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.
Great review Taylor. I’ve been dabbling in mezcal a bit too, and somewhat like you—-first started with red wine, then whiskey, and now getting into mezcal (but for me it’ll never replace whiskey). What I’ve been shocked at though is how old some the agaves need to be before it’s harvested. 10, 14, 20 years at times, especially the wild non-espasdin type. That might also explain the high prices. Instead of a whiskey being aged for 15 years, in mezcal’s case, it’s the agave that needs to be cultivated for 15 years.
Thanks PB. You raise an excellent point- there are specific sustainability issues in Mezcal that are not shared by distillates of other cultivated crops. I’ll point you to Los Danzantes’ “Proyecto
Maguey” for more info. As always, thanks for reading and GO BLUE!
Taylor, your tips led me here for starters and to a site called mezcal reviews (Yep, just like Ronseal). Mezcal, what a minefield for the beginner. I didn’t realise there was so much to it, despite Serge’s occasional references on whiskyfun. Just about getting the hang of the lingo (last week I honestly thought silver was either an agave strain or a quality level just behind the gold standard). Interesting, though – my inner anorak is loving the idea of different agaves and the craft element of the makers. Looks like tobala is an endangered species, almost to the point where it would be ethically safer to drink a distillate made from elephant tusks! Still researching. Thanks again.
Mick, there is indeed an important ethical debate. It’s not as cut-and-dried as simply avoiding imperiled species. Please see my review of the Bruxo Tobalá for more discussion of this topic. The important questions for a responsible consumer to ask involve supply chain and sustainability initiatives (e.j. Proyecto Maguey). Keep digging!
Just finishing the quiquiriqui tobala (just managed to save a couple of “drams” for redistribution to interested parties). This bottle has changed so much! First few glasses, I couldn’t get the hang of it. Smoke, sweetness, green stuff (olives, peppers and MacDonalds gherkins from Big Mac fame) but not in a bad way, just like a new make Ardbeg, but not quite. A month on, the smoke has gone and it smells of custard creams! Whisky Tango Foxtrot!!!! I’m sure, as per your advice, that Espadin might be more typical of the genre but as first dollops go… what a banger! Sceptical, shmectical – I will be drinking more. As a hardcore Scotch fan my flabber is genuinely gasted. Thanks, again. Slanjeevaurus. Mick
Mick, I’m happy to hear that your initial foray was a successful one. Like whisky, mezcal often opens up some time after the cork is pulled. More reason to assemble a few examples and taste them over a prolonged period of time. Keep us posted on your future explorations!