Jason’s recent forays into mezcal (and his highly informative interview with the folks from Alma Libre) rekindled my passion for this spirit. A fortuitously-timed family holiday to Mexico allowed me to shop for a few bottles which might be of interest to the MALT readership, the first of which I am reviewing today.
My personal pilgrimage in mezcal mirrors that of my journey through whisky (and, before that, wine). My early years were spent drinking cheap stuff with a mealworm in the bottle (Monte Alban). A 2012 trip to Oaxaca, the homeland of this remarkable potable, opened my eyes to the gustatory potential of this inimitably indigenous beverage.
At the superlative Tlamanalli (in Teotitlán del Valle), among other places, I was served anonymous mezcal from clay decanters. The smoky spice and citric accents of the liquor complemented the rich mole sauces and the ubiquitous sal de gusano, which seasoned everything from tamales made from scratch (by Pilar Cabrera Arroyo at Casa de Los Sabores) to the plastic bags full of roasted crickets that I snacked on as I wandered through Mercato Benito Juárez.
I departed with a bottle of Los Danzantes Reposado packed in my luggage, recommended by the proprietor of a local bottle shop. The contents were used annually to toast departed friends and relations in front of my ersatz ofrenda, perfumed by the sweet cat piss scent of marigolds and the scorched waxy aromas of votive candles left burning late into the night.
Living in a country known (of late) for its leaders’ caustic disdain for our southern neighbors, it’s emotionally difficult to express the deep fondness I (and many of my countrymen) feel for Mexico’s culture and customs. As calaveras have become a ubiquitous design item and the Dia de Muertos celebration has been appropriated by Disney as the centerpiece of an (admittedly charming) film, it feels as though America is both closer to and farther away from the true spirit of those ancient geniuses who constructed the marvels of Monte Albán, as well as their modern descendants who keep the old traditions alive.
Older and better-educated, I am today revisiting Los Danzantes, my jumping-off point into the world of serious mezcal.
Los Danzantes (“the dancers”) was started in 1997, when restauranteur twins Jaimé and Gustavo Muñoz bought a defunct distillery in Santiago Matalán. They are committed to traditional artisanal production methods: maguey stalks are cut by hand, with piñas roasted underground for three days before mill horse Samson crushes the results. Fermentation occurs in wooden vats over six days, with a double distillation in copper stills and a cut made (from eyesight) by a master mezcalero.
This particular mezcal is made with tobalá, a wild maguey with a low yield compared to the more common espadin. Tobalá is renowned for the lightness and sweetness of the resultant mezcal, and its popularity has resulted in over-harvesting. Unless a sustainable solution is found in the near future, tobalá (and associated mezcal) risks becoming an endangered species.
This is bottle #178/1220, from lot TBL116. It has been bottled at 48.5%. I paid MXN $2,100 for 750 ml.
Los Danzantes Mezcal Tobala – Review
Color: Crystal Pepsi
On the nose: Sweet; both richly (vanilla buttercream) and airily (cotton candy) so. Kola nut, lime peel, spearmint, and a vegetal meatiness round out the nose.
In the mouth: Starts with a spicy note of cloves. This transitions into a midpalate which is very lithe, clean, and pure. This has an austere elegance, with its wild roots betrayed only by periodic re-emergence of a gamey spiciness. Finishes with astringency, a touch of cinnamon, a lingering pinch of white pepper, and a sweet hint of confectioners’ sugar.
Extremely subtle. While this might delight the mezcal purists, a novice drinker could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about. I’m somewhat intermediate, so I am balancing my intellectual and hedonistic reactions here. It’s an interesting style, one that might show best at the beginning of a flight, before the senses are bludgeoned by some of the denser, smokier expressions.