The day after our cooking class at Seasons of my Heart, we went to the Ocotlan market since it’s only open on Fridays. Here you can buy practically anything – ceramic pottery and sculptures, tapetes, clothing, hats, fruits and vegetables of all kinds, meat, bread, farm tools, live chickens and turkeys, chocolate, sugar, dried chiles and spices, replacement blender parts – you name it, and there’s probably somebody selling it. We had about 2 hours to roam about as we pleased and take in the sights and smells of the market. We then regrouped and went on our way to visit a family owned mescal distillery, Real Minero.
Mescal is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from maguey, also known as agave. I didn’t know this before I went to Oaxaca, but Tequila is a protected designation of origin beverage, just like Champagne. Tequila is made from blue agave and must be made in the Tequila region. Mescal is the protected designation of origin beverage for distilled alcoholic beverages of this region here, and can be made from any variety of agave but it must be at least 45% alcohol. Unlike tequila which is more of a mass-production process due to its global demand, mescal is primarily an artisanal product that’s made by hand in small batches, and may be as small as 50 to 200 litres. I also learned on a separate trip at a mescal tasting room that it’s best to buy or taste “blanco” instead of the aged, “añejo” or “reposado” types as those are techniques learned from other distilled beverages that overwhelms the softer flavors of the maguey. Also, those maguey worms that are sometimes on the bottom of the bottle? Some say it adds flavor, but others say it’s a load of baloney and purely for the tourists.
We first took a walk through a demonstration field to see the maguey growing in the fields with our tour guide, Graciela. She was very detailed and it was clear that she was extremely knowledgeable about every step of the process. Not surprising, as she is a fourth generation mescal producer. Traditionally the maguey would be grown in the same fields as the food crops and be planted between the rows of corn. She pointed out that the commercial system of growing maguey as a monoculture in a field is inefficient as the plants all mature at different times. This makes harvesting more cumbersome and a grower can’t plant a new crop until the older crop is cleared out. Considering a plant may take 8-15 years to mature, depending on the variety, it’s very important that the land is planned out and managed well. When the maguey plant is mature, it shoots up a center stalk that develops flowers for pollination. If left on its own all the sugars in the plant get used up to send this stalk up, so it’s important that it gets cut off and harvested.
Once harvested, the leaves are hacked off and what’s left is now called a piña because it looks like a pineapple. They get packed in very tightly in an underground “oven” that’s filled with rocks that have been heated up by burning old maguey leaves. They get covered up with more leaves, and then covered with dirt and left in the ground for a few days. It’s this process here that contributes to the distinctly smoky flavor in all mescals that I tasted in Oaxaca. We were lucky enough to sample some of the roasted piña at this point – it was extremely sweet, a little starchy, and depending on what piece you were eating there were varying degrees of smokiness. When the roasting is complete, they’re chopped up and then mashed up. Traditionally they’d be pounded with a heavy mallet, as Graciela is demonstrating in one of the photos. However, this is exceptionally hard on the body and ergonomically poor for their workers, so this is the only step that is mechanized with a chipper.
Once they have everything pulverized, it gets set into fermentation tanks. The sugars are converted into alcohol from wild yeasts from the air. Depending on the weather and the temperature, the process can take a few days or a few weeks. You might have guessed that every batch of mescal, even from the same company, tastes different. A lot of these processes are left to nature and not tightly controlled, which allows in for this variation in the artisanal method. When the fermentation process is complete – which is judged by the mescal master who just can tell when it’s ready – it gets distilled in small batches in a ceramic pot still. If I remember correctly, it gets distilled twice because the first distillation results in a lot of methanol. However, it’s important not to distill it too many times as all the flavors that makes it distinctive will get lost.
We then had a sample of a few of the varietals that are distilled at Real Minero. It was really nice – but because of the artisanal nature and high quality, it was on the expensive side for me. They make a pechuga mescal as well – yes, as in chicken breast. The idea behind it is that you’d hang some chicken breast inside the copper still and it’ll cook by steaming during the distillation process. The result is that some of that meat flavor and aroma gets transferred to the mescal. If you ever get a chance, you should definitely try some.
So how does one enjoy a mescal? Pour at room temperature into small glasses, alongside sliced oranges and a chili powder mixture of salt, powdered chiles, and pulverized gusano de maguey, or maguey worms. Sip – don’t down the whole thing like a shot – the mescal and swish it around your mouth, then slowly exhale and taste the flavors of smoke and the cooked maguey. Dip the orange into the chili powder, take a bit and make a cocktail in your mouth with the mescal. It’s strong stuff so go easy on it!