By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
At the risk of being accused of heresy, not only do I personally not believe in providing tasting notes for mezcals, but a case can be made for doing away with them in their entirety, except in the broadest of terms. So I say no, to descriptors such as “cinnamon on the nose with essence of grilled pineapple and artichoke and a long peppery finish.” On the other hand, how could I object to hearing “it smells like acetone, tastes like used motor oil and burns going down?” The latter is hard to mistake. On perhaps three and no more occasions I have been asked to provide evaluations, and have complied with the requests; but I don’t like doing it.
For the past decade I have been preaching that no two batches of traditionally made mezcal can possibly be the same. By traditionally I mean encompassing the tools of the trade and means of production one typically witnesses in states I have visited such as Guanajuato, Michoacan, Puebla and of course my bailiwick Oaxaca. To be clear, at least in and around the central valleys of Oaxaca I refer to baking over wood and rocks, crushing with tahona or mazo, fermenting in almost anything but stainless steel (i.e. using receptacles made of wood, clay, hide, etc.), distilling using firewood as fuel, and arriving at the ultimate ABV without the use of the most sophisticated finely calibrated tools. As long as some of the foregoing are employed, one cannot replicate twice in a row. Now of course providing notes on an industrially-produced mezcal is different, since the producer strives for and is able to achieve close to 100% consistency time and again. Not so with the mezcal most of our readers know and enjoy. A few even regularly write in superlatives when heaping praise on agave distillates. Do they think the rest of us will buy into their godlike proclaiming of “the bestness” on a bi-weekly if not more frequent basis?
Batch size also suggests variability from lot to lot insofar as the smaller the batch the less likely it is that your fellow aficionado is tasting what you are tasting if you are reading published tasting notes and trying to make a purchase decision. And isn’t that what the ardent mezcal aficionado most often cherishes, that is small batch production? Unless the two of you are sampling from the same bottle or garrafón, it’s perhaps like comparing apples and apples; golden delicious v. granny smith.
The conundrum certainly holds true with this decade’s virtual tastings, unless the moderator has shipped to all participants from the same batch. And then, is he also sending along the same drinking vessel? Even the novice comes to understand that its composition, shape and size impact the notes one perceives from sampling. The time of day of the sampling can also impact in different ways.
It can be intimidating to those whose palates are not so refined, when one of the self-proclaimed experts finds celery and you find bacon. “Oh no, I got it wrong!” If it’s being done in jest, for entertainment value, or to simply understand that mezcals can be as distinct from one another as an Australian shiraz, an Oregon pinot noire and a French Beaujolais; then that’s a horse of a different color. But if it will impact someone’s purchase of a particular product, then no thank you, even if the novice imbiber owns a hog farm and yearns for that bacon on a daily basis.
And then there are those who want to illustrate their agave distillate palate prowess. Perhaps it’s Sour Grapes on my part, but I think not. I’ve stated to clients hundreds of times that mine is not all that sophisticated; though it’s getting better. I can easily tell people I take to village palenques for sampling, what I perceive in a particular expression. But I typically do not do so before hearing their opinions of a product. The power of suggestion plays into it all. Even in a small group, with me keeping my mouth shut, what one person says she tastes will often impact the perception of the next person in attendance. On the other hand, if everyone in the group blindly notes on their cel or a piece of paper, what they’re getting, then I would agree that the exercise can be somewhat more fruitful – for that batch.
However for the foregoing exercise, other variables are typically impacting the validity of the results: what you had for breakfast and how long before the tasting, what you sampled prior, if you cleansed your palate and with what, and your general mood.
Now you may think I’m speaking out of both sides of my mouth, having developed a mezcal tasting wheel with some 230+ aromas and flavors. Not so. I made it only to convince people that an agave distillate can be a fine sipping spirit just as a single malt or Armagnac, and so people sitting around in a group can have fun while enjoying an evening of imbibing and bating one another. Certainly not to promote serious disagreement.
I must apologize to those who promote mezcal tasting notes. I do recognize that just like my wheel, it can be a fun exercise; as long as no one takes it too seriously. And so yes, do continue to opine on the obtuse, but take a step back. And don’t expect anyone, certainly not me, to bow down at your exquisitely refined palate. As far as I know, you’re using my wheel before publishing in print or online or orally spouting off your words of self-proclaimed wisdom. Shaming the rest of us doesn’t advance the cause of promoting the spirit. Check your dogmatism at the door.
Perhaps you always wake up on the right side of the bed, eat lunch based on what you’ll be drinking later on in the day, choose your drinking vessel as do the wine snobs, and dress in orange when you know you’ll be sampling a mezcal with a mandarin nose.
Isn’t it enough to laud a distiller who always produces a wonderful mezcal without parsing the distillate to death? Remember that the next person might not find hospital hallway, boysenberry and tree bark. You’re taking the fun out of drinking mezcal. Isn’t one of the reasons we gravitate towards hand-crafted agave distillates precisely because of its uniqueness from batch to batch, and because you say tomato and I say tow-máh-toe?
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).