In the last few days I have been involved in a FB thread about Kimo Sabe mezcal. This started when the well-regarded mezcal pioneer Erick Rodriquez referenced a story on Medium about Kimo Sabe. The story has this graphic:
The story accompanying this graphic is full of interesting facts – perhaps alternative facts would be more appropriate. But first a quick history of Mezcal PhD’s knowledge of Kimo Sabe.
I bought a bottle of Kimo Sabe a few years ago when it popped up on a website where I buy a lot of mezcal. It looked legit so I took a $40 flyer and bought a bottle. I probably should have done even a tiny bit of research first because info was readily available, but I didn’t. It arrived a few days later and I enthusiastically poured a copita of what I thought was a new artisanal mezcal. It was so offensive on the first taste that I thought my palate was just being difficult. But after a few more sips, I simply realized that this mezcal is industrial and tastes every bit of it. On the way in it is acidic and chemically, and then it just disappears on the finish like water (actually water is far more enjoyable). Don’t just take my word for it. Check out what my friends at Mezcal Reviews say HERE.
So I hate to pick on a specific brand, but there are just so many things going on with Kimo Sabe that I had to comment. So back to the above graphic and the Medium story.
First, the headline: MEZCAL IS MADE IN 11 SPECIFIC REGIONS OF MEXICO. Ahhh, no it’s not. There are 9 designated regions where mezcal can be made. They have added State of Mexico and Morelos as recently approved, which is simply incorrect. They may be approved in the future but not yet. Second, let’s look at the Medium story. They say they have partnered with the state of Zacatecas to create over 1,000 new jobs, and they are helping over 2,000 independent producers. Wow. Really?
I am all for job creation in Mexico relating to mezcal, and this has factually happened already in many (maybe all) of the mezcal making regions. But your average palenque that exports a brand has maybe 10 employees. And a larger distillery might go to 20 or so. And yes, you also might want to count the farmers who grow the agave, though much agave is purchased by the palenque, not owned by the distiller. But to suggest that one brand is going to create over 1,000 new jobs seems quite audacious (the nicest word I can come up with). And what about the help Kimo Sabe is providing to over 2,000 independent producers? How is THAT possible? Please, show me the math. I am happy to be proven wrong.
If they are creating jobs and helping independent producers, I am all for it. But the extent of their claims is a bit hard to swallow (as is their mezcal so I guess there is symmetry). Still, they probably are creating some jobs, and I am not knocking that.
If you go to the Kimo Sabe website, you can watch this video which plainly shows some of the industrial methodology used to produce their mezcal. This is their choice as to how they want to produce mezcal. But what inflames the mezcal community is when an industrial brand masquerades as artisanal and uses the limited resource which is agave to mass produce their product. They don’t even tell us what agaves they use in their production. There is only so much agave to go around, and no, we don’t want it to be used for industrial purposes.
Kimo Sabe clearly spends a fortune on marketing – a bunch of brand ambassadors, sponsoring South by Southwest, and other projects – so they are apparently well-funded. Why didn’t they use some of that capital to invest in their production process and make a truly artisanal mezcal?
I am a capitalist and know that entrepreneurs make different choices. Kimo Sabe made this one. The problem in the mezcal world is the limited supply of agave and the early stages of the category where consumers are not necessarily well-informed as to what goes into a quality mezcal. So yes, consumers can be conned.
I don’t know if you are excited, but I sure am! I have been working on the 2nd Edition of Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! for the better part of 2017, and I am finally getting close to publishing it. While I did not expect it to take this long, it turned out I had a lot to say!
So much has changed since the first printing of Holy Smoke! in the summer of 2014 – new brands, new regulations, new agaves, and I have learned so much as well. As I said then, mezcal cannot be mastered, and as I have continued to pursue this passionate hobby, my accumulated knowledge keeps expanding. I have more to say, more pictures to share, more stories to tell and hopefully a bit more good humor to entertain.
The Revised 2nd Edition is not a complete rewrite, so do not go in expecting that. But I have touched every chapter, written new chapters, combined old ones, and eliminated a few as well. There is more depth and granularity on all things mezcal.
As you may know, the last year or so has brought a few more books on mezcal, and I think a couple of them are very good. I also think one of the better ones took a few key concepts or points from Holy Smoke! without giving me credit, which is too bad. But I have moved on and tried to write the most in-depth book on mezcal that exists. My book is not for everyone – for example, vodka lovers may feel slighted. But if you want to know as much about mezcal as possible, I think The Revised Second Edition is the book for you. Mezcal and agave nerds stand by!
In the first edition, I really dug into the production process. Here, I went even deeper. I also added a new chapter, “Process Trumps Varietal”. In this chapter, I am bringing forth the concept that the process a mezcalero uses to produce his mezcal can almost always make the varietal indistinguishable. He is a sample from that chapter:
Typically, in mezcal production, the mezcalero only keeps the corazon from the first distillation. There may be other uses for the heads and the tails, but they are set aside. Then the heart of the first distillation is put back into the still for the second distillation. The second distillation is further cut into puntas, corazon, and colas, with the middle distillate being the highest quality alcohol, and this is the mezcal which is bottled. But what if the mezcalero makes an early cut on the puntas – meaning, some of the puntas become part of the corazon? Or what if he makes a late cut on the tails, which brings some of the tail into the corazon? Do you think that impacts the taste? You bet. Let’s see why.
All the vapors coming off the still have congeners. Congeners are substances that are produced during fermentation which are released by the heat of distillation. They are impurities, but they have flavor. The positive characteristics of a spirit are usually associated with a class of congeners called esters, which can bring apple, banana, mango, butter, anise, apricot and other tastes and smells to a spirit. The negative characteristics of congeners can bring odors and flavors such as nail polish remover, rubber, and rotten fruit. The names of some of these congeners are a bit scary: acetone, methanol, isobutanol, amyl alcohol, and ethyl butyrate to name a few. Amyl alcohol is often cited as the chief culprit in a hangover. But all these congeners are present in low, non-toxic, doses in almost any alcohol you drink. If you drank all the puntas or all the colas, you’d likely be in bad shape. But slices of either can be very beneficial to the mezcal. The distiller’s magic is to minimize the less desirable congeners and enhance the good ones.
Why am I telling you all this? Why should you care? When you bought a book on mezcal, you probably were not expecting a dissertation on the chemical process of distillation. I know, but stick with me – it’s about to come together.
So guess which part of the distillation primarily contains the esters? That’s rights. It’s the heart, or corazon. And guess which parts are dominated by the less desirable congeners? Right again. The puntas and the colas. So the taste of your mezcal is highly dependent on which congeners sneak in, and that process is controlled by where the mezcalero makes his cuts.
There is much before this excerpt and much after it as well, in this chapter. It is an important concept and maybe controversial too (I don’t mind stirring it up as you know), and a lot to expound upon at any rate. But this is just one small example of what I have tried to bring in the new edition: more depth, more analysis, more research, and more fun!
I have also added to the agave chart in the new version. As you may know, this chart details every unique agave from which mezcal can be made. I am up to 63 agaves now that I believe can make a unique mezcal! Over the years, I have received a lot of feedback from people who appreciate the research that went into that chapter as well as the result – many in the sprits industry tell me they use it as an ongoing reference. I love that, and now it is better and more refined. I even went nutty and alphabetized it.
I wish I could tell you this new version of Holy Smoke! would be out by Christmas, but sadly, it will not. While I have finished writing it, the editing and design process take time. So I hope to have it out in early 2018. I have not figured out to make this available on pre-order via Amazon, but I assure you I will let as many people as possible know when it is ready!
I think the Amazon price will be similar to the first edition, which admittedly is not cheap. But self-publishing a book with color pictures jacks up the publishing costs on every platform I have looked at. I use CreateSpace, because it is Amazon’s platform and they are the most efficient on everything for a self-published author, including price. On other platforms, the book would be priced north of $40, which is nuts. So you know, I make about $5 for every book sold no matter where Amazon chooses to sell it (usually $35). You can rightfully guess this is not really a money-making endeavor for me. On an hourly basis, I am sure Starbucks would be a better wage! But Starbucks is not a passion and mezcal is, so I don’t mind. I just want you to understand why the book costs what it does.
On that point, I am going to convert the first edition of Holy Smoke! into a black and white only version, and sell it at a much cheaper price. I think a lot is lost without color pictures, but at least that price point might be more accessible (the publishing costs fall dramatically when you go with black and white). People will have a choice and make their own decision.
There you have it. I am excited to be nearing the publishing date. If you buy it, I think you will enjoy it, and I will spread the word as soon as it is available. In the meantime, DRINK MEZCAL!
Wow. Whoa. Holy shit. This week saw HUGE news in the mezcal world. Del Maguey Mezcal was acquired (a majority stake) by spirits industry giant Pernod Ricard. It is shocking, exciting, and troublesome to many as well. I’ll take the first two and pass on the third – not troubling to me at all.
First, a little background. Del Maguey, and it’s artist founder Ron Cooper, is the pioneering brand which brought the first premium mezcal to the U.S. in the mid-to-late 1990’s. Prior to the beginning of Ron’s evangelical campaign, mezcal was thought of as this worm-infused, gag-inducing swill only a frat boy could love. Del Maguey was largely alone in this pursuit for as long as ten years. It was not until the late 2000’s when other premium brands like Ilegal, Los Nahuales, Fidencio, and Pierde Almas, among others, began to show up in the U.S.
While certainly those brands, and a few others, have helped drive mezcal to where it is today, Del Maguey clearly got it started, and they are the number one selling mezcal in the U.S as a result. They have an army of industry supporters who prosthelytize the wonders of mezcal and Del Maguey, which has been awesome for the mezcal category. Their leadership, passion, and education-driven approach to mezcal has helped bring it to the forefront of the artisanal world of spirits. Sometimes I find the brand approaches mezcal with a bit too much reverence, but I cannot argue with the results. I too hold mezcal in high regard, but this is still booze after all! If we’re on a mission from god, let’s make it the Blues Brothers version. Mezcal is fun and sexy, cool and exotic, and an amazing tradition-laden spirit, so I don’t get too carried away.
And Del Maguey is REALLY good mezcal, especially their Vinos de Mezcal series and Single Village line-up. Their cocktail-oriented Vida is likely the main driver of their revenue, and no, it is not as good as their single village line-up, but it is also costs $35-$40 a bottle and works well in cocktails.
So that all said, it is a shock to see them sell the brand. The word from Ron is nothing will change in the way they operate the business, and they will continue to support and work with their palenqueros as they always have. And I have no doubt it is true because I know he and his team care so much about mezcal and what it represents. They would not do a deal with someone who did not subscribe to their world view, which is why this is not troubling to me in the least. Plus, I am a capitalist so more power to them. Del Maguey will now have more money and resources, and they will continue to produce their mezcal in an honest, sustainable way. For another take on this move, my friends at Mezcalistas posted THIS.
While Del Maguey is the first brand to be sold to one of the large spirit companies, there has been other action in the category. Bacardi bought a minority stake in Ilegal in February and Diageo has a distribution deal (and likely some equity stake or options) with Mezcal Union. Cuervo also has their own brand Creyente in the U.S. market, which they claim is made in an artisanal way, though I cannot say it tastes like an artisanal mezcal (I am stretching to find the nicest words I can). Nevertheless, the large spirit companies are approaching mezcal in the right way for the most part. They seem to recognize this is an artisanal product which cannot be industrialized.
I have a lot more to say on this subject and what it means for the future of mezcal. So this post is just a preview as spurred on by this huge industry news. You may not care about what else I am thinking, or you may be interested to know that I have already written a chapter on this very subject for my new book, the Revised Second Edition of Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal!
Yes, I am revising the self-proclaimed best selling mezcal book of all time, Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! Is it really the best selling mezcal book of all time? Well, I am not really sure but it’s possible. And there really are not many books on mezcal so it can’t be that far off. I hope to have this ready to bring to market sometime this Fall.
So that’s it for now. Big news for the mezcal category and its continued growth. Thanks for reading and as always, drink mezcal!
Everybody likes lists. I like lists. I frequently write in lists. You see a headline with “the 10 Longest” or “the 5 Firmest” or “the 50 Best” or whatever it is, and you click on it. And you tend to skip through the preamble (you are likely skipping this now!) and go directly to the list – I mean that’s why you clicked the link – not so you could read some blah blah blah. Get me to the list!
But I figure I will ramble on for a paragraph or three and tell you why I put this one together. I compiled this because, while it has been done in Tequila many times, I cannot find a similar list that exists for mezcal. And the reason I think this is relevant is because, on a relative basis, high end mezcal is far less expensive than ultra premium tequila – so it’s interesting. You don’t have to look far to find tequila starting at $300+ and there are many offerings at $500+ and a handful north of $1,000! In fact, the 10 mezcals below combined cost about the same as a bottle of Clase Azul Extra Anejo Ultra at $1,700 a bottle. Mezcal, on the other hand, rarely tips $200 a bottle.
So what’s with the discrepancy? I mean tequila is a mezcal (you all know that). Why are these crazy pricey tequilas so prevalent? We all know that most of it is marketing. But some of it is rooted in the fact that most expensive tequilas are extra anejos, and there is an economic reality to barrel aged spirits: about 10% of what is in the barrel evaporates every year. Plus, the barrels cost money and many of these special tequilas are aged in unique (and even more expensive) barrels or casks. And of course, you are frequently paying for fancy crystal bottles or that kind of thing. Add in the marketing to all this, and BOOM, you have a $500 bottle.
Mezcal, by contrast, does not even have an extra anejo category and many in the mezcal world don’t even believe in barrel aging. Frequent readers of my blog and my book, Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! know that I disagree and think barrel aging can add complexity and depth to a mezcal while expanding the audience for the category. But nevertheless, there are not many mezcals aged for more than one year, so the economic loss factor of evaporation doesn’t really come into play. But also, given that mezcal is perceived as a “new” category, I doubt the market would support $500+ bottles of mezcal today. How a 500 year old spirit can be considered “new” is a rant for another day!
So let’s move to the list. As usual, when I talk about these things, I stick to things that you can readily buy. These are bottles that can be found at some high end liquor stores, like Astor Wines in NYC, or definitely online. Let’s start low and work our way up…
10. El Jolgorio Tobasiche, $150 at K&L. Jolgorio is one of the premier premium brands with many varietals in the $100-$150 range. They are all amazing and worth the loot.
9. Mezcalosfera de Mezcaloteca, $160 at K&L Wines. This ensamble of 5 varietals comes from the well-regarded tasting room Mezcaloteca in Oaxaca. I have not tried it because I struggle with the price given that this is from an unknown mezcalero. It may be great and worth the price but somehow I doubt it. Chime in if you know better! If I ever see it in a bar, I’m in.
8. Koch El Mezcal Coyote, $170 at Zee Tequila. Koch has a line of about 10 varietals offered in the US. I have tried many of them and I have several, though not this Coyote. Overall, I have been underwhelmed by the Koch line so shelling out $170 when the rest of the line is just OK does not seem like a wise use of my funds.
7. Real Minero Pechuga, $170 at K&L. I’ve never met a Real Minero that I don’t like and this is no exception. Many bottles in their line just missed this list clicking in at about $150. But they are all excellent and worth the price.
6. Del Maguey Pechuga, $180 at K&L. Much like Real Minero, El Jolgorio, and a few other really expensive brands, Del Maguey rarely misses. This pechuga set the standard as the first in the market a good 10+ years ago and it is still elite.
5. Pierde Almas Conejo and Pierde Almas Pechuga, both $200 at Zee. The conejo is made with the breast of a wild rabbit (so this is also a pechuga) and the “regular” pechuga is made with a wild turkey breast. The conejo has a strong licorice note, almost like a sambuca, and is really unique and excellent. The regular pechuga is a standout as well.
4. Del Maguey Ibercio, $200 at K&L. There are many in the mezcal world who rave about this mezcal. I suspect some feel they have to say they love it since it is from the excellent Del Maguey brand, who teamed-up with a celebrity chef, to create an Iberico ham pechuga. But I don’t get it – too salty for me which overpowers all else. One of the rare Del Maguey’s that I don’t love.
3. Clase Azul Durango (Cenizo), $200 at Zee. Mezcal brought to you from well known tequlia brand Clase Azul. It is a classic tequila move: big brand, cool bottle, good marketing = $200 bottle! Don’t fall for it in this case as it is just OK – certainly not worthy of the price for what’s in the bottle.
2. Wahaka Vino de Mezcal Series, $230+ at Zee. Wahaka is an excellent brand with a strong number of great bottles well under $100. But they also scour the far reaches of Mexico to bring unique, tiny batch, special bottlings that they market under their Vino de Mezcal Series. They are very limited release and Zee Tequila is the only place I know to buy them.
1A. Scorpion Mezcal Anejo (7 Year Aged) $230 and Scorpion Tobala Anejo $220 at Zee. Scorpion is a fine mezcal, though the taste profile is closer to a tequila. I have never gotten over the scorpion in the bottle gimmick so I have rarely tried it. But I have tried these deep anejo offerings and I feel the barrel has overwhelmed the mezcal, so they are not a favorite.
1B. Del Maguey Chichicapa Cask Finish 12 Year, $320 at Park Avenue Liquor. This is a late addition to the post (Chad F. – thanks for the tip). I bought this at least 5yrs ago at Park Ave and they still have it (as do I)! It is aged 12yrs in glass and then finished for 100 days in a Stags Leap Cabernet Barrel. Expensive but truly remarkable.
This is an interesting list, but the good news is you don’t have to pay near this much for a great mezcal. So many excellent mezcals can be found in the $50-$100 range. Check out a few of my previous posts if you want to see more.
As for pricey mezcals, you can expect to see more of them. As the category becomes more mainstream, brands will go after the ultra premium sector just as they have done in tequila. You will start to see fancy crystal bottles and that sort of thing. Some people don’t even care about what’s inside – they just want the cool bottle. For me, I want both. If the juice is good, I can definitely be persuaded to buy an expensive bottle even though I am likely overpaying.
One area where you can expect to see the emergence of expensive bottles is in the new mezcal category of “Aged in Glass”. This is part of the new mezcal NOM, and you will see producers rolling out mezcals that they have been aging in large glass bottles for 10+ years. It actually makes a notable difference and you will find the mezcal has more depth and has mellowed. So look for those as they will not be cheap but they are likely worth a premium price.
Sadly, it has been a few years since I did a deep dive and thorough update to this list. Yes, I have added a brand here and there, but I have not scoured the web in a few years to see what is really out there. And man have times changed!
When I last took a hard look, there were about 70 mezcal brands to be found in the U.S. Now I count 120+! Wow. Further, a few years ago there were around 50 brands that were traveling in the upper end of the market, and that has now risen to almost 90 brands in what I consider to be in the premium sector.
I used to have them all, and I can no longer say that. In my recent research, I found many brands I had never even heard of at premium prices and occasionally at premium packaging. A lot of these are definitely under the radar, which means they are not active on social media or apparently in the active promotion of their brand. I know because I follow this stuff. Also, when new brands are coming to the market they often issue press releases, and many contact me and are generous enough to send me a bottle – I am grateful every time! But many of the new brands below have done nothing to announce their presence in the U.S. market, so that is why I say under the radar. And if that is what they want to do, no problem! But I am curious about a good number of them and will be making some new purchases for sure.
You will find a lot of these brands if you read MY BOOK (shameless self-promotion perhaps, but hey, the blog is free so this is my form of selling ad space!). I talk about all these brands in greater depth, plus I take a detailed look at how the many varieties of agave impact the flavor of a mezcal – much like grapes are to wine, agave is to mezcal. The book is Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! and it is on Amazon. Notice the cool cover shot to the right. Buy a copy – I promise you won’t be disappointed! Now back to our regularly scheduled program…
So here is my currently assembled list of the brands that can be found in the U.S. The list is organized from top to bottom by the brands I am most familiar with, which means among other things, I can find them and drink them regularly, I read about them, and/or they are actively promoting their brands through social media, etc. As the list progresses, many of these I have never tried and never seen other than on a website. So they are mainly pretty obscure but some of them look quite interesting with a price point to match.
Toward the bottom of the list, there is a bunch of crap (that usually stirs up some controversy) – a bunch of industrial mezcals and some random stuff, many of which I have tried, hence that is what I call this part of the list crap. If you are looking for something good, stay higher on the list and do some research. When you see a mezcal for under $30, it is rarely good (though there are exceptions). Comments like that usually draw out some criticism that I am being elitist or worse, but it is simply a reality. It is VERY EXPENSIVE to produce a good, artisanal mezcal. Just a fact.
But if you think something toward the back of the pack is good, first you should drink it, and then let me know. I am always happy to learn and reassess. With that, here is what I have….
Oaxaca is a special place, and there is no better way to enjoy it than to journey out to a palenque (distillery) to see how mezcal is made first hand. Many years ago, when I first began touring palenques I was under the illusion that I was going out there just to see how mezcal was made. I thought I was going to see the agave fields, the earthen roasting pits, the horse drawn stone grinding mill, the fermentation tanks, the copper or clay pot stills, and the many other things that are involved in the ultimate arrival of this magical elixir. Basically, I thought it was all about the mechanics of making mezcal.
It took me awhile to figure it out, but now I know that the mechanics of making mezcal are only one slice of a palenque tour. What am I talking about? What else could there be? Well, as I said it did not hit me right away. But the more time I spent with mezcaleros and mezcaleras (female mezcaleros as I recently learned), I began to understand that they were not just sharing the process of mezcal production, but they were sharing their family history, their culture, their generational passion, their life.
Mezcal is so much more to these traditional producers. From the time most of them were small children, they have been around the palenque, sat with their fathers, mothers, aunts, cousins, uncles and grandparents, and absorbed all there is to know about making mezcal. For these producers, mezcal is the center of their world – it is their past, present and future. Mezcal is revered and core to who they are. It is present at every major milestone of their lives: births, communions, weddings, funerals, and everything in between.
So when you are lucky enough to be invited into their world, you eventually understand that mezcal is so much more than cutting, baking, fermenting and distilling. It is with an immense source of pride, passion and knowledge that they bring you into their inner circle.
And so it was on my recent trip to Oaxaca that my friends and I were invited into the sanctuary of the palenque at Real Minero. William Scanlan of Heavy Metl Premium Imports, who imports Real Minero in the U.S., knew I was dying to see this highly regarded producer for myself so he generously arranged our visit.
We arrived at the well-kept little town of Santa Catarina Minas, the heart of a historic mezcal making region. I’ve been told that all mezcal is made in clay pots in Santa Catarina Minas, as this is their tradition. I cannot verify if this is 100% true (maybe there is a copper pot rebel up in their hills), but if so, it’s awesome that this tradition has been kept so vibrant.
Real Minero is a storied mezcal brand from a 4th generation mezcal family. These days, the brand is being run by Graciela Angeles Carreño, the great granddaughter of the brand’s founder, or it could be the great great granddaughter, or the great great great granddaughter…the thing is they really don’t know how far back it goes. Many of these longtime mezcal-making families lose the trail as they backtrack the family tree into the 1800’s, and so it is with Real Minero. All they know is that there is 100+ years of mezcal making in their family. Love it!
While Graciella is a “Master Mezcalera” herself, her father Lorenzo Angeles Mendoza is also at the heart of their mezcal making these days. I put the term “Master Mezcalera” (same thing with “Master Mezcalero”) in quotes because Graciella explained that this term is all marketing. She said it did not really even exist until about 10yrs ago when mezcal started gaining popularity. Before that, you just made mezcal. Now you are labeled a “master” for simply doing what you have always done – making great mezcal in her case!
Graciella gave us a full tour of the Real Minero palenque. We started at their very modern warehouse which had surrounding agave fields with various varietals at different stages of development. The warehouse was quite large and spotless with an office and a conference room up the stairs at one end. I have never seen such modern facilities at a palenque – Real Minero is clearly planning for the future.
An agave field and various varietals in staggered states of maturity could be found throughout the property. There were a handful of A. karwinskii var. tripon – Real Minero makes the only mezcal I have seen with the tripon varietal. The one expression they have had in the states for years is an ensemble of four agaves, though now Metl is bringing in their whole amazing line of varietals. I asked Graciella if they made a single expression tripon, and she said they did and that the might have a few for purchase (but good luck finding it in the U.S.!). Now, I would just have to beat my buddies to it….
The agave fields held some beauties (if you like this kind of thing, which clearly I do) with huge towering arroquenos and quite a few varieties of Agave karwinskii nearing maturity. There was also an Agave rhodacantha, best known for the varietal mexicano (also known as dobadaan). Graciella explained that this rhodacantha was a cuixe varietal. I have only known a cuixe as an A. karwinskii, so this was a new agave varietal for me. Yes, I was truly psyched! As we walked the property, Graciella provided other little tidbits.
For example, she said that sometimes you will find rocks in the middle of a mature agave. Why? Because as the quiote starts to sprout, and if the agave is large enough (like an arroqueno), one cannot get to the middle of the agave to cut off the quiote. The quiote is cut off to keep the sugars and energy of the agave concentrated in the pina. So if an agave farmer cannot reach the quiote to cut it off, they throw rocks at it to break it! I thought she was pulling our leg, but no, it is true. More cool stuff for a mezcal nerd!
We left the fields and the warehouse and made our way to where the Real Minero distills their mezcal. Again, it was the cleanest, most well-organized palenque I have seen. Nothing was out of place. No stray equipment or tools. You could practically eat off the brick and cement floor. But it was not an industrial setting. Just a great looking, well kept gorgeous palenque. They not were roasting or crushing agave at this time, but they were distilling. They had eight clay pot stills, of which four were in the midst of distillation. My mouth started watering as Graciella pulled out a large gourd bowl and began filling it from one of the stills. Still warm from the still, she passed around a scrumptious 50% ABV tobala.
I am not sure there is anything better on the planet than tasting a great artisanal mezcal, right off the still, from one of the world’s renowned agave spirits producers. And we tasted. And tasted. And tasted some more. Not that is wasn’t already, but soon enough, everything was REALLY right with the world.
In a room adjacent to the stills, Graciella showed us a room with perhaps 50 huge glass containers in which they have been aging mezcal for over ten years! With the coming changes to the mezcal NOM, “aged in glass” will be a category unto itself. You may ask if aging in glass actually does anything to the mezcal? I have not tasted many so I am by no means an expert, but people in the mezcal world absolutely revere mezcals that have been aged in glass for many years. It smooths and mellows the mezcal. You will find it to be richer with greater depth and character. That certainly has been my experience, and though Graciella could not tell us when her glass-aged mezcal would hit the market, I would like to be first in line when it does.
After my friends stopped me from asking even more questions (were a few hundred too many?), we made our way back to the warehouse and Graciella treated us to a grand tasting of all Real Minero offerings. OMG! Find them. Buy them. Drink them. Happily, as I mentioned, most of these can now be found in the U.S., and they are amazing. The mezcal-y wizardry of the many generations of the Angeles family is poured into every bottle. These are truly great mezcals by any measure, all clay pot distilled, and each one lives up to the family’s reputation. Naturally, my friend’s and I bought as much as we could carry (and then some).
By now it was after 3pm, we were feeling good, and we were starving – which by the way, is almost what always happens when you are touring palenques in Oaxaca. Important safety tip: eat a big breakfast and bring protein bars! Graciella invited us to lunch at her local. As we drank beer and ate great food, I reflected on a special day at one of the more amazing palenques I am likely to ever see.
Graciella, thanks for a fantastic experience! Until next time, drink mezcal!
Oh man, just back from Oaxaca over MLK weekend and I am brimming with excitement and enthusiasm for what I learned, experienced and drank! I tried rare mezcals, traveled to palenques that I had never been to, ate more chapolines (grasshoppers), tried cicada salt (like sal de gusano but made with cicadas instead), and learned more nuances about the world of mezcal. One of the great pleasures of my favorite beverage is that there is always more to be discovered, and this trip, like the many before it, delivered yet again.
We had a great time, but were basically drinking mezcal (hey, this is important research I am doing!) from about 11am onward each day until the wee hours of of the morning. Sound like fun? You bet it was! (Shout out to my crew of Mike, Chris, Mario and Chris who were there in lock step with me).
I’ve been thinking about this and there is so much to share with my mezcal people (that’s you) that I barely know where to begin. So I decided to do a few posts instead of one looonnnnngggggg one. So this one is about our trip to the palenque of Eric Hernandez where Ilegal Mezcal is made, which was beautiful, educational, and first class in every way.
We arrived in Oaxaca on Thursday night, dropped our bags and headed out to In Situ to meet John Rexer, founder of Ilegal Mezcal, for our briefing on the next day’s activities. It went something like this: “You guys ready? You have shoes? Have you read Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal!? OK you are good to go.” He may have left out the Holy Smoke part. In fact, maybe I made the whole thing up. Who can remember? We were drinking mezcal!
John is a passionate brand owner who fell in love with mezcal – the product and the tradition – while living in Mexico in the early 2000s. Later after he started a mezcal bar in Guatemala, he realized he could not find any mezcal locally. So he and his conspirators started smuggling it across the border to stock his bar. At first it was a few bottles, but it soon turned into a full fledged Pirates of the Caribbean operation. John has many funny stories about these early years of Ilegal, and they get better the more he drinks (John, have another!).
As for In Situ, if you have not been or have not heard, it is the best mezcaleria in the world with over 150 different bottles, each carefully curated by the owners, Ulises and Sandra. Unfortunately, they were out of town for the weekend and the barman discharged us way too early into the Oaxaca night. He was closing up, and we had only bought a bottle each and were preparing to do more tasting and more damage. But he unceremoniously kicked us out – Ulises would have had the good sense to keep us drinking and keep us buying (plus I think he may actually like us). So till next time In Situ…
The Ilegal Palenque
Ilegal is one of my favorite brands. I love their products – a beautiful espadin joven with light smoke and hints of lemon peel, a butterscotchy reposado, and a transcendent anejo. Some mezcal purists mistakenly look past Ilegal due to their aged mezcals – man is that a mistake. I have long argued that aged mezcals expand the market and bring in people that otherwise may not be initially enamored with a powerful joven. And Ilegal’s reposado and anejo are amazing spirits by any measure. By the way, Ilegal also has the best edgy guerrilla marketing and are not afraid to take a stand! They amuse me.
So after a night at In Situ, the next day we met the van promptly an hour after the appointed time for our trip out to Eric Hernandez’s palenque. Eric, who produces Ilegal, is a fourth generation mezcalero who is also an engineer – an important fact which comes into play here. Eric also holds the distinction of being the first certified producer: he has NOM number 1 (“O01X” on the back of your Ilegal bottle).
Having been to many palenques in the past, I know Ilegal to be one of the most respected and innovative distilleries in Oaxaca. Now this is “mezcal innovative”, not “tequila innovative”. There are no hydraulic lifts, large machines, column stills, hardhats, guys named Joey, conveyor belts, or people with hair nets and rubber booties. There is an earthen roasting pit, a tahona, an angry horse, wooden fermentation tanks, three copper stills, fruit trees, humming birds, a shrine, and an atmosphere ripe with smoke and roasted agave. This is mezcal baby.
His palenque is mid-size (think basketball court compared to some that are more like a squash court), very well kept and clean, and has a few extravagances like a small bottling room that can fill four bottles at a time.
Eric is deeply committed to the traditional production process of mezcal, but he has made a few engineering tweaks to the artisanal process. He also has pictures around the palenque of his grandfather in the 1930s serving mezcal from wooden barrels, which is interesting because some claim there is no tradition of aging mezcal, only tequila. Were those barrels simply for storage? Were they for purposeful aging? I don’t know but they are there.
He gave us a tour of the property starting with the earthen pit. It was fully loaded and had been baking for 3 days already. You reach down and feel the dirt mound and it is warm (so cool for a mezcal nerd!). Eric’s pit is the first example of where some of his engineering has been applied. He has built a pit that has a sub chamber below the main pit – he lights the fire there. This has the effect of creating less direct heat on the pinas and leads to a less smoky mezcal, which in my view is a signature of Eric’s mezcals. The indirect fire also allows for a permanent rock structure on which to pile the pinas. In most mezcal pits, the rocks have to be replaced every few firings because they simply start cracking, breaking and disintegrating as they are sitting right on the flames. In this pit, the rocks last a really long time which saves labor and river rocks. The design of the oven, which produces a more radiant heat, allows him to use less wood, a good thing in my view given the substantial deforestation in Oaxaca.
Another example of Eric applying his engineering skills to the production process is how he has made small adjustments to his copper stills. Pictured below is one of the stills he uses for the second distillation. Over time as a still ages, tiny flecks of metal will make their way into the distillation – it frequently evidences itself as sediment in a bottle of mezcal. As you may be able to see in this picture, there are 2 clamps attached to the vapor tube of the still which brings a small electrical charge to the vapors and extracts any potential metal flakes. Who thinks of this stuff? I don’t know if he developed this concept himself or read it in a book, but either way, it’s pretty cool.
After our palenque tour, it was time to do some eating and drinking! While lunch was scheduled for 1:00pm it was now about 4:00pm and we were starving (as a general rule of Oaxaca palenques, you can add 3 hours to any time estimates). But it was all worth the wait. Eric laid out a spread of beef, pork, chorizo, avocados, onions, salsa, and much more, which was all to be wrapped up in delicious homemade tortillas. But wait, that’s not all…
Eric also put out the Ilegal line plus a line of silvestre mezcals that he sells locally under a separate label. Plus he had a bartender whipping up some yummy cocktails! We felt special. We felt pampered.
So we ate and drank and listened to some music too. John had brought a few musicians along, who kept it lively and added to the positive vibe all around.
I found that all of Eric’s mezcals have a beautiful consistency. As his signature is one of light smoke, the flavor of the individual agaves shines through brilliantly. His espadin is light and fresh with citrus and roasted agave. The wild tepeztate under his local line is perfectly herbal and not overpowering. He had an ensemble made with seven agaves that had great balance that I couldn’t stop drinking. And the list goes on. All fantastic and oh so drinkable.
All in all, what a memorable day. John and Eric were generous hosts with great hospitality, great food, and amazing mezcals. I look forward to my next visit!
Next Post Coming Soon: My visit to the Real Minero palenque. Super cool!
Last year was the first edition of the mezcal-y holiday gift guide and it was a rousing success. Due to the overwhelming demand (can you believe a total of 3 people have asked me about it?!), I am back this year for Round 2!
So are you looking for that special gift for your favorite mezcal aficionado? Or maybe you are the mezcal-crazed one (we are therefore destined to be friends) and you want to introduce and share your passion with the up-and-comers or uneducated? Well, there is no better way to celebrate the holidays than to give or receive some cool mezcal swag!
So I have scoured the mezcal universe to find a few tidings of agave joy that may make this holiday season a mezcal-y one to remember! Without further ado, here are a few ideas:
Why not start with something a little self-serving…my book! Yes, this is the book I wrote, published in the summer of 2014. While I would give it glowing reviews, don’t listen to me. Check out the reviews on Amazon – 33 reviews and 30 of them are 5 stars! You can’t make this stuff up (well, you actually could, but I didn’t!). The book takes you through the history of mezcal, the ancient production process still utilized today, the types of agave used to make mezcal, the range of taste profiles driven by the agave varietals, a walk-through of all the brands found in the U.S., a crazy good cocktail section and much more! So if you are looking for a modestly priced ($35 on Amazon) mezcal gift, this is a good place to start.
Throughout the mezcal making regions in Mexico, you will find that a very common way to drink mezcal is in these cool little gourd cups- called jicaras. They feel like a thin wood, and the have a rounded bottom so they roll around a tiny bit. But as long as you have mezcal in them (and why wouldn’t you) they balance quite nicely. They are a pleasure to sip mezcal out of and a nod to the traditions of mezcal as well. I have NEVER seen these sold in the U.S. and now my friend Eduardo at Artisanal Mezcals has them ready for you. Yes, they are cheaper in Oaxaca, but you are not in Oaxaca – sadly, neither of us is. So 4 cups for $10 is a bargain and you can buy them HERE! Also, check out the mezcals he has for sale. Most of these are only available in the U.S. through his site, and he has some damn good mezcal there!
Now that you have jicaras, you may want to check out some cool copitas. As you may know, another traditional way to drink mezcal is out of little clay cups. The Del Maguey team has popularized this in the U.S., and it is indeed an enjoyable way to experience this fine spirit. I came across these on Etsy, and I think you will like them as well. Six copitas for $40 and you can buy them HERE!
My friends at Mezcalistas have a fantastic blog, just hosted their second annual bitchin’ mezcal event in San Francisco, and make some super cool T-shirts. As I tell them, they frequently make me jealous with their brilliant prose and in-depth analysis of the mezcal world. Plus, they are really nice people that you would be happy to drink mezcal with anytime! So in addition to fine writing, they also sell some cool, funky, mezcal-y T-shirts for $20. A modest investment for sure and a great gift! Here is a shot of one of the current prints.
Sal de Gusano
As many of you know, a traditional way to drink mezcal is with orange slices and sal de gusano, or “worm salt”. You dip a slice of orange into the sal de gusano in between sips of mezcal to cleanse the palate. It is delicious, refreshing, and spicy all at the same time. The salt is made from salt, chili spices and crushed agave larvae. I know it sounds bad, but trust me, it’s great! It basically tastes like spicy salt. Until recently, it was difficult to come by in the U.S., but now you can buy it HERE from Gran Mitla for about $14. The team behind Mezcal Vago is importing this now – much respect mon!
Great Bottles of Mezcal (Round 1)
So many great bottles to choose from. Lucky for you I have several guides geared to help you. Check out my Mezcal Starter Kit for some great ideas if you want to give some moderately priced mezcal bottles as a gift.
Great Bottles of Mezcal (Round 2)
If you want to elevate your gift to another level, check out my post on Mezcal – Premium Edition. When price is no object, this is the place to look. Some unbelievable bottles can be found here! Anyone of these will make a fine gift.
Experience Mezcal Tours
Experience Mezcal is another uber idea for that very special person on your list – an exclusive mezcal tour in Oaxaca. The man behind these tours is Clayton Szczech, an American living in Mexico who is as thoughtful and passionate about mezcal as it gets. The tour includes unique and private palenque (distillery) tours, tastings, and amazing food among other things. Think of this as a complete mezcal immersion! Clayton has been organizing these tours for years, and having met him on several occassions, I have no doubt that this is a first class operation and an amazing experiece. You can read more about it on his site. The 2016 dates have not been set, but you can contact Clayton and get a gift certificate. That would be one AMAZING gift!!
Other Ideas? Let Me Know?
These are just a handful of ideas. I would love it if I knew of other special things that other brands are doing for the holidays – special products, special bottlings, or whatever! Send me an email at [email protected] and I will add it to this post. Or if you are simply a mezcal aficionado and have other ideas that fit in, send it my way! In the meantime, have a great holiday season and drink mezcal!
Over a year ago I published the Mezcal Starter Kit, which was intended to be a resource for people who are just beginning their heroic journey into the world of mezcal. So I focused on bottles that started at about $30 and did not list anything beyond $70 a bottle. As that post has been digested (perhaps ingested) over the past year, I frequently get emails from people asking “What’s next?” (more mezcal for sure!). These readers have tried a few of these starter bottles and now are looking for something more exotic and potentially more expensive.
Readers want to know about silvestres (wild agave varietals), aged mezcals, pechugas, and other premium selections. “Are they good?” “Should I buy them?” “Do I have to go to Oaxaca to get them?” “Did someone really invent a goldfish walker?”
So this post is a look at some amazing mezcals, that are available in the U.S., without regard to price. Yes, many of these are in excess of $100 or more a bottle. I have often said that with mezcal, you generally get what you pay for. So if they are on this list, and they are pricey, I doubt you will be disappointed. Also, many people will readily buy a $100 bottle of wine and it will be gone in a few hours. But if you purchase one of these brilliant mezcals, you might be enjoying it for the next few months or longer. If you drink it like wine, you probably need professional help!
However, you don’t always have to shell out $100 to get a great mezcal. There are many many in the $50-$100 range that are fantastic – I included many of those as well (and by the way, not that $50-$100 for a bottle of booze is a bargain – but remember this is the Premium Edition!).
Why are some of these mezcals so expensive? First, in general, mezcal is not an inexpensive spirit because it is hand-crafted, small batch, and labor intensive. There are no large column stills, industrial-sized ovens, or factory workers. An exceptional artisanal mezcal is produced at a small distillery, or palenque, and is essentially produced in a fashion that has been unchanged over several centuries.
Second, many of these mezcals are made from rare, wild agaves that are extremely limited in supply, difficult to find and harvest, and can take twenty plus years to mature. I snapped a shot of this wild tepeztate shown here in the cliffs outside Santiago Matatlan – a tepeztate can take thirty plus years to mature!
Third, when you move to aged mezcals, there are additional costs for the barrels, storage, and loss due to evaporation – the angel’s share, as you may know.
So yes, mezcals can be expensive. But again, if you can afford it, you will not be disappointed!
So where do I begin? So many great mezcals – what order should I put these in? Can I possibly rank them by my favorites? Not a chance – all amazing. By bottle height? (“How do you measure yourself against other golfers?”)? Price? That is not the goal of this exercise. So what order have I listed these in? Good ole boring alphabetical order. Not very creative but effective nevertheless. At any rate, you cannot go wrong with any of these…..here we go…..
Now there are many things left unsaid, or bottles not listed, because they cannot be currently found in the U.S. or for other reasons. For example, I love Real Minero but you cannot get that fine ensemble anywhere right now. They sell many varietals in Mexico, but they are not to be found north of the border. And there are many like that. Also, for certain brands like El Jolgorio, Del Maguey, Pierde Almas, or Vago for example, I readily could have included all or most of their whole line – yes they are that good. But I did not want to overload the list with a few brands.
What else? Well, I can’t find much of Siete Misterios in the U.S. anymore (other than their Doba-Yej and Tobala), though they tell me on Twitter that they are shipping their Barrill to the U.S. soon. Also, I am looking forward to the rumored arrival of special offerings from Mezcaloteca, Rey Campero, and Mezcal Koch, but they are not here yet.
At any rate, this is more than enough to get you going if you are searching for your next great mezcal. Nothing on this list will disappoint you. Are some better than others? Well, it is really a matter or palate and opinion – not better or worse when you are playing at this level. For example, I did not put an Agave cupreata on this list because they are not my favorite, though I know many mezcal lovers who disagree. So you have to find what you like and even then it is likely to vary on the day you are drinking it, the food you are drinking it with, and the company you are keeping at the time. It all matters. And it is fun to keep trying the broad range of mezcals to be had. I am sure you are doing just that!
And as you have probably figured out, I do most of my mezcal buying online so I have listed where you can find these bottles. These are the places that I have found to have the best selection – though it is usually best to shop around between them to find the best price.
Finally, if you are a brand owner, representative, importer, fellow blogger (my amigos at Mezcalistas?) or other and think I have missed something important here, please let me know. I have omniscient-like powers of revision! In the interim, drink mezcal!!
People ask me all the time how many bottles of mezcal I have. I look around my apartment and I see bottles stashed everywhere: closets, cabinets, laundry room, kitchen, billiard room, parlor, library, conservatory, observation wing, theater, gazebo, tanning room (for hides not skin of course), and even the laboratory! With all these rooms, how can I find them to count them? Well OK, maybe that is not really the set up in NYC apartment. But I do have a lot of bottles and they are spread out a bit, and I have never taken the time to count them up….until now….
So people ask how many bottles I have, and then they usually ask me how that stacks up to other mezcal fans or bars and restaurants. Do I have more mezcal than any individual in NYC? In the U.S.? Or do I have more mezcals than any bars in the City? Of course, I really don’t know the answer to any of these, though I suspect I have more mezcal than any bar. That really is not that hard when you realize that the bars are pretty much limited to what they can buy commercially in the U.S. – things like liquor laws, tax stamps, importers and distributors come into play, so they are handicapped. Whereas, a private collection is uninhibited by such restrictions. So if you buy what is commercially available in the U.S. (which I pretty much do), plus you bring back a lot of bottles from Mexico (which I also do), then it is hard for a bar to keep up with that due to the restrictions they face.
So yes, I THINK I have more mezcals than any bar in the country but I don’t know if I have more than any private collection here in NYC or beyond. In fact, I highly doubt it. My friends at Mezcalistas on the West Coast may be killing me! (But no combining collections Max and Susan). But I don’t know. That’s what this post is all about. Take the Mezcal Challenge!
Are there bottles in the US that I don’t have? Absolutely. I buy what interests me. I don’t buy to artificially expand my collection. For example, I love most of the Del Maguey line but I really don’t need all 18 of their bottles in my apartment! I’ve tried them all, and I buy the ones I really like. Also, budgetary and storage constraints come into play (we are actually renovating our apartment in part to create more mezcal storage space….really). But I still have acquired much of what is out there, and probably tasted almost all of it.
I have acquired it but that doesn’t mean I still have it. My mezcal collection, probably like yours, is a living and breathing entity. Bottles come in, bottles are consumed, bottles go out. And there is a fair amount of turnover here as I drink a LOT of mezcal (not all on my own mind you…OK, maybe most of it).
So the Mezcal Challenge is a snapshot in time. How many bottles of mezcal do you have RIGHT NOW? But first, we need a few rules. I know, I know. Mezcal don’t need no stinkin’ rules! But we had to have a few. And yes, there is of course subjectivity, but we needed a methodology to count our bottles. For example, I have a lot of little sample bottles, but should those count? It does not feel right to me since they disappear with one swig. So they are out. What about mezcals you may have brought back from Mexico that have no label? Fantastic. They are in. Or the 200ml flask that fits in your back pocket? I say yes. So you see, there are a few considerations, and I have clearly given it deep meditative thought….
Bottle Counting Rules:
Size matters. No 2 ounce sample bottles. Size has to be 200ml or greater.
Bacanora, Sotol, Distillates de Agave, and Raicilla count. You deserve the credit if you have some of these.
Tequila does not count. No offense to tequila but this is about other agave distillates. My friends at Agave Idiots can run the Tequila Challenge.
This is a unique bottle competition. What does that mean? Well, if you have a case of Ilegal Joven or Del Maguey Vida in a closet, that does not count as 6 bottles – it is just one. Even if you have 2 of your favorite bottles, it still only counts as 1. But if you have 4 different expressions from Pierde Almas, that’s 4. Unique bottles only.
Different lots do not equal different bottles. This one is admittedly tricky. Different lots of the same brand can taste different for sure, but it is the same brand and same expression, so I am going to say it does not count. Tough call though and it would inflate my totals for sure.
Honor system. Ernst and Young will not show up at your door seeking verification. Photographic evidence may be requested for bold claims!
Personal Category and Professional Category
As I am anticipating an onslaught of entries (Mario help me out here!), I will have two categories. The Personal Category for individuals and The Professional Category for bars and restaurants. Depending on the geographic breakdown of entries, I may make a few categories for the winners (like US, Europe, Mexico, International, etc). Many bars want to claim that they have the largest selection of mezcal (I know because they want to be included on my Mezcal Joints page and they make these types of claims). I get that. Submit your entry. Let’s see how it goes, and maybe some obvious sub-categories will develop. Or perhaps, I will only get a handful of submissions (lame). We will find out!
But man am I curious. I would love to know you if you are a serious collector of mezcal, and I would love to know what bar or restaurant has the largest mezcal selection in the US and beyond!
Throwing Down the Gauntlet
Since I am initiating the Mezcal Challenge, you probably want to know how many unique bottles I have in my collection??? Should I disclose now or wait until other entries come in? Well, I want to set the tone so I will disclose my current unique bottles count with the complete list at the end of this post. So…….
I have 142 unique bottles of mezcal currently in my possession.
I guess it is a good number but it seems small when I think of tequila collectors I know (Hello Mark!) who have something like 2,000 bottles in their private collections (though that is probably not unique bottles). But anyway, it feels small. Well not small small, but big small. With me? But maybe not. You tell me. What have you got?? You don’t even have to list them all – just give me a number.
I will publish the results. You can send me an email to [email protected] or respond to this post. But either way, I will publish a results post in a few weeks time.
I am working on producing Mezcal PhD T-shirts – the logo design is in process. While not there yet, I will have these in the coming months, and that my friends will go to the lucky winners of the Mezcal Challenge!
So that’s it. I hope that some of you – any of you stake your claim to the title and give me a unique bottle count. And for the bars and restaurants out there, the crown of most mezcals in the US, London, Australia, Canada, Paris or wherever hopefully has some appeal! I look forward to any and all submissions!
So after many months and hundreds of submissions (would you believe dozens?), the results are in! A bit to my surprise, it appears that I have the largest private mezcal collection in the U.S. While no one from Mexico submitted a larger list, I would bet that my collection can be readily topped south of the border by more than a few people.
At any rate, I thank those that submitted their collections and here are some of the notable numbers:
Mario (“Marwinski”) 85 bottles (Hated mezcal 3yrs ago!)
Max (Mezcalistas) 40-ish (Turnover high – excessive consumption)
Ken (Mezcal journalist) 30-ish
Mike Jones (enthusiastic contributor) 15
Judah (Mezcal Vago) Unknown (Talks a big game – can prob back it up)
So there you have it! I owe T-shirts to Mario and Mezcal Review, though I have to make them first. They are extremely well-designed and super cool in my head, but I am slow to execute. But I will get there. I may send out some more freebies as well! Thanks to all for contributing!