Friday, January 19, 2018

Tequila vs. Mezcal: It's all about the story

Mezcal in Oaxaca by Joyce Wycoff
It’s almost like a sports event: my team vs. your team, Jalisco vs. Oaxaca.

Technically, tequila is a mezcal since both are made from the agave plant, however tequila is only made from the blue agave while mezcal can be made from any of 28 varieties of agave. Tequila is primarily made in Jalisco, while mezcal comes mainly from Oaxaca.

The primary difference is in the piña. After the stalks of the agave plant are cut away by the jimador, there is a head which looks like a pineapple … thus piña, the Spanish word for pineapple. Tequileros bake the piñas in above-ground ovens. Mezcaleros bake the piñas in below ground pits.
The Mexican restaurant Acapulcos, clearly favoring mezcal, describes the process:
The agave heads (also called agave hearts, or piñas) are roasted or grilled over hot rocks in a cone-shaped pit (called palenques or hornos). A fire is started and burns for about 24 hours to heat the stones that line the pit. The agave heads are put into the pit and then covered with moist agave fiber that is left over from the fermentation process. A layer of agave leaves or woven palm leaves cover the fibers and the agave heads are left to cook for two to three days.
They go on to explain the types and aging process of  mezcal … as well as the worm!
Types of Mezcal
Mexican government regulates mezcal, defining various types and aging categories in a manner similar to tequila. The regulations split mezcal into two categories:
Type 1: 100% agave (using any or all permitted agave plants)
Type 2: Minimum 80% agave and maximum 20% other sugars.

There are three aging categories:

Abacado (also called joven or blanco): clear, un-aged mezcal that results from the distillation process. It is often bottled immediately, but flavoring or coloring agents can be added.
Reposado (also called madurado): aged in wood barrels for two to eleven months.
Añejo: aged in wood barrels for a minimum of twelve months.
The regulations also forbid mezcal producers to make tequila, and tequila producers cannot produce mezcal.

The Worm Surprise

Mezcal is widely known for the agave “worm” (or gusano) that floats toward the bottom of the bottle. It is primarily a marketing gimmick to help boost sales, especially in the United States and in Asia. In fact, it is not a “worm” at all, but one of two insect larvae (a caterpillar of a night butterfly or the larvae of the agave snout weevil) that can infest yucca and agave plants.
Tequila never (ever!) has a worm in the bottle.
So, which is better?

Food court in Oaxaca
John McEvoy, who bills himself as the Mescal PhD and wrote the book Holy Smoke!: It’s Mezcal, obviously leans toward mezcal. For the rest of us, it’s either a matter of taste or story. Tequila has a clear, contemporary story, while mezcal has a smokey, artisanal story. And, then, there’s the worm.

Since I don’t actually like the flavor of either, I’m swayed by the story and the thought that somewhere in a mescalero village there is a donkey turning the wheel that crushes the piña heads that have been baked in a pit lined with volcanic rock. Add that to the story heard in my much younger days that eating the worm produces a psychedelic trip and I probably wind up on the mezcal side.

While here in Oaxaca, my friend Dolores and I stumbled across a delightful food court and met the owner who focuses on the mezcal bar. He made me a mojito-like drink that was wonderful, primarily because I couldn’t taste the mezcal, but thoroughly enjoyed the idea of it. No worm, of course.

Alhóndiga Reforma also has a remarkable mural on their wall. I'm still looking for the name of the artist.


No comments:

Post a Comment