Seminar: “Mezcal Method Madness”

By Jonathan Laurel June 13, 2019 Cocktails Events Food

Because our favorite thing is sharing knowledge about spirits and cocktail culture, we’re adding a series of new classes to our seminars over the next few months.  This series is  designed to explore another of the lesser known spirit in our region: Mezcal. And we’re promising a world of knowledge, flavors, and mouthfeel like you rarely get the chance to explore. 

We started with the idea to do a single class about this distilled beverage that is “clearer than water,” but pretty much right upon starting our investigation we realized it would take more than one class to scratch the surface.  Consequently, we’ve split all the knowledge up into two (probably three) classes, the first of which focuses on the extraordinarily variety of methods, traditions, and environmental factors that go into each batch of Mezcal. 

Unlike other distilled spirits, mezcal is distilled from the agricultural product of multiple growing seasons—agaves can take between 7 and 30 years to mature—and that starts off the spirit with much more complex chemistry than other spirits.  Beginning even before the actual harvesting of the plant, every step of Mezcal’s process is to enhance the flavors of the piña and layer other flavors and textures onto it.  From the harvest, the piñas are roasted, broken down, fermented, and distilled, and often go through a smattering of adjustments after the still.  At each of these phases, the Mescalero makes choices—either inherited through tradition or chosen through artistry—that blurs the process and builds flavor. 

We could look at any single phase for a sample of the scale of variables.  The dimensions of the oven for roasting the agaves, the specific configuration of the oven’s layers, even the type of wood used in the oven’s fire, can all affect the way the agaves are cooked—a crucial element in preparing the sugars for fermentation.  Depending on the region and local tradition, an oven, or horno, may be used in different ways as well: some are used to produce a high amount of char on the piñas, some introduce water for a steam element.  Certain regions line their ovens with stones, while others are exposed soil, with each of these choices having different affects on the piñas’ flavor and the conditions within the oven. Some species of agave are so large the jimadors will cut down the piñas before they go into the oven, some are so small they can easily stack, with each variety of proportion requiring different cook times and temperatures. And these are all different choices and factors that come to bear on a single phase of the Mezcal process—they aren’t even all the factors for this one phase.  

The Mescalero isn’t the only agent at work in the matrix of choice and methods.  Mezcal’s entire process is all natural and open air.  Consequently, every imaginable environmental factor comes to bear on the final product.  From the climate and biome of the agave’s growth cycle, to the altitude of the final distillation, the environment is at work.  Temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressure are all the obvious factors we might consider.  So is the most universal factor for fermentation: localized yeast.  But even an agave’s neighboring plants may affect its flavors from the start; the cycle of nearby plants may affect the exposed fermenting mash; smoke from the ongoing process of roasting agaves (at bigger palenques) introduces at atmosphere of smoke that affects the flavors of the final product beyond just a roasted smokiness from the oven.  

In short, the variables that go into a single batch of mezcal are numerous.  They create a kind of garden of forking paths, a permutative matrix that builds and evolves the chemistry, flavors, and textures of the spirit.  For this reason you should believe people when they say no two Mezcals are the same—it’s hard even to imagine any two batches could be the same.  

For this class, we discuss these factors and more, exploring each phase of the process with a variety of Mezcals that reflect different methods.  For this reason, we taste six spirits that are all made from Espadín (Agave angustifolia) and that come from a very small area of Oaxaca, Mexico.  The result is a shocking array of flavors and textures for so small a sample window.  Meanwhile, we’ll share a two course meal of fresh produce and proteins. 

Spaces for our classes are extremely limited—we like to have a small setting for questions and candor.  Essentially it is a time for us to connect with other enthusiasts and share something incredible.  Each ticket is $95; each class lasts about 90 minutes.  For information or reservations, email Jonathan at guestservices@westmain.com, or call us (859.618.6318).