Oaxacan Mezcal – Good memories or none at all!
Oaxacan Mezcal is in many respect similar to tequila as it is made from the maguey (or agave as it’s known in the north) cactus, Tequila however, unlike mezcal is made from the blue agave species. The name mezcal has its roots in one of the ancient native tongues of the area and translates as “cooked agave”.
Though pre-hispanic Oaxacans used agave cacti to make pulque (an undistilled alocoholic drink), it would appear that the real advances in mezcal production came about when the Spanish arrived in Oaxaca, bringing with them their knowledge of distillation processes.
Mezcal is a rich flavoured artisan drink that requires considerable attention to detail to produce. Mezcal production today is still pretty much as it was when the Spanish arrived hundreds of years ago, and each mezcal “recipe” is handed down from generation to generation within the families that concern themselves with mezcal production. Because each family has their own approach to mezcal production there are an enormous quantity of different flavours to experience, also it is in this way that the rich diversity of flavours and traditions are conserved for all to enjoy.
Mezcal is normally served with salt or sal de gusano – worm salt(salt mixed with a ground cooked larvae and ground chili), and limes or oranges.
La feria de Mezcal
La feria de Mezcal is an exhibition that happens every year and that is organised by the government. The exhibition is a must see if you happen to be in town when it is showing (around the same time as the Guelaguetza in July), it is possible to try hundreds of different mezcals and mezcal liquors (cremas), it really is fantastic but make sure you have eaten before you visit; mezcal packs a punch and there inevitably a few people who end up going to bed early each year! For more information you can check our Oaxaca Events page
The process of making mezcal is one that requires immense patience and expertise. The process starts by harvesting agave that are mature enough for mezcal production; there seems to be some variation on what time this actually takes probably due to climatic conditions, but between the range of 7 to 20 years seems to be the general consensus. The plants however must weigh 40Kg or above.
Once the agave has been harvested all of the leaves are copped off the cactus to leave the piña, so called because it looks like a pineapple. The piñas are then slow cooked in a stone-lined pit over several days. The cookedpiñas are then crushed (usually by a horse-drawn milling stone) and then left to ferment in wooden vats along with any other ingredients required for that particular mezcal recipe. Once it is determined that the fermentation process has run its course, the liquid from the mezcal mixture is transferred to copper or clay stills to undergo the first and second distillation processes, and finally mezcal is produced.
The mezcal is then either bottled to produce mezcal blanco, or left to age in barrels to produce mezcal reposado (2 – 12 months) or mezcal añejo (more than a year). Depending on the recipe a worm or piece of fermented piña might be added for flavour during the bottling process (There are those who claim that this is just a gimmick to increase sales).
The finest mezcal production has historically been associated with the village of Matalan, near Mitla on the road that leads to the Isthmus, but the word on the grapevine is that there are now some very good Mezcals being produced in the Mitla area on the way towards Hierve al agua.
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The Things to do in Oaxaca Team ☺
Photos of Mezcal
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