Stuart Forster attends a virtual spirit tasting – an introduction to mezcal and tequila with information about the production of the Mexican beverages made with agave hearts.
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A virtual spirit tasting
Would I like to attend a virtual tequila tasting? My friend’s question prompts distant memories of boozy nights featuring shots accompanied by salt and lime. Those nights were inevitably followed by thumping hangovers.
Consequently, tequila is a drink I avoid. Mezcal, by contrast, is a spirit that I’ve never tried but about which I have read positive reviews.
Maybe I’ve simply tasted the wrong type of tequila? The quality and flavour of alcoholic drinks such as wine, whisky and beer vary according to the brand and label. It stands to reason that the tequila I downed as student wasn’t premium quality.
Perhaps it’s time to give tequila another chance and simultaneously sample mezcal.
I accept the invitation to the virtual tasting event.
A couple of days before the Friday evening tasting a box is delivered containing miniature bottles of mezcal and tequila. It also contains a packet of tortilla chips, salsa dipping sauce and ingredients to mix a Smokey Picante cocktail.
Smokey Picante cocktail recipe
The Smokey Picante is made by mixing the following ingredients over ice:
25 millilitres of Ojo de Dios mezcal
15 millilitres of agave syrup
25 millilitres of fresh lime juice
A drop or two of piquant Yucateco sauce
After shaking them together, the mixed drink should be served in a glass rimmed with Tajin seasoning.
With a Smokey Picante next to me I sit by my laptop. Eduardo Gomez, the Sales Director of MexGrocer, welcomes me to his virtual tequila and mezcal tasting.
A virtual tequila tasting
“I guarantee that nine out of 10 people go eew! when tequila is mentioned” says Eduardo. The native of Mexico City jokes about the widespread negative perception of tequila.
His words resonate with me and I sip from my Smokey Picante, a drink that’s making a positive impression.
“I never encourage people to shoot tequila…when you are doing a shot you are disrespecting the plant,” he says, referencing the agave plant from which both tequila and mezcal are made.
Eduardo informs us that five types of alcoholic spirit are distilled from agave in Mexico.
Internationally, the best known is tequila, by far the most widely consumed of the five spirits. Mezcal, bacanora, sikua and raicilla are also produced using agave, a plant also known as maguey.
Just as the grapes used to make wine have many varietals, mezcal can be made from many types of agave.
The spirit’s name is derived from a word from central Mexico’s Nehuatl language. Mezcalli references baked maguey.
Eduardo explains that Mexico’s size is comparable to Europe’s. A quick Google search reveals that the road journey between Tijuana and Cancun is a bottom-numbing 4,377 kilometres (2,720 miles) in length.
That vastness means a multitude of landscapes and climatic conditions. Agaves grown in arid conditions taste different to those harvested in lush surroundings. In common with wine production, factors such as soil and altitude influence the taste of the drink.
Of course, variations in production processes also impact the flavour profiles of spirits made from agave.
Harvesting the agave plant
More than 150 varieties of agave plants grow across Mexico. They flower when they are mature, a process that varies according to the type of agave and the conditions in which the plant grows.
Blue agave used for making tequila takes around five to seven years to develop into a harvestable size. By contrast, some of the 50 or so agave varieties used to make mezcal take as long as 30 years to mature.
Typically, harvested agave hearts weigh 50 and 200 kilograms (from 110 to 440 pounds).
Guadalajara, the state capital of Jalisco, is known as the principal hub for tequila productions. It’s also made in four other states.
Mezcal is made in nine of Mexico’s states, including Oaxaca (whose name is pronounced like that of the UK restaurant chain, Wahaca). The process is regulated by Consejo Regulador del Mezcal, the body which oversees the denomination of origin.
Agave is harvested by hand using a sharp metal tool known as a coa de jima. Consequently, the harvesters are called jimadors.
The heart of the agave – known as the pinã or pineapple – is used to make both tequila and mezcal. Eduardo shows us pictures of harvested agaves. We see that leaf stubs are left on the heart when making mezcal.
How tequila is made
Tequila is always distilled twice. Eduardo explains that small-batch craft as well as industrial-scale versions of the spirit are produced.
Mixed tequila needs only 51 per cent of its sugar to come from agave plants. He urges us to look out for bottles whose labels indicate that the tequila is made from 100 per cent pure agave.
Simultaneously, all of use participating in the virtual tasting sip Reserva del Senõr’s Tequila Blanco. Lightly smoked and easy to drink, it’s significantly smoother than the tequilas I chucked back in my student days.
In addition to tequila blanco, blended and aged varieties of the spirit count among those available.
How mezcal is made
Eduardo describes how the agave hearts used in mezcal production are initially baked in wood-fired ovens covered by earth, banana leaves and grass. This can impart a smoky flavour but doesn’t have to.
Roasted agave hearts are then shredded and fermented. Traditional mezcal production methods involve natural fermentation in wooden vats.
The specifics of the production process depend on the category of mezcal and whether it is Mezcal, Mezcal Artisanal or Mezcal Ancestral. Approximately 1,200 producers make a total of around 1,600 mezcals.
The scale varies from stainless steel vats to copper stills and, in the case of Mezcal Ancestral, clay stills.
Eduardo describes how master distillers grow up around their craft. They tweak the product after tasting it.
We compare two of Mezcales de Leyenda’s spirits. One is a Guerrero (45 per cent alcohol by volume) made from agave baked for five days in a lava-lined pit then naturally fermented for three to four days. The other is from the state Durango (47 per cent alcohol by volume) and cooked using oak, acacia and mesquite then fermented for between seven and 10 days. They taste markedly different with the latter rounder and warmer.
Ojo de Dios mezcal
As the tasting draws to a close, I sip a glass of Ojo de Dios, Mexgrocer’s own brand of mezcal. Meaning the ‘eye of God’, the spirit is distilled in a 250-litre copper still.
“We say in Mexico that mezcal doesn’t get you drunk, it gets you high” says Eduardo of the buzz from drinking the spirit. “It is pure energy from Mother Earth,” he enthuses.
The virtual tasting comes to a close. I shut down my laptop and, impressed, decide to look out for mezcals in the future. The tasting has been an enjoyable start to the weekend and helped me reassess my perception of tequila.
Buy mezcal and tequila online
You can purchase mezcal and tequila online from websites such as MexGrocer.co.uk and Amazon:
Map of Mexico
You can view of a map of Mexico below:
Books about Mezcal
Interested in learning more about mezcal and cocktails made from it? Check out the following books about the Mexican spirit (click on the cover image to find out more):
Bullock is also the author of The Mezcal Experience: A Field Guide to the World’s Best Mezcals and Agave Spirits:
James P. McAvoy’s Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal!
Books about tequila
Want to know more about tequila and tequila cocktails? Take a look at the following books (click on the cover image to find out more):
Ian Williams’ Tequila: A Global History:
Catherine Cobbs’ Tequila and Tacos: A Guide to Spirited Pairings:
With more than just tequila-based cocktail recipes, Tim Federale’s brilliantly named Tequila Mockingbird:
Interested in participating in a virtual tasting? Contact Eduardo Gomez via the Mexcgrocer website to ask about their availability. Tasting kits including three different mezcales de Leyenda, one mini tequila and a one-hour virtual tasting led by Eduardo or one of his team are priced at £49.99.
Want to read more about drinks and drinking culture from around the world? Tonic magazine launched in 2020. Go to the magazine’s website and enter the exclusive discount code GOEATDO15TONIC to get 15 per cent off the cover price.
Always enjoy alcohol responsibly.
Thanks for visiting Go Eat Do and reading this introduction to mezcal and tequila. Enjoy craft spirits? Read this Christian Krogstad of Westward Whiskey interview.
Stuart Forster is a member of the British Guild of Beer Writers. Stuart frequently writes about alcoholic drinks and their production process.
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