espadin.

Touring the Family-Run Distilleries

Our tour guide, Canadian Alvin Starkman, is a mezcal authority who has published several books and many articles about the history, economics, and the making of mezcal. We were booked to go with Mr. Starkman by ourselves and spend the day at different mezcal farms called palenques.  At the last minute, a couple from Baltimore joined us.  We were very happy that they did as they seemed to know a lot about the production and the “drinking” of mezcal. Neither Shawn nor I had ever had any mezcal to drink so it was all new to us.  It took about an hour to reach the first farm. We were introduced to the clay method of distillation at this first farm.

This photo shows agave plants with other vegetables growing in between the rows. The agave plants take about seven years to mature for harvesting.

You may know the agave as the century plant. It takes years to bloom and when it does, the plant eventually dies.
This is the first mezcal farm (palenque) we visited.
These are the pinas. They are the key ingredient in the production of mezcal as they contain ample juice and sugar
The earthen pit is dug and then large pieces of wood are burned at the bottom and then rocks are placed on top. Then cut-up pinas are thrown on top, and all that is covered up with dirt, burlap bags, or mulch. This roasting process goes on for about 5 days.
The roasted pinas are mashed using a “tahona” wheel – a very labor-intensive process in which a one-ton stone is pulled by a horse or mule. We saw this process at another farm and couldn’t help feeling sorry for the horse!
The agave liquid and remaining fibers are placed in these huge wooden vats with water to ferment for up to seven days.
Clay pot used in the distillation process.
We had a sample of each one from these jugs and to be honest it was hard to distinguish the different “flavors”. I guess if you had a sensitive palate you were able to tell which was which. We had to laugh at one point as the man from Baltimore kept saying every sample was great!

This is more or less what we saw at the first two farms as both used clay for distillation.  We went on from there to two more farms to see copper being used in the distilling of mezcal. At each farm, we were invited to try more samples.  Shawn and I figured there were at least 60+ samples during the tour.  I gave up after the first round.  The couple with us just kept on sampling and buying. I think they bought at least 4 liters.

Mr. Starkman explained the process of copper distilling.

We went to one farm which was run by a single woman.  She started the business two years ago and was becoming very successful.  I think it must have been difficult because she faced a lot of prejudice.

The name of her company is Rambha Mezcal. Here a worker is removing the fermenting mash.
This little kitten was wandering around crying for something to eat.

Shawn and I decided to each buy half a liter of mezcal to support her business. I got one that had a chocolate taste and Shawn got one with a lobster taste.  We managed to get them home without any problems.

Owner of the mezcal farm.
The last tasting was here. The little girl was our hostess and poured all the different kinds of mezcal for us to try. She knew the name of each one. I declined to taste any more samples as I had had enough. She put pins on the map to show where we were from.
More samples!

It was getting late so everyone agreed that it was time to eat lunch.  Mr. Starkman led us to a local restaurant.  He brought along some bottles of mezcal so we could enjoy it with our meal.  Shawn and I passed and had limeade instead.  We ordered fish and I actually liked everything but the fish.  It had so many bones it was hard to find the “meat”.  We learned after that to order fish fillets and not fried fish.

The last place we went was to a man’s house where we tasted honey water pulque.  It is made from the sap of several species of agave and is a fermented milky drink. It is very sweet and blended with fruit or nuts.  The alcohol content is about 6%.  It was a lot tastier than the smoky mezcal.

We were finally on our way back to the city after 9 hours of learning about and tasting mezcal.  The tour was very interesting and Mr. Starkman was extremely knowledgeable, but I doubt if Shawn or I will become a mezcal connoisseur any time soon!

2 thoughts

  1. And all this time Judy and Jeanne could have been making mezcal from their agave plant! 😂 Very interesting, Dianne. What did it taste like? Was it a strong liquor taste?

    Liked by 1 person

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