Personally, whisky is everything. However there comes a time when the repetition of tasting notes becomes a serious drag. I become tired of writing down apples, caramel, vanilla and so on. Many whiskies occupy a very limited flavour and aroma spectrum. Mark might say knackered casks, short fermentation times or even a rushed distillate and occasionally we’ll agree on something.
The best thing when the Groundhog Day feeling has taken hold, is to do something else. Last month I finally wrote about mezcal and the interest it holds for me. The ability to challenge my senses once again and identify new flavours and aromas that are rarely seen in whisky. The fact that the liquid itself is often regional and handcrafted means it reminds me of a bygone age when distilleries were more isolated and the product of their environment. Rather than today, when the majority have become corporate mass producers and the regionality and style of whisky has been eroded.
On the back of that aforementioned article, I was approached by Matthias of Alma Libre about reviewing one of their recent bottlings. Bottle kindly received, it forms the conclusion of this article. Rather than merely just doing a mezcal review, I believed there was an opportunity to discuss mezcal with someone who shared a recognisable passion for a spirit and had gone so far as to start their own company. I hope you enjoy our discussion.
Malt: Let’s start at the beginning, how did you discover mezcal? And what is it about the spirit that captivates your attention?
Alma Libre: Well, I am a half Mexican, half German guy that was raised in Mexico City for 19 years and only after that I moved to Germany to study. During my time in Mexico I got to know Mezcal when visiting my aunt in Oaxaca. It really only became a passion later during my yearly visits to Mexico from Germany where ironically, I enjoyed Mexico better than whilst living there. I guess you can say I only learned to enjoy the country after I “lost” it.
Mezcal captivates my attention in so many ways. On the one hand it is one if not the most complex spirit in the world and yet it is vastly unknown on a global scale, which I really like. On the other hand, I would love to see this spirit appreciated on a large scale so the regions and families producing it for so many generations can finally profit from centuries of hard work. There are so many ways to get to this goal and this environment full of possibility and positive energy really fuels me.
Malt: The step from a passion to a business is a big jump to make. Why did you feel the need to make it?
Alma Libre: Having both heritages, I always wanted to do something to bring these two together. For me Mezcal is the perfect product that displays Mexican heritage and culture, its production is humble, full of tradition, hard work, and of course exclusive to Mexico. What we wanted and still want to achieve with our company is for Mezcal to be appreciated for what it is (and should keep on being), a handcrafted Mexican spirit with an uncanny complexity. Moreover, we want to educate people of this tradition to firstly break with misconceptions about the Mexican culture and Mezcal itself so they learn that we are not only about Tacos and what you hear in the media.
Malt: With so many small artisan producers of mezcal, how do you source your product and what hurdles do you face releasing it for the German market?
Alma Libre: Correct, there are many artisan producers in Oaxaca, especially in Santiago de Matatlan which is where we source our product, however, we have known this producer for quite some time now, and whilst he does buy agaves from different suppliers and does work with two different palenques, the result has always convinced us.
Releasing the product into the German market has been tough. With so many handcrafted spirits coming about, especially Gins, people have the comfortableness to choose whichever they prefer and do not need to look for new products. Moreover, they tend to have this misconception that Tequila is like Mezcal, which instantly turns into a “no go” for them. However, after explaining the differences and the right way to drink this spirit I can say that we have received good feedback 90% of the time.
Malt: As a business that imports mezcal from across Mexico, how much emphasis do you place on being an ethical company? Paying a fair price for a handcrafted spirit that is often traditionally made and working with local communities?
Alma Libre: We do place a lot of importance in being an ethical company, but honestly speaking we have and can do so much more in this regard. Our goal is to have the entire supply chain paid fairly and help communities to thrive in Oaxaca which is one of the poorest states in Mexico. However, our company, being in the beginning stages is still not able to ensure this. Our mission is to first bring Mezcal to Europe, second do our part by educating as much as we can about Mezcal and only after we grow to a certain size (which is still substantially smaller than other handcrafted companies) will we be able to commit to this to a 100%. Basically, we have made sure as far as we can that our standards are being held but are not yet able to give back to the community as much as we would like. Nevertheless, we look forward when the time comes for us to be able to do so.
Malt: The public awareness of tequila is high, but in comparison, mezcal remains relatively unknown. How do you separate mezcal from its cheaper relation and the baggage it carries? What makes a mezcal a mezcal?
Alma Libre: For me what makes a mezcal a mezcal and the reason why it will get rid off its cheap relation baggage, is its production process and variety. Tequila tastes great and there are many brands with good product, however it’s limited to one agave and due to high demand production processes have been industrialized. Mezcal on the other hand is almost solely handcrafted in small lots from a high variety of agaves, basically offering better more diverse product. This is a blessing and a curseat the same time, because it makes it so special, but so difficult for the consumer to find the right Mezcal when looking to give it a try. However, once in the Mezcal world you can enjoy the many faces of this great product.
Malt: How is the appreciation for mezcal in German and the domestic market? Are you shipping to countries within Europe or further afield?
Alma Libre: Right now we have focused in Germany, but after establishing our product in some cities we will make sure to expand to other parts in Europe. The feedback so far has been great, mainly from people in the industry, such as Bartenders and spirit shop owners. We just listed our product on Amazon, Germany, but plan to expand this to other regions, such as UK soon, we just need to understand the formal part of it better (e.g. taxes). Unfortunately, as in all good things in life, it is not as easy as one would like it to be.
Malt: For this article, you kindly shipped over a bottle of Alma Fuego from your current range. What made you select this particular mezcal?
Alma Libre: We chose our Alma Fuego because we believe it to be perfect for beginners and advanced drinkers alike. For people new to mezcal, our Alma Fuego shows the signature smokiness of Mezcal, but does so in a smooth manner so they are still able to enjoy the sweetness of it. Basically, it allows the consumer to identify the key characteristics of Mezcal, but gives room for new flavours instead of focusing just on the smokiness. In addition, experienced drinkers can enjoy a larger depth with an intensive presence in the mouth with citrus and herbal notes finished of with sweet fruitiness.
Lastly, our Alma Fuego is made out of Agave Espadin, which is the most common agave to produce mezcal, because of its sweetness and balanced taste.
Malt: Information is something that we consistently request on Malt when discussing whiskies. For the Alma Fuego, you document that is from the Santiago Matatlán region, including the agave plantation. You list the average age, roast duration, type of wood, milling, fermentation and stone type. Why do you feel the need to list this level of detail and how difficult is it to document?
Alma Libre: When drinking (any) Mezcal, the first step every consumer should go through is study the Mezcal they are about to drink. A good artisanal (handcrafted) Mezcal has nothing to hide. Showing full transparency protects not only the consumer, but also the producer from not being recognized for their work. As explained before, Mezcal is still a very humble product and it is important to value the the production process (Ancestral, Artesanal, Industrial), the agave that was used, the region where it was produced and especially what Maestro produced it. Good thing is that most of the aspects mentioned above are required by law to state. Hence, all producers have to document them.
Malt: For many reading, this mezcal remains an unknown entity – what key aspects would you recommend to someone looking to purchase their first mezcal?
Alma Libre: The first step I recommend is for the Mezcal to be “artisanal” which needs to be stated in the bottle. Mezcales which are “Ancestral” are even more traditional however they tend to be more expensive and complex, because of their production (e.g. distillation in a clay pot). If they are neither of those the mezcal was produced industrially, which does affect the flavour. Moreover, the Mezcal should be an espadin joven. As mentioned above this almost guarantees a good combination of herbal notes and sweetness. Other Agaves tend to be more complex and have different flavours, such as ash, moisture, minerals, etc. Lastly, and here lays the trick, is the way to drink it. For people who do no tend to drink spirits either neat or on the rocks, they should use Mezcal in one of their favourite cockatils. This allows them to understand the key features of a Mezcal in a more “friendly” way. It can be a Mezcal Mule, an Old Fashioned or as simple as a Margarita. However, if you are accustomed to drinking spirits pure, we recommend drinking it that way at room temperature and a wide mouth glass, like a veladora which is the traditional glass to drink mezcal, but a Whiskey glass would also work. It is said that Mezcal needs to be kissed, nipped. The first one needs to “prepare the body” for what’s about to come. (This is still 40% alc.vol. after all) After the first sip, the following can be “normal”, and allow the drinker to identify more and more aspects of the mezcal.
Malt: There are so many different types of mezcals out there. In whisky we can break these down into regions but faced with mezcal it seems more vast and defragmented. How would you summarise the core styles of mezcals for someone interested in exploring further?
Alma Libre: Mezcal can be broken down into regions as well. Perhaps for your understanding, you can use this link to denominate the regions where mezcal is produced. It is difficult to define the core styles because it is so fragmented. There are some sweet and fruity, others with Citrus notes, then others which are more mineral and earthy, etc. What I would propose if someone wants to explore this world are the following guidelines:
a) Alc. vol. 40-45% For everyone; 45-55% Intermediate, advanced mezcal drinkers; 55%+ Advanced.
b) Espadin Agave, For Everyone; Cuishe, Mexicano, Tepextate- Agaves are for intermediate to advanced; All others + ensembles for advanced drinkers.
c) Industrial production process Only suitable for cocktails; Artesanal For Everyone; Ancestral for intermediate to advanced.
d) Production region, I would start with Oaxaca which is where you find most Mezcales, but any other region offers the characteristics already mentioned. Oaxaca is just a good starting point.
This is not a rule book, but more of a guideline to start exploring without getting scared away by the first Mezcal you drink. At the end what matters most is the one you like best.
Malt: The design is always important in the spirits business. The clean labels echo the Mexican origins and you go so far as to offer hand-painted labels by local artists. How much effort do you put into the visual appearance and design? Also, have avoided coloured glass that many other bottlers seem to prefer?
Alma Libre: We have spent a lot of time in the design of the bottles and keep on doing so. The first designs were made completely by us which did cost a lot of time and energy but was worth it. However, we wanted to step our game and we awarded a Mexican design studio to redesign our brand and bottle labelling which will be a part of our new shipment and are very excited about it. Coloured glass was never an option honestly but does not have a big reasoning behind it, we prefer clear bottles that show the product, even though is clear. In addition, we do not have enough capital to personalize our own bottle shape. This may come in the future.
Malt: Working with these artists do you give them an outline, or just let them be inspired by the contents? Have you seen the bottles enjoy a new life once emptied?
Alma Libre: We give them a certain outline. We want the product to be colourful, but not in a way that screams “Mexican” and ends up being a touristy product. Moreover, we let them know what kind of animals for example we would like and colors, but we always leave some products free to be designed by the artist. The bottles have enjoyed a life after emptied. Bars usually reuse the bottle to have it on display. Private consumers keep it on their shelves for longer time and either refill it or just use it as an artwork.
Malt: The price for a uniquely hand painted bottle is more than double compared to your core range. Have these bottles been surprisingly popular and how do you ensure the proceeds are returned to the local artists?
Alma Libre: The bottles have been a hit, but we still struggle for them to be sold because the product is unknown. Yet their design is a big hit for sure. We ensure that our artists are paid fairly from the beginning. Nevertheless, we would like to do more and give back more, but this will only be possible after we are able to sustain ourselves.
Malt: Where do you see the real growth for mezcal in the coming years? From the cocktail market or from connoisseurs who wish to appreciate the locality and handcrafted nature of the spirit?
Alma Libre: I think both go hand in hand. Cocktails will always be a good way to get familiar with a certain spirit and continue to be developed and modernized by top bartenders around the world. However we expect, more and more people to start to enjoy this product more when drank pure. Mezcal offers such a broad spectrum in all regards (e.g. Region, Agave type, production process, height, master, etc.) that can only be truly experienced by drinking the product as is. Hence, after people acquire this taste will they be eager to try out more. This is also one of the main reasons some mezcal brands have so many different products in their portfolio.
Alma Libre Fuego Mezcal – review
Colour: Let’s skip it.
On the nose: Basil leaf, jaggy nettles in a Scottish forest, liquorice root and a touch of aniseed. Lime juice, pine needles and ecalyptus oil provide a refreshing bouquet. Water reveals more fruit notes and lemon thyme.
In the mouth: An oily, dense and flavoursome texture. Aniseed balls, faint cherry and grapefruit. Tarragon especially, a hint of white vinegar sharpness, cactus juice and charred green peppers. Water reveals a more perfume nature accompanied by basil and liquorice.
A very wholesome, above average, well priced Mezcal with a tangible mix of flavour and an affordable price point. An example that caters both for newbies entering the realm and regulars who want an everyday sipper with just enough interest. I’m big on texture and found this one quite satisfying.
My thanks to Matthias for taking the time to answer our questions and providing the images other than the lead which is my own. Also, thanks to Rose for providing assistance on the interview framework.