Depending on thespecies, a single agave can spend up to 35 years in the ground before it’s harvested, pulped, processed and distilled into mezcal. But three and a half decades is nothing compared to the history of Mexico’s national spirit.
Spanning centuries, it’s the annals of mezcal that make it a favourite among those behind some of Australia’s most successful Mexican venues including La Tortilleria’s Gerardo Lopez and Los Hermanos’ Bruno Carreto.
“We’ve always talked about tequila as the ambassador of Mexico, when, in reality, it should be mezcal,” says Lopez. “The history goes back to before the Spaniards arrived.”
The opportunity to see production in process captivated Carreto, who also coowns Benzina Cantina and operates a dark kitchen in Melbourne. “You realise how much care, attention and responsibility goes into making mezcal,” he says. “And also the intergenerational knowledge that goes into producing the spirit. The amount of work that goes into making a small amount of alcohol is everything that gets promoted in society: it’s small batch and environmentally conscious.”
Carreto also appreciates the role mezcaleros (distillers) play in society. “They’re really respected in the [local] community,” he says. “They’re the ones who provide booze for weddings and quinceañeras.”
No two mezcals are the same: each is the artefact of agave species, terroir and production method. For this reason, the spirit parallels Mexico itself, with its diverse regions and cultures.
“Agave is very unique to different regions,” says Lopez. “From the very, very hard mezcal in the north, which represents the arid, dry parts of Mexico to the mezcals from the south that are more full of flavour. It’s also attached to the people and the producers. The processes could be different. There are [producers] that use the very traditional way, others follow a more Western way.”
Then, there are producers who follow a specific method passed down through generations. “A lot of that comes back to cultural beliefs that existed in Mexico,” says Lopez. “As you start multiplying the different combinations, you end up with so much variety. There’s a whole world to explore.”
Both Lopez and Carreto have spent time visiting producers, particularly in the region of Oaxaca on Mexico’s southwest coast, which produces the monster’s share of mezcals available internationally. These trips are important for a number of reasons.
Aside from the espadin variety (and the blue agave used for tequila), agave is difficult to farm. The plants take many years to mature and once harvested, they’re good for one use only. The boom in mezcal’s popularity has created an issue of supply, with producers feeling the pressure to pull up crops to meet demand.
“You’ve got to do research and make sure the producers are doing things in a socially and environmentally responsible way,” says Carreto. “To be sustainable, you have to let some of the old plants go to flower so they can seed [and reproduce]. But, then all the sugars in the plant go into making the flower, [which] sort of takes away the these conflicts and the producers are very aware of this.”
The immense range of mezcals makes it hard to list universal characteristics. One property that is pervasive is smokiness. Evident in both the nose and on the palate, it comes from ancestral production methods, which Lopez likens to barbacoa. Otherwise, describing the variety of mezcals available is no easy feat. When approaching a new mezcal, Carreto looks to the agave variety for a hint of what might be in store. “When I look at a mezcal, if it’s an espadin, I already have a flavour profile,” he explains. “It might be more botanical with rosemary, star anise, cloves and cardamom.”
Origin can also provide an indication of what to expect. “When you go up further north, like to Durango, that’s more arid, desert conditions. The properties tend to be woodier, drier and more herbaceous,” says Carreto. “A lot of the flavour profiles come from the earth: [whether] the plant has been at an altitude or exposed to sun, rain or drought. It gives the particular plant from that region its unique qualities.”
The difficulty for venues in Australia is acquiring less commercial brands. When it comes to artisanal and ancestral mezcals, productions sizes can be small. “The farmers will commit to something with the hope the whole pallet or container of mezcal will be sold,” says Lopez. “It’s hard for someone on the other side to commit and say, ‘Yes, I will sell the whole pallet’, when the market is still not quite there.”
Even with its ancient origins, there’s more on the horizon for mezcal. “Growing up in Mexico, I would not hear about mezcal,” says Lopez. “It’s really in the past five to 10 years that there is more appreciation for it. We’re rediscovering our own culture. Back in the day, tequila bars were the thing. Now, there are mezcalerias that specialise in different regions and different types of mezcal. I will say it: consumption of mezcal will surpass tequila in a few years.”
With a little effort from the drinks industry, Australia won’t be far behind.
Lopez recommends starting drinkers new to mezcal with an espadin joven or young espadin. “It’s not too strong and the flavour is not too complex, but allows you to enjoy the flavour of the agave as well as the smokiness of it,” he says. “And that’s a good entry point.”
For people who are looking for something special, Lopez suggests an artisan mezcal: “I think a bartender can easily tell which one is better for the clientele, but the other one has a story to tell. It tells a story of producers that are still very hands on; I think people on the other side of the bar want to hear those stories.”
Both Lopez and Carreto enjoy mezcal on its own with a slice of orange, gusano (agave worm) salt and chilli — the traditional way. “We also have it with dried pineapple and dried mango, so anything that is sweet and sour,” says Lopez. Carreto recommends experimenting with other fruits, too. Think watermelon with a little basil and chilli.
“I personally find mezcal is something you will have as a digestif or before you start your meal,” says Lopez. “People pair it well with beer. In Mexico, both are taking off and they go hand in hand.”
Fruit-driven, hoppy and hazy Australian IPAs make a great match, says Carreto, who likes to create an environment where drinkers don’t feel the urge to shot mezcal, as many Australians have learned to do with tequila. “It has to be room temperature,” says Carreto. “We serve it in a flute or a tasting glass. I can’t drink mezcal out of a shot glass; it doesn’t feel right.”
And, when someone does knock back an artisanal mezcal in one go? Carreto thinks: “Man, that took 35 years to grow.”
Image: Analuisa Gamboa