Before reading, please check out the first part of this piece.
Many of the agave distilleries, which are essentially farms (known as palenques), function as they have for generations. Simple, rustic structures, each unique but similar, shield the distillery operations while remaining party exposed to the elements. Here, nothing goes to waste: the bricks of the scant distillery structures are made from byproducts from the distillation.
Depending on the work happening that day, you’ll end up with very different photographs: a strangely simmering pile of dirt topped by a cross to ward off devils, under which the agave piñas bake and take on their characteristically smoky flavor; a donkey walking in languorous circles, turning a large stone (the tahona) wheel over a cement well to mash the agave, recently broken down by hand with a machete.
Getting to know the product itself involves wrapping one’s head around endless contingencies. There are at least eight species of agave used to produce mezcal in Oaxaca. Blending is common. While it used to be the case that the only single variety mezcals on the market were espadina and tobala, it’s increasingly common to see successful producers offering examples of the entire range, in addition to their blends, so that you can discover the pleasures of each through comparison. And while some plants are cultivated in rows, others grow wild; many producers celebrate this fact with bottlings of only the wild agave.
In addition to the complexity of the crop itself, there are a few different production methods, such as the common copper pot distillation and the more traditional, and rare, clay pot distillation. Add to this all of those variables familiar to wine production—differences in soil, elevation, and ripeness, as well as the vicissitudes of the native yeasts used in fermentation and, of course, age—and the potential differences increase exponentially.
These differences are readily available to taste, too, offering intellectual interest to the appreciation of mezcal. To really experience mezcal, just about everybody agrees that you need to drink the purer, un-oaked (blanco) varietals. And indeed, Mezcal has brilliance and the impression of a transparency familiar to wine drinkers that favor the expression of terroir. Unlike tequila, which I believe is at its best and most expressive with at least some oak regimen, oak tends to undermine mezcal. While great tequila is fruity, often oaky, and smoothly polished, great mezcal is transparent, pure, essential.
As a whole, the mezcal is complex on the nose and palate, with subtle fruit, smoke, vegetal, and spice notes. As opposed to those other spirits privileged enough to be called refined, such as scotch and brandy, mezcal, equally complex, is brazenly elemental. It’s rugged earth and explosive sunshine captured in liquid form.
My favorite example was a blend from the one traditional clay pot distillery we visited. I don’t know that this resulted from the clay pot itself, but as with wine makers that favor traditional methods, reflecting a certain sensitivity to their work, I wonder if this rare approach reflects a sensibility conducive to increased care and attention. Brightly fruity, minerally, and only slightly smoky, with a pleasing vegetal edge, this example stood out because of its transparency. It tasted just as good when I tried it back home. The worst examples had overtones of sherry—perhaps partly oxidized. In the lesser examples, I also tended to find a cheesy, lactic flavor.
Concerning the question of terroir transparency, I confess I’m of two minds. The purity of mezcal is real. But does it speak to a specific place?
On the one hand, at least painting with a broad brush, it’s clear that it does. I doubt that any spirit better reflects whether or not, for instance, the crop was grown in a more or less cool place. Therefore, there are clearly large-scale regional differences to attend to, as well as more subtle differences that result from, for instance, elevation—it’s not hard to believe that wild plants growing high up on the side of a Oaxacan mountain will taste altogether different than plants that see direct sunlight on the valley floor.
On the other hand, I have it on good authority that the implication made by Certain Famous Artisanal Mezcal Producers that label the bottles like wineries do, with the name of the region, village, or farm, have a lot of latitude in that labeling. In fact, those labels reflect mostly only where the mezcal is made—not where the agave is grown. Experientially this rings true. Trucks with loads filled with agave piñas were common; not that I think this settles the issue.
But it’s not just this. Again, experientially, even though I concede that, just as with mezcal, there are endless variables that eternally muddy the issue of terroir in wine, I’ve discovered in my life more than a few obvious examples of transparency to soil between varietals in a winemaker’s line that I’m left with no doubt.
In some limited sense, just about everything reflects terroir. In the end though, my belief is that the grape is a privileged vessel, almost uniquely suited to conveying subtle differences in environment.
In my experience only the oyster, which so perfectly reflects its place of origin, is comparable to the grape. And this is why both are, as we all know, favored by the gods themselves.
With the agave plant, I have so many doubts. I have doubts related to the violence of the distillation process; I have doubts related to the sheer mass of the plant. Also, there remains questions about the extent to which there is even the kind of soil variation in Oaxaca that would make it interesting to map in the first place—is there reason to think that Oaxaca has the soil complexity of Burgundy, Alsace, or even Virginia? In any event, the point is moot: as far as I know nobody has made even a basic overture towards tracing mezcal flavor to soil type.
So what do we mean when we speak of terroir in mezcal? Perhaps we mean it only in the limited sense. Yet, there seems to be more to it.
Questions remain. I suggest travelling to Oaxaca to answer them for your self.