This piece originally appeared on Needsupply.com
Despite its increasing popularity in American bars, mescal lives in the shadow of tequila. The similarities are few, but the differences are vast. Each glass—never a shot—of mescal is a small lesson in craft, patience and ecology. Its smoky, layered complexity is a direct result of the air, earth, and hands that produced it. We visited our friend Jay Bayer, mescal zealot and owner of Saison in Richmond, to learn more about the nuances of this refreshingly unfancy booze.
First, let’s clarify something—tequila is but one variety of mescal. It is made with one specific species of agave and distilled with its own unique process. Mescal, however, is made from a variety of agave species and is primarily produced in Oaxaca.
“Maguey” is the common name for the agave plant in Mexico.
“It’s a really rad plant,” Bayer says. “The way it’s cultivated is very poetic and somehow very tragic.”
Maguey takes anywhere from 8 to 25 years to mature. All the while, the plant is creating lots of sugary, starchy energy to produce a singular flowering stalk, which is also death knell for the plant.
“The plant is putting everything into this one chance. It’s absolutely gorgeous to drive across the Oaxacan countryside and see all of this flowering maguey. Some of these plants grow to a thousand pounds—these massive, massive bulbs,” Bayer says.
After a couple decades quietly preparing to send up one stalk, the seeds are eaten and spread by long-nose bats (pictured on many mescal labels). Then the plant is dead.
So it becomes a race against time for the farmer (mescalero) who doesn’t want all that sugar and starch to be eaten during the flowering process. The mescalero will cut the spires from flowering maguey, making sure to leave some behind so the species can continue to grow. The mescalero lets the cut plant rest, allowing the starch to consume the sugars stored within the plant. After about three months, it’s ready to harvest.
“This patient, hands-on approach in production is what makes it so hard to replicate outside of a rural farm setting,” Bayer says.
To impart the drink’s smoky earthiness, the mescalero will dig an underground oven, typically 12 feet wide and three feet deep, and make a fire in the middle. Once the coals are glowing red, they throw river stones on top. Once the stones are also glowing, the harvested and chopped maguey is piled in. The maguey is then covered with mats or maguey leaves, covered again with dirt and then baked underground for three days. This roasting process converts starches to sugars, where the alcohol will eventually come from.
“The mescalero has to take these masses of roasted maguey and mash them up in some way so he can put them into a vessel to ferment the sugars into a mild alcoholic beverage called pulque.”
Most of the time, that smashing process is done by a donkey or a horse-drawn cart, which slowly crushes the maguey as the animal walks in circles. It takes 5 or 6 days for that process to finish. The artisanal process is even more painstaking—often one man crushing the roasted harvest by hand.
“While that’s going on, you can smell the sugars being consumed by bacteria and yeast. It just lingers in the air. That’s where the funk starts to develop. Whatever microbes are in the air and soil impart themselves into the maguey,” Bayer says. He likens the faster, horse-drawn methods to Spanish rums which are sweeter and cleaner. The hand-smashing method is more akin to Jamaican rums; darker and earthier to do open-air decomposition. The smashed maguey is then left to ferment in open tanks.
“When we toured this one facility, I asked how you know when fermentation is done. As a brewer, I can take measurements and readings. But I was told that you simply put your ear up to the cask. If you can’t hear bubbles anymore, it’s done. Simple as that,” Bayer says.
The result of the fermentation process is a roughly 7% ABV beer-like beverage known as pulque.
“It’s delicious, but isn’t shelf-stable so you don’t really see it in the States. It ferments and deteriorates through oxidative processes so much that you couldn’t get it here without tons of preservatives and stabilizers which would ruin the integrity.”
The pulque is finally distilled into mescal, a process which Bayer likens to sculpture.
“It’s a subtractive process. Everything you need to have in that final piece of art is contained in that block of marble. You’re just taking away the elements you don’t want and leaving what you want to be there.”
Artisanal mescals are often distilled in the minero style, which is a rustic departure from modern distillation. It’s similar to the no-frills methods used by moonshiners in Appalachia—copper condensation coils, earthenware pots and a bamboo shoot for runoff.
At Saison’s bar, the final products are as varied as the farms that produced it. Our particular favorite was Real Minero, which had a beguiling smoothness and notes of charred wood and overripe banana. The painstaking simplicity of underground roasting achieves more complex flavors in three days than most scotches can in 25 years.
Now go find some yourself. Rub a drop between your hands to reveal the bouquet. Let it sit on your tongue. Sip slowly and notice the flavors that rise from your stomach. Finally, remember this old Oaxacan truism—para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también, “for everything bad, mescal; for everything good, the same.”
Thanks to Saison in Richmond, VA.