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Traditional Mezcal: The Myth and Its Dissemination

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.

alvin starkman, mezcal

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.

To order Alvin Starkman’s newly edited book, email him at mezcaleducationaltours@hotmail.com. Alvin operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).

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Cali Rosa Anejo Tequila Review

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Cali Rosa Blanco Tequila Review

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Tequila Aficionado Magazine October 2021


In this issue of Tequila Aficionado Magazine:

  • Editor’s Note
  • How to Take the Catador Course
  • How to Get paid to Drink Tequila
  • How to Get Paid To Drink Tequila Q&A
  • Our Tasting Team
  • Our Latest Reviews
  • Upcoming Reviews
  • Patsch Tequila Review by Lisa Pietsch
  • Who’s Who in Agave Spirits – Ryan Berry – Ryno Tequila
  • Striking a Balance: Mezcal Brand Owners Can Avoid Exploitation Allegations by Alvin Starkman
  • Arte Agave Austin Event Review by Bryce Taylor
  • Events: Arte Agave
  • Events: Arizona Taco Festival
  • How to Use the Tequila Aficionado Scoring Sheet
  • Tequila Aficionado Tasting Sheet
  • Horizontal Flight Tasting Sheet
  • Vertical Flight Tasting Sheet
  • Tequila Aficionado Aroma Wheel
  • Who’s Who in Agave Spirits – Adriana Torres – Pascola Bacanora
  • Who’s Who in Agave Spirits Index
  • NOM List

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Black Snake Reposado Agave Spirit Review

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Mezcal Tasting Notes: Why I Don’t Opine, Nor Believe in Them

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.

alvin starkman, mezcal

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).

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Animus Joven Mezcal Review

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Alipus Joven Mezcal Review

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How you can turn your passion into profits and get paid to drink tequila as a blogger, vlogger, podcaster or author

 

Salud!!