Mezcal and Fair Trade
Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Why do many in the mezcal business, the self-aggrandized experts, and others supposedly in the know, shun the thought of drinking mezcal con gusano and any type of aged product be it reposado or añejo? More troubling is that many counsel imbibers against even touching to their lips anything but a blanco or joven (unaged) mezcal. This issue is particularly incomprehensive given that corn whiskies, brandies, scotches and some wines are aged in oak barrels. And, both internationally renowned chefs and acclaimed traditional Oaxacan cooks use the gusano del maguey or agave worm to flavor some of their culinary delights.
In prehistoric times, that is prior to the mid 1990s, we were drinking relatively few types of mezcal. With nary an exception our options were essentially limited to unaged, reposado (aged in oak for at minimum a couple of months), añejo (aged in oak for no less than a year), “with the worm,” and if we were lucky we could put our hands on the occasional bottle of tobalá. Selection options are very different today, innumerable in fact. Many imbibers have either never known or forgotten that quality mezcal can come in several forms, including aged and infused.
Mezcal con Gusano
Mezcal con gusanso first appeared in the marketplace decades earlier than the modern era. It became popular on college campuses as a cheap way to get drunk fast because of its relatively high alcohol content, and of course the traditions and myths surrounding its imbibing carried its popularity forward. “The worm,” actually a moth larva which infests and attacks the root and heart of certain agave species [variously identified as Aegiale hesperiaris, Hypopta agavis and/or Comadia redtenbacheri] became a marketing tool for distillers, exporters, importers and distributors. But the infusion also changed the flavor of the mezcal into which it was inserted. Most gave short shrift to considering how the character of the mezcal was being altered, and would never consider this type of mezcal a fine sipping spirit. Perhaps back then it wasn’t.
But what if today you enjoy the nuance of mezcal which has been infused with a gusano? A couple of years ago I took a bottle of mezcal con gusano off one of the shelves housing my collection of agave spirits. I slowly sipped it. The flavor shockingly reminded me of a couple of my favorite whiskies, peaty single malt scotches from Islay!
Today there are good and bad mezcals with gusanos, with our assessments being based on subjective criteria, just as there are good and bad unaged mezcals. Quality may be impacted by, amongst other factors, the type of gusano (although it is typically one type used to flavor mezcal), how the larva has been prepared for infusion into the mezcal, the specie and sub specie of the agave used to make the base mezcal, and the skill of the artisanal distiller. The point is, that yes this type of mezcal was likely initially marketed with a view to increasing sales of the spirit because of its uniqueness, but we should give it a chance, just as we would sampling different joven mezcals. Not all mezcals produced with madrecuixe, tepeztate, jabalí, tobalá and espadín are the same. Some we like and some we don’t. You may find the same thing with mezcal con gusano. And if you find a couple of brands to your liking you may just stop spending $100 USD on a bottle of Lagavulin. So don’t write off mezcal con gusano just because at this moment in history it’s un-cool to like it, or your memory of it is clouded by what it meant to you years or decades ago.
Now the story of aged mezcal is entirely different, since long before the emergence of mezcal con gusano, añejos and to a lesser extent reposados were deemed quality sipping spirits. Thankfully in many circles they still are, and indeed many brands have been able to capitalize on the continuation of this perception. But since the early 2000s a movement has emerged, and seems to be gathering steam, dissing aged agave spirits, mezcal in particular. The rationale goes something like this: they are not “traditional” mezcals; aging masks the natural flavors of mezcals which are derived from an agave specie and impacted by means of production and tools of the trade, and microclimate; and the list goes on. Hence, we should avoid drinking reposados and añejos at all cost. The proponents of these lines of thought lecture about it, disseminate their position on their websites, and promote their “knowledge” in print, all purporting to promote the industry.
What can be more traditional than a custom dating back hundreds of years? Depending upon the version of history to which one subscribes, the aging of agave spirits in oak barrels dates back to somewhere between the 1500s and the 1700s, and certainly not more recently. The oral histories I have personally taken are based upon elderly palenqueros having recounting to me from their own experience dating back to the 1940s. The current crop of brand owners and representatives were not even born then.
The history of aging mezcal in wood actually begins with the Spanish arriving in The New World with brandy transported in oak casks. Many barrels remained in what is now Mexico. Even using the most recent dateline of the 1500s for the birth of distillation in Mexico, we find aging. Here’s why. At some point after distillers began producing agave spirits and storing and transporting them in clay pots, they realized that the capacity for transporting was restricted to about 70 – 80 liters because of the size of the receptacles. And since the pots were fragile they were prone to breakage. Oak barrels from initially Spain became available for the same purposes, that is, storing and transporting the spirit. They became preferred because they were larger and more break-resistant than the clay “cántaros.”So, if not by design then by default, palenqueros were aging their spirits in oak, long, long ago, and consumers were enjoying it. Aged mezcal is traditional. Query the purists who state that mezcal should only be stored in glass. Is glass traditional? No, clay is, dating earlier than oak. Clay too changes the notes of the agave spirit. Perhaps we should distinguish traditionalists from purists.
But some of these same “experts,” the purist class, drink, sell and promote mezcal de pechuga. Typically this type of mezcal has been distilled a third time, during which there is generally a meat protein (chicken or turkey breast, rabbit or deer meat, etc) dangling in the upper chamber of the copper alembic or clay pot, over which the steam passes thereby imparting a subtle change in the spirit’s nuance. Most contemporary distillers insert a range of fruit, herbs and spices into the bottom pot while continuing to use the protein in the process. There are umpteen variations on the theme. In any event, the totality of these added products dramatically alters, and yes to a certain extent masks the natural flavor imparted by the particular agave specie, means of production and tools of the trade. Where aged agave spirit is not acceptable, mezcal de pechuga is, and is sold at handsome prices. Is there a disconnect?
There are other rationale some use for urging spirits drinkers to not drink aged mezcal:
The recent promotion of mezcal based on specie and sub-specie of agave rather than the few categories noted at the outset, as well as on the particular village or district where the agave was grown and processed into mezcal, has helped the industry get to where it is today. But the downside has been that añejos have been left behind in the wake, and many who have become mezcal aficionados have not even had a chance to try aged product. And they wouldn’t even think of trying a mezcal con gusano. It just isn’t cool or acceptable in much of today’s world.
It’s time we begin to embrace diversity which includes gusanos, reposados and añejos, and either ignore the naysayers or better yet tell them that their opinions are no more valid than ours. If we, the imbibing public, try a mezcal with something in the bottle or a product that is not perfectly clear, and don’t like it, we may not try it again, or we may sample from a different brand or batch. But don’t even suggest that it isn’t traditional or of good quality. Let us be the arbiters. Retailers, mezcalerías and tasting rooms, should consider carrying initially at least a bit of those products so we can make our own decisions. Otherwise they are doing a disservice to those producers who are continually working hard to trying to create more pleasantly palatable and diverse mezcals, and just as importantly they are restricting the options of their own clientele, without valid reason.
Alvin Starkman owns and operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). He has a collection of more than 400 different mezcals, with con gusano, reposado and añejo housed alongside his single malt scotches.