Mezcal and Fair Trade
Mezcal producers can do as they wish, promoting their products as blancos, aging their distillates in glass, or
resting them in oak. Barreling, however, has received unfair and inappropriate denigration of late. Yes, a case can and should be made for critiquing the sale of heavily infused and often sweetened agave-based spirits occasionally mixed with cane alcohol, under the guise of being mezcal. But distillers, vendors,
exporters, agents, journalists, and those who would otherwise pretend to market the distillate for the benefit of the industry, ought to rethink poo-pooing a quality mezcal which has been barrel aged.
Indeed the sale of the iconic spirit in the international marketplace as well as throughout major cities in Mexico has skyrocketed over the past several years, in large part due to the ever increasing diversity of un-aged product available for purchase. But we should remember that many consumers of spirits have, over the decades and indeed for much longer, gravitated to premium aged tequilas, brandies and single malt scotches. And they still seek out and covet quality, barreled liquor. Should we ignore courting them with mezcal reposado and añejo?
I can live with one writer’s commentary that blancos are the best way to appreciate mezcals. But other promoters go much further. One marketer outright advises against buying mezcal aged in oak, stating that oak destroys the flavors and delicate aromas of the liquor. Is changes not a more accurate and less subjective assertion? Another, an exporter, states on his website that storing or aging mezcal in wood should be avoided as it chemically alters the mezcal, adding flavors that traditionally were not there. To its credit it prefaces with the words “it is our belief,” rather than spewing as gospel. Beliefs change, and in this case the entrepreneur is in fact toying with the idea of barrel aging, even in the face of the bold avoidance advice.
Some producers and their exporters are quietly experimenting with barreling. Chemical engineers number amongst very successful distillers, and they select their barrels with great care in order to create very specific subtle differences in nuance. Canadian, American and French oak are generally used; new, or retooled from use making Kentucky bourbon, French brandy, and so on. Charring also has its place in the
science of chemically altering, in a positive fashion, the agave-based spirit in order to achieve a particular taste. In fact one Oaxacan palenquero, a chemical engineer, for decades has been creating a range of exquisite aged mezcals. Only some of his export clients have reached this realization and as a result have been marketing a range of his reposados and añejos. The rest will likely awaken, but not until the tides
What do we do with a writer who chastises those who would use mezcal as a mixer for cocktails, referring to their bastardization of the spirit, and then turns around and holds a cocktail evening at his mezcalería?
Is the written word in the industry akin to a politician’s campaign promises? Or should we write it all off as good, healthy, fair play capitalism – or perhaps growth on his part?
Granted, I currently drink much more joven than I did ten years ago; the diversity of agave used to produce mezcal is much broader now than before, thus expanding availability of mezcals made with different magueys and subspecies thereof. By contrast, decades ago producers making mezcal with other than simply espadín, would bake, crush, ferment and distill whatever they found, and lump it all together as mezcal silvestre (wild). Not so now. A unique botanical or common name tends to fetch a higher price than labeling as merely wild (i.e. karwinskii [madrecuishe, cirial, tobasiche, marteño, bicuixe], potatorum [tobalá mariposa], marmorata [tepeztate, curandero], rhodacantha [mexicano, de monte], cupreata [papalote, ancho], and the lists go on.
I don´t often drink aged, truth be told. However, after my single malt collection has been left dormant for several months, I look up high on the shelf, decide I want something different, and pull down one or two bottles, dust them off, and imbibe. Then, after asking myself why I have been ignoring such rich, aromatic and flavorful spirits, I begin to look to my aged mezcals; I thereby re-learn to appreciate particularly añejos.
Indeed, the Glenmorangie single malt scotch distillery has an aged whisky line of 15 different products, each distinctly barreled based on number of years, and cask type (i.e. sherry, port, sauternes, super Tuscan extra matured, extra matured in Pedro Ximenez sherry, Spanish and American). The aromas and flavors of the spirit first produced at the Morangie Farm in 1738, have evolved, yes through chemical alteration; and today’s single malt scotch whiskies have flavors which were traditionally not there. Is that a bad thing?
It’s time we begin to check our dogmatism cloaked as expertise, and opinion masked as fact. It’s all fine and dandy to profess being an authority, but not if we harm the growth and development of the industry as a consequence of novice mezcal drinkers actually believing that we are experts to whom an inordinate amount of deference should be shown. Continue campaigning against those sweet cremas and heavy infusions, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Alvin Starkman has been an aficionado of mezcal for in excess of two decades. He is the author of Mezcal
in the Global Spirits Market: Unrivaled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances. Alvin operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (http://www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).