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Oaxacan Mezcal: The Tarnishing of Tradition
Unfortunately, all too often it is easy to get stuck in trusting the truth of what we read and hear about the brands of mezcal in Oaxaca. Be it online or printed publications, what we are told in bars and mezcalerias, and even what is on the labels of some familiar agave distillate brands, sometimes there is a problem.
Contemporary brands of mezcal which have taken the spirits of the world by storm over the past couple of decades, dating no earlier than 1995, are always up front about what their state is in the bottle; but that is not always the case. There is certainly an obligation on buyers to do their due diligence before shelling out over $100 USD on a product new to the market. But now it is still a challenge for consumers to be able to measure, assess and deconstruct all this bombardment. In 20 or 50 years imbibers will certainly be more educated about mezcal than is currently the case. However currently, to the extent that the information out there is misleading, inaccurate, inaccurate and even untrue, mezcal aficionados, and more importantly would be aficionados, remain misguided.
The obvious solution is to buy what you know for sure, and like. The best mezcal is the one you like best. But what about the agave distillate that you heard about and decided to buy? If you are outside of Mexico, it is unlikely that you will be able to taste before buying. The best option of course is to visit the smattering of palenques in the landscape of Oaxaca for example, where many of the nationally certified mezcals are distilled. In doing so, and even visiting the mezcalerias capital, you can check before buying. Making that pilgrimage is not possible for many.
There are actually brands which are not happy to get customers to their apps. Why? For example a mezcal aficionado may be interested in learning what exactly is meant by online promotion such as “made by modern and traditional methods.” You may be disappointed to learn that “modern” means high productivity; and likewise that “traditional” means no more than harvesting, cooking, crushing, fermenting and distilling which uses production methods and commercial tools as high technology as it can be.
What does “100% estate grown agave espadín” or “100% natural” really mean these days, at least in Oaxaca? Are madrecuixe, barril, mexicano and tobalá really all wild agaves used today to make mezcal? Does tepeztate really take 35 years to mature before being harvested and then turned into mezcal? Is there something artistic about agave that has been watered in a hermetically sealed brick room, then pressed by a machine, and finally distilled in a stainless steel column that is also fueled by diesel?
Yes of course we all want to make life easier for the hard working palenqueros and their families. However, there is a profound difference between self-promotion for the sake of extracting more juice to better line the pockets of traders, and in some modicum furthering what causes devotion for the benefit of those who do. laboring in the fields and in the factories. In other words, using a gasoline-powered machine to crush sweet agave rather than, for example, a heavy wooden mallet to crush it by hand, serves the latter and is difficult to see as objectionable. On the other hand, mezcal made by strict modern methods to maximize profits, is a completely different animal. In my opinion, motivation should be factored into the equation.
A palenquero that produces for an international brand that labels its mezcal as made with “property grown” agave asked me to sell some maguey in my place. I had no idea that espadín, madrecuixe, tobalá and weber on my land had grown! Maybe I should start referring to my land as my Property, and put Don Alvin on my business cards.
Sarcasm aside, typically “property grown” means that the agave is grown on land owned by the distiller. In the word wine apparently it can also mean the land is controlled by the vintner but owned by someone else. With the production of mezcal you can show the best quality spirit, but not necessarily, and maybe not at all. One might think that the growth is best managed by a palenquero who carefully watches the land for ten years, if that. But it may be the chemical that causes the clot, and causes its properties. And there are countless factors that affect the ultimate quality. If it’s property grown and certified organic, I can be sure, but anything short of that sends up red flags for me. So everyone shopping can easily be misled by my price. And more recently all artisan producers and mezcal baba producers are looking to buy agave from anyone who sells it. Their actual “properties” are either barren, or lined with rows of young succulents years out of harvest.
On the wild as opposed to cultivated. A downtown store in the city of Puebla, about four hours on the toll road from Oaxaca, is owned by a well-known brand of (supposedly) traditionally made Oaxacan mezcal. It only sells mezcal under that lable. In his sale he notes espadín as cultivated, but all the others are described as made with wild agave; madrecuixe, tobalá, arroqueño, and the rest. Almost every species of agave used to make mezcal in Oaxaca is now cultivated. However one can also find mezcal which is actually made with wild tobalá, for example, and most likely tepeztate is also made with wild maguey. But many varieties, especially jabalí, are now cultivated, and most mezcals on the market are made with cultivated agave, an environmentally friendly and sustainable approach for the industry. The other day a friend was telling me about all the species and varieties he has under cultivation, grown from seed in his greenhouses, 16 in all, about 200,000 plants that he offers to farmers and palenqueros. While it’s unlikely, it’s highly unlikely that the Puebla retailer is making all of its mezcals out of wild agave. It just doesn’t make sense.
Think about the mezcal boom, and how much the spirit made in the state of Oaxaca is now on bars, breweries, restaurants and mezcalerías, in Mexico, across North America, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere, including China. . Can the labels be correct if many describe the juice as we do with silvestre? Of course not. But some brand owners believe that the buying public will pay more if mezcal is described as made with wild agave. If you visit Santiago Matatlán, the sides of the road are full of fields with almost exclusively espadin under cultivation. But venture further abroad to the more remote areas, and cross the dirt roads on the other side of the mountain, you will find arroqueño, tobalá, mexicano, madrecuixe and barril, all in neat rows , awaiting harvest and processing; then to be labeled as wild in some cases.
Let’s assume for a moment that every label describing a mezcal as distilled using wild agave is correct. That doesn’t mean that mezcal is better quality than the next bottle that doesn’t have the word silvestre as a descriptor. Just think about it. One should consider the microclimate (including air and water yeasts), production methods, tools of the trade, the type of wood used to bake, the skill of the palenquero, etc. Each is just as likely if it is not more before the quality impact, like wild v.
Some areas are dictating to their palenqueros that for each wild agave harvested, two must be planted. And some brand owners are looking for volunteers in the rainy season to plant small agave that grows from seed up in the mountains. In both cases let’s assume that the magueytos will grow in the wild for ten years or so, without irrigation, fertilizers, grass, or otherwise treated. How should the resulting mezcal label be? I suggest, as some call it, semi-wild. But again, that doesn’t help us in determining the quality of what’s in the bottle. We must know more, much more, with the reputation of the producer. And of course the type of agave used will also influence our purchasing decisions.
One brand promotes its mezcal as gluten free, feeding off the celiac frenzy. Are there any mezcals that are gluten free?
Just because one liter costs 500 pesos, and the other costs 1,000 pesos, both from the same palenquero but different species, does not mean that the latter is of better quality than the former.
Does age matter? Whether. But more often than not, those brands that boast on their labels the age of the agave used to produce that particular mezcal, are trying to raise the price. An employee of a downtown Oaxaca mezcalería used to tell patrons that tepeztate takes 35 years to grow. As a palenquero friend once told me, if a campesino harvesting tepeztate from the forest does not know its own age, how do you know the age of maguey?
Beware of those who are overly dogmatic in promoting their own or other mezcal brands, and of those who tend to speak in absolute terms. What is their motivation? I would suggest that they are trying to build their reputation as mezcal specialists, or increase the price of the agave spirit they are selling.
One can reasonably expect to pay more for mezcal made with cultivated agave which has been in the nursery and then in a place for 15 to 40 years, considering the attention paid to such an extended period, and cost of ownership. you get your own meter on valuable land. If it is planted, then on balance it seems to have a little more value, subject to how many kilos of raw agave have been taken to produce a liter, amo v. Copper distillation, age, and residue. But it is unlikely that it has been in the field for much longer than a dozen or so years. If it is wild, then why should it be more if it has been growing unattended in the hills for two decades? Of course, wild agave in the field for 25 years can have more flavor because of the time it has to take in rich minerals and a lot of useful carbohydrates. But the same thing can be said for the cultivated agave that grows on the top of a deep river valley, or left for a year after the quote is cut. If you are sure that it is wild, and the person who has harvested it has worked to get it into the mountains and back again, then be sure. But wild can also mean growing on the flat land near the palenquero’s distillery.
The global mezcal boom has been generous to growers and distillers. The pattern of potential growth will hopefully continue for decades, despite the cyclical nature and faddism in the alcohol business. Consumers have also been riding the wave. If brand owners and their reps, as well as retailers including stores, bars and restaurants, want to continue to reap the benefits, they should all know that the gravy train may be short-lived. the current example continues. Maybe the company needs better policing and regulation. For those who are against that scenario, the solution is to listen to this advice.
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