Sunday 18 September 2011

Spirit of Mexico

I took a small vacation from whiskey this week to sample the distilled equivalent from Mexico: mezcal (or mescal). The opportunity arose with the visit of Sergio Inurrigarro to Dublin. Sergio represents the alliance of mezcal producers and has the happy task of bringing the drink to the notice of the world. For us, he selected four of his favourites from the many available brands.

Mezcal was entirely new to me, so please forgive any lapses in accuracy here. The drink is made from the agave plant, which is cooked in a pit oven, mashed, fermented, and distilled. It might be aged in wood after that, or it might not.

Tequila is one type of mezcal (at least when it's from 100% agave), made in or around the city of Tequila, from the blue agave. Given that there are another 40 or so varieties of agave that have been used for making mezcal, you can appreciate that tequila represents only a small part of the taste spectrum. Also, tequila is made in a far more industrial process to push out the volume required. 320m litres of tequila is produced a year, but only 6m litres of mezcal. Mezcal is still an artisanal product, and mostly consumed within Mexico. Apparently younger Mexicans are discovering and appreciating the stuff now.

Here's a quick recap of what we tried:

Jaral de Berrio - 36%

Apparently the Hacienda del Jaral de Berrio is the oldest mezcal house in Mexico, dating back to the 1760s. This one is 100% salmiana agave (there is a parallel here with grape varietals in wine-making) and entirely clear.

While the various mezcals varied in taste, and were all very palatable on their own, they had some common characteristics that weren't particularly familiar to me. Herbal, grassy, slightly burnt, I would say.

At 36% ABV, this mezcal just hits the legal minimum strength. Unlike whiskey, there is a maximum strength too: 55%, so I'm told.

Cha Cha Cha Mezcal Joven - 38%

This was from a different agave variety, but still young (the "joven" means young or not matured, I think).

Mezcal Zacbé Joven - 39.6%

According to Sergio, this was a blend of distillates from 8- and 16-year old agave plants. A very modern-looking bottle too; like a New World wine.

Scorpion Mezcal Añejo - 40%

This one was quite distinctive. It had plenty of colour, thanks to a year spent in a fresh oak cask from Limoges in France. It also had a significantly more rounded flavour, no doubt also due to the effect of the wood.

The agave is steam-cooked here, rather than roasted in a pit oven, so that must have an influence on taste too, probably to reduce that slightly burnt component I mentioned earlier.

Oh yes, there is also a real scorpion in the bottle! They openly admit this is a marketing gimmick, riffing off the "worm" sometimes found in tequila bottles. It contributes nothing to the flavour. It does, however, contribute to the social good, because the company pays youngsters to gather the scorpions, as long as they can show they are attending high school regularly. An incentive not to drop out early.

I got the impression from the Mexicans present that they don't normally eat scorpions, so it's as odd for them as it is for us to see the creature in a drink. (Is that really true? I've had them, and they are quite a tasty snack.)

Of all the mezcals we tried, I'd recommend this last one the most. There are also 3-, 5- and 7-year old versions which I bet are even better. One more reason to visit Mexico!

Sadly, there is not much opportunity to continue my mezcal education in Ireland. The Celtic Whiskey Shop does stock one brand (not one of the above), along with an impressive range of Tequilas. We'll just have to hope that Sergio returns soon, with some more of the good stuff.