The explosion of tequila in the last few years has created a lot of confusion surrounding all kinds of spirits distilled from agave from Mexico.
Here’s a thumbnail sketch.
The origins of distillation in Mexico date back to at least the 1530′s, brought to the new world by Spanish Conquistadors. They used the most readily available fermentable material in Mexico – agave – a relative of the lily family (not a cactus, as commonly misperceived) with over 100 strains growing across the vast new territory.
A fermented (but not distilled) drink called pulque was being made with agave well before the arrival of the Spaniards, nearly always by native priests who considered it a gift from the Gods and used it for sacrificial ceremonies and medicinal purposes. When the Spaniards arrived they brought the distillation process with them, and the oldest North American distilled spirit was born.
“Mezcal” is a catchall term applied to anything distilled in Mexico from agave. Ergo, Tequila is technically Mezcal de Tequila. Tequila can only be produced from blue agave grown in the Mexican state of Jalisco and small parts of bordering states Zacatecas and Michoacan. Mezcal is actually distilled in nine states in Mexico from up to eleven different species of agave, the green Espadin being the most common.
The closest regional association to Mezcal is with Oaxaca state in the south. Oaxaca is somewhat considered the home of Mezcal by the Mexican government. Another agave distilled product, Sotol, is distilled in the state of Chihuahua.
Most Mezcal, especially in Oaxaca, is distinguished fromTequila not only by the agave used but by production techniques.Most notably, Mezcal production includes cooking the agave intraditional in ground pits lined with rocks and fired by wood, and distillation in traditional copper pot stills. The variety of available Mezcalavailable is as wide as the selections of agave strains.
Let’s get to what’s in the bottle.
The grand daddy of Mezcal for most US consumers is the Del Maguey line, imported for a number of years by Mezcal guru Ron Cooper, produced in and named after the Oaxacan villages where they are born. More expensive than most, but fat, sweet, spicy and in varying degrees smoky, they offer a great representation of regional styles, differentiated by the elevations and areas from which the wild agaves are harvested. The new Del Maguey Vida bottling is a good introduction to the gems Ron has discovered, retailing for $39.99.
New From Durango comes El Malpais Blanco ($24.99), Rojas Especial Blanco ($24.99) and Reposado ($29.99), none for the faint of heart. All three are rich, smoky, herbal and almost briny. These are almost the equivalent of an Islay whisky made with agave!
Moving to a softer style and more balance between smoky and sweet is the Scorpion line from Oaxaca. This lineup, still new to Binny’s, is traditional but approachable, and each bottle has an actual scorpion inside! (Actually the exoskeleton of a scorpion, considered a mystical delicay in Oaxaca) Bottlings range from the traditional blanco, reposado and 1 year aged anejo, to the exotic 5 year and 7 year aged anejo.
From the Mexican state of Zacatecas, you should check out the Casa Curiel line. They drink like well made tequila, as they are made like tequila, from Blue Agave grown just outside the zone around Jalisco that would legally designate them as tequila. We currently offer the standard blanco, reposado and anejo. Also from Zacatecas and coming soon to Binny’s is Felino Reposado, another reposado made in the Tequila style.