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!
[…] a mezcal producer in Michoacán. I also left you with homework, class: did you read the article linked here? Give it a once-over, if you didn’t already, and then let’s get going down the road. […]
[…] Among people who drink mezcal and study its history, origins, and traditions, there is a good bit of controversy regarding its production and destinations. Until next week, I leave you with your homework: read the linked article so that you will know what the controversies are. Whether or not these matter to you is entirely up to you. Remember that the article is strictly about the mezcales of Oaxaca. Photo and article (click the link here) courtesy MezcalPhD. […]
El Jolgorio’s maestro here says that before all the plastic showed up, traditionally, mezcal was stored in barrels…
Not for the purposes of aging, but for storage. So, there’s an interesting take on the whole ‘do not drink aged mezcal’ discussion, because surely some barrel effect happened.
Mezcal the Cognac of Mexico:
The Spanish introduced the copper still to Mexico .
They drank brandy from the ships rations until it ran out . When it ran out the they distlled the local raw materials, agave, and made mezcal.
What did they put it in ?
There were no stainless steel vats . There were no plastic drums ( which by the way is what the Traditional palanques store their mezcal in) . So what did they put the liquid in ?????????
The oak barrels that they had on their ships which previously stored their Spanish Brandy. What did this container do to the mezcal???? It aged it and made it a brown spirit.
Thus the phrase the Cognac of Mexico . Cognac is a brown spirit.
Community mezcal is made for the purpose of makeing money . Those guy bust their ass producing mezcal to sell it . ie Make money . They are not doing it out of comunity spirit . They have families to feed .
Alocohol content ?? All the palenques and maestros that I know distill the mezcal at 50 to 80 % alcohol . So what is traditional or authentic alcohol content? Water added?? Maybe.
Thanks Doug. You know I am with you all the way. Let’s not confuse the market by getting on our high horses about what is traditional and what is not. Let’s tell the market about the time-honored, authentic, hand-crafted process that makes a great mezcal and let everyone enjoy it! Let’s educate that way. Drink mezcal!!
[…] really is what we in North America define as a craft or artisanal product, in Mexico it’s a traditional product. They only use three ingredients, all hand harvested: Organic sea salt from Colima, red agave […]
I greatly admire the substantive and well-mannered nature of these comments and your blog in general. Who would have thought that to restore my faith that civilized discussion was at all possible on the Internet would require visiting a blog about mezcal! I thoroughly enjoyed reading through this post and all the comments, accompanied by a glass of Del Maguey Chichicapa.
I very much understand your dislike of the way the term “traditional” is used, while appreciating the viewpoints of the other contributors as well. As a fellow American who appreciates good mezcal, I feel privileged that we can even obtain the spirit here in a form that isn’t completely dumbed-down and commercialized. Mezcal is one of the most complex spirits flavorwise that I’ve ever encountered, and in some ways I feel it’s a miracle you can even buy good mezcal in the US. I live in San Diego, and despite our proximity to Mexico, there still is a huge lack of knowledge about mezcal here (even among people of Mexican heritage). Thank you for the enlightening discussion.
I think you were spot on when you implied that the average consumer doesn’t care about word-play and semantics. Regardless of how it is labeled, the point is quality mezcal and ensuring that it can continue to be made in the same way, as opposed to switching to industrial methods that impact the flavor.
In regards to the aging debate, I tend to side with the so-called purists. You can make a mezcal completely in the traditional manner, but once you age it in barrels, the end result is no longer traditional. That does NOT imply it’s unworthy of being sold, just that such a product should not make any claims to being a traditional mezcal. And I think I understand from your writings that you too believe there’s little value in using that label at all, in the first place.
¡Viva el mezcal!
To me, traditional mezcal is this:
-Made from varieties of agave
-Thoroughly smoked using only firepits/”Earth ovens”
-Fermented only with wild yeast with ferment-access to open air (this allows other kinds of yeast and bacteria to thrive as well as normal “Saccharomyces cerevisiae”, creating complexity)
-Distilled only twice in a standard pot still with no other refining appartus (e.g. columns or cooling lines meant to force reflux)
-Diluted to no less than 35% and not too strong either (e.g. 55%>) since water allows spirits to be more aromatic
I appreciate Mezcal for these reasons as too many distilleries nowadays want to substitute with domesticated yeast, forced aging methods, columns etc., it’s simply not the same! The devil is in the details!
Well said. My only critique would be that the NORMA says the min ABV has to be 36%. Thanks for contributing!
And, of course, the “Distilled only twice…” part.
What about Pechuga?
Do the “traditionalists” say it must be distilled only twice? I am not sure I have heard that, but of course you are right that many pechugas are created on the third distillation (some on the second). It would be interesting if they say it must be distilled twice because that would clearly cut across the traditionalism of pechuga itself – which is a very traditional and celebratory expression. Let me know the source of the double distilled comments. Thanks!
Very interesting reading by all and enjoy the education and especially glad John introduced me to this wonderful libations.
Great post, very thoughtful and insightful information on the topic. I have a slightly different view of things having worked with almost every brand that’s come of age since launching our page http://www.mezcals.com.mx more than 3-years ago. For me I pretty much classify Traditional as something we don’t sell on our website because it wouldn’t generally be in a bottle with a label on it to begin with. That’s the stuff you go direct to the source for. The minute you bottle it I swear it looses some its magic. Most of the products we sell on our page fall into the Atesanal category primarily because most could be described as a “Quality Mezcal” by your definition and because they are COMERCAM certified. We don’t work with Industrial Mezcals but we have allowed some Semi-Industrials who deviate from traditional roasting and use intead steam ovens, mainly because you can make the argument that you get a more pure agave flavor with out the smoke by steaming verses roasting. I personally like a little roasted agave flavor in my Mezcals and prefer them higher proof not only because I find the flavors can be more interesting but also the effect. I can’t agree more about aged Mezcals and cocktails and wouldn’t leave out all the inspiring dishes Chefs are creating by cooking with Mezcal and the superb agave blends master distillers are making. I believe in the hands of a great mixologist, Chef, master blender, or someone who know how to age spirits, Mezcals can be savored, paired, mixed, blended or enjoyed neat without all the unnessisary fuss.
Great comments. There is definitely a theme here that the so-called Traditional mezcal would never see the commercial market. I get that. Can we call it something else (fighting a battle I will never win!)?
Well over a recent conversation with the producers of Jolgorio Mezcal who produce a line of wild agave Veritals, they define their brands as both Traditional and Artesanal which makes a lot of sense to me. Most great Mezcals are Artesanally produced and come from great traditions which have been celebrated over the generations as part their heritage. So to define process as Traditional is simply creating additional context behind how it’s made or celebrated in my opinion. So for example if you tell me a Mezcal is Traditional I’m going to assume the agaves were harvested on a full moon, or it was made especially to celebrate a special occasion over the years but either way most likely the process was Artesanal.
Good information and I like the input. I still wonder whether a “traditional” mezcal should really be finding its way to the market? Maybe in Mexico but it seems counter to the term “traditional” if it is sold in the U.S…..
great article on this Traditional vs Artisanal debate – must admit after reading, it definitely solidified my preference for a mezcal that was more “Tradicional” than commerically exploited. provecho
Las batallas por el mezcal:”Un mezcal tradicional es patrimonio, el conocimiento para producirlo se va heredando. Muchos mezcales comerciales no están respaldados por estos conocimientos y prácticas”
[…] piece up that has added fuel to the fire of an ongoing argument over how you define mezcal. This is his response to the piece by Mezonte that came out during this year’s Tales of the Cocktail in New […]
Greetings Mezcal PhD,
The best Mezcal is whatever Mezcal you have poured in front of you. That is the reality; the rest is literature.
Each Mezcal has it’s own history, tradition, flavor and story to tell. In my humble opinion, trying to enclose “The Mezcal” in a “manifesto” is equal to trying to do the same with a woman (or a man).
Mezcal is much more than Oaxaca, COMERCAM, brands, me, and a bunch of Mezcal geeks writing books, blogs or managing bars.
The literature and the knowledge that Ulises, tio Corne, Pedro or someone else tries to pass on to us is great and invaluable, but is definitely far away from the reality between a Maestro Mezcalero and his Agaves and his bank account (if he has one…), and you and your glass with Mezcal in front of your lips.
Nevertheless, I share the flag with the purist and pragmatics against the NOM 186.
Mayahuel is here, and she loves drama…
I love the flavor of this comment. Well said Eduardo. Thanks for contributing!
Many of these people that you have explicitly labeled Mezcal “purists” probably don’t want it to go the way of the tequila – a mass produced product (not all tequila but let us be honest and say most) & unsustainable maguey harvesting (which is currently a problem) – but guess this comes with the perils of popularity & world recognition
I find this blog from a NYC capialist embracing American passing along his opinion as to what is “tradicional” mezcal hilarious – even more funny is that I bet that you have never stepped foot in a palenque in the Denominacion de Origen de Mezcales & sipped joven mezcal straight from the still. Current archaelogical research in Colima has uncovered pits like that used of current mezcal producers. It it thought this discovery gives validity to the notion that Mezcal production existed before Spaniards stepped foot onto Mexico. It’s been hypothesized the still used clay pots and a tree trunk. It boggles the mind why a person can’t accept the fact that aging Mezcal in a wooden vessel was probably unheard of 400 years ago.
Besides anyone want to discuss what marcas de Mezcal being sold outside the Mezcal Denominacion of Origen are closer to “Tradicional” than the other term used “Artisanal’?
I am glad you find it hilarious. Part of the purpose is entertainment….success! I am indeed a proud NYC, mezcal-swilling, blog-posting capitalist. You too can start a blog and post your opinions and have people like you post unproductive comments. You seem to know so much – please enlighten us further with your vast and deep knowledge of all things agave….
Well, this is a long article about terms and definitions about mezcales examined by John McEvoy so it deserves a long comment to punctuate some aspects that I believe are misunderstood of have not enough information.
I have to say that I see in this article a dangerous thing about making those statements before making a deeper research, basically because it is a blog about mezcal and intends to inform to people about this cultural tradition. It seemed to me that you took some more radical position than what you called the purists!
I don’t believe I’m a purist about mezcal but I don’t care been called “purist”, actually I don’t care about labeling people in any way, but for the matter of argument let’s say I’m a purist. Even if that is so, I just want to clear that what MEZONTE intends to give the tools available for everybody who is interested in mezcal so they can know and choose between many types of mezcales out there and the work and history behind those mezcales.
Due to the fact tha basically the whole article is centered in the nomenclature and definition of mezcales (that I believe isn’t the most important aspect of mezcales) just want to make it clear once again that neither me, Mezonte, Mezcaloteca, U. Torrentera, any brand or anyone in particular came up with this term like naming a trend or to benefit any brand, or just like “hey, let’s call these mezcales TRADITIONAL!” … it was defined by certain historical, anthropological, biological, technological and cultural parameters and people working for decades with these mezcal tradition communities.
So, for example, if a traditional indigenous Wirrarika costume is made with embroidery linen blanket and has been used for hundreds of years and then someone decides to change it to printed polyester, well, they can be used or sold as Wirrarika costume, they can even make you feel more light or make you sweat less, but they’re jus NOT TRADITIONAL… or as in music, there can be an original track from Louis Armstrong and then the best DJ in the world can make a remix and put everybody to dance and introduce new people to L. Armstrong’s music… but it’s just NOT the ORIGINAL…
We’re NOT saying which is better or worse… that is completely up to YOU (all that drink mezcal), it depends on which one you lilke most and THAT will be the best mezcal for YOU!
The thing about making this clear (and to broadcast the guide to identify a TRADITIONAL mezcal) is for specific purposes: a) To let people know the different kinds of mezcales out there and their characteristics b) to preserve all types of mezcales, but since industrial and artisanal mezcales have a lot more exposition than traditional, we’re supporting the traditional so they won’t stop making them. NOT FOR THE PURPOSE OF SELLING IT! (Yeah, of course there are a LOT of brands that are selling their mezcales as traditional even if they aren’t).
So, even if you like more the aged IN BARREL (there are traditional mezcales aged in glass or clay) or under 45% mezcal, there is NO tradition before 1900’s in that… sorry! And in the facebook post that you mention I put a lot of bibliographical references you can look for to verify it. Actually even Tequila was made without barrel aging and at 50% (Lázaro Pérez, 1887)
Now, to specific points in your article:
1. When in the guide says that you shouldn’t buy a mezcal if it’s aged in barrel (or for that matter with an amber color)… remember we’re talking about TRADITIONAL mezcal, so if someone is trying to sell you a TRADITIONAL mezcal aged in barrel…. YEAH, SURE… DON’T BUY IT, it’s a deceive! That might be a great artisanal or industrial mezcal, but not a traditional one.
2. NO, the difference between artisanal and traditional mezcales is not Commercial motivation… both are intended to be sold… the difference is what is called Gusto Histórico (that means the long filter of years, recipes, knowledge, woods, water, technologies, microorganisms, weather, obviously agaves, soil, and the seasoning of the maestro mezcalero that have given a specific taste that has been accepted and identified as their own by the community)… basically that the people of this community with mezcal tradition acknowledge it and drink it… it is not made with the intention to sell it to other regions (not to say to export). It is made by the maestros mezcaleros for their communities, of course to be SOLD in their communites, for the day a day, holidays, different kinds of celebrations, etc.
This has to do with something that you say later when you say that if by selling them to other persons won’t be traditional anymore. Well, there are 4 things here:
a). The production of mezcal is a very hard work to do, and they will do it anyway, but if they’re making mezcal for a wedding and they only will use 30 lts, they won’t do all that hard work for only 30 lts, they’ll put what the oven can take and that may be 4 tons and that would represent, for example, 300 lts. They will try to sell the other 270 during the year, and if some people outside the community will buy it, well hell yeah, they will sell it to that person, but it will still be a traditional mezcal because it was made in that way…
b). Some brands can take those liters of mezcales and sell them… but as I’ve said, a LOT of mezcal brands AREN’T really traditional… they might be pretty good artisanal and probably more suitable for the commercial market.
c) When mezcales are then sent to try them in national or international
market things get a little bit tricky… If you now want to make an extra profit of these mezcales (either traditional, artisanal or industrial) they now have to deal with other aspects that doesn’t have to do with cultural matters but economical. If you’re exporting a mezcal, it depends to what country, there’s a fee you have to pay for each degree of alcohol in it, so obviously you won’t want to be very high, so you might look for lower proof even to the point of (in the best of cases) watering down the mezcal (that probably came out at 47%) down to whatever is your profit range you want to make. So, that’s that.
d) If you’re talking about making lower proof mezcal inside the country, a lot of maestros mezcaleros (with the intention of making ends meet) do 2 kinds of mezcales… one, the traditional and what they and their like to drink, and another one to sell it outside the community… so we could say that the same maestro mezcalero can make a traditional and an artisanal mezcal… is not that one is better than the other or this practice disquialify him… it’s just a different type of mezcal…
Now, once again, about the aging… I understand your concern about making market wider, attracting new imbibers, etc… it’s OK if you wanna try new flavors and make some mezcales in a more average taste, easier to enjoy… really, it isn’t about wrong or right… it’s about different…. those, once again, might be great for different palates, but… there is NO tradition in that… As you say that you are not a historian, neither am I, but I’ve done my homework and research in different documents and talking to people that are historians, anthropologists, etc, and as I wrote in the FB comments, aging in wood became a circunstancial in some regions (at late 1800’s) for storage, not that much for flavor searching… and then for transportation (mostly tequila to the US at the alcohol prohibition at 1920’s and 30’s).
Of course, a lot of great distilled spirits practice this, like rums, whisky, cognac, etc.. but none of them are made out of agave, which is a very different raw material… it has a huge complexity by itself that yes, most of the times wood dulls the palate to distinguish the very smooth and finest notes of agave distilled spirit and it turns to wood flavor…
Is like worm, insects and other things are commonly added as a tourist trap…
And, no, we are not discouraging anyone to do any practice that they want to do… we know a lot of people are going to try a lot of different practices, great or shameful, but what we are concerned to do is to preserve the traditional and cultural way won’t be affected and even destroyed because other merely for commercial purposes (yes, it is a danger and it has happen with not only distilled spirits but other agricultural products).
Neither discouraging to people making cocktails… I’ve tasted great mezcal cocktails, maybe what people like Ulises might say is that they don’t like them. Speaking for myself, I can have some great cocktails but I prefer to enjoy the pure taste of mezcales. That doesn’t mean that I’ll become a Gremlin if I take one, two, three… maybe by the four I will)
By the way, a lot of laws and norms have damaged the small producers more than help them… all of us want to have regulations to these mezcales and agave spirits, but just the right ones that includes the people involved in them, not just big entrepreneurs…
I understand and see that there’s a big controversial movement of a lot of saying about mezcal, in Mexico and US mostly… and I see that everyone is trying to say things first and to try to have all the truth in their words like a big race and competition…
John, I really encourage you to take a trip… what am I saying? LOTS of trips to Mexico, and I mean Mexico, not only Oaxaca (Durango, Puebla, Guerrero, Jalisco, Michoacán, Estado de México, Nuevo León, Zacatecas, Nayarit, San Luis Potosí, etc) and try different mezcales, as much as you can so you can have a wider perspective of what the mezcal culture is… also to talk to some academic researchers instead of brand, mezcalerias or distribution people… I think you’ll find it a lightening experience, some other people who can talk to you about mezcal as a cultural and biological aspect instead of just a product.
I can think of Abisaí García, Patricia Colunga, Caterina Ilsley, Rogelio Luna, Salvador Gutierrez, Martín Pedro Tena Meza, Miguel Iwadare, and so on… no one that is trying to make a profit of mezcales…
After this, I can recommend to all to have as must mezcales that you can and to pick the one you like the most…
Pedro, I was hoping that you would comment. Thanks for taking the time and doing so. I understand and pretty much agree with everything you are saying (except the part about my post being dangerous). It is just an opinion. A somewhat informed opinion, but nowhere near your level, I admit. But really what is at work here is perhaps a difference of perspective, not understanding. I THINK I understand exactly where you are coming from, and I definitely understand the historical and culture aspects of your comments (no I have not lived them, but I think I get it as much as I can without the life experience). Let’s go to a list:
1. I say it is a perspective issue, perhaps, because I am looking through the lens of a U.S. consumer and supporter of great mezcals. Trying to celebrate and educate on this fine spirit, but ultimately it is a commercial perspective. Without the commercial perspective, many, or all, of these great brands would not be here to enjoy. So yes, I am seeing it from this perspective. I am always thinking about what can be done to grow and expand the category in the right way. So probably most of my thoughts about the word “traditional” come from this place.
2. Research. If you are a regular reader of my blog, I hope you know and appreciate that much research goes into every post. I do my best. But I am limited largely by what is available on line and the fact that I don’t speak Spanish does not help me (My 9yr old is fluent. Me? Nada.). The bibliography you put up on the FB post was great but it was all in Spanish and therefore a barrier to me. That said, I don’t think a greater ability to research this topic of traditional mescal would have changed my perspective. Perhaps, but I don’t think so.
3. Sorry to label you a Purist. It was certainly not meant to be offensive. It was designed to draw the distinctions between the two camps.
4. I know Mezonte “intends to give the tools available for everybody who is interested in mezcal so they can know and choose between many types of mezcales out there and the work and history behind those mezcales.” Again, fantastic. What I don’t like is comments such as “don’t buy that mezcal” – it does not present ANYTHING well in my view. And maybe it is simply in the context that the list is presented, which when the press picks it up, appears to be a criteria list for good vs. bad mezcal. As you have seen, the media picked it up and presented in such a fashion. Even if I was fully on board with this use of the term “traditional”, I believe a better way to say it on that list is something like “traditional mezcals are not aged” (I said this in the post so sorry for the redundancy).
5. I understand that you did not come up with this term “traditional mezcal” and that it is driven by history. But now things are changing and I believe it is not helping the market understand mezcal, which you probably think is odd, because from your perspective it is all ABOUT understanding mezcal! Again, different perspectives. I think I the U.S., if brands are going around distinguishing themselves by calling themselves traditional mezcals, it is not good for the category, because then all the others are not traditional. And the average consumer doe snot care about all this stuff we are debating, they just want an authentic product. Do you see where I am coming from?
6. On aging, we agree. We both think it is good. You just don’t think it is “traditional”, and I just don’t like the word. There is a theme here.
7. Love all your comments and information on commercial motivations, making for the community, etc. Especially think you make a great point here: “so we could say that the same maestro mezcalero can make a traditional and an artisanal mezcal… is not that one is better than the other or this practice disquialify him… it’s just a different type of mezcal”. Cool. I get it. Still hate the nomenclature but love the substance of the argument.
8. Back on aging. I just want to be clear that some mezcals made for the US market are not aged to mask an unworthy spirit, but instead to enhance the experience and bring choices to the market. There are some brilliant repos and anejos out there, and they only achieve that lofty perch because they were once brilliant jovens. As you suggest, I am sure some aging happens to mask. I try not to drink those (more than once anyway!).
9. On cocktails, we concur. I love mezcal pure and in cocktails.
10. I would love to spend time in Mexico to expand my perspective on everything you have said.
Again, thanks for contributing. I love your perspective and maybe, just maybe, you have more of an understanding of mine….
Totally agree John… I do understand more your point of view and argument, and totally respect it…
I’m not offended by been called a purist, I’ve been called worse, hahahaha… I just try to be an informer…
I guess, as you say, the next step is to have a mezcal (wich ever nomenclature we want to give it, if we want to) and talk as much as the mezcal allows us!
“Patron might have done wonders for the Tequila market in the US & Europe, it’s also partially responsible for the irresponsible over-harvesting of blue weber agave in Mexico, as well as putting a great many smaller tequila distilleries out of business.” – Casey Robison
Casey, I think that’s Pedro’s case. Which mezcal will be the ‘Patron’ of mezcal? Doña Sarita? Ilegal? Layenda? La Niña del Mezcal? Doesn’t really matter, but the point will be that when this happens, the same issues, “Take the blue agave shortages in Jalisco, big ass problem going on there.”, will be worse down there, becasue once those wild agaves are gone, once all the trees are cut down, once that the cartels move in… Well, perhaps that’s what Pedro and those others have concerns about?
Their concerns are justified. Let’s hope none of these brands become the Patron of mezcal, at least not in the destructive sense!
Andrew… about the patron thing, that’s exactly the case I was making.
I think everybody talking here (David = Patron guy notwithstanding) is that everybody is concerned about the over harvesting of the silvestres in general.
Cartels?!?! WTF does this have to do with it? — FYI “coyotes” have existed for a while now taking maguey from outside te Tequila Denominacion de Origen and transported it to the factories in Jalisco (this is big Tequila business not “cartels”). This includes Tequilana weber from Sinaloa & the maguey from areas in the Mezcales Denominacion de Origen. The El Consejo Regualor del Tequila knows this is happening yet states “such practice is for Inulin & syrup production”. This isn’t the cartels doing this is the Tequila businesses hurting all of Mexico to feed the insatiable thirst of the people around the world….
Well…having in no small part started this debate, after a week of fielding discussions about it, what it comes down to after a lot of these discussions & a bit of self-analysis (we all have bias) is that instead of picking apart this list of Pedro’s (we’ll return to that), what it comes down to is the nuanced issue of the balance between how to protect what is:
– ‘Traditional’, which is noble people making the most noble of spirits.
– ‘Artisanal’, which is good, but not ‘Traditional’.
The positive thing about ‘Artisanal’ is that it hopefully pays enough for the maestro and mezcaleros to put electricity at their home and maybe add a second room, also? BUT! Their efforts to feed their children the better food that would be the result of selling a much larger volume of their ‘Artisanal’ ALSO means destroying any wood available to heat the stills and decimating much of the available agave of many wild variety.
So, back to ‘Traditional’. It’s all good according to #’s 1-8…but won’t put more food on the table, or kids in schools, or electricity in those extra rooms…
SO! What this whole discussion to me is drawing a rhetorical line – setting the record straight.
“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.”
That’s the problem. While cocktails are the tool to bring this spirit that we absolutely love to the masses…they are also creating this ‘Artisanal’ movement that is ruining the ‘Traditional’ world which is what we idealize.
So! Time to make a decision. Or…just recognize what we’re doing. At least recognize what we’re doing.
Thanks to Pedro. While I don’t agree with his absolutes, I sure appreciate his protection of the ‘Traditional’.
NOW! I’m off to read the rest.
Andrew, thanks for chiming in. And yes, I read the FB post.
For me, I don’t like this distinction between artisanal and traditional. It confuses the market I think. But as a bar owner, you have a great perspective about whether I am right, and I am not hearing that you think it is a problem. That is interesting and instructive.
Nomenclature aside, you make a good point as to whether artisanal is destroying the traditional world thru use of resources, etc. It is impacting it I am sure. But I also know that producers can produce in a responsible way. I know of certain produces that have created there ovens and distillation processes to limit the amount of wood they use, for example. So recognition is the first step. And then let’s hope some of these issues are being addressed by the whole mezcal community do improve sustainability while protecting the heritage. Tall order, huh?
Pedro has commented as well. Thanks!
My oh my, quite a great many things to discuss eh?
For starters, I love this post.
However, I think that I would like to tack on to Pedro’s “purist manifesto”; I think the source of the original facebook argument was that the Difford’s Guide was using what is, in fact, a truly accurate list of how sourcing “traditional” mezcal; but instead of using Pedro’s (and mezcal community at large) qualifications of traditional, artisenal, and industrial; they were using it as a guideline to identify “good” vs “bad” (in implication).
My understanding of “traditional” mezcal is the mezcal that you’d find while walking the foothills of oaxaca, stopping by Felix’s palenque, and buying a small gas can of pechuga at 48% ABV (one of the best pechuga’s I’ve ever tasted, btw) ; or going to Mezcaloteca or In Situ or Los Amantes and buying whatever small batch, traditional mezcal they’re willing to sell you from behind the bar.
If one uses the ‘purists manifesto’ as scripture (which I do not think anyone here has done, mind you) then there simply is no such thing as truly traditional mezcal available in the US (does del maguey chicicapa list Faustino as the maestro? Or Alfonso with Pierde Almas? No.)
That is how I perceive Traditional Mezcal; what you find in Oaxaca, while in Oaxaca, from a Mezcalero at his Palenque. Traditional, generational, and yes, according to taste, probably the best. (but what creates for preference, actual taste, or the memory associated with the bottle you bring home?)
To my understanding, most brands (such as del maguey, pierde almas, wahaka, alipus, ilegal, los amantes, siete mysterios, union, los nahuales, el jolgorio, etc.. etc…) are all artisanal, and all consider themselves to BE artisanal (often times with traditional methodology thrown in)…
AND of course there’s industrial; but who needs to discuss that. We all know that nobody having this argument enjoys drinking Gusano Rojo. Hahaha…
So… there’s that.
I love the ‘pragmatist’ point of view (and certainly am one)…
However, I think the thing that a lot of us who don’t live in Oaxaca are forgetting, is that from certain perspectives (and not altogether inaccurate ones), the burgeoning love of mezcal in the United States is a potentially very damaging thing for the state of Oaxaca.
So the idea of aging in Oak and making cocktails with & from Mezcal could potentially be viewed as a very American thing, adding on to the lack of reverence with which we treat our imports. Agave & Mezcal, in Oaxacan culture is far more a spiritual, cultural, and communal thing than just a simple spirit (which is how it’s viewed in the States, generally)… so the purists, I’d expect, might be more likely to do a little push back, as they might see how we treat the product as an affront to their views.
Take the blue agave shortages in Jalisco, big ass problem going on there. This is all from American & European consumerism, and the greed of the large corporations that make up most of the market.
It’s easy to say that many of us want to protect, and preserve the sanctity and the culture of mezcal; but simply by so many of us having this conversation in ENGLISH, do we not, in some way, show ourselves as a threat to the culture of Oaxaca & Mezcal?
That being said, as a pragmatist, I do also think that since there are so many brands on the market now, and good brands, we, as bartenders, bloggers, enthusiasts, etc… have a reasonability to share and preserve the sanctity of the culture. However, I think you can do that in Cocktails, Oak Aging, and experimentation… As long as the message & intention are in the right place. I’ve met Ulises a couple times, and I bow down to his expertise; he is the great professor of Mezcales; and I love his book, and while his aphorisms, and knowledge of history, culture, and agave is spot on and beautiful; why not make good cocktails with the juice? If it helps get the message out, and it’s responsible? Why not?
As far as using Patron as the example of what to do regarding Tequila & Agave spirits? First off, Paul Mitchel died in 1989, the year Patron was first released. John Paul DeJoria (a frenchman) is, and always has been the brand owner.
Secondly, while it’s true, Patron might have done wonders for the Tequila market in the US & Europe, it’s also partially responsible for the irresponsible over-harvesting of blue weber agave in Mexico, as well as putting a great many smaller tequila distilleries out of business.
They even tried to keep Siete Leguas OUT of the US market, and those were the guys who made the original product for them in the first place!
As far as marketing mezcal to rich white guys in the US to justify the high price. Mezcal in particular is high priced because the mexican government levies a 57% tax on any spirit over 43% ABV (according to Jonathan from Peirde Almas). Taxes dude. That’s why you see $180 price tags on mezcal in the US; normal import tax, high ABV tax, distributor tax, retail tax, and finally bar / restaurant profit margins. There’s generally a reason behind the expense.
On the issue of silvestre (wild) dying out; that is absolutely a concern. Luckily, the bottles are high priced enough (thanks taxes!) that production will not generally be as great as espadin production. And thanks to guys like my friends from Wahaka, and even guys like Dough French of Scorpian Mezcal (who probably gets bad mouthed more than anyone), who are actively planting wild agaves and letting them reproduce and mature; hopefully more will do that, and maybe even COMERCOM will jump in to help. Maybe? But it is an issue. And something that should be a part of the responsibility we, as an import country, should be telling our customers and readers. It’s an important issue.
In terms of “small producers, big story lines”…. I’ve had turkey dinner with the Chicicapa Maestro Faustino; crushed agave with Carlos at Minero… hung out with Alberto and his whole family at the Wahaka palenque; and drank freshly distilled espadin with Alberto at Pierde Almas…. these are ALL small producers, but it’s not a case of the story being “big”; it’s a matter of the culture being very real, and very beautiful, and absolutely worth protecting and preserving. It’s not a market gimmick for a lot of these brands, it’s very much a way of life.
This is more or less what I’ve gleaned from a couple jaunts through Oaxaca and making friends in the industry; I am by no means an expert or a pro, I’m just a big fan of the juice.
Phew. Lots of words. Loved the article!
Thanks for the comments. Now to my usual list:
1. Agree that the Difford’s republishing of the list comes off as “good vs bad”. And I really think part of the problem is the use of this term “traditional” As soon you say one thing is traditional then everything else is not. It is splitting hairs to finely to then make distinctions between traditional and artisanal. It just confuses people unnecessarily.
2. I also agree on your definition of traditional, “walking the hills” etc. The problem I see is the media picks up this term traditional and this list and it becomes a referendum on good vs bad mezcal, with the pigeon-holed term “traditional” becoming the definition.
3. I know many of the brand owners (as I am sure you do) and yes, they do think of themselves as artisanal for sure. It is even in some of their press kits, etc. But they also think of themselves as traditional in that they are produced in the traditional fashion (not Pedro’s traditional). So they also don’t like the Purist definition. I think it is largely a distinction without a difference.
4. Your points about the effect on Oaxaca, etc are spot on. Mezcal is good for jobs and the economy but at what price? I think that is what you are asking, and you are right to bring it up. The degradation of culture is rarely a good thing. I respect Pedro, Ulises, etc and their desire to protect the culture. And I also hope, think, and know, in some cases that many of the US brands are in agreement with protecting the culture and beauty of mescal, and therefore produce in a very responsible way. They are commercially minded too, and that can absolutely come into conflict with protecting the culture. I think most are mindful of that and are trying to balance the two worlds. The only way to completely protect the culture would be to not export any mezcal and stop all these brands. But that wouldn’t make a lot of sense and it would hurt a lot of people economically. I regularly get emails to this blog from people in Mexico asking for advice as to how they can market their brands in the U.S. These are locals, generational producers, and they are looking for greater economic prosperity. Mezcals growth can benefit so many. But again, it must be done in the right way.
5. As for the comments from the Patron guy, enough said.
Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I think we pretty much agree on everything. I just want this word “traditional” used in a different way, though I think what Pedro is doing is important as well….
Sorry. Meant Alfonso from Pierde Almas.*
Martin Crowley was a part onwer as was John Paul Dejoria of Patron Spirits at its genesis
Hi mezcal PhD,
Perhaps the ‘Purist Manifesto’ as you adequately call it doesn’t tell you, but in my view, there are practical reasons for each point on it. Of course, the main premise being that the best mezcal is the one that is made this way. After some time enjoying this wonderful spirit, you become convinced that the best mezcals you can get are the ones that are closest to the originals, the ones consumed by the people and the communities that make them. I’m a very pragmatic person, but I’m totally convinced that this is true. Instead of these points being viewed by purists as ‘commandments’, I treat them as a very useful guide for mezcal lovers and aficionados.
Here are some of what I think are the reasons to some of the points: Numero 1 is obvious, but number two (and four) aren’t: master distillers guide themselves through the cuts in the distillation by the bubbles the liquid makes when precipitated. Being that those bubbles don’t form “chains” or “strings” around the glass when they are under 45% abv or above 55%, the end product always ends up within this range. In the most traditional way fine tuning this alcohol content is never done with water. However, it is very hard (but not impossible) to pass some chemical parameters of the official government norm (NOM) if you do this, so many commercial mezcal producers save themselves the trouble and adjust the ABV with water. But this does alter the flavor structure and usually for the worse.
In the case of number three, the reasoning for stating the village where it was made is that a good mezcal has an incredibly strong sense of ‘terroir’, and along with the type of agave you should be able to tell a lot of what’s contained in a bottle. Just from that information right there on the label. Imagine buying a bottle of good wine without -at least- knowing the type of grape and its procedence. The master distiller’s name is also important, ever maestro has a distinct style and carrying his name in the bottle instills not only a sense of responsibility for the end product, but hopefully also pride.
Number five. If there’s color in the mezcal you better hope it comes from a wooden barrel, otherwise it might be contaminated. To purists, the reason for rejecting ageing is simple: why distort the flavors and aromas if you are dealing with an already perfect distillate? Wood interferes with the subtleties of the agave and the whole manufacturing process. It’s simply too invasive and there are already plenty of amazing aged products out there. Of course, if the mezcal is of lesser quality, go ahead and disguise it. Tequila producers have become masters at ageing, but most of the time they strip pretty much all of the sensitive references to the original ingredient, the agave, through a completely innocuous manufacturing process that adds nothing to the resulting lower-graduation white distillate. In tequila the search for smoothness is another factor, which is one of the main excuses for lowering the ABV and ageing. and. You cannot tell anymore between a good and a bad base, you just taste the barrels.
The rest of the manifesto has to do more with how to tell if the mezcal is made this way or not, but I still find they are useful pointers.
I agree with you that mezcal should be used in any possible way. For making cocktails? Why not? The better the ingredient, the better the cocktail. But if it’s an extraordinary one, probably you want to save it for sipping, like you would with any other spirit. And especially, I agree with you that “mezcal is brilliant, historical, cultural and fun”. And no, you shouldn’t take it too seriously, believe me when I tell you they don’t make that mistake in the mezcalero villages.
Thanks a lot for your thoughtful comments! I like lists, so here are my comments to your comments:
1. I love that you call the Purist Manifesto a “useful guide for mezcal lovers…”. I agree. The list is fine if it is described in the right way, and that is not, in my view, calling it the guide to “traditional mezcal”, as I said at great length!
2. MY arguments are not about really taste, and what and what is not the best mezcal. I think great mezcals can be found from 40%-50% and higher. I’ve had them. But again, let’s just not call them “traditional mezcals” from 48-53% or whatever.
3. I am with you on the labeling. I like to see all the info too, but I have had a few quality, artisanal mezcals where there is little detail in the label. So I think it is preferable.
4. On aging, I love the purity of your comments but we agree to disagree. That’s OK. I like choice and a beautifully made quality mezcal that has been nicely aged is great for me! Again, let’s just not say it is not “traditional” if it is aged.
5. Agree on cocktails!
6. And I am glad to hear that they are not taking it too seriously in the villages. Let’s follow their lead.
Great comments overall. We see the world the same way……Best, John
I was with you on the pragmastist camp until you starting bringing up point #6. The method used for the crushing of the pina really shouldn’t impact the taste of the final product. What if you decide to replace the horse by a tractor? Why would this disqualify the mezcal?
Good point and I think you are right. There is a romanticism to the imagery of the horse drawing the tahona, but beyond that it is really a labor issue. I am going to edit point 6 in my post!
Export mescal is 100% marketing to affluent white USA and European customers. The wild agave plants that were used for community mescals will simply disappear due to over harvesting for export and be replaced by faster growing cultivated ” versions” under intensive irrigation and fertilization regimes. Meanwhile, richly compensated Wall Street traders will argue endlessly with each other over what constitutes “authentic mescal” while over consumption kills the wild maguey plants of Mexico. Read up on maguey cultivation and the loss of wild agave species in Mexico by Gary Paul Nabham, Not to mention the loss of bat and night moth polinator species due to over use of banned insecticides in agave plantations and the failure to allow agave blooms to appear in these vast plantations. He has written extensively about agave production for tequila and mescal and the new diseases impacting blue agave plantations in Jalisco to see what the future will bring to “authentic mescal” production. Insisting that mescals be produced by non-mechanized means is ludicrous and I don’t mean the Atlanta rapper either! How does a donkey affect the taste of the resulting mezcal, exactly?. A donkey may be appropriate technology for small scale village producers but c’mon for export driven sales, is a donkey slave labor an absolute requirement? How about insisting upon solar powered electrical motor driven tahona milling of the pinas? Wouldn’t Al Gore approve of that requirement? I recently participated in a sponsored tasting by Patron, the export and marketing driven tequila producer. Patron was started and still majority owned by Paul Mitchell, the hair care salon owner and branding expert. I was surprised to learn that half of their tequila is milled using electric motor driven tahona mills and they employ over a 100 relatively small all copper stills for 100% of the their tequila production. Tahona mills are barely used by other major tequila producers because of their slowness, inefficiency and large space requirements needed to scale up their use. But Patron claims and showed us that tahona milled tequila has a completely different and much more vegetal character. Patron let us taste their 100% tahona milled wild yeast fermented blanco (not sold just blended into their standard product for export around the world) and it tasted very much like a mild vegetal mescal without the smoke (patron exclusively oven roast their pinas) And what brand could be more heavily marketed and positioned that Patron as a luxury tequila for gift giving and celebration etc. Go Paul Mitchel, go! That is the way I see mescal marketed in the USA. Small producers, big story lines, heavy on the marketing to rich white guys to justify the screamingly high prices stateside and just a matter of time before wild espadin and related species are essentially completely cleared off the hillsides to be replaced by some hybrid cultivar designed to produce a rapidly maturing version to satisfy growing export demand.
Thank you for your impassioned response! I am not really sure what the point is. Let’s break it down:
1. You rail against rich Wall St. white guys a few times so I guess you felt the need to get that off your chest.
2. I am not sure I agree that mezcal is “100% marketed to affluent white” blah blah customers. In NYC, for example, it is far more hipster oriented than your description. That’s a pretty diverse cocktail crowd in NYC. But if you think your point is true, then you must feel that way about pretty much all high end spirits.
3. The potential for wild agaves to disappear is certainly a concern. A friend of mine was recently involved in a project where they planted 1,000 baby tobalas in the wild in Oaxaca. That is awesome and more is needed! While your concern is valid, I am not exactly sure it is relevant to the spirit of my post.
4. On my non-mechanized comment, I think I agree with you. What does it matter? The tahona usage is more relevant than what powers it. I think there is something romantic about the old school process of the horse providing the power. But nevertheless, I probably see it your way.
5. Paul Mitchell is clearly a great entrepreneur. But Patron sucks.
Thanks for reading and contributing!