Despite hearing several times that ‘mezcal isn’t the same as tequila’, fuzzy recollections of my college and university days left me wary of dipping my toe into mezcal’s mysterious waters.
So gracias a Dios I’d signed up to Intrepid’s 15-day Mexico Unplugged tour; with the word ‘Unplugged’ in the title, something as integral to the culture as mezcal was hardly going to be left off the list! So, I bravely confronted my fears.
Tequila vs mezcal: what’s the difference?
Plot twist: tequila is actually mezcal. The main difference is that, while tequila is made from only one agave plant, mezcal (pronounced “mescal”, as our Intrepid guide Valentina kept kindly – but firmly – reminding me) can be made from one or a combination of over 35 species of agave, so you get a much wider variety of flavours.
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We set off to El Rey de Matatlán, a family-run distillery in Oaxaca that has been producing artisanal mezcal for 60 years. We were warmly greeted by sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, dads, uncles, cousins and grandpas, all keen to show us their wares.
One of the sons showed us around, explaining each stage of the lengthy production process as we went:
- The agave leaves are cut after nine years to obtain the piñas (the heart of the plant). These can weigh up to 150 kilograms.
- The piñas are collected. It’s pretty common to see trucks going past, filled with people carrying the piñas on their heads (did I mention they can weigh up to 150kg?!).
- Next, the piñas are put into a type of shredder that cuts them into quarters.
- Then they’re cooked for 72 hours in stone ovens and put into a grinder.
- Finally, they’re put into wood-fired stills – this helps give the mezcal its signature smoky flavour. The liquid flows through a coil to get cold, and 30 hours are needed for the entire distillation process. The palanquero (ie. whoever’s on duty) needs to stay awake for the entire process, because their job is to separate the different types of alcohol in casks for aging.
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The tour was informative but brief. I think our guide was as eager as we were to get down to business: mezcal sampling.
Mezcal me up
El Rey de Matatlán translates to ‘The Matatlán King’; Santiago Matatlán, the town in Oaxaca where the distillery is based, is apparently known as the world capital of mezcal. Suffice to say, we were in the right place for some mezcal tasting.
There were so many bottles, we didn’t really know where to start – so they generously presented with just about everything they had on their shelves: the award-winners, the jovenes (‘young ones’), the ones as old as me, bottles even older.
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I had a few unfortunate flashbacks when the fruit slices and salt were laid out, but here in Oaxaca there were some key differences:
- Mezcal is traditionally paired with orange slices, not lemon, as it helps to cleanse the palate (necessary for taste tests).
- While the worm at the bottom of the bottle is more for show than anything else, worm salt is a traditional part of mezcal culture. ‘Sal de gusano’ is ground-up salt, pepper and – you guessed it – worms or larvae that live inside the agave plant.
- The distiller stressed the importance of sipping the samples, not shooting them (perhaps this was where I’d gone wrong in my youth…). As mezcal can consist of a variety of different plants, slowly sipping means you get to appreciate the different flavour notes.
I asked if there was anything to satiate my sweet tooth and out came the cremas de mezcal – a little bit like cream liqueurs, but with a higher ABV. The piña colada was a definite highlight, but then I was offered one that was cappuccino-flavoured.
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“We call it ‘the Oaxacan Baileys’,” said the distiller. Enough said, mi amigo.
Of all the samples we tried, that one stuck with me the most. Neither the caffeine nor the spirit overpowered the other, it was a perfect balance of both that didn’t overwhelm you with creaminess. It was silky smooth and slid down the throat. It was better than Baileys.
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All images by Ben McNamara.