Blue agave (Agave tequilana) is cultivated only in Jalisco and a couple of other Mexican states, and it is reserved to produce tequila; the photo below shows an example of a plantation full of verdant young blue agaves:
Mezcal is another Mexican alcoholic beverage that is distilled from agave, but the story of mezcal starts in the fields of Oaxaca and several other states in Mexico, where other species of spiky agave plants – as many as about thirty – grow for several years until they reach maturity. Specialized farmers (jimadores) come around to check the crops, but abstain from disturbing the plants until they are 7-12 years old; the harvest takes place with a tool named coa, that the jimadores use to skillfully trim blades and roots off the plants until all is left is the heart, called piña:
Traditionally, these piñas are placed at the bottom of a conical pit in the ground, over mounds of hot rocks, where they are cooked, to caramelize and acquire their characteristic smoky aroma (blue agave piñas are steamed, so tequila has no smoky undertones). After careful fermentation and distillation, sometimes with the addition of herbs, fruits and other flavouring agents, the unique mezcal joven or blanco (young or white) is bottled or stored in clay vessels.
Although mezcal has been around for centuries, it remained, for the most part, a very small and artisanal industry compared to tequila, which especially absconded international markets. Sometime in the 1990s, small mezcal exports began, mostly to Japan and the USA. In Mexico City, I remember mezcal as a regional beverage, a souvenir to purchase when visiting the state of Oaxaca. In recent years, though, mezcalerías have been opening with great success in Mexico City, and mezcal has been making its way into bars in New York City, Toronto, and many other trendy locations around the world.
I imagined mezcal would be a popular choice for parties tonight, after “El grito”; I felt like I wanted to get some as well, so I went to my neighbourhood liquor store, and was pleasantly surprised to find a bottle of Creyente, by Cuervo™ (see photo, right). I do not know much about alcoholic beverages in general, let alone about mezcal. The Creyente website described it as the full bodied union of two mezcals from 100% Espadin agave (Agave angustifolia) from the Oaxaca regions of Tlacolula and Yautepec, with a smoky flavour from mesquite wood, sweet hints of fruit, and light herbal notes. A review @ “The Drink Hacker” said: “ … crystal clear Creyente™ offers a classically smoky nose, studded with notes of lemon zest, black pepper, and overripe fruit. On the palate, more smoke leads to a relatively fruit-heavy body, lightly oily with notes of black pepper, furniture polish, and sweetened cereal. The finish sticks to the palate (and the ribs), with overtones of petrol, licorice, and smoky forest fire. Altogether it’s a rather classic, and surprisingly straightforward, mezcal, despite it’s unorthodox production.”
Tequila is served in thin shot glasses (caballitos), but mezcal is served in either shallow bowls made from dried gourds (jicaritas) or small cups made of clay (copitas). I had neither, but I used sake cups, which I thought were very close to copitas (photo at the top of the post, and below). After a first sip, I mostly agreed with the review, and had to admit that even the “furniture polish” part was very accurate, although it seemed to be listed as a legitimate quality for mezcal; as I said, I know nothing about alcoholic beverages. I then tried a second sip as recommended in many sites, with slices of orange, powdered chile and salt (minus the worms); I happened to have some tasty black volcanic salt:
I found the oranges were too sweet, at least for this particular mezcal, but the salt was a nice contrast. Another suggestion I found, was to pair a smoky mezcal with crisped grasshoppers (yes, head-thorax-abdomen and all); I thought that maybe pork rinds would fit the bill of crispiness without the Arthropoda component:
It was good, and I was warming up to mezcal! (works at many levels). There are no full recipes in this post, but for tonight’s Independence Day celebrations, any or all of my previous posts with recipes for main courses (chiles en nogada), antojitos (elotes, pambazos), and beverages (aguas frescas) will help to create, along with a good quality mezcal, a wonderful Mexican menu. I think here at home, we will be having a copita with a simple dinner of sirloin steak with (green) serrano peppers, (white) potatoes and a slapdash dollop of (red) guajillo sauce: