Written by: Alvin Starkman

It's an issue which on a daily basis adversely impacts the consumption of mezcal. Many owners of and staff in Mexican restaurants, bars and mezcalerías, in Oaxaca and throughout the rest of Mexico, and in fact worldwide, tell patrons to not drink barrel-aged mezcal. It doesn't matter if it's reposado (in oak for at least two months) or añejo (at least one year); they say just don't do it. Even some export brand owners fall prey to the mis-step. The Mexican agave distillate, mezcal, is the relatively high alcohol content spirit which has taken the global spirits consuming community by storm since the "mezcal boom." The craze began about 2005, then caught on in earnest about a decade later.

The folks who should know better, and who purportedly are motivated in their entrepreneurial endeavors at least to some extent to promote the mezcal industry, are simply trying to raise their patrons' perception of them as agave distillate experts. Oaxaca is the southern Mexico state which produces upwards of 85% of the nation's mezcal. Both aficionados and novices alike flock to Oaxaca to learn more and to pay homage. And so it should be incumbent upon the experts, particularly in Oaxaca, upon whom the consuming public relies, to give the arriving pilgrims the straight goods. Many do not. One typically encounters three rationales for dissuading imbibers from drinking aged mezcal:

  • "Aged mezcal isn't traditional." How many generations or hundreds of years back must one go to consider the agave distillate "traditional," given that oak barrels have been used to store and transport mezcal likely since shortly after the Spanish arrived in what is now Mexico, certainly since the 1700s?

  • "I haven't yet encountered a good barrel-aged reposado or añejo." How can that really be, aside from someone wanting to impose her subjective preference upon others, since there are brands which have serious, well thought-out aging programs? For example, aging for six months in a Kentucky bourbon barrel, then two years in a French chardonnay barrel.

  • "Aged mezcal changes and masks the natural flavor, aroma, nuances which vary based upon the specie and sub-specie of the agave, and we should want to retain and appreciate those unique qualities and differences."

It's the third rationale which is the most problematic, arguably simply nonsensical, and here's why. In a typical scenario, on a evening out on the town one goes into a mezcal tasting room, bar or mezcalería, or Mexican restaurant with a good complement of agave distillates. He relies on the advice of the bartender or wait staff; especially those relatively new to the spirit or otherwise just wanting to sample different products. Your server might say something like "try this tobalá, it's rather herbal," or "how about a floral tepeztate," or "I think you might like this somewhat sweet karwinskii from the Miahuatlán district of Oaxaca." Fair enough. But then the problem begins.

That same "expert" who refuses to even discuss añejos or reposados because they alter the unique nuance imparted by the particular agave varietal, will suggest an espadín pechuga (costing perhaps twice as much as the karwinskii). That pechuga has had the natural flavor of the espadín dramatically altered by not only the chicken breast, but also a plethora of fruits, herbs and spices; apple, orange, cinnamon, guava, pineapple, almond, banana, anise, rice, apricot, and sometimes more. Are you not then drinking a spirit the natural flavor of which has been much more dramatically altered than if it had been aged six months in a bourbon barrel? And while the history of pechugas dates to perhaps the 1930s in the state of Oaxaca, and to the 19th century elsewhere in Mexico, the barrel aging tradition pre-dates both by certainly 100 years if not longer. Pechugas are likely a much more recent phenomenon and much less traditional than reposados and añejos.

Then your server in that tasting room encourages you to compare two mezcals of the same sub-specie, one distilled in clay and the other in copper, suggesting that you can detect the difference in flavors. The server might subsequently offer a mezcal fermented in a cow hide followed by the next in a 1,000 liter pine slat tank. And then two mezcals of the same agave vartietal from the same traditional distillery might be offered, one in which the succulent has been crushed by hand, and the other by metal blades. Why then will she not "allow" you to compare aged versus un-aged? I would suggest it is likely snobbishness, plain and simple, without any otherwise reasonable rationale (except perhaps the exercise representing a means by which the establishment, run by experts, tries to rationalize its haughty pricing). Here's the rub. If one truly wants to help consumers distinguish subtle differences in flavors, aromas and nuances, should we not only be sampling mezcal wherein the agave has been steamed in a sealed brick room or in an autoclave (iron chamber)? Traditional cooking dictates baking the agave in an airtight in-ground oven over, at minimum, rocks, and you guessed it, firewood. If you bake anything in a sealed chamber for five days over firewood, the type of log used inevitably impacts the flavor of whatever you're baking, agave included; mesquite, oak, eucalyptus, etc., etc., etc. The experts only want to promote traditional mezcal, so how do they rationalize on the one hand wanting the natural flavors to come through, yet on the other baking in a "traditional" oven?

There are brand owners who are against aging, professing to want to expose aficionados or would-be aficionados to only traditionally made mezcal. They state that mezcal should be stored in only glass or stainless steel, neither of which is "traditional," certainly less so stainless. The same entrepreneurs will promote their products storing some mezcal in clay for say six months before bottling, in order to give the consuming public something a little different --- but of course not too different, as in oak. Yes, clay was employed eons ago for storing and transporting, so perhaps we should all return to having our mezcal aged in clay. The problem is that glass and stainless steel alter the natural nuances much less so than clay; yet they are relatively recent incursions into the industry. Epilogue We should be promoting mezcal to all prospective future aficionados, and this means all mezcal. Many visitors to Oaxaca arrive with a plan to distribute the spirit, or open a mezcalería, in their home countries outside of North America. If we tell them they should not be drinking or selling aged mezcal, they might buy that line from the "experts" who are feeding them half-truths, and quite possibly creating confusion in the minds of those who give careful consideration to what they hear. Are we not cutting off the potential for attracting new imbibers of the spirit, such as those drinkers who gravitate to peaty single malt scotches or bourbon or whisky? More importantly, the rationale for telling people what mezcal they should drink and what they should not drink, is seriously flawed.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca ( Licensed by the Mexican government, Alvin takes individuals, couples and small groups to the rural regions and villages near Oaxaca, to visit small family owned and operated distilleries, or palenques as they are locally known. He teaches about both copper and clay distillation, agave growth and reproduction, industry sustainability, and why no two batches can be the same. His clients meet the distillers and their families, photograph, ask questions, sample, and buy if they are so inclined, at a fraction of retail. Alvin also works with documentary film companies and professional photographers.

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