Every batch of traditional mezcal is unique in its flavours. We’ve mentioned in our previous entries that the variety of an agave plant used for mezcal is a major contributor to mezcal’s flavours and aromas (similar to a grape variety in wines). It’s also the production process that makes each batch not like the other. This is Part II of our entry on the alchemy of mezcal where we’ve decided to get nerdy and talk about the production side of mezcal. See The Alchemy Part I where we talk about the harvest, the roast, and the grind.
The Fermentation – Fermentación
After the cooked piñas are grinded, the mash is placed in wooden barrels together with some water where it is left to ferment. During the fermentation process, the natural yeasts work their magic to convert the agave sugars into ethanol and other compounds that make mezcal. Unlike other spirit manufacturing, traditional mezcal does not use processed yeast, the process is entirely natural! The fermentation can take between a few days to up to 10 days — this is determined by external temperatures, the weather, the agave variety, the intensity of the roast, and the judgment of the maestro mezcalero.
The Distillation Destilación
The distillation is the main event, the real alchemy.
The fermented mash is heated, its alcohol evaporates and rises, and then it is cooled down and captured in the condensation droplets. Mezcal is extracted through this evaporation and condensation process. Mezcal is commonly distilled twice to achieve the ultimate taste whilst balancing the alcoholic content/percentage.
The size, shape, and material of the stills used during the distillation also play a role in the taste of the final product.
Copper and steel stills are most popular and required to make Artisanal Mezcal, while clay pots are used in the Ancestral production process. Some even use hollowed-out tree tanks. We find that clay pots add mineral earthy taste and soft, round texture to the final product, while copper or steel preserve the smooth crispiness of the mezcal and are easier materials to work with.
When the distillation is complete, what you have is the final product: the clear and clean spirit, no additives, no enhancers, no dilution or interference with the original taste. Mezcal Xamán is served straight from the stills to you. It is as pure and true as it gets, preserving the Oaxacan history and tradition.
Unlike most strong spirits, which are often diluted with water after distillation to a uniform 40% abv., traditional mezcals are bottled at full strength to preserve the integrity of the agave flavor. Mezcal Xamán is bottled at 45% abv.
The Aging, Reposado and Añejo
Mezcal is ready to be consumed straight after the distillation from the stills. This mezcal is labeled as Joven. However, some may choose to “rest” or age mezcal in oak barrels for months to years in some cases. These mezcals are called Reposado or Añejo.
This is not strictly a traditional practice and takes after the European custom of aging spirits. However, there are some excellent Reposados and Añejos out there. These mezcals are golden in colour from the aging process and tend to be sweeter in taste.
Next time you’re enjoying mezcal, notice if you can taste each step of the production in a sip.