A crash course into the process of mezcal production

Mezcalication

“Mmmm…I’m getting some earthy notes, a bit of pine, and…chicken?”

Mezcal has a flavor profile as complex as its history. What assaults your tastebuds as a smokey, powerful distillate, slowly fades to a parade of Oaxacan minerals, mesquite ash, and coniferous spice dancing about your cheeks and gums. But mezcal was not always produced for the palette…   

…it was a bit more like moonshine. The agave, or maguey, extract dates back 500 years to the arid valleys of Oaxaca, and like it’s American relative, is strong enough to make a man go blind. Which made it an attractive option for Mexico’s working class - ranchers, pavers, custodians - to catch a cheap buzz. If you ask a Mexican outside of Oaxaca about mezcal, they’ll usually laugh. Until the rise of artesenal mezcal in 2008, you’d be more likely to find a bottle propped against a slumbering barracho than a liquor store shelf.

But the Oaxacans have always taken their mezcal seriously, and its recent commercial popularity has allowed distillers to share their craft with the world. We had a chance to tag along with Xavier Amado, the fresh-face of Don Amado artesenal mezcal, on a tour of the brand’s palenque (translated: distillery) for an afternoon of indulgent education.

The Don Amado palenque is hidden in Santa Catarina Minas, a small town about 25 miles south of Oaxaca City, and away from the more popular mezcal-producing towns of Santa Marta and Mitla. We arrived to Minas a few minutes before noon, just after our first cup of coffee - the perfect time to start drinking.

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When you’re accustomed to visiting distilleries with sparkling stainless steel fixtures and elaborate instruments, the rustic Don Amado palenque makes you feel like a bit of a cowboy. But this is what makes it artesenal. Piñas, or agave hearts, encircle conical stone ovens where workers meticulously remove wood ash from the previous roast. Clay and copper stills balance on worn brick ovens from which freshly distilled mezcal can be captured by the palm of a cupped hand. Rows of glass jugs hand-labeled joven, reposado, or añejo are flanked by white oak casks in the dimly lit cava. Each process - the roasting, the distilling, the bottling - is done by hand, and has been perfected over 11 generations of family craftsmanship at Don Amado. 

A Crash Course

For those of you looking to get into the artesenal mezcal business, we’re providing the following tutorial free of charge. You’ll just need to wait seven years to harvest your first agave. 

There are over 200 species of agave, about 30 of which are used to make the high-octane Mexican elixir. The most commonly used species, espadín, accounts for over 90% of total production and takes anywhere from 7-12 years to mature. Arroqueño, which looks much like it’s spiny espadín cousin, can take up to 25 years to mature. Needless to say, the increasing popularity of mezcal is posing a serious sustainability issue for Oaxaca and the eight other mezcal producing regions of Mexico. But that’s for another, more sober time.

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Once a maguey has reached maturity, often signaled by a phallic protrusion from the plant’s center, a jimador will remove its leaves with a machete, leaving behind only the naked piña (don’t look right at it…). The piñas, which can each weigh up to 200 pounds, are effortlessly corralled by the jimadors and loaded onto a truck for an old-fashioned cookout back at the palenque. Super old-fashioned. The rudimentary stone pits, each of which is roughly 8 feet deep by 10 feet wide, are filled with a hand-chopped mesquite wood base. The piñas are then rolled atop the smoldering wood bed, covered with a soil and fiber blanket, and incubated for two, three…perhaps four? days. This is what gives mezcal its famous smoky profile, and where the five century-old craftsmanship is on full display. The mezcaleros decide the piñas are ready…when they’re ready - uncovering the earthen blanket to poke, prod, and sniff the nude flora until the perfect tenderness has been achieved. 

Once cooked, the piñas are removed from their radiant cocoon and allowed to cool for one or two days, after which they are pulverized into a stringy, fibrous soup. Some very traditional palenques will mash the cooked piñas using a horse-drawn stone wheel, but Don Amado uses a more modern mechanical milling method (think: wood chipper). The agave fibers and juices are then transferred to giant wooden vats, which, when full of crushed piñas, look something like a massive applesauce bath. The fermentation process unfolds in these vats over the course of three to four days through naturally occurring strains of yeast native to Oaxaca’s mountains and deserts.

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So now we’ve got about 1,000 pounds of fermented agave soup - time to start distilling. At Don Amado, they use both traditional clay and more efficient copper stills to purify the potion. Since we’re observing tradition, we’ll examine distillation for our favorite Don Amado offering: pechuga. Historically, pechuga, meaning breast, is distilled with raw chicken or turkey mammaries, but Don Amado’s buttery smooth vegan variety is produced in the hand-molded clay stills with an assortment of fruits, nuts, and spices.

The clay still, containing fermented fibers and “breast”, is heated from below by a brick oven, which causes contents of the still to vaporize. Atop the brick oven sits a mezcalero who greets the rising vapor with a cold bath. The bath is run over a steel pan covering the still so that when rising vapors contact the cool metal, they condense. Condensed liquid runs back down the side of the still, through a cantilever bamboo pipe, and into a catchment vase. Or your hand. Because the end product, is mezcal…sort of. The distillation process must be repeated twice before the mezcal is bottled. The labor-intensive method comes at a price: a bottle of Don Amado pechuga is sold for $90 USD. But you get what you pay for.

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A Smoky Future

Like wine, mezcal gets its flavor from the earth in which the agave is sown. And whatever Don Amado has in his backyard, we’re digging. Xavier shared four different Don Amado offerings with us: pechuga, arroqueño, rustíco, and añejo. They were all distinct and delicious. When asked his favorite, Xavier coyly replied, “It’s like asking what’s my favorite breakfast. It just depends on my mood. But I’m always in the mood for mezcal.” We don’t disagree.

Projections for Don Amado and other artesenal mezcals are promising. The U.S. market, which amassed $126 million in 2015 sales versus just $10 million in 2005, is expected to grow by another 18% by 2022. And with seemingly every hip bar across the U.S. adding mezcal cocktails to the menu, this number feels a bit low. Especially when they’ve got two new American zealots ready to buy by the truckload.

Tequila?

Side note: tequila, made exclusively from blue agave, is one of the 30 aforementioned species. Tequila has a distinct preparation process, but falls under the umbrella of mezcal - so when you’re drinking tequila, you’re really drinking mezcal! Though, mezcal producers have picked up some notes of success from the tequila industry. Historically, mezcal was only produced in the joven or blanco variety - bottled directly after the double-distillation process. But with rising interest in artesenal mezcal, producers decided to replicate the popularity of reposado and añejo tequilas and age mezcal in oak barrels. Don Amado’s tasty añejo mezcal is aged in a brandy cask for over a year.

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And thanks!

Special thanks to Anna Bruce, our wonderful photographer friend, for making the visit to Don Amado possible. Her work is on display here for your viewing pleasure, and if you like what you see, there’s more! Check out her website at: www.annabruce.photos and photos on Instagram @annabruce.photos

Kyle Hilken