AGAVE VARIETAL: AGAVE ESPADÍN
Industrial vs Artisanal
While tequila’s global popularity was growing, its artisanal roots quickly gave way to the corporate world of machine-driven industrial processes and economies of scale. That’s not to say that there aren’t any artisanal tequilas in the marketplace. There most certainly are, but the majority of tequila on the shelves and in your cocktails is of the industrial variety. Conversely, in the world of mezcal, the overwhelming majority of producers are still artisanal. In other words, they’re still cooking the agave hearts over multiple days in earthen pits, still crushing the cooked agave using the painstakingly slow horse-drawn tahona wheel, and still distilling in small batches. It’s not uncommon to find the batch number or bottle number handwritten on bottles, not as a marketing gimmick but as a simple way of keeping track of their bottles.
While tequila was out conquering the world, the tiny mezcal operations or palenques in these rural villages kept producing mezcal in the most traditional way. The methods and techniques being used, which are passed down from generation to generation, typically have the singular goal of making the best mezcal that they can possibly make. And by “best” I mean what that maestro mezcalero considers to be the best. After all, that is what he and his village neighbors will all be drinking. These rural villages don’t have a Total Wine & More; they’re drinking what the local palenque produces.
The beauty of it is that you can sit in a bar on Main Street USA and drink an artisanal mezcallike Xicaru Reposado, which was produced under the watchful eye of master mezcalero Fernando Santibañez, and taste the results of his generations-old family method. It is a very real experience. It is quite a different thing than tasting a product that was pumped out in industrial quantities through a network of pipes and tanks and automated bottling lines in order to meet a certain figure.
To age or not to age
In the most traditional sense, mezcal is enjoyed young or joven, bottled right out of the distillation process. The young version of the spirit is fresh, vibrant, and alive. Like smoking a cigar right off the rolling table, there are cigars that I like so much that I will just about chain smoke them when I am at the factory, but in turn would never pick up from a walk-in humidor in the States. I feel the same about some young mezcals.
Then there are the mezcals that really benefit from a little time in the barrel. For the sake of clarification, a mezcal that is reposado or rested is the same exact product that went into the bottle joven. It’s just that a certain amount of it was bottled as joven and a certain amount was pumped into barrels for aging. According to the regulations governing mezcal, you can label your mezcal reposado if it has aged in a barrel for at least two months. If you leave it in the barrel for at least twelve months, you can label your product añejo or aged. In both cases, reposado and añejo, the producer is generally looking to gain flavor and aroma characteristics from the barreland in some cases they want time to smooth out hard edges.
The Mezcal Xicaru Reposado is a perfect example of a mezcal that gained another dimension in the barrel. Just nosing it for a moment tells you everything you need to know; there are notes of vanilla and oak blended with that vegetal, green aroma of a traditional mezcal. On the palate the Xicaru is creamy and balanced with subtle vanilla over a base of spice, smoke, minerality, and grass.
Cigar Pairing – Herrera Esteli Norteño
The Herrera Esteli Norteño on its own is all about cocoa, earth, and a touch of pepper. If you have an advanced palate you can pick up even more flavors and aromas or you can take a sip of Xicaru Reposado and let it show you the way. After a sip, the cigar’s previously subtle toasted almond cranks up, baker’s spices show up, and the cocoa turns into full-on milk chocolate. All of this while the mezcal’s vanilla and honey take a forceful step to the forefront.