Behind This Wall Interview

In the run up to our 11th April event at Behind This Wall we sat down and chatted mezcal myths with the main man Alex. We were pleased with how it turned out so we’re airing it again. The night was also a lot of fun, something we hope to repeat in the near future. Follow our insta or fb for info on upcoming events. Salud x

AGAVE FOCUS × MEZCAL

Tonight sees us team up with Pensador mezcal and LemLem kitchen for a special night of strong drinks, esoteric music and Eritrean-Mexican street-food!

Mezcal is something that captures the imagination. The enchanting, erudite cousin to the more homogenous tequila: cause-célèbre of many a first hangover. Mezcal sits in a more mystical and sophisticated space. One of steep Oaxacan ruins and broken big-wave dreams on titanic Pacific barrels. Earthy, sombre and soothing. It’s spike in popularity raising interest (from our perspective behind the bar at least) in tequila itself and other such succulent, agave-based nectars out of Mexico. To debunk a few myths and find out more about everything agave we chatted to Benjamin Schroder of Pensador to delve behind the doors of denomination!

First things first, let's talk myth! Mezcal and mescaline are not in any way related. Mezcal will not make you hallucinate. Nor will eating the worms that you find in cheap bottles?

Ha, yeah this one comes up a lot! For a while I was tempted to encourage it. A little added incentive: 2 for 1 on drinks and hallucinogens. But the reality is no - Mezcal does not contain mescaline, or any other hallucinogenic drugs. That would be very illegal. And also extremely hectic.

So if not packed full of mind-altering psychedelics - what's the deal with the worm? No premium brands go near it!

Worms and insects are a big part of Oaxacan food. Crunchy fried crickets. Salty ants used like seasoning. And the chilli salt often served with mezcal - that's got crushed up worms in it. So putting a worm in the bottle has some context. But in practice it's only really done by cheap, industrial scale mezcals. Guys who rely on marketing gimmicks to make up for their bad liquid. And there's a bit of a general point about infusions as well. Artisanal Mezcal is an incredibly inefficient spirit to produce. The agave take at least 8 years to mature, some as much as 20, and the production process is super slow and labour intensive. But people put in all this time and effort because the result are these amazing, completely unique flavours. So why do you want to mask those flavours you've worked so hard for with a last minute addition of worms, herbs or oak? Leave it for the vodkas.

Ouch, to vodka! So, for those new to agave as a category, it's something that’s constantly opening up over here. Ten years ago no-one knew mezcal and thought tequila was the bargain-bin option for a quick buzz. Now we are seeing Raicilla and Sotol making small waves on the UK market - can you outline the key distinguishing features? Or is it just geography?

Yeah its popping off! But it’s very new and there's a lot of confusion in this area. So let's set the record straight.

Tequila: Geographic D.O. (Denomination of origin) of 5 states, centred on Jalisco. Must be made from at least 51% Blue Weber Agave, the remaining 49% can be made of any base spirit. Tends to be industrial in scale.

Mezcal: Geographic D.O. of 10 states, centred on Oaxaca. Must be made from 100% agave, but can use any agave with sufficient sugar content - the specific number of varietals is vague due to different regional names but is in the region of 30. The majority of worm-free mezcal in the UK is categorised as "Artesanal", meaning it has been produced on a small scale using traditional tools and methods. Mezcal does not have to be smoky, but it almost always is.

Raicilla: Essentially a mezcal from Jalisco - a state outside of the mezcal D.O. so cannot be officially labelled as "mezcal".

Bacanora: Similarly, this is a mezcal from Sonora - another state outside the mezcal D.O.

Sotol: NOT AN AGAVE SPIRIT! Sorry, bit aggressive, but that's a mistake which comes up again and again and really gets under an agave nerd's skin. Sotol is a spirit made in Northern Mexico from the Desert Spoon plant, a type of Dasylirion. To be fair, it looks like an agave and is in the same overarching family. But that's not going to stop me being a pedant.

Ultimately, I think that these categories - with the notable exception of Sotol - should all come under the banner of "Agave". Just as Bourbon and Scotch are both Whisk(e)y, we should start treating all agave spirits as one family.

Right, and more than anything else in the spirits world agave sprits are totally influenced by terroir. I heard someone once refer to agave as the 'wine of the spirits world'. How significant was land for you when starting up Pensador?

Yeah terroir is huge with agave. The climate, altitude, soil type and even surrounding plants all impact the flavour of the agave and so the resultant spirit. And this sense of place is amplified with mezcal which also relies on natural fermentation - the local yeasts and microbes varying hugely from town to town, farm to farm. And yeah, the association with wine is a helpful one. People often liken mezcal to whisky or gin based on its flavour profile, but its production process is in fact much closer to wine in terms of the varietals and subspecies of agave available, and the inter-play of terroir and production. All of this was very significant when we were looking for someone to work with on Pensador.

We spent most of our time in the main mezcal producing region of Matatlan and the surrounding villages. There were great mezcals there, but they were limited by the consistency of their terroir. We couldn't find anything which really stood out. It was when we ventured further afield that stuff got really interesting. The region that we finally settled on - Miahuatlan in southern Oaxaca - has a very distinctive terroir. Significantly it's very dry, classified as "semi-arid", and has a chalky soil with a high limestone content. This has a very dramatic effect on the flavour of the mezcal's produced there. I don't have an amazing pallet. On a blind tasting I can't always tell you what brand I'm drinking, or what agave are in the bottle. But I can always tell if a mezcal is from Miahuatlan. And this Miahuatlan-ness is the beating heart of Pensador.

And what about ageing with mezcal? Tequila has really opened up now that we're seeing reposado varieties, añejos, extra añejos on top of your jovens or whites. Will you be looking to go down this route with Pensador - is that something that's even done with mezcal? I’m sure I’ve seen a few out there but not many.

Barrel aged mezcal is generally disproved of by agave nerds. And there's good reasons for this. For one thing there's no history of ageing mezcals in Oaxaca or other states in the D.O. This means both that it's a break with the traditional culture of mezcal, and that there's a lack of local expertise. I've met quite a few producers in Oaxaca trying their hand at ageing and it's done with none the finesse they use to produce their young spirits. Little attention is made to the previous contents of the barrel, the conditions in which it is stored, or the number of times it is reused. The results are underwhelming. Another negative is something I touched on earlier with infusions. Barrels smooth out spirits, they oxidise the liquid and add sweetness and depth. But this comes at a cost to the fresh, vibrant flavours of the young spirit. Ultimately, if I want to taste barrel I'll drink whisky or rum. We're here for the agave. So don't fuck about.

Ok, so if we take out the again what about labelling. You see a heap of mezcal labelled: 'Single Village'. This reads to me a bit like 'Single Malt' on a mezcal label. Is this a signifier for something really special? Is there a truth there or have we just been pre-programmed to see 'Single something' and read prestige owing to Scotch?

Yep that's basically the nail on the head. Single malt means something. Granted not what most people think it mean - unless it’s single cask, single malts whiskys are blended from a number of barrels - but it legally signifies that it's made from malted barley and comes from one distillery. "Single Village" doesn't mean anything. It's not an official category, just a clever tag line created by Del Maguey to link mezcal to whisky culture. The word you need to keep an eye out for is "Artesenal". This means the mezcal will have been made using traditional methods away from the industrial factories. And 95% it will also have come from a single distillery, in a single village. 

Ben Schroder
Year 1

A bit behind schedule (let’s call it Mexico time) but here is a quick summary of 2018: our first year of sales.

January sales got off to a strong start with listings at Dandelyan (No.1 at World’s 50 Best Bars 2018) and Happiness Forgets (Best International Cocktail Bar at Tales of the Cocktail Spirited Awards 2018), two of our all-time favourite bars.

In February we had some award success in The Spirits Business Tequila & Mezcal Masters. Pensador was awarded a “Master Award” – their highest accolade – beating all other mezcal entries.

April brought the next headline listing at The American Bar at The Savoy – a bar steeped in cocktail history that has managed to remain at the top of its game (No.1 at World’s 50 Best Bars 2017). We also had our first experience of event sponsorship, stocking the bar at the opening of Cornerstone Restaurant (Best Newcomer at the Observer Food Monthly Awards 2018).

Come May and it was time to return to Oaxaca to help bottle batches A2 and A3. We were lucky enough to spend over five weeks in this beautiful part of the world, much of which was spent living and working at the Palenque. It was great to have an opportunity to bond further with our producers and get a taste of their lives in Miahuatlan. In addition to bottling we had some time to explore the state and scope out potential new releases. More news on this soon.

Early July we found ourselves back in London for a hectic couple of days – a weekend spent running a secret mezcal bar at 24hr music festival, followed immediately by two days on a stall at Imbibe Live. Somehow we still found the energy to watch England in their first ever successful World Cup penalty shoot-out. It was emotional.

In a sweltering August we received our second award – a “Silver Outstanding” in the IWSC 2018 – the highest scoring mezcal in the competition and joint second in the entire agave category. We also lined up our first export market – to The Lebanon via importer distributors Gabriel Bocti Sal. Pretty soon we were getting fan posts from night clubs in Beirut. Who’d of thought it?

September was agave season in London with London Mezcal Week and The Tequila Mezcal Fest. We contributed to both events and had a great time spreading the agave love. Such a great time that we completely drained our stocks. Batch A1 was over.  

Luckily batches A2 and A3 arrived early October, which gave us the opportunity to run our first solo event – The Batch A2 Launch Party – hosted by our good friends Sin Gusano at their bar in Haggerston. The event was a great success, beginning with Afro-tacos and £1 singles and ending with rowdy garage bangers and a Donald Trump Pinata. We went through 31 bottles of Pensador.

November was spent gearing up to Christmas. We opened new retail accounts at Harrods and Fortnum and Masons, and hit a peak of no. 1 top selling mezcal on masterofmalt.com.

Finally, we rounded off the year with a couple of parties. A raucous night of Loteria (Mexican bingo) back at Sin Gusano with Pensador prizes all round, followed swiftly by a Christmas throwdown at The Mezcal Bar featuring potent mezcal margaritas and a huge subwoofer. It was merry.      

Many thanks to everyone who’s supported the brand so far. Hold tight for news updates for 2019. Its going to be a big one.    

Ben Schroder
Batch A3

Batch A3. Closer in profile to A2 than A1, this batch had an unusually high content of Madrecuishe producing rich, earthy mineral notes in the distillate. We love it. This will be appearing in shops and bars over the next couple of months. For our list of stockists see people.   

Details details details.

 

Year: 2018

Region: Miahuatlan, Oaxaca

Master Mezcalero: Atenogenes Garcia

 

Agave:

64.7% Espadin, 35.3% Madrecuishe

100% organic estate grown agave

Crops grown near to agave: maize, squash and beans.

 

Harvest:

12th – 13th March

53 Espadin pinas (3300kg)

21 Madrecuishe pinas (1800kg)

Total raw weight: 5100kg

 

Roasting:

15th-23rd March 2018

Earthen ground oven

Guamuch and Mesquite smoked

Total cooked weight: 3700kg

 

Milling:

29th March – 1st April

Composite Stone Tahona

Ox-drawn

 

Fermentation:

1st – 15th April

Sabino wood vat

Well water added

Natural airborne yeasts

 

Distillation:

7th – 24th April

Copper pot still

Fire powered

Number of distillations: 2

527 Litres produced

48.2%ABV

Ben Schroder
Batch A2

A1 is out. A2 is in. As with all artisanal mezcal’s, there is a small but noticeable difference between the batches. In this case, the principle difference in production was the ambient temperature during fermentation – A1 was fermented during an unusually cool January and consequentially took over 40 days to complete, in warmer conditions A2 took just 17 days – but many other variables of weather, ingredients, and chance contribute. This is just the wonderful, irreplicable nature of mezcal. Importantly, they share core recognisable features, and in our opinion A2 tastes even better than A1 :)

Here are the gory details. 

 

Year: 2017/8

Region: Miahuatlan, Oaxaca

Master Mezcalero: Atenogenes Garcia

 

Agave:

68.4% Espadin, 31.6% Madrecuishe

100% organic estate grown agave

Crops grown near to agave: maize, squash and beans.

 

Harvest:

28th – 29th December  

52 Espadin pinas (3450kg)

16 Madrecuishe pinas (1600kg)

Total raw weight: 5050kg

 

Roasting:

3rd-10th December

Earthen ground oven

Oak, Guamuch and Mesquite smoked

Total cooked weight: 3500kg

 

Milling:

19th-21st December

Composite Stone Tahona

Ox-drawn

 

Fermentation:

21st December – 6th January

Sabino wood vat

Well water added

Natural airborne yeasts

 

Distillation:

6th – 16th January

Copper pot still

Fire powered

Number of distillations: 2

500 Litres produced

48.4%ABV

Ben Schroder
Batch A1

 

Details from batch A1. For all my mezcal nerds out there :) 

 

 

Year: 2016

Region: Miahuatlan, Oaxaca

Master Mezcalero: Atenogenes Garcia

 

Agave:

70% Espadin, 30% Madrecuishe

100% organic estate grown agave

Crops grown near to agave: maize, squash and beans.

 

Harvest:

14th – 16th December  

55 Espadin pinas (3500kg)

52 Madrecuishe pinas (1550kg)

Total raw weight: 5000kg

 

Roasting:

21st-26th December

Earthen ground oven

Oak, Guamuch and Mesquite smoked

Total cooked weight: 3589kg

 

Milling:

3rd - 27th January

Stone Tahona

Horse-drawn

 

Fermentation:

3rd January - 14th February (unusually long due to cold weather)

Sabino wood vat

Well water added

Natural airborne yeasts

 

Distillation:

14th - 28th February

Copper pot still

Fire powered

Number of distillations: 2

407 Litres produced

48.49%ABV

Ben Schroder