AGAVE VARIETAL: TOBALÁ
A MEZCAL BY ANY OTHER NAME
According to the internationally recognized Appellation of Origin, mezcal is the umbrella category for all Mexican distilled spirits made from the agave plant, also known as the maguey [pronounced mah-GAY]. Tequila, which is by far the most popular and commercially available subcategory of mezcal, is made exclusively from the blue agave varietal and must come from one of five Mexican states, the most prominent of which is Jalisco, where the city of Tequila is located. That’s what it takes for a spirit to be labeled tequila. It’s the main character in many a sappy country song, loves truck poem, battle cry, and slurred wed-ding speech. But this isn’t a tequila story; we’re here to drink mezcal, as in the subcategory of mezcal. I know you’re still confused but we’re about to turn that corner of mezcal enlightenment. Stay with me.
For a spirit to be legally labeled mezcal, it can be distilled from any agave varietal — as opposed to just blue agave — and it has to come from one of six Mexican states. The over-whelming majority of mezcal is produced in Oaxaca [pronounced wa-HA-kah].
Perhaps the most important difference be-tween tequila and mezcal is in the way that it is made. For tequila, the majority of producers take the harvested blue agave hearts or piñas and stuff them into autoclaves (high pressure steam ovens) or kilns where they are cooked to convert the plant’s fibrous starches into sugars over a few hours. For mezcal, on the other hand, the process is typically more artisanal and labor intensive. Every producer has their own family method and technique, but generally speaking, the halved agave hearts are roasted in stone-lined earthen pits using aromatic firewood as the heat source. This pile of hot, smoking agave hearts is covered with a combination of tarps and earth to prevent the smoke from escaping. The hearts are then smoked for several days with the goal of not only converting starch to sugar, but also to impart a smoky characteristic to the cooked agave. This smokiness adds a complexity of flavor and aroma to the final product that is one of the most significant and distinguishable flavor differences between the sister spirits. And for our purposes, that smokiness makes mezcal a more suitable pairing partner for cigars!
VARIETY IS THE SPICE OF LIFE
As is the case with most if not all agricultural luxury products, selecting the plant varietal for the product dictates the yield, flavor and aro-ma characteristics, processing difficulty, and eventually the product’s price. In the world of mezcals, Espadín agave [pronounced es-pa-DEEN] is the most widely planted and highest yielding and, as a result, the most commonly used agave varietal in mezcal. Wild agaves, like the Tobalá [pronounced toba-lah] employed in the Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal Tobala (delmaguey.com) have yields so low that it takes eight Tobalá hearts to match the yield of one Espadín heart. But the flavor it produces in this superbly executed mezcal is decidedly singular.
The nose on the Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal Tobala is world-class, with a combination of caramel, fruit, chlorophyll, wood, and peat smoke. The flavors are impeccably balanced. They are at once intense and delicate with a profile of mango, green apple, baker’s spice, and a bit of mint with a beautifully long, resinous finish.
CIGAR PAIRING – Padrón 1964 Anniversary Series Maduro
I paired this mezcal with a Padrón Anniversary Series 1964 because once I tasted them together there was no choice; every sip of the mezcal that was followed by the Padrón resulted in a dessert-like blast of cocoa powder with the cigar that was simply sublime. In exchange, the cigar seemed to intensify the green apple and mango flavors in the mezcal, bringing them to the forefront in an undeniably delicious way. It’s hard to imagine a better pairing of a cigar and spirit.