Holy Smoke

Not his usual glass (Photo: Karol Dabbs)
Not his usual glass (Photo: Karol Dabbs)

‘Tis the season for celebrating with a fireside tipple.

Wine? Not exactly festive, is it?

Rum and eggnog? Even with a good grind of nutmeg, too cloying and sweet.

Whisky or cognac? Yes, but unimaginative.

Mezcal? Now, there’s a novel thought.

Magellan and I enjoy drinking mezcal, usually neat, in a margarita, or with grapefruit juice in a Paloma cocktail. So in Oaxaca this year, with Balam Ruiz as our guide, we went on an all-day mezcal tour to three palenques, mezcal distilleries where agave is roasted, crushed, fermented, distilled and bottled.

Enigmatic in flavour and production, mezcal is unique in its smoky, earthy profile and hints of fruits, herbs and spices. It’s a bit like the many varieties of scotch, but without the peaty flavour or years of sophisticated production and marketing. As Max Curzon-Price, one of Vancouver’s cocktail aficionados says, the beauty of mezcal is the lack of technology in the production, the embracing of wild fermentations and the earthen ovens that result in “truly off-the-wall flavour profiles.”

The first thing you learn on a mezcal tour is how it differs from tequila. 

At our first palenque, Mal de Amor (Bad Love Story), owned and operated by a third-generation member of the Hernandez family, we learned that tequila is made with only one type of agave, the Blue Weber, and is produced primarily on Mexico’s west coast. Mezcal, however, is made from more than thirty other varieties of agave, the most common of which is Espadin because it’s easy to grow and matures quickly. But mezcal is also made with wild agave varieties like cuish, tobalá, tepeztate and jabalí. Also, mezcal may be made from a single variety of agave or an “ensamble” of two or more. 

Like scotch, mezcal is not cheap.

On average, it takes seven years for a baby agave plant to be ready to harvest, up to thirty years for some varietals of wild agave. And you need about 35 kg of wild agave to produce a litre of mezcal!

To make mezcal, the heart of a mature agave, the piña, is quartered and slow-roasted for days in open-pit ovens fuelled from beneath by pine, oak or pepper wood.  (The word mezcal comes from the Aztec language and means “oven-cooked agave.”)

Roasted piñas are crushed in a press where a large, heavy stone-grinding wheel slowly forces out the liquid, now a rich, sweet, brown, syrupy pulp called a maguey. Balam says that at this stage, it tastes like honey.

Water is added to the macerated maguey, then it’s put into a wooden tank to ferment for one to four weeks—a skilled mezcalero knows when to transfer the maguey to the distillation still. (Conversely, tequila takes only ten days to ferment.) The fiery smell from the herbaceous maguey permeates the air, its particular nuance infusing into the final product. Fermentation is augmented by ambient yeast and microbes in the environment.

Mezcaleroes do at least two distillations, usually in clay or copper stills. The mezcal may then be bottled and sold as joven, young or unaged mezcal. Reposado is aged in oak barrels for two months to a year, añejo for up to three years.

Mexicans have been making mezcal since 400 B.C. But until 1995 when mezcal was awarded its Denomination of Origin, it was the drink of the common people and known as tequila’s outlaw cousin. Ballam says there are now about 2,000 regulated producers in Mexico and tequila is called cheap mezcal.  

Because the second palenque we visited was founded by an engineer, Magellan felt sure he’d like Don Agave’s mezcal the most.

Here, the Balderas Carbonell family distills its agave juices in traditional ceramic-and-bamboo pot stills, an ancient method that gives Don Agave mezcals a distinctive smoky flavor and herbal bouquet.

Here we were taught the proper way to drink mezcal. Rub a little of the liquid on your wrist first, inhale the essence, then take a small drink, swirl it in your mouth for three seconds, swallow, breathe in, breathe out. Feel the sensation.

Don Agave’s Gustano has a lively essence of pepper, The Reposado plays with woody notes, the Tepeztae has the smell of earth after rain, and the Arroqueño, my personal favourite, is both herbal and floral.

Our guide here told us mezcal won’t get you drunk, but it will make you mystical and bring out four animalistic traits: parrot, peacock, rooster and pig. By this stage we were crowing about mezcal.

Our last stop was at Espina Dorada, a tiny ancestral palenque run by Jessica Hernandez, a twenty-six-year-old woman who has, remarkably, already earned her mezcalero status.

Jessica began her mezcal education under the tutelage of her grandparents. “I have always been very rebellious,” she said in an interview with Mexico News. “I was not the longed-for eldest son of the culture… but I have always liked playing that role. I was the girl who, if they did not take her to the countryside, hid in the truck to be able to go.” 

She gave us a taste of six of her mezcals, including Pechuga Noumade, made from a wild, white agave called cuish. To flavour this mezcal, in the distillation process she hangs a raw turkey breast over the still and in further distillations finishes the mezcal with fruits, nuts and grains. The result is a complex flavour that’s almost sweet. Once again, the Arroqueño was our favourite, but we also liked her Coyote and Umbre.

Searching for a cocktail that combines mezcal and scotch, I found “Peat’s Dragon” in Imbibe magazine. The recipe calls for ½ ounce of Fino Sherry but since we have a bottle of Scotch Whisky aged in sherry barrels, our cocktail, which we’re calling Holy Smoke, is just scotch and mezcal (an equal amount; Peat’s Dragon favours more scotch), agave syrup and lemon juice.

(UPDATE: January 14, 2024. For Christmas, Magellan bought me Middleton Mixology’s Smoke Top. Wow–does it take this cocktail to a new level, an olfactory delight.)

As they say in Oaxaca, “Hasta que veas la cruz,” meaning until you see the cross. Not a figurative toast, it refers to the cross etched on the bottom of the small glasses they drank mezcal from in the past. Glasses that formerly held prayer candles—holy and pre-smoked!

Holy Smoke

A modification of Peat's Dragon from Imbibe magazine. If you don't have a scotch aged in sherry barrels, add 1/2 oz of sherry.
Servings: 1

Ingredients

  • 1 oz mezcal
  • 1 oz sherry-cask Islay Scotch
  • 1/2 oz agave syrup
  • 1/2 oz lemon juice
  • 1 lemon or orange wheel

Instructions

  • Shake with ice cubes in a cocktail mixer, strain and garnish with a lemon or orange wheel.

Navigation

Alvin Starkman, Alvin. “Mescal and Dogmatism: Does it Harm the Industry?” Oaxaca Mezcal Tours blog. November 23, 2016.

Bruce, Anna. “Who says she can’t? Women in mezcal industry buck male tradition.” Mexico News.

Jones, Kyle. “Peat’s Dragon, a Mezcal and Scotch Cocktail.” Imbibe magazine. December 5, 2019.

Jonny. “Mezcal: The New Scotch.” Mezcal Reviews. June 25, 2020. March 16, 2023. For more about Jessica, here’s the spot.

Mexplorer Adventures Balam Ruiz is a superb guide. He and his wife Patty have their own company, Mexplorer, with a fleet of cars and drivers. We didn’t know about Mexplorer and found Balam at Gyde & Seek.

6 Responses

  1. Gloria (Especias) & Kerry (Magellan) que gusto leerlosy enorme placer haberlos recibido en el Palenque Mal de Amor.
    ¡Salud, con mezcal oaxaqueño!.
    La lectura del recorrido que hicieron por lo 3 palenques de mezcal, con mucha información y amena. Suerte en su exploración de las bellezas del mundo y sus matices. Excelente 2024.

  2. Yes, Mezcal can be very interesting. While in Ixtapa/Zihat the last couple of years we were lucky enough to be involved with a Mezcal parade, men on horses, women dancing, samplings for mezcal flowing freely. In the old days Mezcal I thought of the worm…Thanks for sharing stories from one of our favourite places. Not sure (actually never) have I had a drink with Scotch and Mezcal. Will try it with our amigos in February when back n the Mexico hood. Merry Christmas to you and yours…Heather

  3. Interesting story and one I knew absolutely nothing about.
    Will have to try some different brands in a future testing.

    Cheers,

    Merry Christmas to everyone . 🫙🫙🫙🫙🫙

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