By Alvin Gary Starkman, M.A., J.D.
Most of them have been drinking mezcal for less than a decade, have researched in only a cursory manner if at all, and/or don’t live in Oaxaca but rather visit for a week or so once or twice a year. In a soon-to-be-published book, Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market: Unrivalled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances; Third Expanded Edition with Portraits (Alvin Gary Starkman & Spike Mafford, Oaxaca, Mexico, Carteles Editores, 2021), I make reference to those mezcal aficionados who would seek to keep mezcal as a secret society. They are dogmatic in their beliefs about what they consider to be “traditional” mezcal, and attempt to convince others of the truth of their worldview; “DO AS I SAY.” Regretfully they find disciples. Some of the expounders even own or work at bars, Mexican restaurants and mezcalerías.
There’s nothing wrong with opining about the industry if you are relatively new to it, or if you have never visited Oaxaca or other agave distillate producing Mexican states for that matter, as long as there is a well-considered basis for promoting your point of view, beyond simply jumping on the bandwagon of your fellow neophytes and even of the so-called experts. Have you considered the pedigree of the latter and/or their motivation? And don’t ever think that if they’re standing behind a bar serving you, that they’re thinking is necessarily gospel. Question whether or not they should be telling you what to drink and what not to drink.
Despite having been around the industry for three decades, I’m still learning. And I’m always open to other points of view. But I do take issue with those who tell me that they only drink “traditional” mezcal. They typically mean unaged products, with no infusions, which they have been buying outside of Mexico, both now and since early in this millennium.
The issues are, (1) aging in oak and/or infusing with something, such as “the worm,” (2) the impact of CRM [Consejo Regulador del Mezcal, previously known as COMERCAM, our main regulatory board] since about 2004, and (3) clay v. copper.
How far back must we go to deem something, anything, “traditional?” Once I’ve better digested the series of articles in the volume entitled The Invention of Tradition, edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (Cambridge, University Press, 1983), I hope to be able to opine from a much stronger position.
If we believe that distillation in Mexico dates to about 2500 years ago, and that back then fermented agave was being distilled in only clay, then perhaps anyone who imbibes any mezcal distilled in a copper alembic or refrescador is not drinking traditional mezcal. Perhaps a bit extreme? Absolutely not. If they can be off the wall in their spouting, then surely I can advance what I consider to be a not unreasonable position, depending of course on how we define traditional.
Let’s continue with our timeline. We’ll forget about the Filipino introduction to distillation on the west coast, and not even ponder the Chinese, and jump right to the Spanish. And let’s assume they arrived in what we now know as the Yucatan Peninsula during or about 1519 and in Oaxaca some two years later. And let’s not even ponder Spanish cultural appropriation of the spirit.
There is both archival evidence and anecdotal oral history noting the arrival of oak barrels from Spain into the country. They were initially filled with Iberian hooch for imbibing in the New World, and in due course used for storing and transporting agave distillates. The practice dated back at least a couple of hundred years. And so mezcal drinkers if not by design then by default were drinking barrel-aged mezcal way back then. Is that traditional enough?
The late Maestro Isaac Jiménez, in the 1930s/40s used to walk from Santiago Matatlán to the city of Oaxaca, with his mule or donkey loaded with mezcal in oak barrels, each on one side of the beast of burden. The trip would take 36 to 48 hours, and typically included bedding down for the night between Tlacolula de Matamoros and Santa María el Tule. The mezcal was continuously being jostled about during the journey, and upon arrival in the state capital, as a result of the movement it had been aged perhaps the equivalent of a year!
We can now jump ahead to 1950, the year that apparently the gusano de maguey (“the worm”) was first introduced into an agave distillate, initially, state the pundits, as a marketing tool. I suspect that it was first found in a bottle of distillate somewhat earlier, but let’s use that date. Its introduction did result in Mexicans taking a liking to the flavor it imparted. After all, if the distinct nuance is now coveted by local cooks and modern chefs, why should the rest of us not recognize it as something agreeable? Just try sampling it along with a smattering of single malts, and you may just find some similarities in nose and body.
If the non-tequila agave distillate aficionados believe that tradition dates to before the mid-1950s, then I suppose they have something. But they go further. They then say that both barrel aging and infusing with the gusano, or anything else for that matter, should be shunned because it masks or changes the natural nuance of each species of agave. Do they not realize that serious efforts at distinguishing in earnest one species or sub-species from the next dates to only about the mid-1990s with the introduction of Del Maguey brand? Before then traditional mezcal was often produced by baking, crushing, fermenting and finally distilling together whatever was found in the countryside ripe for harvesting. It was just mezcal. And even the maguey under cultivation, that is fields of Agave angustifolia, rhodacantha and americana, were harvested and then mixed together. And so your tepeztate, your madrecuixe, your jabalí, and the rest, are not what locals or much of anyone else for that matter were drinking, or at least not referring to them as such. Almost everyone was drinking mezclas without noting them as such. Are the only traditional mezcals today the ensambles?
Yes, barrel aging alters the flavor of the agave distillate. What if you like the altered aroma and taste? Why do so many denigrate reposados and añejos, yet covet the pechugas most of which these days are distilled with fruits, herbs, nuts, a plethora of distinct meat proteins, and even mole? Could it be that they know that pechugas fetch the big bucks, or that they relish every opportunity that arises to tell the story of how it’s made? After all, barrel aging is nothing new, unless one tells a story of barrels coming from France or Kentucky, being used to age mezcal, and then returned to the US for use in the beer brewing industry. Now that’s a pretty neat story.
Finally, I suggest that what we now term ancestral and artesanal mezcal, purchased anytime in the US, the UK and/or Canada since the first few years of this century and continuing to date, is not traditional mezcal. With the application of the dictates of COMERCAM beginning back then, exporters were no longer able to ship the mezcal that they had been sending north and east before that time. All of a sudden they had to be concerned with methanol and other compounds, and acidity. Each impacts the flavor and character of mezcal. And so for example some brands which were being imbibed in the late 1990s were required to change the recipe in order to comply with regulatory board requirements. The mezcal you drink today is likely not traditional mezcal, if you define tradition as dating to the 1990s or earlier.
Want to drink traditional mezcal? Then an argument can be made that it should be: (1) distilled in clay à la ancestral but the agave crushed only by hand, and/or (2) aged in oak barrels, and/or (3) infused with something, and/or (4) purchased not outside of Mexico, and if from within the country then directly from its palenqueros as agave distillate and not certified as mezcal.