Tonight sees us team up with Pensador mezcal and LemLem kitchen for a special night of strong drinks, esoteric music and Eritrean-Mexican street-food!
Mezcal is something that captures the imagination. The enchanting, erudite cousin to the more homogenous tequila: cause-célèbre of many a first hangover. Mezcal sits in a more mystical and sophisticated space. One of steep Oaxacan ruins and broken big-wave dreams on titanic Pacific barrels. Earthy, sombre and soothing. It’s spike in popularity raising interest (from our perspective behind the bar at least) in tequila itself and other such succulent, agave-based nectars out of Mexico. To debunk a few myths and find out more about everything agave we chatted to Benjamin Schroder of Pensador to delve behind the doors of denomination!
First things first, let's talk myth! Mezcal and mescaline are not in any way related. Mezcal will not make you hallucinate. Nor will eating the worms that you find in cheap bottles?
Ha, yeah this one comes up a lot! For a while I was tempted to encourage it. A little added incentive: 2 for 1 on drinks and hallucinogens. But the reality is no - Mezcal does not contain mescaline, or any other hallucinogenic drugs. That would be very illegal. And also extremely hectic.
So if not packed full of mind-altering psychedelics - what's the deal with the worm? No premium brands go near it!
Worms and insects are a big part of Oaxacan food. Crunchy fried crickets. Salty ants used like seasoning. And the chilli salt often served with mezcal - that's got crushed up worms in it. So putting a worm in the bottle has some context. But in practice it's only really done by cheap, industrial scale mezcals. Guys who rely on marketing gimmicks to make up for their bad liquid. And there's a bit of a general point about infusions as well. Artisanal Mezcal is an incredibly inefficient spirit to produce. The agave take at least 8 years to mature, some as much as 20, and the production process is super slow and labour intensive. But people put in all this time and effort because the result are these amazing, completely unique flavours. So why do you want to mask those flavours you've worked so hard for with a last minute addition of worms, herbs or oak? Leave it for the vodkas.
Ouch, to vodka! So, for those new to agave as a category, it's something that’s constantly opening up over here. Ten years ago no-one knew mezcal and thought tequila was the bargain-bin option for a quick buzz. Now we are seeing Raicilla and Sotol making small waves on the UK market - can you outline the key distinguishing features? Or is it just geography?
Yeah its popping off! But it’s very new and there's a lot of confusion in this area. So let's set the record straight.
Tequila: Geographic D.O. (Denomination of origin) of 5 states, centred on Jalisco. Must be made from at least 51% Blue Weber Agave, the remaining 49% can be made of any base spirit. Tends to be industrial in scale.
Mezcal: Geographic D.O. of 10 states, centred on Oaxaca. Must be made from 100% agave, but can use any agave with sufficient sugar content - the specific number of varietals is vague due to different regional names but is in the region of 30. The majority of worm-free mezcal in the UK is categorised as "Artesanal", meaning it has been produced on a small scale using traditional tools and methods. Mezcal does not have to be smoky, but it almost always is.
Raicilla: Essentially a mezcal from Jalisco - a state outside of the mezcal D.O. so cannot be officially labelled as "mezcal".
Bacanora: Similarly, this is a mezcal from Sonora - another state outside the mezcal D.O.
Sotol: NOT AN AGAVE SPIRIT! Sorry, bit aggressive, but that's a mistake which comes up again and again and really gets under an agave nerd's skin. Sotol is a spirit made in Northern Mexico from the Desert Spoon plant, a type of Dasylirion. To be fair, it looks like an agave and is in the same overarching family. But that's not going to stop me being a furious pedant.
Ultimately, I think that these categories - with the notable exception of Sotol - should all come under the banner of "Agave". Just as Bourbon and Scotch are both Whisk(e)y, we should start treating all agave spirits as one family.
Right, and more than anything else in the spirits world agave sprits are totally influenced by terroir. I heard someone once refer to agave as the 'wine of the spirits world'. How significant was land for you when starting up Pensador?
Yeah terroir is huge with agave. The climate, altitude, soil type and even surrounding plants all impact the flavour of the agave and so the resultant spirit. And this sense of place is amplified with mezcal which also relies on natural fermentation - the local yeasts and microbes varying hugely from town to town, farm to farm. And yeah, the association with wine is a helpful one. People often liken mezcal to whisky or gin based on its flavour profile, but its production process is in fact much closer to wine in terms of the varietals and subspecies of agave available, and the inter-play of terroir and production. All of this was very significant when we were looking for someone to work with on Pensador.
We spent most of our time in the main mezcal producing region of Matatlan and the surrounding villages. There were great mezcals there, but they were limited by the consistency of their terroir. We couldn't find anything which really stood out. It was when we ventured further afield that stuff got really interesting. The region that we finally settled on - Miahuatlan in southern Oaxaca - has a very distinctive terroir. Significantly it's very dry, classified as "semi-arid", and has a chalky soil with a high limestone content. This has a very dramatic effect on the flavour of the mezcal's produced there. I don't have an amazing pallet. On a blind tasting I can't always tell you what brand I'm drinking, or what agave are in the bottle. But I can always tell if a mezcal is from Miahuatlan. And this Miahuatlan-ness is the beating heart of Pensador.
And what about ageing with mezcal? Tequila has really opened up now that we're seeing reposado varieties, añejos, extra añejos on top of your jovens or whites. Will you be looking to go down this route with Pensador - is that something that's even done with mezcal? I’m sure I’ve seen a few out there but not many.
Barrel aged mezcal is generally disproved of by agave nerds. And there's good reasons for this. For one thing there's no history of aging mezcals in Oaxaca or other states in the D.O. This means both that it's a break with the traditional culture of mezcal, and that there's a lack of local expertise. I've met quite a few producers in Oaxaca trying their hand at aging and it's done with none the finesse they use to produce their young spirits. Little attention is made to the previous contents of the barrel, the conditions in which it is stored, or the number of times it is reused. The results are underwhelming. Another negative is something I touched on earlier with infusions. Barrels smooth out spirits, they oxidise the liquid and add sweetness and depth. But this comes at a cost to the fresh, vibrant flavours of the young spirit. Ultimately, if I want to taste barrel I'll drink whisky or rum. We're here for the agave. So don't fuck about.
Ok, so if we take out the again what about labelling. You see a heap of mezcal labelled: 'Single Village'. This reads to me a bit like 'Single Malt' on a mezcal label. Is this a signifier for something really special? Is there a truth there or have we just been pre-programmed to see 'Single something' and read prestige owing to Scotch?
Yep that's basically the nail on the head. Single malt means something. Granted not what most people think it mean - unless it is single cask, single malts whiskys are blended from a number of barrels - but it legally signifies that it's made from malted barley and comes from one distillery. "Single Village" doesn't mean anything. It's not an official category, just a clever tag line created by Del Maguey to link mezcal to whisky culture. The word you need to keep an eye out for is "Artesenal". This means the mezcal will have been made using traditional methods away from the industrial factories. And 95% it will also have come from a single distillery, in a single village.