Mezcal used to be the ugly stepsister to Tequila, a tough-as-nails, screaming hot barbed wire of a drink with a worm in it to challenge the machismo. Artisan Mezcal from Mexico's Oaxaca region, has captured the imagination of agave connoisseurs who are as taken by its humble Indian origins as its newfound elegance and individuality. The credit to this goes to the Del Maguey line of top-notch Mezcals, which continue to impress.
The Revolutionary Artisan Mezcals of Del Maguey
Mezcal, once the ugly stepsister to tequila, was best known for getting drunk enough to eat the worm in the bottle. The agave spirit was hot as hell and rough to swallow as barbed wire, and it challenged the machismo of every fraternity pledge from Seattle to Ensenada.
Unless one had vacationed in the southern Mexican Oaxaca region, there was nearly no awareness of the attempts to make fine Mezcal using traditional methods, in small batches for those willing to spend a little more and appreciate its really remarkable and distinctive character.
Los Angeles artist Ron Cooper became fascinated with Mezcal while surfing and hanging out in the cantinas near the Pacific beaches of southern Mexico. His fascination with the smoked agave spirit led him inland, eventually to the remote mountain villages of Oaxaca where local Zapotec Indians have made potions from the fermented Espadin Agave pulque for a millenia. (20 to 28 agave varieties can be used in Mezcal, but only a handful are harvested for that purpose, Espadin making up 90 to 95% of the production.)
Distilling the fermented pulque after burying the heart of the plant and baking it in the fires of local oak, is primarily what makes Mezcal different from any other Agave beverage in Mexico. Cooper soon discovered that a handful of villages produced exceptional Mezcals, distinctive from one another, distilling twice (one more than required), and the seed was planted to import and market these artisan spirits to the U.S., and later the world.
Until Del Maguey's founding in 1995, Mezcal had the reputation of a rustic, smokier, rougher version of tequila, notoriously bottled with a worm in it. Then Cooper revolutionized artisan Mexcal, and paved the way for other artisans to follow.
Because of its baking process with oak, Mezcal has a distinctive smoky aroma and flavor which sets it apart from its more famous spirit to the north. In the case of Del Maguey, Ron Cooper has cultivated trusting relationships with Zapotec Indians from four villages who harvest their Agave at the 6,500 to 8,500 foot elevation (think of the mountains above Big Bear Lake to get a sense of the heighth).
Each bottle of village Mezcal from Del Maguey sports a colorful label created by the late L.A. artist Ken Price which is as individually distinctive as the spirit inside. The entry-level Mezcals are named Vida, bottled at 84 proof, and the slightly sweet Crema de Mezcal, bottled at 80 proof. The four "village Mezcals" are identified by the village names of their origin, and are bottled above 90 proof.
One rare super-premium bottling, the Tobola, is made from wild mountain Agave harvested in high mountain forests over three months and carted down by burros.
The two exceptional ultra-premium bottlings are made just once a year, and their premium prices reflect their specialness and rarity.
I had a chance to sample the range of these exceptional drinks recently, and here are my impressions.
Del Maguey Mezcal Vida
Bottled at 84 proof, the Vida bottling is designed as an entry-level Mezcal for those new to the genre, and those connoisseurs wishing to use high quality Mezcal in cocktails. Made in the village of San Luis del Rio, it has a nose like a cold fireplace, and a similar taste that seems to amplify in the finish.
$36.99 per bottle
Del Maguey Mezcal San Luis del Rio
The San Luis del Rio uses the same base material as the Vida bottling, only with a higher proof, at 94 degrees. Del Maguey describes the village's locale:
Two hours south of Oaxaca on a two-lane, pot holed highway on route to the Gulf of Tehuantepec is the turnoff to San Luis Del Rio. One takes another 2 hours on a winding, rocky, dirt road. The pueblo is located in a narrow, hot valley, with steep slopes full of Maguey Espadin. The Rio Hormiga Colorada (Red Ant River) flows through it. You may see Paciano Cruz Nolasco, tending his fields. Above the large fields of Maguey, the tops of the mountains are scattered with cornfields, Iguanas crawling across the road, the trees and cactus with Bromeliads growing on them.
It has a more subtle character, lightly smoked, and a faint floral perfume, and a bit more focused in flavor and texture.
$72.99 per bottle
Del Maguey Mezcal Chichicapa
Chichicapa is the original Del Maguey bottling. The pueblo elevation is 7,000 ft. in a broad valley with a desert and tropical micro-climate. At 92 proof, Mezcal Chichicapa exhibits a very appealing perfume, part smoke, part floral, part fruit. The flavor is smoky, but the fruit comes through. A warm finish.
$72.99 per bottle
Del Maguey Mezcal Minero
Named for the silver mines in the region, Minero uses rudimentary distillation, utilizing clay pots and bamboo pipes instead of copper distillation in its process. This exceptional Mezcal has a terrific aroma of flowers and light smoke. Bottled at 98 proof, it has a round texture which gives it a luxurious mouthfeel.
$72.99 per bottle
Del Maguey Mezcal Santo Domingo Albarradas
The village of Santo Domingo Albarradas is located 8,200 feet above sea level, and it is the home of this disctinctive Mezcal. Santo Domingo Albarradas is located in the Mixe (pronounced Mee-Hay) region south of Oaxaca. The Mixe is a high altitude tropical zone closely resembling parts of Hawaii. Tropical plants and fruits grow here beside rushing mountain streams. Cool gray mists blow through the valleys and pine trees also grow nearby. Bottled at 96 proof, it has a perfume all its own, with a smooth, focused texture, and a smoky thread going down the middle.
$72.99 per bottle
Del Maguey Mezcal Tobala "The Wild Mountain Maguey"
This nearly mystical bottling requires the most work to make happen. Harvested during three months scouring forests on steep hillsides, some at 45 degree angles, the wild agave is brought down the mountain by burros and made at Santo Domingo Albarradas. There is almost a piney note to the aroma. Luxurious texture, smoky flavor, and a kick of heat at the end. Del Maguey reports that only 600 bottles are made each year.
$123.99 per bottle
Del Maguey Mezcal Pechuga
When I first tasted the Pechuga bottling several years ago, I wrote that it was the finest Mezcal I had ever put my lips to. Sampling it more recently, I was equally impressed. Made just once a year at the village of Minero, and triple-distilled the spirit is cooked with wild apples, plums and raw rice, then a chicken breast is hung above the vat. Here is a fuller description of the process.
Pechuga begins with Minero mezcal that has already been double distilled. In preparation for a third distillation they place about 100 liters of mezcal in the still and add about 100 kilos of wild mountain apples and plums, big red plantain bananas, pineapples, a handful of almonds and a few pounds of uncooked white rice. Next, a whole chicken breast (pechuga), skin removed, bone structure complete, is washed in running water for about three hours to remove any grease. This is then suspended by strings in the atmosphere of the still and a 24 hour, third distillation is begun. The vapor passes over the pechuga and condenses into a crystal clear liquid that has an amazing taste and smoothness. The reason for the breast they say, is so the mezcal is not dominated by the fruit…a balance. Upon completion the pechuga is removed from the still and hung in the family Altar room…the most important space in the house.
At 98 proof, the Pechuga has a terrific aroma and offers balanced, clean flavors. A privilege to drink.
$194.99 per bottle
Del Maguey Mezcal Iberico
A newer addition to the Del Maguey range, the Iberico is made like the Pechuga at the village of Minero, with wild apples, plums and raw rice, then instead of a chicken breast hanging over the distillate, an imported Spanish Iberico ham performs that function. The triple distilled beverage has a fabulous complex aroma that had the faintest suggestion of the Iberico along with fruit and smoke. In the mouth, it is round and luxurious, with an equally complex flavor. A revolutionary, wonderful drink to be savored.
$194.99 per bottle
Del Maguey Founder Ron Cooper's Three Tips to Enjoying Premium Mezcal
1) Sip it. Don’t shoot it.
2) Always warm your palate first. Smell the mezcal first. If it is low and sweet on the nose; chances are there are no chemicals. If it goes to the top of the inside of your nose up by your eyes… Look out! Start with a very small sip, keeping your mouth closed to let no air in, press your tongue up to the roof of your mouth and into your teeth and let the mezcal slide den the sides of your tongue. Swallow. Savor the taste and mouth feel for at least a minute. Smack your lips. Move your tongue around in your mouth, feeling taste in various areas. Your palate will then be tuned up. You will notice on the second sip, how different it was from the first. You only have to do this when you start sipping and thereafter sip normally.
3) I always recommend taking your time and sipping slowly and paying attention to how mezcal feels and tastes in different areas of your tongue and mouth, how it warms your chest and how long the finish is. The worst vessels to sip from are caballos, brandy snifters, wine glasses and tumblers (straight sided glasses) as they intensify and reflect the alcohol and lose all the subtle fruit, vegetal, mineral and earth overtones. The best vessels are our clay sipping copitas, a saki cup, a martini glass, a classic grappa tulip or a half jicara as they have an open form and do not concentrate the nose. Don’t forget 90% of tasting is in the nose.
--from Del Maguey's website