It feels like it’s been a really long time since I’ve posted anything with pictures. I also needed an excuse to verify that retina.js was working, so let’s put up some pictures and see what happens!
Back in May I talked about distilling mezcal through the carcass of a chicken. Since then I’ve procured and sampled a few mezcals, and have taken my sweet time getting around to writing about it. The most interesting mezcals I’ve tried come from Del Maguey, who has a lovely new website that’s a dramatic improvement from the last one they had that was clearly created in the mid-nineties.
Del Maguey’s Mezcals are released in handwoven palm fiber baskets, each one distinguishing the village of origin:
Given that I have five distinct bottles of mezcal but only three distinct baskets, I think the distributor from which I procured them shorted me a bit and just improvised. Oh well. Jerks.
Del Maguey does not make mezcal. As I understand it, they work more as a distributor, connecting the market to individual villages. These villages produce singular examples of mezcal. The mezcals are unblended and only come from a single village. Del Maguey comes in, bottles the product, markets it, and distributes it. I get the impression they have a lot of good relationships in that regard, but I may be succumbing to marketing hype. Whatever, the case, I’m going to roll with it, because it feels like a low-production product where everybody involved in the process cares.
Nearly all of Del Maguey’z mezcals are joven, meaning they are not aged in oak. While they’ve had a few small-production batches of aged mezcal1, this is not particularly traditional.
I was first introduced to mezcal in Las Vegas. At the Wynn Encore, their smoky margarita (1.5 oz 1800, .75 oz Cointreau, 1.5 oz fresh sour mix, 1 oz agave nectar) comes with a terracotta copita of Del Maguey Crema de Mezcal on the side. Crema de Mezcal is mezcal blended with agave syrup, bringing the proof down to 80. It’s extremely fruity, smooth, and approachable (for mezcal, mind you), providing a smoky cleansing spirit aside the margarita. If you’ve never experienced quality mezcal, this is a good place to start.
Needless to say, I was intrigued. I loved having mezcal aside the cocktail; the counterpoint and contrast were quite enjoyable. With that said, I outright enjoyed the mezcal (more than the cocktail, to be frank), and wanted to know more.
Most of Del Maguey’s mezcals clock in around 95-100 proof, and are clearly not for the faint of heart. I find them incredibly smooth and balanced on the palate, with quite appealing noses (though I would caution against consuming them from tight tulips or grappa stems that concentrate the nose; prefer shot glasses or cocktail glasses lacking a better alternative). I enjoy distilled spirits straight, so one cannot trust my judgment, but I think these fine examples of mezcal are no more challenging to consume than a good whisky, brandy, or tequila. They are best served neat and at room temperature, though there are certainly many inventive cocktails developing around the spirit.
Each bottle comes written with the proverb and its translation: “FOR EVERYTHING BAD / MEZCAL / AND TO CELEBRATE / ALL GOOD AS WELL.” Just below that is “SIP IT. DON’T SHOOT IT.” I couldn’t agree more. If you like distilled spirits, you owe it to yourself to take quality mezcal like this seriously.
The Drinking Vessels
So before we get down to the business of tasting these fine spirits, we must confront how they are to be consumed. Neat and at room temperature usually means service in a rocks glass. Turns out rocks glasses aren’t exactly traditional in Oaxacan villages. Go figure!
As I described above, I first encountered mezcal in a little clay cup called a copita. I can’t make any assertion about how authentic this is, but it was quite an enjoyable way to sip the beverage, and seemed more likely than the rocks glass.
So, before I wrote this, I figured “I’ll just go on Amazon and buy some clay copitas, and all will be well.” If a casino in Las Vegas has a pile of them, it can’t be that hard, right?
Turns out, there aren’t any on Amazon. There also are not any on any drink or barware site I was able to track down. I looked on and off for several weeks but found that it is, in fact, stupendously difficult to track these little clay cups down!
I had in my mind a rough picture of how they were shaped and styled – they are bare clay on the bottom with a light glaze on the inside to keep the spirit from soaking into the cup (and not going down the old hatch). I approached a friend who crafts pottery, and commissioned a set of them. This process has taken a few months, but they were fired recently, so I should have them in my possession shortly.
Commissioning art is a pain in the ass if you’re interested in short-term satisfaction, however. I wrote Del Maguey out of desperation, wondering where I could find the unfindable. In short order, Ron Cooper (the man behind Del Maguey) himself wrote back and offered to send me some.
A few weeks later 10 copitas arrived in the mail.
Using the clay sipping copitas is pretty straightforward; Ron provides pretty detailed instructions in an interview here.
I do not have anything approaching a complete catalog of Del Maguey’s mecals, but I thought I’d share what I have experienced.
Fun times! Let’s do it…
Del Maguey Minero
Minero is made in a clay still with bamboo tubing, rather than copper. Del Maguey indicates this lends it its fruitiness, and I’d have a hard time arguing with that assertion. I get a lot of flowers, apricot, and burnt sugar on the nose. On the palate it’s quite sweet and smooth (absurd, inexplicable, and incredible for a 49% spirit), tasting of tropical fruit and vanilla. The finish is quite long, and tends towards flavors that are very similar to the aforementioned aromas.
Del Maguey San Luis del Rio
San Luis del Rio has aromas of exotic spices, reminding me of the pepper & spice mixture in chai tea. The burn of the black pepper aroma and a aroma somewhat like cocoa stand out more than the rest. The initial burst on the palate is all about smoke, which is really odd given that the smoky character is nowhere in the aromas. The smoke is very similar in character to peat on a clean Islay or the smoke on a Lapsang Souchong, there’s an almost instantaneous burst of fruit that disappears just as quickly thereafter, and it’s followed by a lot of citrus on the finish.
Del Maguey Chichicapa
Chichicapa has a spicy nose with cream, cherry, banana, and hazelnut for me. It’s initially sweet on the palate followed by bracing spice and acidity. Midway on the palate it’s all about cocoa and the grassy heat of the serrano pepper. Citrus, oil, and smoke rounds things out. The finish is incredibly smooth and persistent, with a grassy herbal focus.
Del Maguey Tobala
Tobala refers to the specific variety of maguey that’s used in the production of this (and many similar Tobala) mezcal: It’s a smaller and broader-leafed version compared to Espadin and Azul maguey. Del Maguey says it is “found growing naturally only in the highest altitude canyons in the shade of oak trees like truffles.” Makes for a good story, at least. The nose is full of grass, minerality, fruit, almonds, toast, and a little bit of turpentine (which I strangely find quite pleasant in this context). On the palate it’s quite smooth and mild, tropical fruit flavors with a slighly smoky finish of nuts and white pepper. I find this quite pleasant, but a little too smooth and mild. While this comparison makes no sense, it reminds me of the way that some spirits (c.f. Macallan) don’t really hold up to extended (say, 30-year plus) aging; there’s just not enough character here to justify the price for me.
Del Maguey Pechuga
Pechuga is made through an elaborate process involving a chicken carcass in the still (as I talked about briefly in the past, and is the only mezcal here that goes through a third round of distillation. It is fun to talk about at parties, if nothing else. I get sea spray, lemon, sage, oregano, and basil on the nose. It’s incredibly complex on the palate, being spicy, sweet, acidic, with a very strong finish of spice and smoke. Despite the assertions otherwise, I have a hard time detecting any chicken aromas or flavors. Outstanding and unique, among a flight of unique spirits. At its price, it’s hard for me to recommend it in good faith versus one of the far more moderate examples above, but absolutely worth seeking out at least a serving if you find that you enjoy mezcal.
(aged less than a year) and añejo (aged more than a year). As I understand it, treatment here is even less strict than it is with tequila. I am under the impression that aging mezcal is seen as a bit of a bastardization, robbing it of its character. Oak aging seems focused on making mezcal more approachable and easily recognizable for somebody who regularly imbibes other oak-aged spirits.
In addition to the unaged joven, mezcal is available in reposado ↩