It’s gotten a bit cold in Manila for the past few days. The lowest has been 24C. This is a miracle and a blessing, if you know how damn hot Manila usually is. With the cold weather, came a craving for spicier and more flavorful food. This, immediately brings my mind to Mexican food. With good tacos wrapped in corn tortillas and burritos, also comes a craving for Mezcal.
I’ve suddenly become more curious about Oaxaca lately. Aside from being the state where the majority of Mezcal is produced, the food is apparently fantastic. I was told the diversity and quality of the food is due to the variety of microclimates within the state. The ancient and indigenous Zapotec culture, is also still very much alive.
This sparked a light bulb moment. Microclimates that create food diversity, should also have an effect on agave and Mezcal. Terroir anyone? So, I looked at the different bottles of espadin Mezcal I possessed that were made in Oaxaca. I then learned that much of the Oaxacan Mezcal I had acquired, was produced in Santiago Matatlan. Apparently, it is the world capital of Mezcal. I guess you could say, this is Oaxaca’s equivalent of Speyside? Luckily, I have 2 other bottles of espadin from other parts of Oaxaca. Meaning, this article sounds like another good chance to show the diversity in Mezcal.
I’ll admit that the differences in production styles will not allow a 100% head to head to head comparison between the 3 brands. But Terroir means “of the land”, aren’t people part of the land? So, their different production methods should also be part of terroir. Aside from Clairin, I think unaged Mezcal is the only other easily accessible spirit where terroir very evident. Both have a cultural practice of using natural fermentation and being produced from village to village. The spirits traditionally not being aged, allows the drinker to see the unhindered characteristics and the result of the whole process.
First up, is an espadin from Mezcal Vago. The story of this brand started when 2 gringos (as they call themselves) visited Oaxaca. Judah, one of the co-founders, fell in love with a nurse after gaining an ear infection. Turns out, the nurse’s father is a Mezcal producer. His father-in-law let him try some Mezcal before he asked for Valentina’s (his then wife-to-be) hand. So, the Judah did not only find love in Oaxaca. But he also fell in love with a place and Mezcal. Mezcal Vago was formed to export quality Mezcal.
Much of their Mezcal is from his father-in-law, Aquiline Garcia Lopez. But the Mezcal Vago I have today was made by Joel Barriga. Their ranch is located in Tapanala, Oaxaca. Which is an arid high desert area in a plateau. He is a 3rd generation distiller and primarily works with espadin. Letting the agave roast in stone oven pits from three to four days. Then, fermenting the juice into a Sabino (Mexican cypress) wood vat for two to three days. The mash is then distilled copper pot stills.
Next up, is another Espadin from Fidencio. This one oddly doesn’t have a website as of yet. So, I’ve had to rely on other sites. Fidencio Mezcal are made in Fabrica de Amigo del Mezcal, which is located in Santiago Matatlan, Oaxaca. Santiago Matatlan is located in the Valles Centrales De Oaxaca. A group of three river valleys can be found there. I presume these lusher conditions, is why the Zapotec culture was developed there?
The namesake, Fidencio Jimenez, started making Mezcal 100 years ago. The knowledge has been passed down four generations. This is said to be one of the few organic and biodynamic Mezcals. They agave are roasted for three days in traditional stone-lined earthen pits. Then, they are naturally fermented with wild yeast. The mash is distilled twice in an old cognac-style still.
Lastly, we have an espadin from Mina Real. This is made in a town called Santa Catarina Minas. This town is known for traditional clay pot distillation. The microclimate here is semi-tropic and semi-arid. It is also just 37km to the west of Santiago Matatlan.
Mina Real’s agaves are steam roasted in a limestone kiln. The entire roasting process takes 30 hours, but it takes 6 hours to pre-roast and 6 hours to cool off the agave. This means that the roasting of the agave happens above ground. Steam roasting is also different, as hot rocks and wood are usually used to cook the agave underground. The cooked agaves are shredded then naturally fermented with the bagazo (pulped agave fibers) in pine wood vats. Then, the mash is double distilled in traditional clay pots.
Mezcal Vago Espadin by Joel Barriga from Tapanala, Oaxaca – review
On the nose: Floral and tart fruit scents like melon, honeydew, candied apricots, creme de mure, figs, pink peppercorn and kiwi. Some earthy and green scents like spa cucumber water, green bell peppers, honey, hints of vanilla, cinnamon syrup, miso and string beans. Some hints of citrus notes like lime and lemon.
In the mouth: A weird but pleasant mix of floral, fruity and earthy flavors. Pink peppercorn, figs, upfront with candied stone fruits and tropical fruits. Bananas, melons, honeydew, strawberries, hints of lychee, mango and elderflower.
Fidencio Clasico from Santiago Matatlan, Oax – review
On the nose: An excited greeting of grilled scents like citrus, chickens, onions, cherry tomatoes and zucchinis. These are followed by other green and earthy notes like green bell peppers, spring onions, lime peel and hints of pineapples. There are other feint tastes like cucumber, rambutan, lychee and asparagus.
In the mouth: This is not as smoky as on the nose. But there’s a slightly smoky and succulent texture that just hangs around. There are feint flavors of lime peel, pineapples, pineapples skin, grilled zucchinis, grilled onions and cucumbers. There’s the agave at the end with a slightly sweet and succulent note that reminds me of unripe honeydew.
Mina Real Blanco from Santa Catarina Minas – review
On the nose: Steady scents of earthy and floral notes. There are very persistent and strong scents of lightly pickled beets and pink peppercorn. Then there’s a weird mix of dried apricots, figs, cinnamon syrup and melon but peppery. Then I get hints of asparagus and dandelion root tea.
In the mouth: More peppery than on the nose. But the strong and persistent tastes of beets, pink peppercorn are there. There are feint greetings of figs, cinnamon powder, asparagus, lanzones and cucumber water.
I think it’s funny and odd that I ended up choosing two Mezcals that aren’t smokey. I get why the Mina Real isn’t smokey. But I can only guess why the Vago isn’t. I’ve read that some distillers add burning chunks of wood and/or hot rocks to cook the agave. But Joel Barriga’s page does not mention any burning wood. I guess it’s the wood that gives the smokey flavor?
Anyways, the Vago is one of the more different espadin Mezcal I’ve tried. Because it’s more on the fruity and floral side. Most other espadin I’ve had give off more earthy and green flavors. This is very pleasant and doesn’t hit like 50.8%. Sadly, there isn’t much complexity in this due to it being only floral and fruity. The flavors are also all lumped together. This makes it hard for the flavors to be picked apart. What you receive on the nose, is what you get in the mouth.
The Fidencio Clasico is the typical and the kind of mezcal I am and I’m sure most of you are familiar with. I think the best feature of this is the nose. Like a good life in a harsh environment, everything comes and goes by quickly. But there is complexity and a good layering to it. Things kinda fell apart in the mouth though. The different tastes were more incoherent and dissipated more quickly. Oddly, the succulent agave taste just lingers.
Like the Vago, this Mina Real is one of those uncommon Mezcal I’ve had that doesn’t have any smoke flavors. I’ve had a few mezcal where the smoke goes away as it gets to breathe more but this one had nothing at the start. But this just proves Mezcal can still be good and interesting without the smoke. Aside from that, it’s a good Mezcal. It’s straightforward and has pleasant flavors.
I’d say that these are all good to serve as introductory Mezcal. Hopefully this shows you that Mezcal is more than just the “smoky Tequila”. It’s much more diverse. One kind of agave, can yield such different flavors depending on where it’s grown and who handles it.