Artisanal mezcals are on the charts with a bullet. Consumers and mixologists actively looking for spirits loaded with character and authenticity have struck gold with the expanding roster of artisanal, 100% agave mezcals. Stringent production standards have been put into place within the industry to ensure the utmost degree of quality such that the mezcals of today bear little resemblance to the worm-laded mezcals of the past.
These are indeed the glory days for the Oaxacan spirit. There are now more high quality mezcals being marketed in the United States than ever before. Demand for the spirit has caused the category to expand another 4.9% in volume to roughly 50,000 cases in 2014. Nearly all of the growth is attributable to the high-end, super-premium segments of the market—those with a retail price above $22—this according to the 2014 Technomic’s Adult Beverage Resource.
The differences between brands of 100% agave mezcals are years in the making. From cultivating agaves—also referred to as maguey—to the un-barreling of an añejo, the production cycle can easily exceed 18 years. It is a time-honored process, one in which every decision made along the way ultimately will impact the finished mezcal. Diversification is a significant variable affecting the category. While most mezcals are distilled from the Espadín agave, there are growing numbers of brands on the market produced from one of several different varieties of agaves, including the Barril, Mexicano Amarillo, Coyote, Arroqueño, and the famed Tobalá agave, a rare variety that grows wild in the remote, rugged cliffs of the Sierra Madre Mountains. Change the variety of agave and completely alter the mezcal.
With handcrafted mezcals gaining traction with American consumers, a great many brands have crossed our border. In case you missed the fanfare of their initial release, here are some of the best mezcals on the market:
1. El Buho
There is something intriguing about a mezcal handcrafted on a small, family-owned and operated distillery, which is referred to as a palenque. It’s a way of life passed down from one generation to the next. In many instances the production techniques have remained unchanged over the past century. An ideal example is El Buho 100% Agave Mezcal. Named for a dark, mystical owl of local folklore, this mezcal makes an excellent entree to the category. Do yourself a favor and taste El Buho neat. That said, it’s also a superb brand to feature in cocktails and mixed drinks.
The El Buho farm/distillery [NOM 0110X] is located in Santiago Matitlan, Oaxaca. The mezcal is made from 100% Espadín agaves. After harvesting, the agaves are roasted for 7 days and nights in an underground stone pit with mesquite wood. The agaves are crushed using a burro-powered Tahona wheel to extract the plant’s sugar-rich juice, which is then transferred to a wooden vat for fermentation. The process is precipitated by natural, airborne yeast and takes about 2-3 days to completely ferment. Well water is added to the resulting mash before it is double distilled in a copper, 100-year-old alembic still. The mezcal is bottled at 86 proof directly from the still without barrel aging, or the often-added worm. Trust that neither is needed in the least.
The crystal clear mezcal has a velvety textured body and an herbaceous bouquet laced with spice, vanilla and pepper aromas. Its aromatics are enthralling. The mezcal has a gentle entry that quickly expands, bathing the palate with the vegetal flavors of roasted peppers, dried herbs, cocoa and vanilla with light, delicate smoky notes. The finish is long, flavorful and satiny smooth.
“It’s balance and easy drinkability is what helps distinguish El Buho from the field. Some mezcals with more pronounced palates can be over-powering, especially for regular consumption,” contends Redford Parker, company president. “It also helps that, by increasing the batch size slightly, we were able to greatly improve consistency.
2. 3 Pueblos Mezcal
Award-winning 3 Pueblos Mezcal is a rare offering from the mountainous state of Zacatecas and the town of Trinidad Garcia de la Cadena. The mezcal is twice distilled in a traditional copper pot still from 100% tequilana agaves. The brand holds the designation of origin and is certified by the Consejo Regulardor del Mezcal (CRM). The premium range includes a 6-month old reposado and 3 Pueblos Añejo, which is aged in charred American white oak barrels for a minimum of a year. The silver (joven) version is bottled fresh from the still.
“There is so much attention being lavished on our mezcal these days, it’s really an exciting time for us,” says Jesus Garciarivas, managing partner of importer Dibela Enterprises. “I think there are two reasons for the brand’s tremendous surge in popularity. First, bartenders and mixologists around the world have embraced 3 Pueblos and are introducing Millennials to the joys of mezcal. We have also noticed a dramatic increase in the number of mezcalerias—a bar or restaurant that specializes in mezcal—opening up in cities like New York, London, Madrid and obviously Mexico. They are doing a lot to fuel our fire.”
3. Gracias a Dios Mezcal
Equally engaging is Gracias a Dios Mezcal. Everything about the brand screams of authenticity. Its mouthfeel, aromatics and range of flavors are brilliant and etched with a palatable sense of place. There’s no mistaking that this is great mezcal. Gracias a Dios Mezcal is handmade in Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca by Maestro Mezcalero Oscar Hernández Santiago at the company’s distillery [NOM-0223X]. The brand currently markets three extraordinary spirits, including a Joven and Reposado distilled from Espadín, and the altogether sensational Gracias a Dios Mezcal Tobalá Joven, an unaged mezcal distilled entirely from Tobalá agaves (agave potatorum) that grow wild in the Sierra Madre Mountains. The agaves are USDA and EU certified organic, meaning they were grown without the use of pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. The end result is a cleaner finished spirit. For each bottle the distillery produces, they plant 3 new agaves to take its place.
After harvesting, the mature agaves are brought to the distillery where they are cooked for 4 days in a rock-lined, wood-fired dirt oven. The cooked agaves are crushed using wooden mallets and a large stone, donkey-pulled Tahona wheel. The extracted, sugar-rich juice is transferred to oak vats where it is allowed to slowly ferment using naturally occurring, airborne yeast. The final step is to double distill the fermented musto (must) through the distillery's small, copper pot stills. It is bottled at 45% alcohol (90 proof). Gracias a Dios Tobalá Joven is exactly why legions of spirits enthusiasts are turning to mezcal as their drink of choice. The pristine spirit has a generous smoky, vegetal and citrus bouquet and a spicy, citrusy and herbal palate. Its lingering finish is spicy warm and slightly smoky.
4. Joya Azul Mezcal
Joya Azul Mezcal is an overnight success five generations in the making. These handcrafted spirits are produced by Ausencio León Ruiz y Sucesores [NOM 012X] in Tlacolula, Oaxaca. While the Joya Azul Joven and 6-month-old Reposado are genuinely praiseworthy, it’s the Joya Azul Gran Reserva Añejo that’s so richly deserving of its critical acclaim. The super-premium entry is made entirely from the Espadín Agave and matured in charred American white oak barrels. And there it will remain for between 4 to 10 years until deemed ready by the maestro mezcalero.
“The Gran Reserva Añejo is a highly sophisticated mezcal with a copper hue, a medium weight body and a distinctively spicy, fruity and smoky set of aromatics with light coffee and caramel notes,” says Onofre Santiago, president of importer Yagul Valley Enterprises, LLC. “The palate is a glorious array of vanilla, cherries, figs blueberries, butterscotch and cashews. The finish is long and smooth. Joya Gran Reserva Añejo is an ideal mezcal to sip neat after a splendid meal.”
5. Mezcal Enmascarado
Also new to our shores is Mezcal Enmascarado, an exuberant spirit crafted by the Hernández family at Mezcales Santo Terruño Oaxaqueño [NOM 028X] in Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca. There are currently two Joven mezcals in the Enmascarado portfolio that are differentiated by alcohol content—45% (90 proof) and alcohol and 54% (108 proof). Both are made by traditional, artisanal methods. The Espadín agaves are cultivated for between 9 to 15 years in soil free of agro-chemicals and baked in earth and stone ovens. They are milled by crushing the softened agave with a large, horse-drawn stone wheel. The expressed, sugar-rich juice is naturally fermented in open wooden vats and distilled in a copper pot still.
According to company co-owner Karla Moles, she and her associates closely monitor every step of production from planting the agaves to bottling the new mezcal. “Here we love and respect each part of the process—the earth (nature), the plant (life), the peasant hand (humans), the master (knowledge), and the product (experience).”
6. BRUXO Mezcal Artesanal
Aficionados of world-class mezcal have cause for celebration as the entire range of famed BRUXO Mezcal Artesanal is now available in the States. There are a number of singular aspects to these artisanal gems. Each of the 5 BRUXO (pronounced brew-hoe) mezcals showcase the artistic vision and technical skill of a different maestro mescalero, feature a different variety of maguey, and hail from a different growing region.
For example, BRUXO NO. 1 is distilled by Master Mescalero Lucio Morales entirely from Espadín agaves at San Dionisio Ocotepec [NOM 0184X] in Oaxaca. BRUXO NO. 2 PECHUGA DE MAGUEY, is the handiwork of Pablo Vazquez from AguEspadína del Espino, and BRUXO No. 3 is made exclusively from Barril agaves by Master Cándido Reyes of San Agustín Amatengo. BRUXO No. 4 features a blend of Espadín, Barril and Cuishe by Master Hermanos Rodriguez from Las Salinas Coatecas, while BRUXO No. 5 is distilled from Tobalá agaves by Cándido Reyes.
“BRUXO mezcals are an homage to the Maestro Mezcaleros we’ve been meeting –and to those we will meet—along our journey,” say BRUXO co-founders Memo Chávez and Santiago Barreiro. “We honor the recipes of such renowned artists like Lucio Morales, Pablo Vazquez, Tío Conejo and his son Cándido, and the Rodríguez Brothers. We honor them, their families and all the families that produce a special mezcal alongside México, since they are guardians of an ancestral heritage and an artisanal, almost mystical process.”
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