August 2016: Espadin Joven Mezcals

by Scott Hill

For August 2016, Flight Club will feature “Artisanal Espadin Joven Mezcals.” In layman’s terms, these are all extremely small batch, craft-quality, unaged, spirits made from the Espadin agave plants in a specific region of Mexico.

 

Why Artisanal?  Not a scientific term, but this means “high quality”, “craft produced”, or, simply, the opposite of mass produced.  As to Mezcal generally, the limited production is truly unbelievable.  As of 2013, the U.S. consumed a total of about one million bottles of Mezcal, compared to nearly 750 million bottles of Vodka. Over 100 million bottles of Tequila were consumed in the U.S. in that year, including almost 30 million bottles of Jose Cuervo.  Yes, that is roughly 30 times more Cuervo in a year than all Mezcals combined!  There are some “mass produced” Mezcals.  I use that term in quotations because even those productions don’t produce that many bottles. But the techniques of non-artisanal production tend to be much more like Tequila, with a similar resulting flavor.  These sampled today are not mass produced, and instead use small-batch techniques that date back hundreds of years.  As you will see below, the batch sizes of these products sampled tend to be measured in hundreds of bottles, and the yearly production tends to be measured in hundreds or thousands of cases.  These are extremely small productions, with meticulous focus on particular fields, farmers and distillers. Most all of these products are field-to-bottle products, with the producer involved in the harvest, roast, fermentation and distillation processes.

Why Espadin?  This gets tricky.  All agave spirits from Mexico are often described as “mezcals” (with a little “m”).  Tequila is technically a mezcal.  However, “Mezcal” (with a big “M”) refers to only those agave spirits made in a specific region (with a few other requirements).  Tequila becomes excluded, then, from “Mezcal” and is its own product with its own requirements (also must be from a specific region and has other requirements).  Tequila must be made with the Blue Agave plant, so that is by far the most popular type of agave used in spirits.  The next most abundant agave type used in spirit production (and the type most regularly used in Mezcal) is the Espadin plant.  Nearly 90% of the remaining Mezcal production is Espadin.  Beyond Espadin, availability is extremely limited.  I note I’ve selected Espadins only, as a way of limiting the many variables of Mezcal.

Why Joven?  According to one producer (who only produces high-quality un-aged mescals), “storing or aging Mezcal in wood should be avoided, as it chemically alters the Mezcal adding flavors that should not, and traditionally were not there.” (Note, many products are fermented in wood.) Aging of Mezcal has occurred some over the past century, but has only become a true production technique in the past decade.  Unaged is certainly most traditional.  And we have never managed to do a clear spirit tasting!

Two other notes.

First, you will get to try some different fruits and salts along with your Mezcals.  Some believe this to be traditional; others believe this ruins a tasting experience.  Gusano is a term describing agave worm salt.  Chapulin describes grasshopper salt.  Below are the recommending pairings (based on my sampling and research):

  • Clementine’s with Marca Negra Gusano – Marca Negra
  • Pomegranate with Chipotle Lava Salt – Siete Misterios
  • Orange with Gran Mitla Gusano – El Jolgorio
  • Pineapple with Gran Mitla Chapulin – Del Maguey

The idea of these fruits and salts is first to enhance the flavors of the sip just taken.  Second, the resulting spice and salt tends to cleanse the palate before the next sip.

Second, I’ve included something called “Sangrita” to sip between drinks.  This is a non-alcoholic beverage served in a small glass alongside the Mezcal.  This too can enhance flavors, but more so tends to be viewed as a palate cleanser.   I’ve included three different versions.  Why not?

  • Cocktail:
    • Name: La Parka (credit: Holy Smoke! From John McEvoy)
    • Ingredients: Joven Mezcal, cilantro syrup, lime juice, orange bitters. Cilantro syrup – one bunch of cilantro blended with three cups of pineapple juice, strained, then combined with 3 cups sugar, and heated to combine.
    • Recipe: 2 oz Xicaru Mezcal (available locally at $29.99), ¾ oz cilantro syrup, 1 oz lime juice, 2-3 dashes orange bitters. Shaken and then served in a lowball over ice.
  • Cocktail #2: (only for those who truly and scientifically hate cilantro)
    • Name: The Mexican Firing Squad (credit: MezcalPHD.com)
    • Ingredients: Joven Mezcal, lime juice, agave nectar, pomegranate molasses, Angostura bitters. Pomegranate molasses – one bottle of POM pomegranate juice reduced down to roughly 1/8th.
    • Recipe: 2 oz Alipus San Juan (available locally at $40) Mezcal, 1.5 oz Lime Juice, 1 oz agave nectar, ½ oz pomegranate molasses, 3 dashes Angostura bitters. Shaken and then served in a lowball over ice.
  • Bottle 1:
    • Name: Marca Negra Espadin Mezcal (2016 – Bottle 2268/3000) 
    • Distillery: distilled in San Juan Del Rio, Oaxaca (25 miles southeast of Oaxaca city)
    • Proof: 50.6%
    • Mash Bill: 100% Espadin Agave
    • Price: $59 (plus shipping; not available locally)
    • Purchase location: com
    • Tasting Notes:
      • Nose: Classic smoke, soft perfume, mint and tobacco.
      • Palate: Herbal, smoked sweet corn and roasted agave (If you take some Mezcal between your fingers and rub them together, then smell, I’m told this is what roasted agave smells like). After the intense smoke clears, the lemon-lime comes through.
      • Finish: Heat, plus lasting sweet burned cigar finish and spicy pepper.
    • Why this bottle is featured: I’m leading with a traditional Mezcal punch to help differentiate Mezcal from its tequila sibling.   This bottle has an intense but comfortable smokiness.  It is higher in alcohol then many but well balanced.  It has been described as “complex but classic.”  This will leave you thinking you have smoked a nice complex cigar.
  • Bottle 2:
    • Name: Siete Misterios Mezcal (2015 – Bottle 357/881) 
    • Distillery: distilled in Sola De Vaga, Oaxaca (Northwest corner of Oaxaca city)
    • Proof: 49.7%
    • Mash Bill: 100% Espadin Agave
    • Price: $68 (plus shipping; not available locally)
    • Purchase location: oldtowntequila.com
    • Tasting Notes:
      • Nose: Very subtle smoke, cherries, raspberries, bananas and cloves.
      • Palate: Salty, bold dried fruit (prune) and sweet spice.
      • Finish: Floral, lingering wood smoke and sugar syrup, with a lingering mouthfeel (smoky/oily).
    • Why this bottle is featured: Not all Mezcal is intensely smoky. This bottle evidences some of the fruitier side of Mezcal.  It contrasts nicely with the first bottle.  I just think it is damn tasty.
  • Bottle 3:
    • Name: El Jolgorio Espadín Mezcal (2009 – Bottle 139/1550) 
    • Distillery: distilled in Rio Golea, Oaxaca (40 miles southeast of Oaxaca city)
    • Proof: 47.6%
    • Mash Bill: 100% Espadin Agave
    • Price: $87 (plus shipping; not available locally)
    • Purchase location: oldtowntequila.com
    • Tasting Notes:
      • Nose: Herbal (basil and rosemary), black pepper and roasted agave.
      • Palate: Heavy basil, mint and rosemary, and ending with citrus.
      • Finish: Sweet smoke, lemon-lime, lingering earthy/minerally notes.
    • Why this bottle is featured: I selected this bottle as the only semi-wild agave (not-planted, but cultivated).  Multiple distillers make different “varietals” under same trade name; none produce more than wild harvest will sustain.  None will produce more than 2000 bottles.  I included it in this order to contrast the fruity Siete Misterios with the herbal El Jolgorio.
  • Bottle 4:
    • Name: Del Maguey Espadin Especial Single Village Mezcal (2013 – Bottle 131/330) 
    • Distillery: Distillery location undisclosed.
    • Proof: 45%
    • Mash Bill: 100% Espadin Agave
    • Price: $98 (plus shipping; not available locally)
    • Purchase location: oldtowntequila.com
    • Tasting Notes:
      • Nose: Vanilla, pineapple and floral notes.
      • Palate: Pineapple, sweet citrus (lemon and orange), butterscotch and cinnamon-apple.
      • Finish: The palate fades slowly (heavy sweet pineapple) and shifts towards black pepper, seawater and earthiness.
    • Why this bottle is featured: The producer refuses to disclose its distiller or distillery location. Very fruity, viscus.  This is much like the other Del Maguey’s I’ve had.  Del Maguey is one of the leading exporters to the U.S., with dozens of offerings.  The “Single Village” descriptor is a bit misleading, because many of the artisanal Mezcals come from a single crop.

Gentlemen devoted to the finest.

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