Text by Ivan Saldaña
Illustrations by Mariam Karbassi
Mezcal is one of the most important sensory, cultural and biological heritages of Mexico. The production and traditional consumption of mezcal is still incredibly rich and is thoroughly distributed throughout the Mexican Republic, a living inheritance of the pre-Hispanic and European.
To appreciate the immense value mezcal possesses, it is necessary to understand at least three essential aspects: 1) its definition, 2) its chemical and organoleptics complexity and finally, 3) the biologically cultural and technological sources that give way to the vast diversity of expressions this beverage contains.
This time around, we will introduce the first two aspects.
What is mezcal?
Mezcal results from any beverage distilled from sugar ferments coming exclusively from maguey or agave. This definition thus includes other beverages that, although they are mezcal have different commercial definitions. Sotol or tequila for example, the latter being without a doubt the most commercial of all and the most sold in all its existing variations.
Maguey or agave, the raw material from which mezcal is made, takes between six to thirty years to grow and ripen before it can be sewed for the production of said beverage. Mezcal is hence a beverage that requires a great wait before it is ready to be produced.
It is important to note that the majority of the variations of mezcal are produced for family or community consumption. The production of these traditional mezcals is made in small factories or distilleries known as palenques. Depending on the areas where mezcal is produced, different technologies, materials and local processes are found.
The chemical and organoleptic complexity of mezcal
This is how mezcal has been dug out, how it has emerged from the chest of wonders that Mexico holds. But, besides the cultural values or stories that can be told about mezcal, there are chemical and sensory (organoleptic) materials that make mezcal objectively the world’s most complex distilled alcoholic beverage to come out of the distillery.
This complexity results from the chemical integration of a huge quantity of substances that it inherits from its raw material and from substances that are introduced or created during the production of mezcal. Other beverages, such as grain alcohols (whiskeys or vodka) or those distilled from fruits, do not enjoy such high complexity because their raw materials are poorer than agave in terms of organoleptic substances and because the processes involved in its production do not lead to complexity and introduce more flavor in the process. That is why these beverages tend to be aged in wood to give taste, or are subject to other flavoring with herbs (gin or aquavits) or fruits (liquors).
Below is all the complexity that mezcal offers in four groups, according to their origin.
Tastes that come from green Agave, as it is found in the raw material: Agaves are plants with aromatic compounds and amazing taste, among which are terpenes and the essential oils. In beverages distilled from agave, approximately 30 terpenes have been identified, which survive brewing. It contains fats found in the cuticle and cell walls that in alcoholic mediums are converted to esters. Some hints coming from raw agave are anise, citrus, green and floral fragrances. In the case of agave, vanilla is a natural component and it is possible to find hints that have nothing to do with the ripening in barrel or the wood used as fuel. In the mouth, the green hits can give off bitter characteristics of mezcal.
Flavors produced in cooked agave: During the cooking process of the cones, there are chemical reactions known as Maillard reactions. These reactions caramelize the sugars, giving them a light or dark brown tone, just like when caramel is made. In agave, the temperature makes the sugars react with the proteins that it naturally contains, releasing compounds that strongly influence the flavor of the mezcal. In artisanal mezcals, the brewing is made underground, very slowly, creating hints of roasted and sweet, similar to those of dried fruits like nuts, peanuts, almonds, walnuts, cooked pumpkin, brown sugar, honey and dulce de leche, amongst others.
Flavors that are introduced through the smoke: Many and various flavors are introduced to mezcal through the combustion of the woods used to heat the ovens where the maguey must be cooked, as part of its production. The woods used to heat the stones in the barbeque ovens or kibas. The tastes of smoke come from the molecules liberated during the combustion and are expressed in mezcal as hints of chili, chocolate, ash, wood and bonfire, amongst others. They tend to be less intense the higher the degree of alcohol of mezcal and may vary depending on the type of wood, the quantity used and the size of the ovens. The mezcals that use vapor as a source of brewing don’t fully enjoy the contribution of these hints.
Flavors that are introduced through fermentation: During the fermentation process, in addition to the conversion of sugars to ethanol (common alcohol), furans, esters, acetals and organic acids are produced, which are created and chemically modified from the substances that are present in the juice base. For most artisanal mezcals, the long periods of fermentation (up to 10 days) and the fact that, in most cases, added yeast is not used, a higher quantity of bacteria is generated, which actively participates in the formation of compounds that intervene in the sensory experience of the product.
Processes such as acetic fermentation, malolactic fermentation and the modification of fats to esters by microorganisms give higher complexity to the product than the exclusive use of added yeast. The result is the formation of compounds with fruity hints (some flavors and typical smells of bacterial fermentation like banana, pineapple, ripened berries, dried fruits, etc.) and other solvent hints like nail polish or white gas, amongst others. The fats in mezcal can also give animal hints, like leather. Time, use of yeast and fermentation temperatures, impact the balance of these final compounds.
> OTHER FLAVORS THAT CAN BE DETECTED IN MEZCAL:
Mezcal can give out surprising hints and as a product of single elements involved in its elaboration. Some examples are:
– Mineral or metallic hints in fermentation or distillation processes where equipment made of stone, clay or even certain metals that are not inert are involved.
-Animal hints of leather and sweat in products where animal fur bags are used to ferment or store.
– Hints of plastic coming from the use of non-certified containers that give off these compounds. Unfortunately these high costs of infrastructure have made it very common for some mezcal producers to use plastic without verifying the impact this could have on their product.
In addition, there are flavors and smells that can be present as a result of peculiar variations in a specific mezcal, which spring from a distinctive feature in its process or as a result of a previous process of flavoring.