While tequila has been a mainstay in liquor cabinets and dorm rooms everywhere for a number of decades, its agave-fueled cousin, mezcal, has only become a star of the spirits world in the last few years. In that short time, it has completely infiltrated the market, appearing in dozens of iterations at liquor stores and taking center stage at every hip bar, from New York to Hong Kong. It seems almost blasphemous to call the more than 500-year old spirit “trendy,” but in 2018 alone, mezcal consumption in the United States climbed 32% from the previous year. Behind all those stylish bottles and trendy cocktails, however, is a rich history that has transcended Mexican culture for centuries and a revered yet under-acknowledged production process that has been passed down through generations of families.
Like tequila, mezcal is at its core a product of the spiky, green plants that cover the Mexican desert, and the word “mezcal” literally translates to “cooked agave heart.” Unlike the former, though, which is made only from blue agave and is easily mass-produced, mezcal can be made from dozens of agave varietals and is therefore produced in small batches through a very particular method. Once considered a cheap and lowbrow source for young drinkers to get a quick buzz, mezcal is known mostly for its iconic smoky taste, but in reality, the liquor’s multi-faceted agave profile gives it a wide range of flavors, from sweet to sour to bitter and everything in between. What makes the artisanal spirit so unique, however, is the combination of its agave diversity with the lengthy, traditional manner of production. “The production is divided into two parts: farming and distillation,” explains Alejandro Champion, the co-founder of Mezcal Union. “In some cases, they do both, but it’s generally just a different style of job. Some people like to grow agave, and some people like to make mezcal.”
Agave farms and distilleries grace nearly every state of Mexico, but they are most prevalent in Oaxaca, mezcal’s principal denomination of origin, and it is San Juan del Rio, a dense and mountainous town in the region, that is particularly known for its farms. There, the soil is fertile, and the land is plenty, and farmers like 80-year-old Juan Roberto Martinez Hernandez and his son José Luis Martinez Hernandez have been growing and harvesting the plant for generations. The land of San Juan del Rio is almost entirely communal, but even the private land can only be owned and operated by locals. Thus, despite having the acreage, many Oaxacan farmers historically did not have the means or resources to use it all. “Mezcal is booming, but still today, it represents only about 1% of all tequila,” says Champion. “New generations often need to look for other opportunities—going to the cities, migrating to America, and in some cases, the only choice they have is crime, which is horrible.” With the investment from outside companies like Mezcal Union, though, these folks are able to stay with their families and carry on the tradition of farming agave. By bringing the investment and opportunity here, we are able to change their lives,” adds the brand’s co-founder.
There are roughly 200 different species of agave, around 30 of which are used to make mezcal. Each boasts a completely distinct color, size, shape, and most importantly, taste, but the one thing they all have in common is their lengthy period of growth, which can range from seven to 30 years depending on the breed. The most common type of agave used in mezcal production is Espadín, but most products will blend the plant with the rarer Cirial or Tobalá species as well. Farmers like Hernandez plant agave at various points in time, so they might have upwards of 150,000 plants on their farm at any given moment, ranging from two to fifteen years old. Throughout the maturing process, the farmers clean the weeds and anything that surrounds the plants about three times each year in order to ensure that all nutrients actually reach the hearts, or piñas, but they also must supervise the agave day-to-day to make sure no plagues are growing around it. When the agave is fully matured and harvested (at seven years old in the case of Espadín and 14 and 15 years for Cirial and Tobalá, respectively), the plants are loaded onto trucks and taken to the distilleries.
At mezcal distilleries, or palenques, the agave piñas are taken through a number of steps that slowly transform the plant into the beloved drink. “The core of artisanal mezcal happens in the way you cook the agave,” Champion explains, “and the whole method is meant to emulate the story of goddess Mayahuel.” The legend goes that at some point, many hundreds of years ago, there was a big storm and lightning struck an agave, the reincarnated iteration of beautiful Mayahuel and a sign of fertility, causing the plant to split in half and cooking the center. The natives found the honey-like caramelized heart and after trying the delicious fiber, decided that it had to be a message from the gods and from Mayahuel specifically. They took the remaining pieces of cooked agave with them, and as the days went by, it decomposed and fermented. “They started feeling special powers as an effect of the fermented alcohol, another indication that it was some kind of divine action” says the Mezcal Union co-founder. “So, they started replicating the process by cooking the agave in these massive holes, crushing it with a horse and rock, then fermenting it in open wood barrels with natural yeast and distilling it into a container before eventually drinking the transparent juice.” While some large-scale producers have industrialized mezcal production, utilizing modern factories and technology, artisanal mezcal employs the traditional system even to this day.
Under the guise of maestro mezcaleros, like Pedro Hernandez and his daughter Flavia, palenques such as theirs in San Balthazar Guelavila pile the agave inside large, 20-or-so-ton conical holes that serve as ovens. The general rule among mezcal makers is that for every ten kilograms of agave, you will make one liter of mezcal, so Hernandez’s oven typically produces around 1,800 liters, or 2,400 bottles, in each batch. “Basically, you do a huge bonfire,” Champion says. “You turn the fire on, then you put river stones and volcanic stones on top and they get red hot, then you start throwing the agave into the oven.” The piñas will eventually rise past the oven, roughly a meter above, and the team will place sandbags and soil on top to secure them from wind and rain. The agave will roast for three to five days, depending on the weather, and from there, it is placed in a special grinding mill, where it’s crushed by a stone wheel that’s pulled by a horse. This continues for about two days, and the chopped piñas slowly turn into a sort of paste, as the agave fibers and pulp, known as bagazo, begins to separate. The crushed product is then passed into large wooden barrels, where it sits for roughly three weeks and uses wild yeasts to ferment. “You just put it in there, and you move it around with a big bamboo stick so that all the oxygen goes from top to bottom because there are bacteria within oxygen that eats the sugars and converts them into alcohol,” Champion notes. “The way these guys realize that the process has been achieved is through their five senses: the way it looks, the way it smells, the way it tastes, the way it feels.
They use their five senses to know when it’s ready, but you actually know when it’s ready because it starts to bubble, and then you see a thick layer of bagazo, like a cake, on top, and then you know it’s ready to be distilled.” After fermentation, the liquid is transferred to a concrete or copper vat, where the bagazo starts to boil and creates a vapor, and within that is the alcohol, the mezcal. The spirit then travels through a small tube surrounded by cold water, and over the course of a few days, it condenses, and it drips into large containers. The first 15 liters that come out, although supposedly very tasty, are not healthy for humans and are therefore disposed. The remaining liquid then goes through a second distillation without the bagazo, and the final product is put into large containers and driven via truck to the bottling facility, where it is blended with the mezcal from other distilleries and then packaged for market.
“You have to remember that this process now is an industry; people buy mezcal and drink it,” says Champion. “But before, it was a spiritual practice. Just as Catholics drink wine as a representation of the blood of Christ, people drink the juice of these agaves because they believe it is the reincarnation of goddess Mayahuel. So, every agave is one breast of goddess Mayahuel, and if you drink from her breast, you connect with your spirit and with the gods.” Despite the spirit’s surge in popularity in recent years, mezcal remains only a minor facet of the larger tequila industry. The production is accordingly very small, but many believe that just means there’s tremendous opportunity for growth. “I think consumers ultimately look for three things: an artisanal product, a fair price, and a story that they want to support,” Champion explains. “Mezcal is really just the story of Mexico—its history, its culture, and its people—and we’re lucky enough to be a part of it.”