There is a debate going around in the mezcal community (yes, there is a community for pretty much everything – are you a member of the A-Rod’s Homeopathic Treatments Club?) about what the definition is of Traditional Mezcal. I think I know where this started, and I am certain it will not end here, but I wanted to throw my hat in the ring on this debate.
For the most part, I think this whole debate is a problem of nomenclature. The nomenclature part is simple: as soon as you say one thing is “traditional”, that means everything else is not. The problem is that many news outlets, websites, and blogs picked up a recent piece of literature on traditional mezcal, and they are publishing it as gospel. I think there is more to the story. Let’s see if we can sort it out.
There seem to be two schools of thought on this topic, which I will call the Mezcal Purists and the Mezcal Pragmatists. And in this corner we have….
The most recent aspect of the debate was initiated by Pedro Jimenez Gurria. Pedro is the founder of Mezonte, which publishes a guide to what traditional mezcal is. This guide was distributed at the recent Tales of the Cocktails event in New Orleans, and it was subsequently picked up by various news outlets, websites, etc. This ignited some controversy. So what is Mezonte? From Pedro:
“Mezonte is an organization that we created to protect and spread information about traditional mezcales through tastings, videos, texts, academic, biological, cultural, gastronomica aspects, conversations, etc.”
OK, got that. Mezonte is trying to be a positive force for mezcal, and in particular traditional mezcal, as they have defined “traditional.” So again, my first take on this topic is that there is a HUGE nomenclature issue. As soon as you start defining “traditional mezcal”, particularly in a limiting fashion, it means all other mezcals are not traditional, and this is a problem. I say “limiting fashion” because this is how Mezonte has defined traditional mezcal – this is also what I would call the Purist Manifesto:
1. Look for ‘100% de agave’ in the label.
2. Minimum alcohol content to be 45% (90 proof).
3. Label should indicate the exact provenance (village or state) of the mezcal, as well as the type of maguey used and the mezcal’s craftsman, or maestro.
4. Shake the bottle to check for the formation of bubbles, or pearls. If no pearls form, do not buy the mezcal unless alcohol content is 55% or higher. You can also do this by pouring the mezcal from one glass to another.
5. If a mezcal shows an amber colour, do not buy that mezcal. It’s either rested (reposado) or aged (anejado) in wood or artificial colouring. In either cases the flavour and delicate aromas of the mezcal are destroyed.
6. Rub a drop of mezcal between your hands. As it evaporates you will be able to smell the aroma of cooked maguey. If it’s a bad mezcal it would smell like alcohol or nothing at all.
7. Smell the mezcal before drinking it. You will find the aroma you sensed when rubbing it between your hands. Different aromas will soon become apparent. Keep your mouth closed as you initially breathe in the scent, and open it to fully recognise the aromas.
8. Take a small sip, rinsing your mouth with the mezcal for ten seconds, exhaling its vapour through your nose. Swallow the first sip and focus on the flavour coming to life on your palate. Do this a couple of times more and after several minutes your palate will be blossoming with the flavour of cooked maguey.
Mezonte says that this is not their list per se, but the generally accepted criteria to describe traditional mezcal. You can see why some of this is controversial: the points on 45% ABV and aging in particular stand out. It is one thing to provide a limiting definition. It is another to make pejorative statements like, “If a mezcal shows an amber colour, do not buy that mezcal”, and “delicate aromas of the mezcal are destroyed.” These are inflammatory statements. The list could simply say: “Traditional mezcals are not aged” and leave it at that. I will come back to this, but further to these points, Pedro provided this additional information via an FB post:
“There are in a certain way 3 different kind of mezcales…
1. Industrial, that are made by industrial technology such as autoclave, thousands of liters, with a chemical engineer instead of a maestro mezcalero, well, you know what I’m talking about.
2. Artisanal. That can be made by maestros mezcaleros and some traditional techniques but is made basically for selling, not for self consumption, so their goal is more to make money (not that is something wrong about it if you do it responsibly) over the purity of the tradition.
3. Traditional. Those that keep doing it for hundreds of years with ripe agaves, without any conservatives, fertilizers, artificial colors, sweeteners, and other stuff. They only use underground ovens, natural fermentation (without any kind of accelerators), discontinuous distillation. But most of all, they are made for the communities where they are produced and represent that, an identity of a whole community. Just as their language, their traditional clothes, their rituals. These mezcales are another cultural aspect to these communities.”
So the key difference between Artisanal and Traditional is one of commercial motivation and pursuits? One is made for the community and one is not? I would suggest that most of the premium brands found in the U.S. are made as he describes in number 3. The only differences being that the mezcals may be below 45% ABV, they may have aged varieties, and they are likely capitalists (oh, the shame of it all!). I am OK with the substance of the difference, but again, the fact that one is called Traditional is the problem.
And how about this: if a Traditional Mezcal is made only for the community, why are these brands appearing on the market? If it is truly a traditional mezcal, then it would not be for sale in the U.S. or anywhere outside of the community. As soon as that mezcalero takes it out of the community and puts a price on it, doesn’t that invalidate its traditional mezcal status???!! I think this highlights the absurdity of the distinctions.
Maybe we should call these mezcals Community Mezcals? That is probably a better descriptor and eliminates the unnecessary distinction of calling some traditional and others not.
I think most people with a vested interest in quality mezcal want the history, tradition, and production methods to be honored, utilized, and maintained. This is what makes mezcal authentic. We don’t want to change that. So I think it is great that organizations like Mezonte exist to promote the culture of mezcal, I just believe they are creating unnecessary and artificial distinctions which may potentially hurt the people they are trying to help.
Overall, I am sure Pedro and Mezonte are doing great things, and they are not alone in the Purist encampment, and as I said, I believe their mezcal intentions to be good. Pedro has a mezcaleria in Guadalajara, Pare de Sufrir, which I would love to see!
Other establishments and individuals support the Purist view. In Oaxaca, La Mezcaloteca, a well- known bar, tasting room, and library, lists essentially these same factors as to what makes a traditional mezcal. (They also, by the way, have their own brand that happens to fit these criteria – on Wall St., we call that talking your book).
I have also seen Purist views which suggest mezcal should not be consumed in cocktails. Ulises Torrentera, who has recently released an updated English language version of his book, Mezcalaria, The Cult of Mezcal, said “cocktails are the fanciest manner to degrade mezcal.” (from his book). No offense Ulises, but that is a bunch of crap. The cocktail movement has been integral to mezcal’s popularity, and to have that view is counter to the desire to grow the category, which brings jobs, income, and overall economic benefit to the people of Mexico.
(A note on Ulises: I do not know him personally, but I know many who do and they speak of him with great reverence. He is a walking encyclopedia on all things mezcal, and I am sure he has forgotten more about mezcal than most of us will ever know. I read this well-researched book, but I was put off by his anti-cocktail comments, his disparaging of aged mezcals, and his apparent distaste for even quality brands that have capitalistic motivations. A balanced review on the book can be found HERE. My review would not be so kind, and I would say it is not worth your time, though spending time with him would definitely be worth your time. I guess, however, after those comments, he would have no interest in spending time with me!).
The Purist camp is certainly represented by well-respected people within the mezcal community (like Pedro, Ulises, Ron Cooper from Del Maguey). New small-batch brands are coming out of the Oaxacan hills that emphasize their “traditional” mezcals. I recently had a lengthy email exchange with one of the owners of such a mezcal brand, and he was making the case that his brand is a traditional mezcal and that it is very important for me and everyone else to know and appreciate the difference between a traditional mezcal and everything else. He summarized his thoughts with this:
“When up in the hills of Oaxaca exploring palenques, if you want to buy a mezcal from a mezcalero he will use a jicara and a “venencia” to show you if the mezcal has pearls that will stay on the surface after the mezcal has been vigorously streamed in to the jicara from the venencia. They call this “cordon” which means (not quite literally) closed ring (of bubbles). No person from the mezcal region would ever buy a mezcal that didn’t foam up with perlas and have “cordón.” To be clear that if you don’t see “cordón”, the mezcal is either below 48 or above 53%. The basis of this as well is that its nearly impossible to make a good mezcal below 48% without adding water at the end. Of course, the purists say mezcal with water isn’t mezcal.”
This is a very powerful argument, and it has merit. But does adding water at the end mean the mezcal was not produced in a traditional way? I think that is open for debate, but my view is that this is a choice a mezcalero or brand makes about the flavor profile (or economics perhaps) that they want to bring to the market. Clearly, as the brand owner above describes, the taste profile moves around as you sample mezcals ranging from 38-55% ABV, and that is where preference comes in, but that does not mean the mezcal was not produced in a traditional fashion with authenticity and integrity? Not in my view.
Also, this brand owner feels it is important for people to understand that his is a traditional mezcal. But is it really if he is producing it for commercial purposes? The Purists might disqualify him! I think he should be stressing that his mezcal is produced in a traditional way, as opposed to promoting it as a “traditional mezcal”. See the difference? His mezcal is excellent by the way….
Much of the Purist argument also comes down to ABV content and whether aging is blasphemous or not. Let’s look at those two components.
If a 40% ABV mezcal has been produced in an artisanal fashion (the same way as it has been for 400yrs) and water is added at the end to achieve the desired flavor profile, does that alter that fact that it is a traditionally produced mezcal? I don’t think so. Also, do we really not think that this has been a common practice throughout the ages? I don’t know, but it seems likely that somewhere in the past 400yrs, some mezcal producers added water to adjust the flavor of their product. Maybe not.
Let’s take a look at some of the more common and popular brands on the market and do an ABV test:
- Del Maguey Vida. 42% ABV. Granted this is their “mass market” mezcal, the other Del Maguey’s are all 45% ABV or higher, and owner Ron Cooper has been heard to be a Mezcal Purist. But still, if he really felt that 45%+ ABV was a defining factor, would he let this exist at 42%?
- Ilegal. All 40% ABV.
- Los Nahuales. All 42%.
- Sombra. 45%.
- Mezcales de Leyenda. 40-42%.
- Fidencio. 40-44%.
- Wahaka. 40-42%.
- Scorpion. 40%
- Pierde Almas. 47%+.
- Los Amantes. 40%.
- El Buho. 43%.
- Montelobos. 43%
See my point? These are probably the brands that I see the most in bars, restaurants, and liquor stores. They are almost all under 45%, and for the most part, they are produced in a very traditional fashion. The people behind these brands are deeply passionate about mezcal, and maintaining the rich history and culture of our beloved spirit. Do you want to tell them their mezcal is not a “traditional mezcal” when it is traditionally made? This “traditional mezcal” label is a problem – again, it is the nomenclature.
Now to be fair, there are many more brands in the market that are north of 45%. They are excellent and traditionally made – brands like Mezcal Union, El Koch, Siete Misterios, Real Minero, and many more. This is great as far as I am concerned. There should be mezcals for all palates. Which brings me to aged mezcals….
Wow. This topic amazes me. The fact that some would claim that a traditionally produced mezcal is not, in fact, a traditional mezcal because it has been aged in oak barrels blows my mind. So you cook the pinas in earthen pits, you crush them in a Tahona, you ferment them in oak vats with airborne yeasts, and then you distill it in say a clay pot, and voila! You have a traditional mezcal. Now let’s say you are a producer that wants to bring a range of taste profiles to market so you decide to age some of it in oak barrels for some number of months to create a reposado and an anejo. In this case let’s also say the result is beautiful with great complexity and tastes of vanilla, cinnamon, chocolate and cooked agave. It is wonderful, but do you no longer have a traditional mezcal because you have chosen to age it in oak? To me, that would be one odd conclusion.
- Los Nahuales Traditional Mezcals – Joven, Repo, and Anejo
So clearly I feel aged mezcals fall comfortably into the traditional mezcal category. Some may claim that aging mezcal is a relatively new phenomena, and therefore not part of mezcal culture. Now I am not a historian, but I find it hard to believe that somewhere along the way in the past 400 years, a few mezcaleros did not purposely store and age their mezcals in oak barrels with the intention of altering the taste profile.
But setting aside technicalities and even the possibility that mezcals really have never been aged throughout history, I say “so what?” Let’s assume aging is new to mezcal. If it is produced in a traditional way, why would aging obliterate that fact? Also, all mezcal producers, brands, marketers, and parties with a vested interest should be encouraging the growth of the category. Shouldn’t we all want to attract new imbibers to mezcal? Of course we should! Don’t we want the person who enjoys a nice, peaty, aged Scotch like Laphroig to give mezcal a try? Or the guy who enjoys Pyrat XO Reserve Rum? Or cognac? Or bourbon? Or whiskey? Many spirits have aged categories. Aged variations expand the category. It is really that simple. Don’t we want the category to flourish if it is produced with integrity and authenticty?
Why anyone would discourage that for mezcal – especially when produced in a traditional fashion – is beyond me. Finally, on aging, I would simply suggest that you try a few aged mezcals yourself. There are a fair number of brilliant, artisanal, hand-crafted premium reposados and anejos on the market – Sacacuento, Ilegal, Los Nahaules, El Tieneblo, Los Amantes, and Espiritu Lauro to name a few. Try them. You will find that the aging adds depth and complexity while still maintaining the character of the mezcal.
All of this LONG discussion leads me to the …..
I know I have already tipped my hand as to which camp I fall into, but you can still be your own judge. Also, I guess the use of the term “Pragmatists” itself, is prejudicial against those that are not pragmatic in my view. It is not meant to be the case (OK, maybe it is!), but I could not come up with a better term. I just view this group as practical in how they view the mezcal world. Maybe what we should all be discussing is what makes a QUALITY Mezcal?
As you will see, my list of what makes a Quality Mezcal is similar to the Mezonte list – taking out a few things and adding a few others.
What Makes a Quality Mezcal? (aka the Mezcal PhD Manifesto):
- Must be 100% agave. Yeah buddy.
- Must have an ABV consistent with the mezcal NORMA (36-55%). Logical.
- Preferably the label will contain the state of origin, type of agave plant and name of the maestro mezcalero, or mezcal master.
- Aged mezcals add diversity and excitement to the category.
- Pinas (the heart of the agave plant) are roasted in the ground in stone-lined earthen pits. Of course.
- Crushed by hand or a Tahona (a large stone wheel).
- Fermented in open air vats with airborne yeast.
- Distilled in copper or clay pots.
- Produced on a Palenque, or farm, and not in an industrialized process.
- Mezcal cocktails, while a relatively new method to consume mezcal, are awesome and integral to the new found appreciation and discovery of mezcal.
- Mezcal is brilliant, historical, cultural and fun. Don’t take it too seriously.
Of course, my last two points have nothing to do with the producing aspects of mezcal, but I think they are important to modern mezcal culture.
From the recent FB brawl that tackled this discussion, I know there are many people in the Pragmatist camp. They are as deeply passionate and knowledgable about mezcal as the Purists, they just have a different view. People like Andrew Says of Liberty Bar in Seattle, Casey Robison of Barrio Mexican Kitchen and Bar also in Seattle, brand owners like Stephen Myers of Ilegal, Arik Torren of Fidencio, John Henry of El Buho, and on and on.
So those are my thoughts on the Pragmatists. Let’s bring it all together now…
As discussed, clearly I am not a full blown Mezcal Purist, though I agree with many of those views. I believe the historic production process should be maintained, as we do not want to go down the path of the industrialization of mezcal. That would ruin it.
On the other hand, I don’t think people should be so rigid in their thinking as to be divisive to the mezcal category, by prosthelytizing and defining a term like “traditional mezcal” in an absolutist fashion, I don’t think anyone benefits.
If Mezonte and others feel their 8 point list is truly worth preservation, that’s great. Let’s just call it something that does not divide the category, create friction between authentic brands, and add unnecessary confusion to the developing consumer base. Again, I think Community Mezcal captures the spirit of the distinction. Then bartenders, brand owners, liquor store owners, and all could simply say that “typically Community Mezcals have a higher ABV content and are not aged.” How easy is that? It is clear and not prejudicial.
Of course, the best approach is simply to call everything mezcal, and then talk about some of the defining characteristics of a quality mezcal. Brand owners and producers can readily talk about the factors that differrentiate their products. The mezcal market is growing quickly, and the sooner that the stake holders get on the same page, the better it will be for the category. We can honor, respect, and be true to the traditional ways of mezcal AND assist the commercial growth of the category by allowing for a wide variety of ABV content and acknowledging that aging mezcal in barrels has a place in today’s market, among other differentiating factors.
Man, this is one long post. If you made it this far, you deserve a Traditional Mezcal….ahhhh, er, I mean a Community Mezcal, ahhh, a Quality Mexcal? No, simply a mezcal, produced in an authentic way! Enjoy!