By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
On November 2, 2022, I conducted a blind mezcal tasting in Toronto, with a colleague, Yvette Astorga. It was the fourth mezcal event we had conducted over the past decade or so, at our favorite Ontario agave distillate haunt, Reposado Bar & Lounge. But this was our first blind tasting, offering 15 different products to a group of 26 attendees, many of whom were already mezcal aficionados, and accordingly “in the know” if that means anything.
I developed a booklet with 15 pages each the same, pages numbered one through 15. There was space for nose, palate and finish, any idiosyncracies, a 1 – 10 rating system, and even as area for noting any pairing suggestions. Each mezcal was served out of a numbered paper bag. Neither Yvette nor any of the servers had any idea what they were pouring: if it was available in Ontario, copper v. clay distilled, certified or not. Each person was given 15 one-ounce plastic cups, numbered on the bottom, and a small gourd or jicara for those wanting to allow the samples to breathe. Half ounce pours were provided, with each person free to request more if so inclined.
Each participant was given one of my bilingual full-color tasting wheels with over 200 entries for flavor and aroma. Each was also given water and small cup of coffee beans for cleansing the palate if so inclined. And more for making the event value-added, each was given beer, fish tacos and guacamole with totopos.
Both copper and clay were represented albeit many more of the former. Varietals of species included espadin, tobala, tepeztate, cuixe, coyote, mexicano, tobasiche, an ensamble, barril, madrecuixe, arroqueno, and even a tobala punta. Year of distillation ranged from 2017 to 2022, and ABV between 42 and 65, with an average of 48 – 50.
There were surprises towards the end of the event when results were collated and disclosed, and one of my personal predictions was borne out. The ancestral clay-distilled arroqueno by Felix Angeles Arellanes from Santa Catarina Minas took top honors, receiving more first place votes than the rest. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the copper-distilled arroqueno by Fortunato Hernandez from San Baltazar Chichicapam came in a close second, especially when considering that the rest of Fortunato’s offerings brought his series of mezcals into the evening’s spotlight. Between Felix and Fortunato, they received about half of the first-place votes. And arroqueno was the top mezcal in the voting.
The ancestral clay-distilled tobasiche by Rosario Angeles, also from Santa Catarina Minas, also provided somewhat of a surprise, though not for me. Her distillate took a first-place vote, rather amazing when considering that hers was placed alongside Felix’s arroqueno and while Felix hails from a tradition of mezcal makers dating back several generations, Rosario does not come from a mezcal family and is 100% self-taught, having begun distilling in only April, 2020. Cudos to her!
The three entries of Mezcal Profesor made by Artemio Garcia in copper from San Dionisio Ocotepec provides Ontario residents with reason for hope. The brand’s mezcal made with espadin by Rodolfo Lopez Sosa from San Juan del Rio has been available in Ontario for a couple of years, but en route to the province right now are three additional expressions made by a different palenquero, providing agave distillate aficionados with more options in the near future.
There were two offerings of Dos Hombres, distilled by Gregorio Velasco from San Luis del Rio. The brand is part owned by Hollywood stars Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston. One was a 42% espadin and the other a 45% tobala. I knew that if attendees saw the bottles when sampling and voting, they would rate the two offerings at the bottom. That’s the nature of the mezcal geeks who do no more than cry cultural appropriation without knowing all of the motivation of the stars nor the positive implications of celebrity incursion into the industry. But with a truly blind tasting, as I had predicted, Dos Hombres’ espadin took a first-place vote (for its espadin), and its tobala also ranked well amongst the 15 entries.
The event concluded with a special treat, particularly apropos given the strong showing of the mezcal of my compadre Fortunato Hernandez. Kyle Martin, a Canadian client of our mezcal educational tours, had recently returned to Toronto after having spent a month living with Fortunato and family (wife Victoria, daughter and son-in-law Estela and Pedro, and granddaughters Denise and Marely). The objective had been for Kyle to truly learn about mezcal production by living with the family and during a month participating in every stage of production. This had been the third time I had arranged for such “City Slicker” experiences. During that month Kyle would variously awake before dawn and head out with Fortunato and Pedro armed with mule and machetes, walking into the hills for an hour to where the agave was found; cutting it; returning with the pinas on the mule; empty the oven of bagazo, rocks and charcoal; cut the agave into appropriately sized pieces; light and prepare the oven followed by baking the sealed oven; remove the baked pinas; chops them up; crush them with Fortunato’s horse; pitched the bazago into the fermentation vats; remove it and place it into the stills for double distillation; then finally adjust the ABV to their collective liking. Kyle brought along photo albums of the highly rewarding experience, and of the new friends he had made. He struggled with language a bit, not realizing that the main language which would be spoken by the family and others working at the Palenque was Zapoteco. Hopefully he picked up at minimum a few swear words.
So what’s next for our Toronto tastings? My Toronto stash has been exhausted, so now I must mule more mezcal into Ontario over the next year or so. Felix didn’t know in advance about the event. He now says he would have given me a bunch more for the competition. My thinking is to next do a blind tasting of clay distillates, from different regions, followed by a similar even of mezcals distilled using a refrescadera. Of perhaps a single varietal from 15 different villages employing different tools of the trade and means of production. The options are innumerable and the events will undoubtedly be educational, and just as importantly fun for attendees.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (mezcaleducationaltours.com). Anyone interested in an experience similar to Kyle’s should contact Alvin.