I am often asked – where is the best place to try mezcal in the Bay Area? And my usual reply is, well, my house. Logistics make it hard to actually have everyone over – kid with homework and a bedtime, people probably having to drive to my house, etc etc. I say my house because over the years I have amassed a collection of some pretty awesome mezcals that are not available in the US, and most likely never will be. So short of going to Mexico yourself, or having an inside connection, this has been the stop gap solution.
This year we have solved that problem by creating small producers room at the Grand Tasting at Mezcal: Mexico in a Bottle on November 15th. The idea is to bring out all those unique bottles that you’d only find on my bar and some things that I’ve never been able to find. This offering is part of the Mezcal Lover’s package, and in addition to fine mezcals, it will also be a chance to talk to a few of the people who make or find them.
In the line-up we have mezcals that I encountered on some recent mezcal adventures in Mexico. They have a way of finding you and I am so happy they are able to participate.
Aguas del Corazon was founded by Andrea Sánchez López, who I had the pleasure of meeting at my very first Vela Istmeña as part of the Guelaguetza celebration in Oaxaca. She was dressed in a gorgeous, traditional Istmeña dress, and poured us some of the mezcal, a full bodied arroqueño that blew my socks off. Aguas works with several small producers around the state of Oaxaca – small as in less than 40 bottles in some production runs. Andrea has a culinary background and has curated a delicious collection of tobala, espadin, sierra negra, coyote, and barril.
El Tigre Mezcal is a cooperative project from the state of Guerrero. They are producing mezcals from wild papalote and zcamexcal grown in the low mountains of Guerrero. These mezcals vary from 50-52% alcohol, and have a very different and earthy flavor.
Mezcal Neta is a project from Max Rosenstock, who has been traveling the Oaxacan roads for the past several years to find mezcals for his burgeoning brand. We’ll have mezcals from San Luis Amatlan, a region known for its madrecuishe, verde, and increasingly, espadin.
Mezcal Cuish has probably done than any other mezcal when it comes to capturing the attention of a younger generation and getting them to care about mezcal. Started by a couple of art students in Oaxaca who had family connections to mezcal, they created a mezcaleria and a huge following of other art students, inspiring Oaxacan pride around the spirit.
Alma Mezcalera doesn’t need much of an introduction. A project by Erick Rodriguez, a tireless and intrepid promoter of mezcal as we’ve written about before here and most recently here, Erick will have his very special mezcals that he has sourced from all over Mexico.
Mezcal Chaneque will also be on hand. I had a chance to taste this mezcal in June and loved its rounded flavors and depth. This is a mezcal that will soon be available in the US, but here is your chance to get an early jump on tasting it.
Aguas Mansas is a mezcal that was shared with me by Leon Vazquez, a bartender at Lolo Restaurant. It’s an espadin from Matatlan and tastes so different from what I usually expect from mezcals from that region. This is a mezcal that may hit our shores in 2016.
And of course there will be some surprises as well, perhaps even a few from my private collection especially a madrecuishe made by Reyna Sanchez who was just profiled in this piece by Grace Rubenstein on NPR about female mezcal makers.
Be sure to check out the event website that has all of the details for not only for the Grand Tasting on November 15th but also for the other activities happening that week. But get your Mezcal Lover’s ticket today because they’re limited, we will sell out, and once they’re gone, they are literally gone.
Technically we should know since we named our VIP level ticket that for this year’s Mezcal: Mexico in a Bottle but we’ll cop to it being great marketing language and leave any discussion on the larger topic for those who want to split hairs. Because, mezcal is really generous. If you like it, it likes you. Hell, we probably like you.
But enough of this babble, we want to unveil those awesome copitas custom crafted for this tasting.
These were designed and hand made by LA based artist Emelda Gutierrez. Each is distinct, and comes with that special “Mezcal Lovers” package. We’ll have a few extra on hand to sell to everyone else so if all the lovers get their tickets before you.
In Situ’s Ulises Torrentera and Wahaka’s Raza Zaidi discuss the finer points of mezcal.
Yesterday was a good day. I had a nice lunch at Calavera with Susan and then spent a little over two hours in Ulises Torrentera’s “Arte del Mezcal West Coast Tour” sponsored by Wahaka and organized by the same brand’s Raza Zaidi. Suffice to say that it was a cozy and mind expanding gathering on Calavera’s deck what with that late fall sunshine providing the perfect mood lighting as Ulises guided us through his thoughts on mezcal while Raza translated.
Today the tour heads to San Diego and Thursday Los Angeles before it heads to the North West. Full dates are on the Facebook page here. If you have a chance, go. It’s a casual and really fun encounter for anyone whether they’re a hard core aficionado or a complete newbie.
Kudos to Ulises and Sandra for making the voyage, we can’t say enough about Raza and Wahaka for setting this up. The altruistic spirit that animates events like this is what Susan and I are all about. But enough about us, here’s a quick clip of Ulises discussing the origin and importance of ensembles, apologies for the breaks which were for translation. He went on to talk about how they may just model the future of sustainable mezcal. For more on that and other topics you’ll need to attend one of his talks.
As anyone who attended last year’s Mezcal: Mexico in a Bottle knows this event is not to be missed. It’s an opportunity to taste an incredible variety of mezcals and meet their makers while also sampling snacks from some of the best local restaurants and mezcal cocktails from all those creative bartenders who are getting written up in flashy magazines.
But this year we just had to go and make it bigger, badder, and better. First, why mess with success, the Grand Tasting is on November 15th at Public Works and will be very similar to last year’s event except that we’ll be adding mezcals and we’re going to have some very special tastings led by some of the most interesting people in the business. But keep in mind, only Mezcal Lovers tickets get access to those special tastings so choose wisely.
The preceding week will see a variety of special mezcal themed events throughout the San Francisco Bay Area including a US Bartender Guild juried competition for the best mezcal cocktail at Devil’s Acre on November 9th, special cocktail parties, dinners, a meeting with key figures in the industry, and more. As we say, check the schedule and get your tickets today.
But why stop there? November 8 – 15 is now officially Mezcal Week with special mezcal cocktails, flights, and snacks available at finer dining establishments and bars across the region. All participants are donating a portion of their proceeds to this year’s non-profit partner, the Mexican Museum. This is your opportunity to taste just how incredible and varied this transformative spirit is. If you can’t find something great on our list of participating venues then you don’t have a pulse.
August 13th and 14th, the Mexican government’s export promotion arm, ProMexico, brought 12 mezcal brands into San Francisco. They were all in LA earlier in the week as well. The initiative is to open up import and distribution avenues for brands ready for the international market and most of these brands are hunting for the right partner. If you are interested in a connection, email me.
More generally I suspect that many of these mezcal brands are hungry to hear feedback from North American businesses and consumers so that they can find their way into this market fully informed so it was great to field their questions and ask a bunch of my own. The event was split into a mid-day private tasting at the Mexican embassy and a public one in the evening at La Urbana. All the brands got ample exposure to people like me and the people who are going to be buying their products.
I shouldn’t be surprised by the number of mezcal brands ready to enter the North American market but events like this serve to prove that point, and how! Most of the brands are either already established in Mexico or designed for export so they’re ready to go, just looking for a partner. The fact that they are just the first among many waves, that all save for one are from Oaxaca, and that the rather staggering production levels all point the way to a huge change in the market. It feels like shake up time is coming.
How exactly that shakes out is a real question. Everyone loves to use the tequila business as a model because, well, it’s Mexican! That would have mezcal racing to high production levels and outrageous brand campaigns to get drinkers requesting a particular mezcal for their margarita at the local bar. I’m sure that’s one avenue, it’s already happened with mezcal which has gone through the craft cocktail craze and is busily building a reputation as the new favorite of bartenders everywhere. But there’s more to it than that. Here’s wave three, or is it four, of mezcal about to hit our shores.
3 Pueblos & Kilometro 70
3 Pueblos and Kilometro 70
Agave: Blue agave
Denominacion de Origen: Trinidad Garcia de la Cadena, Zacatecas
Hailing from Zacatecas and the only mezcal brands from that state that Susan and I have seen in the U.S., this is something of a massive mezcal collective which represents the combined output of 30% of the mezcal from Zacatecas or 1.5 million liters per year. Yes, 1.5 million liters per year. I had a great chat with Gabriel López Nava who represents the umbrella organization for the collective called Distribuidora de Mezcales about what they’re doing, it’s quite a massive operation.
They share a NOM because their distilleries share infrastructure. Per Gabriel 3 Pueblos is an industrial operation while Kilometro 70 has its own artisanal distillery. Both come in two varieties, a joven and a reposado. The blue agave is hard to detect, Gabriel was super excited that I couldn’t figure out what it is and that experience got me thinking about how their blue agave is grown and how much terroir it represents. This shouldn’t be that surprising, Trinidad Garcia de la Cadena is just over the border from Jalisco and has a lot of that highland type landscape familiar to tequila lovers but I’m very curious to visit and see the operation in person.
File this one under a snapshot of what’s possible in the rest of Mexico in terms of raw production. This has obvious implications for the market in cocktail mezcals because 3 Pueblos is clearly designed as a mass market cocktail mezcal but Kilometro 70 has higher aspirations and can easily be more than an entry level quality mezcal. There’s something interesting going on in Zacatecas…
Both brands are currently available only in New York and Florida through Dibela Importers.
NOM – O212X
Denominacion de Origen: Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca
This brand is built around the story that: “A lightning bolt struck the heart of an agave, resulting in the first quema, or roasting, that produced this magical drink. That’s why mezcal is considered ‘the drink that came from heaven … a blessing (bendición) from the gods.'”
They are marketing an espadin from Santiago Matatlán which, at 38%, was the lowest ABV of anything we tried at this tasting. They appear primed for major production with a boasted production capacity of between 6,000 and 8,000 liters a month distributed across four palenques and are looking partners in North America and Europe. They also appear to have quite a handle on their marketing strategy replete with Instagram and Twittter feeds as well as a video of their process
I finally got to taste Clase Azul’s mezcal. You know the company through their iconic tequila bottles. Now you know them by their iconic mezcal bottle, same shape painted matte black with Huichol beaded top. The presentation is striking enough to merit a taste based on appearance alone.
First, it’s from cenizo agave grown in Durango and Jalisco but the still is located in Durango so that NOM does not lie! Their maestro mezcalero Arturo Lomeli produces just 25 liters a day which makes for a tiny production run. Their first shipment of 3,000 bottles to California, Texas, and New York is already sold out. It tastes fairly light with nuanced agave fruit. I want to taste it again next to food to see if that alters the flavor. Down the road Clase Azul may expand into different mezcals, perhaps a Bacanora or Sotol. Only time will tell.
To taste it seek out mezcal oriented restaurants and bars because they’ve been the main buyers. You can buy it retail predominantly in California at stores like K&L and Old Town – NY at the Chelsea Wine Vault – New Jersey at the Monmouth Bottle Shop. This one falls into the super-premium category based on an estimated retail price of $230 per bottle.
Denominacion de Origen: San Baltazar Guelavila, Tlacolula, Oaxaca
Maestros mezcaleros: Hernández Martínez
Convite looks like another part of the mezcal wave. It has 10 different types of mezcal distilled by a family of four brothers from the Hernández Martínez family. It has a thoroughly developed brand identity. It’s already distributed in Mexico, Spain, and the UK. And they even have a tasting room in Oaxaca. They are definitely ready for the North American market, they’re just on the look out for an importer and distributor.
Fortunately for our palates, unfortunately for posterity, we only tasted four of their bottles which were marked by similar spice and mineral characteristics. The Ensemble Silvestre is a particularly strong example of this with prominent cinnamon notes while the tobala had flavors of sweet agave and cinnamon without much viscosity.
This was another new introduction. They currently sell three bottles; a joven, reposado, and an añejo. They only use espadin today but plan to release silvestres soon. Our tasting of the joven had both of us writing down “herbal” in our notes. Smoke was hard to detect and, while the ABV is a relatively low 40%, you don’t taste the absence of alcohol.
The only mezcal claiming kosher certification at this tasting and of any in my memory Mezcal IBA featured two bottles, the 40 and the 55, as in ABV percent. The 55 runs right up against what the CRM legally allows in an ABV so, should they find an importer, it would attain the distinction of one of if not the mezcal with highest ABV in the United States.
As with many high alcohol mezcals you don’t feel the alcohol of the 55 so much as taste more. It has a huge mouth feel without viscosity and it’s very flavorful. The 40 is much lighter and reveals carmelized notes. This is one case where we fear that tasting the 55 first may have washed out our palates so we intend on retasting the 40 first at the next opportunity that presents itself.
Los Javis has a completely throw back label that wouldn’t be out of place on a rot gut tequila or mezcal but that’s just because it comes from the same design era. The actual contents of the bottles are quite remarkable with their standard espadin representing the blade-leafed agave quite competently and a line of silvestres that demand a close look and multiple tastings. There is some serious mezcal in those bottles, we’re really looking forward to seeing them on the market.
The same mezcalero has been developing the Derrumbes brand with a much more contemporary label featuring abstract designs based on traditional pre-Columbian patterns. Derumbes will almost definitely come to the United States soon, we’re just not sure exactly when. Both brands are represented by Epic Wines.
Koch is the lone member of this group which will definitely be on shelves soon. The family scion Carlos Moreno is working with Fidencio’s Arik Torren to bring the line to the U.S. Arik has a eye for mezcal starting with Fidencio and last year’s collaboration with Esteban Morales to bring Raicilla Venenosa to the United States so look out for this one. This is a huge line with 12 bottles spanning the complete gamut of silvestres, an espadin, and a methodological variation in the Olla de Barro. The comparisons to Real Minero aren’t too far off. The Moreno family has invested heavily in sustainable replanting, high quality production, and maintaining their traditional methods. And it shows.
Marcavidas has easily the strangest mezcals of this bunch. One, in a red bottle, is the Afrodisíaco which is twice distilled espadin and then damiana, a traditional culinary and medicinal herb in Mexico, is added in the third distillation. Damiana is occasionally referred to as “marijuana’s legal cousin” but it is used widely in medicinal tinctures and there’s some claim that a damiana distillate or infusion took the place of Triple Sec in the original margarita so there’s some history of a relationship with mezcal. Marcavidas’ use of damiana in Aphrodisiac makes for a very herbal flavor.
But if you’re into herbal flavors then definitely try Marcavidas’ espadin which is the most herbal pure mezcal we’ve ever tasted. At first sip I thought it was surely infused with hierba santa if not other local Oaxacan herbs. Both Susan and I had to ask a few times to make sure that it wasn’t infused. We’re still scratching our heads over how you could get that much herbaceousness into a bottle of mezcal without additives. It’s sort of like an over-hopped IPA.
Geometric designs on bottles are in, both Tribal and Derrumbes sport eerily similar motifs inspired by Mesoamerican work but Tribal has a distinctive coin shaped bottle and a different approach. As their brand representative told me, the goal is to create “modern art in a bottle” but it reflects local traditions. The black glass is inspired by the black ceramics of Coatepec, Oaxaca and the colored patterns by alebrijes from San Antonio Arrazola, San Martin Tiljajete, and other local towns. They are looking for an importer / distributor to introduce them to the North American market.
As for what’s in the bottles: They have an espadin joven at 40% and an espadin reposado at 37%. They come across as very light and smooth which may have nothing to do with the ABV, they just seem like they were distilled to that flavor set. The reposado seems inspired by lighter tequila style repos with the emphasis on touches of carmelization rather than scotch like smoke.
Indecente wins the design and complete brand identity award of this group, and their mezcals are more than worth trying so they have at least two things going for them. You have to admire the look of the bottle, at tastings they come in custom brief cases, they also come with a complete story which I’ll cite here because it’s a rather inspired bit of marketing:
MOST OF THE TIME, WE HIDE BEHIND A CLOSED DOOR AND ONLY PEEK TROUGH THE KEYHOLE ONCE IN A WHILE. THE ONE ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE KEYHOLE IS YOU.
MEZCAL VIEJO INDECENTE GIVES YOU THE KEY TO OPEN THE DOOR AND BE YOUR OTHER SELF…
AT LEAST FOR A LITTLE WHILE.
The eye peeking through the keyhole is reproduced on the bottle with the keyhole on the front of the bottle and eye on the back to neat effect.
As for the mezcal, currently they are shipping three varietals: An espadin at 45%, a madrecuische at 48.4% made from 15 year old agave, and an ensemble made from espadin and madrecuische at 48%. They are planning additional silvestres sometime soon. All the fruit is grown on the Lucas family estate which ranges across 136 acres and has been in the family for somewhere north of 100 years. The whole operation is trying to keep up with demand but, per Indecente’s Gabriel Pacheco, “it’s important to know that we will never be able to fulfill huge volumes, our philosophy is focused on quality and small batches.” To that end they’ve been planting about 10,000 ihuelos for the past two years running using a polyculture method where beans and corn are grown between rows of agave which are themselves composed of mixed species.
Park Street represents Indecente in their first three markets starting with the espadin in California and Florida today. It will be on the market in New York in mid-October. The ensemble should arrive by Christmas, the madrecuische soon thereafter. But, give their online store a shot and see if you can get it shipped to you directly. They also mentioned a very intriguing 25-year-old Mexicano and a 22-year-old Arroqueño which may be available later this year. Both will have higher price points reaching, perhaps, $200 per bottle.
The espadin has the barest hint of smoke and a flavor set focused on olla type minerality and elegant agave fruit. The ensemble has more of that olla type minerality but a really massive mouth feel bursting with ripe agave sugars. I wonder if that would be a better dessert or entree mezcal, I look forward to trying it out.
Last night Susan and I were fortunate enough to attend the formal launch tasting for Amarás’ cupreata at the rapidly assembling Cala, Gabriela Cámara’s much anticipated stateside restaurant. The focus of the evening’s conversation and speeches was clearly sustainability. Gabriela addressed the topic directly as she spoke of her her history at Mexico City’s well lauded Contramar which she launched 17 years ago as a seafood restaurant in a city hours from the nearest coast and more than a mile above sea level. As she explained last night, Mexico’s rather unique economic and political centralization means that pretty much all seafood flows through the capital before it’s shipped anywhere else which meant that she got the pick of Mexico’s freshest seafood.
The Cala margarita
Contramar is now a well established step on the international restaurant circuit and justifiably so. It’s tuna tostadas are reproduced by restaurants across the globe, it has a sister restaurant across town, and Mexican seafood is definitely of the moment. Cala is perched ready to ride that wave with a focus on seafood from Northern California but it was funny to hear Gabriela lament the limitations it poses. She wants her kitchen just to use local produce but keeps running up against how different it is from the ingredients in classic Mexican dishes. That’s the sense of place you get wherever you’re eating, fish in Veracruz, lobster in Maine, crab in San Francisco. Once you carry a national cuisine away from its native produce you get something different, if you embrace it you get a new hybrid like San Francisco’s Italian adapted to California = Zuni. Ditto for Berkeley’s California+France+Italy=Chez Panisse. From the tastes of octopus salad, halibut crudo, and a wild mezcal touched granita it’s clear that Cala is adapting nicely and will refresh the Northern Californian approach to seafood. While Mexican food is taking over the country this level of cultural and ingredient oriented adaptation is exactly what we need to inspire local home chefs as well as global restaurants.
The Cala halibut aguachiles and their unique martini.
But Cala’s opening is two, perhaps a few weeks away so we’ll all have time to truly appreciate it’s interpretation of Mexican in San Francisco. Last night was also dedicated to Amaras’ second bottle, a cupreata from Guerrero. Cala’s bar served up a trio of interpretations of classic cocktails which auger well for its future. Riffing off that whole conversation of cultural adaptation the margarita featured Amaras’ espadin along with citrus cane syrup, lime, and orange bitters for a refreshing version of the cocktail classic. From there it only got stranger because the martini zig-zagged across cultural boundaries combining Amaras espadin, Mandarin Napoleon, lime and fennel to arrive at a construction that is wholly of San Francisco’s current cocktail culture and no where else. Suffice to say that Cala’s idea of a Manhatten was equally adventurous. These cocktails will be part of Cala’s final cocktail menu and will be supplemented by many others inspired by the bounty of Northern California’s fruits and vegetables. We can’t wait to see what else they will present.
But wait: Weren’t we at Cala to taste mezcal? We tried it in cocktails but the best way to drink it is straight up which we certainly did in Amaras’ custom glazed copitas. I already have tasting notes for Amaras’ espadin which is widely available. The cupreata was released in time for this year’s Tales of the Cocktail and has been rolling out slowly across the country so you should be able to find it soon.
Maestro mezcalero: Don Faustino Robledo
Denominacion de Origen: Mazatlán, Guerrero
Agave: 13-year-old cupreata grown between 4,000-6,000 feet above sea level.
Fields of cupreata in Guerrero’s Sierra Madre del Sur.
Like most cupreatas, Amarás’ interpretation is wide and fruity in the mouth. Unlike many it’s not overly viscous so it doesn’t coat your mouth. The flavor starts with big agave fruit and then thins out to an interesting vegetal mix of fresh bell peppers. As one taster noted that means that you could drink it all night long. I’m not sure about that level of hyperbole but it’s definitely elegant enough to sip over a long evening, especially if paired with food, preferably a dish with a bit of acid or spice like the halibut crudo that was served last night.
The funny thing is that the Amarás cupreata origin story has everything to do with food. While the company founders were out searching for a good cupreata in Guerrero they stopped at a roadside barbacoa, tasted the mezcal with the meat, thought ‘this is good,’ and kept going. It was only after tasting other mezcals and returning for more of the barbacoa that they realized it was clearly their favorite of the bunch. That food driven identity is something I’d love to see more of in the mezcal world. There’s nothing like BBQ and mezcal, sushi and mezcal, you name it – there’s a mezcal tailored to a dish.
So, why did we sandwich tasting notes in the middle of an article about sustainability? Well, among other things Gabriela also noted that Amarás is devoted to sustainability which is important in its own right and for the mezcal world as a whole because – all together now – mezcal comes from agave and if we don’t ensure that agave is sustainably cultivated there won’t be any for future weddings, funerals, and casual week night tippling.
I know that sustainability is a buzz word and one that’s deployed as a marketing term of art exactly because we’re all so hypocritical in our consumption of bottles of mezcal shipped thousands of miles but the bet is that we can improve this situation environmentally and economically. Call it transformative capitalism or coin your own term. Amarás is doing its part to pull all these disparate strands together. As Anchor’s brand representative, the wonderful Georgiana Green, noted the brand was founded by a social worker and focuses on giving back by making their product and process as sustainable as possible. Just like Gabriela’s limitations, Amarás has to work within constraints: They focus on environmental initiatives that reforest ten agaves for every one that is harvested for their mezcal and paying premiums to their mezcaleros while also contributing to their local communities. All that doesn’t make the mezcal taste better, that’s a given baseline, but the focus on sustainability as an integral part of a product is a good and important thing.
File under things that have been weighing on my mind. So many times I have heard the following words – oh, it’s just an espadin. With the heavy focus on silvestres, and the more exotic the better, espadins have somehow become sidelined, forgotten, and well just plain ole maligned. This maguey of course makes up the bulk of what is in the market – almost 85% – so to make it out to be the industry’s merlot, well is just ridiculous.
So, on my most recent trek down to Oaxaca, I made it a point to try as many espadins as I could, really to remind myself of how utterly different and complex they are and how immensely talented those palenqueros are to get so much flavor and differentiation out of one kind of maguey – showcasing their true mastery in making mezcal.
This is how I found myself one night doing a tasting of “just” espadins at Mezcaloteca. The oh so knowledgeable and charming Andrea Hagan and I talked about some of the different ones they had and then she put together a pretty bold selection: an espadilla (wild espadin) fermented in leather, distilled in clay and from the Mizteca region, an espadin from the state of Guerrero, an añejo from 1998 (in glass the whole time) and a regular ole espadin from Miahuatlan. I really like how Mezcaloteca runs their tastings, and how they pair your palette and interest to the mezcals they have on hand rather than the pre-selected flights so many of us are used to.
I tasted through these in the order listed and of course found huge variety in flavors and strength. And that regular ole espadin from Miahuatlan, well, in this tasting order where it was last, it frankly wasn’t very interesting. So I spent the next half hour or so changing up the tasting order to see how i could get the most flavor out of each espadin. And what I found was by putting the one from Miahuatlan first, pretty much guaranteed it had a better showing no matter what followed in whatever order. And what made the añejo stand out? When it was third up. The two other mezcals were so bold in their flavors it didn’t matter which was second or last.
So, the lesson here – order of tasting is everything to get the most out of the mezcals, and perhaps even greater – an espadin is never “just” an espadin.
PS – I bought the one from Guerrero (Sanzekan) as I am trying to expand beyond my Oaxacafile focus.
Had the chance to meet up with Judah Kupor yesterday and taste though the whole Vago line at his tasting room/office/bottling facility in San Felipe del Agua. Pretty amazing stuff, especially when you are able to do it side by side and really get a sense of the flavors that are being pulled out by the mezcaleros. Stretched out several hours (important when you are looking at 12-15 mezcals), the conversation rambled over tons of topics including the controversial ones of adding water (distilling to ABV vs playing with colas, puntas and yes, water), sustainability around the agaves, wood, just how many mezcaleros to work with under a brand, fair pay, challenging the mezcaleros to move beyond their flavor comfort zone and tradition, and well, you get the picture of a wonderful long afternoon. At some point I’ll be able to go through the notes and put those ramblings to paper.
But the mezcal – if you haven’t already had the chance to give it a try, they produce some pretty incredible stuff and are playing around with some new ones as well. Tasting some Espadins side by side – from their very first batch on, it is quite the trajectory of flavor. For anyone who ever says, oh, that is just an Espadin, well shame, because the variety and complexity of this maguey is pretty extreme.
Also tasting side by side three Tobalas was also pretty interesting and again pointed to how much is determined by terrior, water, and distillation and storing – clay/copper/glass.
It is impossible to name stand outs – Madrecuixe, Tepestate, Mexicano, Sierra Negra (with 10% Espadin) – all compete equally and really just depend on the personal palette of the drinker. Me, I still want to go for the Elote every time because nothing quite puts the flavor memory of Mexico into a bottle quite like that one, and presents equally the vital role both maiz and maguey play in life down here.
I am looking forward to a trek out to Candelaria Yegole next week to see the full operation and of course what further hours of conversation will unveil.
Erick Rodriguez and Adrian Vazquez, Los Borrachos, put together this tasting event at Bartlett Hall to showcase traditional mezcals. In addition to brands already in the market like Wahaka, Tosba, Del Maguey, Don Amado, Alipus, and Mezcalero there were some new bottles from the Heavy Metl fold – Rey Campero, Mezcaloteca, and Real Minero – which will soon be imported to the United States as well as fresh bottles from Erick’s Almamezcalera label. Totally new to the market and making their debut were Mezcal Los Gentiles and Chaneque.
How you pace yourself at events like these is the big question. I go for tiny tastes. I also try to focus on mezcals I’ve never had first and see how it goes from there.
Erick Rodriguez of Almamezcalera
My first stop was with Almamezcalera. Erick was pouring three new mezcals all distilled with spices and herbs and made from espadilla, a wild espadin, and distilled in clay and wood. I will not call these “healthy” mezcals, as I think mezcal holds medicinal properties period. I started with the Cilantro and Hoja Santa which was incredibly herbaceous (of course) and vaguely anis like. At 54% it was big, spicy and smooth. Next up was the mezcal distilled with ramos – considered a cleansing herb – and at 61% it was surprisingly non-alcoholic, very green and herbaceous. It felt more medicinal in the same way that Fernet does. Last up was the cinnamon and cacao, also at 61%, which was neither sweet nor perfumey which was what I was expecting and why I tasted it last. All three of these mezcals would work great as both aperitivos and digestivos.
Next up was Chaneque, a major reason I braved the insanity to come to the tasting. I had tried their madrecuishe once in Oaxaca and was intrigued. Juan Carlos Rodríguez, owner of Chaneque, had the whole lineup, and a couple of special mezcals under the table. I rolled through the 59% Coyote from Matatlan; the Mexicano from Sola de Vega (surprisingly musky and not the usual hot sweetness I’ve come to expect from Mexicanos); a 52% 8yr aged (in glass) Espadin from Zoquitlan which blew my socks off with its thickness and richness, and proof of why an Espadin should never be considered pedestrian; a very dry and mineral 52% Tepestate from Sola de Vega that had a strong bite in its finish; and finally a 47% Tobala from Matatlan that had the perfect sweet finish to it. Chaneque should be in the market in a couple of months with the Espadin, Madrecuishe, and Tobala.
Clase Azul Cenizo Mezcal
The 49% Mexicano from Los Gentiles was very subtle and had the lovely sweetness you get with this maguey. I saved their collaborative project from Clase Azul – a 44% Cenizo from Durango – for last. This project is an experiment with only 6,000 liters produced (a drop in the bucket for this tequila brand). Created with the idea of economic development and jobs – it is part reforestation/cultivation of a wild agave, part art project with is ceramic black bottles, and beaded tops, and a price point of $225.
Creme de Poblano soup from Mayahuel
Thankfully among all the mezcal was some pretty delicious food from Lolo, Uno Dos Tacos, Colibri, Mosto, and Mayahuel in Sacramento which wins the prize for most dedication to come all the way to SF in the midst of the traffic nightmare. And their creme of poblano chile soup – delicious. For me the true treat was the delicious drunken cake from Polvorón Panaderia in Hayward – course textured, moist and only slightly sweet. And their Tres Leches is the bomb. If you can’t get to Hayward, don’t worry, you can get the cake at Uno Dos Tacos.
Yesterday we had a fine time at Tres‘ back room wending our way through their annual La Ruta del Mezcal with a variety of fellow aficionados and industry reps. A special shout out to Jayson Naona who organized everything. We obviously need more tastings like this.
A few items of note:
Erick “Almamezcalera” Rodriguez pours at Ruta del Mezcal
Two of the bottles Erick was pouring.
Erick Rodriguez aka Erick Almamezcalera poured some really interesting bottles. His batches are always small and distinctive. Yesterday he was pouring a Salmiana from San Luis de Potosi that was incredibly spicy and peppery even finding jalapeño notes. It would be a great match for meals. His Karwinskii was the mezcal equivalent of a spiced mango, full of classic agave fruit and peppery spiciness. By far the strangest thing at his table was the pechuga de iguana which flummoxes my descriptive powers. A lightening poll of other people I knew found similar responses that ranged from “otherworldly” to “indescribable.” It was certainly powerful, strong flavors and strong alcohol.
Erick also displayed the unique ceramic bottles from the 50-year-old agave mezcal he has started to sell called El Cuarenteño. Get into touch with him through his Facebook page if you’re interested in that. We’ll have a bit more on that project soon. And he was selling some really nice custom copitas which are well worth a look.
T-shirts in effect at Ruta del Mezcal
Bruxo gets into the T-shirt trade.
Mezcal t-shirts are officially a thing with the El Jolgorio crew wearing a variety, Bruxo offering its variant, Erick sporting his design and a few other versions wandering around. I’d be remiss if we didn’t mention ours, we’re already working on new designs so clearly there’s a trend here.
El Jolgorio had a big showing at a table manned by three people and looked constantly busy. It’s hard to read too much into that alone but the visibility of those bottles at bars and liquor stores tells me that they’re making a big impact. Their upcoming tepeztate is definitely something to taste, sweet and well balanced.
El Bruxo table at Ruta del Mezcal
El Bruxo’s marketing focus on their mezcaleros
This was El Buxo’s semi-official launch in North America so consider yourself lucky if you were there. They were pouring one through five of their series which is much more extensive in Mexico. The number three Barril was a stand out. Their California brand ambassador, Irais Monroy, told me that they may bring in others as well, keep your eyes peeled. It’s really nice to see that their marketing is focused on their mezcaleros and the production features of each mezcal in their list.
Real Minero’s Largo, at 54% it’s something to contend with.
The Real Minero, Rey Campero, Mezcaloteca line up.
Real Minero, Rey Campero, and Mezcaloteca continued to prime the North American pump: They’re being poured at tastings like this one because they’re not completely certified yet. The word is they will be legal and in stores soon. When? That depends on the TTB but it could be as soon as summer. It’s the same line up you may have tasted at Mexico in a Bottle with things like the Real Minero Largo, Rey Campero Jabili, and Mezcaolteca’s Espadin with cacao. I’m sure they will strike a cord with many an aficionado and be the gateway taste for anyone new to mezcal.
Mezcal Wahaka’s line up at Ruta de Mezcal
Wahaka’s Raza Zaidi was pouring their line up including the two vegan pechugas from their “limited editions” series. They are indeed limited, once gone, gone forever, and since they’re almost out of stock grab your bottles today. Wahaka will be releasing a four new bottles in that series which should be really interesting. This is where their mezcalero Berto gets to experiment. More of that please! The new bottles in the limited edition series should be on store shelves soon. Again, when exactly depends on the TTB.
A few more photos from the tasting:
Jake Lustig, fresh back from Agave Love in Australia, was pouring Don Amado and Mina Real mezcals
A group photo of all the bar tenders, brand ambassadors, and related folks from Ruta del Mezcal II.
It’s officially closing time as bartenders lit the fumes from a greater than 50% bottle of mezcal and watched the flames burn down the bottle.
We are Susan Coss and Max Garrone. We like mezcal and think you should to. We are committed to telling the story of mezcal within the context of its history and cultural connection. We also think education should be fun and delicious. And we are deeply committed to supporting the craft of production and the people who work tirelessly to bring us mezcal.
We write this blog and conduct mezcal tastings from small monthly to events to our annual Mezcal: Mexico in a Bottle event, which is the largest mezcal event in the United States.
Susan Coss is a long time marketing and communications strategist in the world of sustainable food and beverages. She was most recently the Director of Marketing and PR for CUESA, the organization that runs the world famous Ferry Plaza Farmers market in San Francisco. She is also a co-founder and former director of the Eat Real Festival, that drew more than 250,000 people in its first three years. She has spent time in Oaxaca since 2003 and has established food and beverage relationships all over California, Mexico and Washington, DC. She has a degree in Agricultural Economics from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Max Garrone has been a journalist and editor who covered events as diverse as presidential elections and the meaning of David Lynch’s movies for publications like Salon.com and SFGate.com. He is currently a content strategist and digital media consultant.
To chat or find the answer to your niggling mezcal question just email us!