Mezcal is made principally from the agave plant, commonly referred to throughout Mexico as maguey. In the Tequila region, the indigenous people call the plant mezcal. The Family name Agavaceae (a Greek word meaning “noble”) was assigned to the 400+ species around a hundred years ago due to the large number of uses that the plant offered ancient peoples, and has become the more common term in English. After the agave matures (6–8 years) it is harvested by magueyeros (agave farmers) and the leaves are chopped off using a machete, leaving only the large piñas (“pineapples”) or corazones (“hearts”). The piñas are then cooked and crushed, producing a mash.
Baking and mashing
Traditionally, the piñas are baked in hornos: large (8–12 ft diameter / 6 ft deep) rock-lined conical pits in the ground. A 3–4 cubic foot pile of trunk oak in the bottom of the pit is covered by rocks 6 inches in diameter and the wood is burned, turning the rocks red hot. Next the rocks are covered with a layer of moist fiber remaining from the last production to prevent the hearts from scorching and the piñas are piled to 5 – 6 feet above ground level, then covered with banana leaves or moist used fiber from the last process, or agave leaves, then petate (woven palm fibre mats), and finally earth. The piñas are allowed to cook in the pit for three to five days. This converts the starches to fructose and lets the piñas absorb flavors from the earth and wood smoke coating the rocks.
After the cooking, the piñas are left to sit in the shade for a week to begin to ferment naturally with airborne microbes, then placed in a ring of stone or concrete about 12 ft in diameter, where a large stone wheel attached to a post in the middle is pulled around by horse, donkey or mule, crushing the piñas.
Modern commercial makers cook the piñas with steam from a boiler in huge stainless steel ovens and then crush them with mechanical crushers.
The mash (tepache) is then placed in large, 300–500-gallon wooden vats to ferment aerobically for two days, then 10% village water is added and stirred into the mix. The government requires that 80% of this mix be from agave (as opposed to tequila which is regulated at a lesser amount: 51%). Cane and corn sugars may be added at this stage. In the case of smaller farmer distillers, it is left to naturally ferment from four to thirty days with the action of only airborne microbes. In the case of commercial producers, chemical accelerators like ammonium sulfate or urea are allowed and quantity is not limited.
Distillation and aging
After the fermentation stage is done, the mash is double-distilled. The first distillation yields ordinary low-grade alcohol. After the first distillation, the fibers are removed from the still and the resulting alcohol from the first distillation added back into the still. This mixture is distilled once again. At this point, the mezcal may be bottled or aged.
Mezcal ages quite rapidly in comparison to other spirits. It is aged in large wooden barrels for two months to seven years. During this time the mezcal acquires more and more of a golden color, and its flavor is influenced by the wooden barrels. The longer it is aged, the darker the color and the more noticeable the flavoring effect.
- Añejo (“aged”) – aged for at least a year in barrels no larger than 350 litres.
- Reposado (“rested”) – aged two months to a year.
- Joven or blanco (“young” or “white”, often marketed as “silver” in English) – colorless mezcal, aged less than two months.
National Association of Mezcal Producers in Oaxaca, represents a group of more than 30 small, independent, Mezcal distillers, all certified by the National Regulatory Council for the quality of Mezcal COMERCAM.
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