Mescal is a big point of pride in Oaxaca. Made from the agave, or the maguey, it is a cousin of tequila but not the same. Tequila is made exclusively from the blue agave plant, but mescal can be made from any of 30 certified subspecies. Tequila is made commercially, but mescal is made via artisanal methods that date back hundreds of years. Tequila is distilled twice, whereas mescal goes through the process once. Also, tequila is often mixed with other ingredients in cocktails, while mescal is properly drunk on its own.
The pinas, the hearts of the maguey that you see on the right, are harvested when the plant is 10-15 years old we've been told, then roasted in an earthen oven for about three days, providing the unmistakable smoky flavor. They are then mashed in a stone mill, pulled by a horse or donkey, and left to ferment in huge barrels, sometimes with flavorings. The liquid that emerges is distilled in a clay or copper pot, and allowed to age. The factory is a small affair, and bears resemblance to someone's backyard hooch-making operation. This is true handmade stuff.
The results are young (blanco), older (resposado) and oldest (anejo) mescals, flavored mescals, and mescal cremas, sweetened liqeurs flavored with fruits, herbs, or coffee. Less predictable flavors include Pechuga mescal, fashioned by hanging raw chicken breasts in the mash during fermentation, Cedro, flavored with cedar wood, and the infamous Gusano with maguey worm floating around the bottom.
In a side-by-side tasting, in addition to the choice of clay or copper distilling pots, the family recipe, and the exact kind of maguey used, the terroir of the plants, their provenance, is a very clear factor in the ultimate taste of the mescal. There are seven Mexican States that are certified to produce mescal, but Oaxaca is the main player with about 90% of the production facilities.
With more of us going out of our way to find artisanal food and drink, mescal is enjoying more appreciation. A tiny storefront tasting room and retailer in Oaxaca is involved in opening a bar in New York's Lower East Side. We haven't figured out who owns what, and we think it's called Casa Mezcal, but it looks like it's getting buzz. Apparently Karl Lagerfeld walked in one day and proceeded to shoot a Chanel catalogue. If it has the amount of style the tiny place in downtown Oaxaca does, it's no surprise.
See? Good lighting and cute, enthusiastic, informative Mescal Man.