Seminar: “Mezcal Method Madness”

Mezcal is one of our favorite spirits at West Main (depending on which of us you’re talking to), and we eagerly leap to action when someone says they’ve never had it or don’t like it.  (We leap in this way quite often.)  Mezcal is wildly misunderstood, partly because it is the product of a rich sequence of environmental, artifactual, and artistic factors.  As they say, no two mezcals are the same.  So we’ve designed a private tasting to help introduce people to mezcal’s matrix of possibility.

Unlike other distilled spirits, mezcal is distilled from the agricultural product of multiple growing seasons—agaves can take between 7 and 30 years to mature—and that starts off the spirit with much more complex chemistry than other spirits.  Beginning even before the actual harvesting of the plant, every step of Mezcal’s process is to enhance the flavors of the piña and layer other flavors and textures onto it.  From the harvest, the piñas are roasted, broken down, fermented, and distilled, and often go through a smattering of adjustments after the still.  At each of these phases, the Mescalero makes choices—either inherited through tradition or chosen through artistry—that blurs the process and builds flavor. 

We could look at any single phase for a sample of the scale of variables.  The dimensions of the oven for roasting the agaves, the specific configuration of the oven’s layers, even the type of wood used in the oven’s fire, can all affect the way the agaves are cooked—a crucial element in preparing the sugars for fermentation.  Depending on the region and local tradition, an oven, or horno, may be used in different ways as well: some are used to produce a high amount of char on the piñas, some introduce water for a steam element.  Certain regions line their ovens with stones, while others are exposed soil, with each of these choices having different affects on the piñas’ flavor and the conditions within the oven. Some species of agave are so large the jimadors will cut down the piñas before they go into the oven, some are so small they can easily stack, with each variety of proportion requiring different cook times and temperatures. And these are all different choices and factors that come to bear on a single phase of the Mezcal process—they aren’t even all the factors for this one phase.  

The Mescalero isn’t the only agent at work in the matrix of choice and methods.  Mezcal’s entire process is all natural and open air.  Consequently, every imaginable environmental factor comes to bear on the final product.  From the climate and biome of the agave’s growth cycle, to the altitude of the final distillation, the environment is at work.  Temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure are all the obvious factors we might consider.  So is the most universal factor for fermentation: localized yeast.  But even an agave’s neighboring plants may affect its flavors from the start; the cycle of nearby plants may affect the exposed fermenting mash; smoke from the ongoing process of roasting agaves (at bigger palenques) introduces at atmosphere of smoke that affects the flavors of the final product beyond just a roasted smokiness from the oven.  

In short, the variables that go into a single batch of mezcal are numerous.  They create a kind of ‘garden of forking paths,’ a matrix that builds and evolves the chemistry, flavors, and textures of the spirit.  For this reason you should believe people when they say no two Mezcals are the same.  

This private experience is designed to focus our learning by tasting all Espadín mezcals, all from a small area but that deploy different techniques in their process—the idea being we’ll taste small variations appropriate for different techniques.  As with our other tastings, this is accompanied by a two-course meal.  The experience is available for groups of 2-8 people and is accompanied by a two-course meal. For information or reservations, email Jonathan at jlaurel@westmain.com.

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