I think most people still think of the worm—el gusano—when they think of mezcal. They remember the preserved creature floating around the bottom of the bottle, staring them in the face, as the crowd around then chanted, "Shots! Shots! Shots!" It's true that many low-end mezcales often do add something kitschy into the bottle for hoots, but you won't find any of those bottles at K&L. But what is mezcal, really? "Isn't it just like tequila, but smokier?" customers often ask. Yes, mezcal can often be quite smoky because the process of cooking the agave involves roasting the piñas over a smoldering fire pit, rather than steaming them as is mostly done with tequila production. While both spirits are distilled from fermented agave, there is one monstrous difference between mezcal and tequila that most casual customers don't know: tequila is always made from the same type of agave (blue or agave azul), whereas mezcal can be made from dozens upon dozens of different species. Because of this variation, it's almost better to think about mezcal in wine terms than as a country cousin to tequila. It's much more about the variation between a particular type of agricultural product—like the difference between chardonnay and sauvignon blanc—and the various seasonal elements that have their effect, than it is about distillation.
I went down to Oaxaca this past summer to spend time with this woman: Karina Abad Rojas, one of the head distillers for Los Danzantes and perhaps the most knowledgable source on wild agave that I've ever met. When you talk about agave you have to differentiate between the species that are cultivated and the ones that grow wild around the region. Most mezcal is made from a type called espadín—an agave that can easily be cropped and farmed for somewhat standardized production. I used the word "somewhat" here because it takes seven to eight years for an agave piña to reach maturity. "Each time we distill a batch of mezcal," Karina told me, "we use agave from different parts of the valley. But they all have different characteristics so each batch will taste a little different." Look at it this way: each time you buy a wine there's a vintage associated with the production so you can determine which harvest it came from. But a producer like Los Danzantes is distilling roughly fifty batches a year, each coming from a different harvest of agave grown in various campos around Oaxaca. Blending for consistency is not commonly practiced in the region, so that means even when you buy the same brand over and over again, there will likely be flavor variation between batches.
Karina and I spent one of the afternoons driving into the mountains to look for some of the various wild agave species locally. Unlike espadín, these agaves cannot be cultivated and must be foraged instead—almost like truffle hunting. It's not like they grow in patches or clusters either, so harvesting them can take time and dedication, which in turn demands a higher price tag in the mezcal marketplace. "That's tepeztate," Karina would say as she spotted a particular species from the driver's seat. "That one's tobalá. But it's better to take those from the other side of the mountains because the flavors are better." Yes, there is also such a thing as terroir when it comes to agave—meaning that agave grown in some places taste better or different than agave grown in others. As is the case with most grapes, those grown on mountain slopes often have more concentrated and complex flavors than those grown on flat valley floors. Wild agave species tend to have more exotic flavors and are coveted for that reason.
I began to spot the rows of espadín the further we drove into the mountains. Along steep slopes you could see the rows of penca leaves sticking up through the rocky red soil. "There's better drainage on the hillsides, so the plants don't get water-logged after rain," Karina said. She might as well have been talking about cabernet sauvignon or merlot. Much like with the red grape varietals, there is such a thing as a cuvée when it comes to mezcal. It's not uncommon to find mezcales made from 50% espadín and 50% wild agave, or some other combination of sorts. Rarely, however, are the distillates blended after production. Rather the various agaves are co-fermented and then co-distilled, creating a marriage of flavors that often balances out some of the more extreme flavors inherent in the piñas.
Another way in which mezcal distinguishes itself from tequila is that almost all mezcal is bottled without maturation in wood. There are a few producers who follow the Jalisco tradition of blanco, reposado, and añejo classification (Danzantes is one of them), but they'll all tell you it's simply for marketing purposes. Because mezcal is an expression of various different agaves, grown in various places, fermented in various combinations, and containing various flavors, the goal is to bringing those characteristics to the forefront, rather than mask them behind oak. "Taste this," Karina said, handing me a glass. "This was distilled from a crop of sierrudo that a farmer mistakenly grew instead of espadín—they look the same at first, but the sierrudo grows to about twice the size." I took a sip. It was remarkable, fruity and soft, but with a slight hint of smoke and a lift of spice on the finish. "What's that floral note on the finish? Where does that come from?" I asked. Apparently Karina had co-fermented the sierrudo with a wild species called cuishe—a long, narrowly-shaped agave that has a floral and delicate flavor when distilled.
"This is incredible. How would you even know to combine these two together?" I asked. She smiled and didn't answer. Obviously she's an expert, that's why. A few weeks later I placed an order for everything she had on hand.