How is mezcal different to tequila?
“Mezcal” defines two categories, one historical and one legal.
Historically, “mezcal” or “vino de mezcal” was used to refer to any agave distillate. On this interpretation tequila qualifies as a type of mezcal.
However, since 1994 the term mezcal has been given legal parameters. It can still be made from any time of agave, but as outlined by the CRM - the mezcal regulation council - it can only be made by registered producers from states within the denomination of origin - Oaxaca, Guerrero, Michoacán, San Luis Potosí, Durango, Puebla, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, State of Mexico and Morelos. Conversely tequila, with its own regulation body - the CRT - can only use one type of agave, Agave tequilana a.k.a. blue agave, from a different denomination: all of Jalsico and parts of Michoacan, Guanajuato, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas. Tequila can also be made of up to 49% neutral spirit + additives, the cause of all those slamming hangovers.
In practice, the typical differences between mezcal and tequila are of craft and scale. Mezcal brands, particularly those found outside of Mexico, tend to be produced on a small scale by grower-producer artisans using traditional methods. Tequila tends to be produced on a large scale at industrial distilleries which have embraced modern techniques, with all the gains of efficiency and loss of subtlety those techniques provide.
Also, 95% of Mezcals are smoked. And smoking is cool.
Why is the alcohol content so high?
Traditionally, mezcal has always been produced to between 45-55% ABV - strong compared to other modern spirits which tend to be around 40% ABV. With this in mind, when I first met Atenogenes I asked him if he could make me the same mezcal but at a lower ABV. Normally a calm and accommodating man, he suddenly became very stern.
"If it's not 48 percent, it's not mezcal"
I quickly came round to his view. As well as giving it a wonderful thick mouth-feel, the high alcohol content lowers the evaporation temperature meaning that each sip is elevated. A small amount of liquid bursts into gas, filling your mouth and nose with flavour.
The high ABV is also a source of the commonly referenced stimulating sensation of mezcal. Unlike the sedation of wine or whisky, mezcal is an "upper".
Why is it so expensive?
Bit rude. But a fair question.
The cheapest bottles of artisanal mezcal come in at about £35. That’s the same price as super-premium vodkas and gins, or whiskies which have spent 10 long years diminishing in a barrel. But mezcal is an unaged spirit from a country with low wages and cheap land. So where’s all the money going?
Not, unfortunately, into the pockets of the brand owners.
The fact is, at every step of the supply chain artesanal mezcal is a more expensive product than all other major spirit categories. This begins with the raw material: agave. Most spirits are made from sugarcane, grains, and potatoes. The cheapest sources of sugar available. Agave by comparison is monumentally expensive. Taking a minimum of 8 years to mature there is a significant investment of time and land. Supply is also limited to the foresight of growers past, meaning prices are volatile and linked to growth in the category (they are currently going through the roof).
Next, there’s the labour. Though labour is cheap in southern Mexico, the difference in time, effort and efficiency between artesanal mezcal and other modern spirits is mind blowing. In an efficient Palenque it will take five men three weeks of near constant, back-breaking work (most of which has no chance of automation) to produce 500l of mezcal. For Pensador this time period is closer to 2 months. Meanwhile, a modern automated distillery can churn out 10,000 litres of grain spirit per day at the touch of a button.
Finally there’s the scale. Overheads do not increase lineally with volume. When dealing with small scales, the costs per bottle are higher for every middleman in the chain – shipping, storage, wholesalers, distributors, retailers, and brand owners all have to take a larger margin to make things work. Artesanal mezcal is, by its nature, always small scale. And as such will pick up higher margins on its way to your glass.
So the high prices of artesanal mezcal are largely unavoidable. And in any case, given the scale of the flavours involved, £35 per bottle is a steal.
What’s the deal with natural fermentation?
Natural fermentation was once the standard for alcohol production, and was undoubtedly the source of all early alcohols. Leave a sweet liquid exposed to the outdoor air and soon enough wild yeasts will land on the juice, eat the sugar, and create the booze.
But given the significance of yeasts to the efficiency and consistency of the final product, commercial drinks producers chose to exclude natural yeasts, and use specific cultivated strains.
This has been the general consensus for the last 100 years or so and it is only recently with the increased popularity of natural wines that people have begun to challenge this assumption. Natural fermentation gives the drink an added layer of terroir, a real sense of place, as well as introducing a little roll of the dice – an unquantifiable element which will create subtle differences in each batch. This is a wonderful feature of mezcal; giving us limitless combinations of flavours, ensuring every batch is unique and exciting.
Why all the fibres?
This is another important and unique element of mezcal production - the inclusion of biological matter in fermentation and distillation. With modern spirt production, the ordinary procedure is to extract sugars from the base material and then dissolve these sugars in water, creating a pure liquid to ferment and distil. This has the advantage of optimising the capacity of vats and stills, and allows for the liquid to be piped between sections with minimal effort. A similar process could be used for mezcal, and indeed is the normal process for tequila production.
But Mezcaleros are not interested in minimal effort.
Instead they include significant proportions of agave fibres in both the fermentation and the distillation, meaning the vats and stills have to be filled twice as often, and the liquids must be transported from station to station by hand and by bucket.
The reason Mezcaleros stick to this inefficient method is because of the complex waxes and oils contained in the fibres. These oils continue to be released throughout the production process, and ultimately are responsible for the luscious thick mouthfeel of the final distillate. Their exclusion would reduce prices, but would rob mezcal of one of its finest qualities.
What’s “artesanal” actually mean?
As well as being a reference to the artisans who produce traditional mezcal, “artesanal” is also a legal category regulated by the Mezcal Regulation Council - the CRM. To help customers differentiate between styles and scales of mezcal production the CRM delineate three sub-categories: “Mezcal” – which can be mass produced with full access to modern distillation equipment including pressure cookers, diffusers, cultivated yeasts, and continuous stills. “Mezcal Artesanal” – made using the traditional methods of pit ovens, tahona or hand milling, natural fermentation (including fibres), and copper alembics. And “Mezcal Ancestral” – using the same traditional method but finished in clay pot stills. Given its similarity to other modern spirits, industrial “mezcal” is a significantly less interesting category. The majority of mezcals found outside of Mexico are either artesanal or ancestral; and these are what all the fuss is about.
Is it good for you?
I expect there’s a law against me promoting a 48% ABV spirit as a health food. But there are a couple of features which suggest that Pensador is less un-healthy than other spirits.
For one Pensador is 100% natural. The agave are all organic (uncertified), relying on a crop rotation of beans, squash and maize in place of fertilisers. And there are no added chemicals, colouring, additives, or preservatives. We don’t even add yeast, relying on natural fermentation from wild airborne yeasts.
Agave also produces fructose high "good sugar", as opposed to the glucose high "bad sugar" of grains and sugar cane - the bases of most other spirits. Without wanting to go into too many details here, I will point out that you can buy agave syrup at Holland and Barrett. So it must be good for you.
is it true that there’s no hangover?
I wish this was true. It really would make my job a lot easier.
There’s a saying in mexico: “no less than two, no more than three”. And if you can stick to this, limiting yourself to just two doubles, you will genuinely wake up feeling fresh.
But drinking mezcal is fun. And two or three tend to lead to five or six. And at 5am, when you finally finish that bottle and stumble to bed, it’d be a good idea to cancel those morning meetings.
Does it come with a worm?
The gusano rojo, or red worm - in fact a type of agave eating caterpillar - was added to bottles of mezcal as a marketing gimmick in the early days of exportation. The worm does not taste good, and so was added by industrial scale brands who were not concerned with producing a tasty mezcal.
For more anti-worm purism check out our friends at Sin Gusano.
does it contain mescaline?
This question comes up a lot.
For a while we were tempted to encourage it. A little added incentive: 2 for 1 on drinks and hallucinogens.
But the reality is no, Pensador does not contain the hallucinogenic drug Mescaline. That would be very illegal. And also extremely hectic.