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As the mezcal world turns


And the award for clarity in labeling goes to… Mezcaloteca really refined how mezcal is labeled by standardizing their labels with all the background information with critical information like mezcalero, agave variant, production location, and much more.

Sorry that we’re way behind in pointing to and discussing fellow mezcal blogger Mezcal PhD, aka John McEvoy, post on the NORMA presentation in New York. For reference here’s the original NORMA from ancient history, 1994. John’s post is from way back in mid-December which should tell you something about how busy we’ve been over the past month. New year, new dedication to work so we’re finally catching up and pushing on with a new resolve to be more productive.

John has a great recap of Danny Mena‘s presentation of the proposed update to the mezcal NORMA which would define three categories; plain old Mezcal, Artisanal Mezcal, and Ancestral Mezcal. He also has a nice table that differentiates each of them. It’s heady stuff and quite at odds with the way the rest of the world is heading. Rather than meaningless terms on food packages like “all natural” or “traditional” the mezcal world may actually get a set of labels with backbone. John wonders whether this will actually help:

Will the average consumer actually know the difference? I doubt it. That’s why I struggle with the whole thing. The mezcal geeks (present company included) understand all this, but does it help the mezcal category? The understanding of what mezcal is? I’m not so sure.

I can see his point clearly. Like him I bet most people won’t care but for the people that do there’s a clear terminology. More important, for the general marketing of mezcal there’s a shared baseline. That means mezcalier programs, bartenders, labels, blogs like this one, and anyone else talking about mezcal won’t reinvent the wheel every time we’re talking about this world or, worse, talk about the same thing with different words.

That linguistic standardization has worked wonders for the culinary world in Europe because it’s forced food sellers to be honest when describing what they’re selling. And, on the bleeding edge of things, it has also motivated some food producers to push back against definitions and create their own categories like Super Tuscan. We can only hope that the mezcal word gets to that point.

And, as John points out, that Ancestral label would seal a true Mexican tradition into law so that anyone who wants to hew closely to the classic way of doing things has protection from loosey goosey marketers and perhaps will push some makers to invest the time and energy to make mezcals in that manner. Kudos to Erick Rodriguez for getting this proposal this far.

Obviously I would have loved to have attend the presentation so I’m hoping that the CRM (read John’s piece if that’s not a familiar term, it soon will be!) releases their presentation in full soon so that everyone in the extended mezcal world gets a chance to experience and consider it fully. One of the craziest things is that the presentation proffered the idea that the NORMA could go into effect in early 2015. Given the way things in this industry go I bet that’s incredibly optimistic but I’ll put all my weight behind the effort because it’s incredible progress.

Metl no more

The Metl Blanco Madre Cuishe/Espadin blend.  Photo: Erin CongerSadly Metl mezcal is no more. There are still bottles for sale at Old Town Wine and Spirits but I received confirmation from the Metl’s president and co-founder Todd Hallberg that it’s shutting down. I can’t figure out exactly why. Todd didn’t provide any details about Metl’s situation but there has been a lot of discussion in the industry about the difficulty of selling brands in a crowded marketplace.

The Metl Blanco Madre Cuishe/Espadin blend.  Photo: Erin CongerClearly audience interest is growing led by cocktail enthusiasts but import volumes are still tiny when compared to other spirits so that’s our best analysis. Metl may be a canary in this coal mine. It’s a pity because I’ve always enjoyed their very mineral focused mezcals.

And now for your holiday mezcal

Two limited edition mezcales new from Wahaka the fall of 2014. The Espadín Manzanita and Espadín Botaniko.

Two limited edition mezcales new from Wahaka, an Espadín Manzanita and Espadín Botaniko.

Wahaka dropped their vegan pechugas just in time for the holidays. These are limited production so call your local liquor store and see if they can get you a bottle. Both bottles match up perfectly with big holiday meals. I’m just sad that I couldn’t get them in time for Thanksgiving because they are the perfect complements to that sort of meal. The labels go a different direction from the classic Wahaka design though still integrate their main symbol.

The category of vegan pechuga is pure brilliance. Pechuga literally means “breast” which refers to the traditional practice of suspending a turkey or chicken breast (or rabbit, or goose, etc) along with a selection of local fruits over the still so that it’s cooked during the distilling run and all the fat and some of the rest of the matter from the meat and fruit dissolve into the simmering alcohol mixture. As the steam rises and is rendered into mezcal it generally retains some of the round, occasionally fatty, occasionally fruity, flavor and texture from the breast and fruit.

Wahaka’s approach is really cool and a brilliant marketing stroke because that riff on the trend away from eating meat just resonates. But it also builds on a long tradition of adding local fruit and herbs to distillates. The Balkans feature travarica, the Poles Żubrówka, Italians occasionally add herbs to grappa etc. The big difference is that most of these are infusions. Occasionally you’ll run into a true French eau de vie where a fruit or herb is added during the distilling process but it’s not a particularly wide spread practice.  That’s why the whole pechuga tradition in mezcal is so unique and fantastic. That’s also why I’m so excited about these bottles because pechugas are ripe for this sort of experimentation. Wahaka mezcalero Alberto Morales is really onto something here.

Per the Wahaka release Morales “adds a bag of of botanicals to the Botaniko.” No word on which specifically but it has very distinctly herbal and grassy notes. It’s cuts right through any fatty foods so it pairs well with a holiday goose, turkey, or ham. That’s not to say that it wouldn’t work well alone or with other foods, it’s just that on my first sip I thought, “herbal!” then thought “This is the perfect accompaniment to a big dinner.” I’m looking forward to spending some serious time with it.

The Manzanita as the name implies is made with apples which are also distilled with the base mezcal during the second distillation. Per the Wahaka release these are local heirlooms which raises another thought, which heirlooms are in Oaxaca? No doubt that’s yet another contribution to the fantastic biodiversity there. While also a great food pairing this mezcal has a great round flavor to it that rewards drinking it alone. It would be perfect after a big dinner or a nice session with friends.

Either way don’t miss out on these both because they’re excellent and I love to reward experiments like this.

Update from Morelia’s big mezcal event

One of Erick Mezcal Almamezcalera's snapshots from the Encuentro in Morelia, 11/28-11/30, 2014.

One of Erick Mezcal Almamezcalera’s snapshots from the Encuentro in Morelia, 11/28-11/30, 2014.

Erick Mezcal Almamezcalera has a great update from the Encuentro Nacional del Mezcal which took place over the weekend following Thanksgiving in Morelia.

The fact that this event happened at all tells you quite a bit about the importance of the mezcal industry in Michoacan. All those bubbles of interest you’ve been seeing on this blog, hearing through aficionados, and the industry as a whole truly are signs of a greater development. Highlights from Erick’s account of the meeting include his latest updates on what’s happening with the proposed Norm changes that will redefine what it means to be a mezcal and the participation from some great people north of the border.

Take a look on his Facebook page.

Christmex comes to San Francisco

Join us tomorrow for the first ever Christmex at San Francisco’s Mexican Museum 10-4. You’ll be able to take in the museum’s fantastic collection, purchase fantastic imported crafts from Michoacan, and listen to great music all while sipping Mexico’s great spirit of mezcal. In attendance:

  • Wahaka Mezcal
  • Mezcal Tosba
  • Tamales and treats from Tina Tamale
  • Son Jarocho collective from 12-2PM
  • Great holiday gifts imported directly from the finest crafts people in Michoacan by Mexico by Hand
  • And the incredible collection at the Mexican Museum!


Do you know how your mezcal labels are made?

The Vago label processTruth in manufacturing is seldom so direct. Watch this video about how Eric Ramirez makes Vago‘s labels. It’s all manual and he only uses the leftover agave fibers from Vago’s distillations. It doesn’t get more basic than this which is one of the main reasons people love mezcal. Tip of the hat to Andrew Says for bringing this to our attention.

While you’re at it watch this video from last year where Vago’s maestro mezcalero Aquilino Garcia Lopez describes how they used to hand mash roasted agave in a a canoa. Make sure to wait for the end when he talks about how much he could mash as a 21-year-old. That’s pretty unbelievable. Thank god for the tahona.

Oaxaqueño correcto

Italian’s have caffe corretto which is an espresso with a dash of grappa. Lately the fall chill has inspired the creation of a Mexican variant with mezcal instead of grappa. Obviously I can’t recommend it for all occasions but boy does it end a meal in style, especially some of the big holiday meals which loom over the next month-and-a-half. Should you prefer cacao to caffe make some Mexican hot chocolate and correct away…

The bat in mezcal

Uasisi bottleAmong the cluster of new mezcals at the Mezcal: Mexico in a Bottle tasting we were very curious to try Mezcal Uasïsï which literally translates to “Mezcal of the Bat” in the indigenous Purepecha language in Michocan where it is produced. Our great friends Peggy Stein and Doug Wheeler, who run Mexico by Hand a fantastic small business that brings folk arts and artisanal crafts from Mexico directly to the United States, poured Mezcal Uasïsï at the tasting.

Fellow blogger Cristina Potters who writes about the Mexican culinary universe at Mexico Cooks already wrote a great piece about the mezcal which we were fortunate enough to republish in Mezcaliastas. I was really curious about it so I talked to Mezcal Uasïsï’s brand manager Juan Mendez to get a sense of their process and what’s going on in the world of Michoacan mezcal.

First of all, let’s get to the pronunciation: Juan rattled off a number of ways native Michoacanos would pronounce it but recommended Washici. Uasïsï’ literally means “bat” which is an allusion to one of the agave plant’s natural pollinators. Plus it’s just a great name.

Juan told me that the agave is all grown around Etucuaro just northwest of Patzcuaro and is part of a continuous 400 year old tradition. If true that makes the local mezcal industry similar in age to Oaxaca’s and says quite a bit about the widely distributed Mexican distilling history.  Juan plays the role of brand manager and works closely with the mastro mezcalero Ignacio Pérez Scott who makes Uasïsï and represents the fourth generation of his family to make mezcal. As with many brand creators Juan works closely with Ignacio to make the mezcal and maintain the brand. Juan’s mother Maira is the general manager while his two brothers and two sisters also share in the business.

The mezcal is produced entirely from wild Agave cupreata which takes eight to ten years to mature. The local growing conditions are very different from what we’re used to seeing in the valleys of southern Oaxaca. Most of the plants are at 1,075 meters above sea level and grow in valleys of dark, rich, soils shot through with the pine groves that you see everywhere in Michoacan.

Production is completely traditional starting with the underground oven which the maestro mezcalero dug out himself and lined with bricks. The roast time is 72 hours for 2.5-3 tons of piñas. The roasted maguey is then crushed by hand with an adze in a wooden canoe. It is fermented solely with wild yeasts and takes exactly 8 days. Per Juan fermentation is “exactly a Monday to Monday process and we still use an alambique de madera which means that we lose 30-40% of production because of the still. But it’s very traditional for us.”

I was curious whether they’re branching out into mezcal distilled from other agaves, making a pechuga or doing anything else different but Juan tells me that they’re very focused on the mezcal joven for export because they want to keep things simple in order to make sure that the process goes as quickly as possible. They also make a mezcal that is infused with tamarind for two months but they don’t have plans to export it. Juan told me it’s just too tricky to get it registered so they’re keeping it local for now. I’d love to try that out because the classic pechugas made with fruits are pretty incredible.

Right now they’re making 1,500 liters/year of the joven and, Juan, claims, they can ramp up to 5,000 liters/month if they have the export pipeline. I was very curious about this scale because most mezcal producers would struggle both with agave supply and still throughput but Juan told me that his maestro mezcalero owns more than 200 hectares, which is just about 500 acres, and that 70% of that land has cupreata  growing on it.

The sustainability of this operation has to be really tricky. Juan and I talked a bit about that issue and he acknowledged that they’re working on cultivating cupreata on a small portion of the land. Right now they only use wild because the cupreata doesn’t clone itself. They have to let the quiotes grow before they can cut them down to collect the seeds for their nurseries where germination takes 2-3 months. With luck new cupreata plants grow up over two years when they’re ready to be planted. Juan told me that “many producers are using the plants without replanting them. It’s very important for us to do this sustainably. We don’t want to damage the wild life. We don’t want to bother the bats because they do the pollination process. The majority of our maguey is still reproduced by bats, perhaps 80% by bats and birds.”

As we were finishing up our talk Juan talked a bit more about the realities of the bureaucratic and economic systems that he and many in the mezcal industry are facing. His is the classic lament of the mezcal world because he is waiting for Comercam to visit and finalize the certification of Uasïsï so that they can legally start exporting. They’re already looking for a distributor but for the time being you’ll need to hunt it down in Mexico City, make the trek to Michoacan or know a special someone to bring some back for you.

I know what you’re doing this Sunday

Tamarindo is having their second annual celebration of agave distillates and antojitos this Sunday, November 16th, 3-7PM. We’ll be there as will many other local mezcal aficionados, makers, and anyone interested in Gloria Dominguez’s fantastic cooking. If you need any coaxing here’s our write up of last year’s event. Make your plans accordingly!

Tamarindo mezcal & tequila tasting


A little mezcal to get your day started right

Courtesy of the Internet Book Archive on Flickr. This excerpt and image come from América pintoresca; descripcion de viajes al nuevo continente por los mas modernos exploradores" (1884)

Courtesy of the Internet Book Archive on Flickr. This excerpt and image come from América pintoresca; descripcion de viajes al nuevo continente por los mas modernos exploradores” (1884)

Vasijas del cementerio de Nahualac (De fotografía) Pasamos la noche, que nos pareció interminable, debajo de una simple choza de esteras.Por la mañana, nos calentamos el estómago con un buen trago de mezcal, y volvimos á em-prender nuestra tarea. Los hallazgos fueron numerosos, pero todos parecidos, y los ídolos, loscarritos de niño, las urnas y los dioses Tlaloc se repitieron sin cesar. La estación de Nahualac ocupaba mucha más extensión que la de Tenenepanco, y nospareció además de fecha mucho más remota, porque no encontramos ni un solo fragmento deosamenta humana. También abundaba más la imagen de Tlaloc, habiendo encontrado algunascompletas, agitando con la mano derecha una serpiente, atributo que simbolizaba el relámpago,el rayo y la tempestad. Recogimos en Nahualac cerca de ochocientas piezas de todas formas, y provistos de tanrico botín, nos despedimos de la montaña.

The images from this book are spectacular and are a testament to Flickr and the Internet Archive. It’s well worth a few minutes of your time this Friday even if you have to substitute coffee for un buen trago de mezcal.