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Mezcal

 
   
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Mezcal, a name taken from the Náhuatl word mexcalmetl, is a Mestizo drink, a combination of the indigenous pulque and the distillation process introduced by the Spanish. Some say that it was Cortez who brought the technology of distillation to Mexico when he landed in 1519. Others say that the indigenous peoples already had a way to distill the pulque.

Ingredients

The magueys existing in the state of Oaxaca vary from the giant pulque maguey, maguey silvestre (wild), maguey tobala (which makes one of the rarest mezcals). Tobala maguey grows only in the highest altitude, shadowed by canyons. The pinas are only cut one month out of the year and the Mezcal is usually entirely consumed during the village's patron saint's fiesta. It is not for the faint of heart, yet once tasted, you'll look for excuses to taste the wonders of this ancient and rare tradition.)

The most commonly used plants are the maguey espadin (sword), tepestate (horizontal), larga (long) and sometimes a larger variety of maguey azul. The Agave is not a cactus. It was once classified in the same family with Lilies and Aloes. Today it is classified in it's own family, Agavaceae, which consists of more than 120 species.

Making mezcal

The pinas ( or hearts ) are placed in a rock-lined conical pit (palenque) about twelve feet in diameter and about eight feet deep. They are covered with many hot rocks that have been heated in a wood fire. A layer of the leaves or fiber from the plant covers them, followed by woven palm-fiber mats (petate) and finally a layer of earth. They bake this way for two or three days, absorbing flavors from the earth and the wood smoke.

The pinas are removed from the pit and placed on the ground inside a ring of stone about twelve feet in diameter. In the center is a vertical post connecting an axle to a huge vertical circular millstone. This stone wheel is pulled around and around the circle by burro or horse to crush the maguey hearts.

The crushed maguey is then placed in wooden vats that hold about three hundred gallons. Then about 5%-10% water is added. The mash (tepache) is left uncovered to ferment naturally with nothing other than its own yeasts for from four to thirty days.

The mezcal solids and liquid (tepache) are then transferred to a copper or ceramic (de olla) still which holds about twenty-five gallons. A copper "sombrero" is placed on top and the mix is slowly heated by wood fire, vaporized and condensed. The fiber is cleared out of the still and the "punta" the clear alcohol from the first distillation is placed back in the still and the distillation process is repeated. The resultant liquid is mezcal.

Tequila

We often refer to Tequila as Mezcal light. Tequila is a form of Mezcal made in an area near the town of Tequila, in the state of Jalisco. Tequila is made from the blue agave, Agave tequilana. Tequila only needs to be made from 51% agave, the remainder usually being corn or cane sugar. Of course, there are 100% agave tequilas as well.

To worm or not to worm

The worm is an agave worm, or gusano. There is a lot of folklore surrounding the worm, with rumors that the worm is hallucinogenic, or a source of great heroism, or an aphrodisiac. In any case, the eating of the worm is often made into a ritual of machismo. However, the worm isn't particularly traditional; it's is really a modern marketing idea.

Usage

There is a high reverence for this magical liquid and its ceremonial, social and medicinal uses among the villagers. There is obvious pride regarding the mezcal's power. There is also great disdain for the "cheap," diluted, chemically altered liquid sold commercially.

The way mezcal affects one's palate and the way it warms the chest, throat and mouth are quite different than any other alcohol.

Some mezcal terms:
blanco - white tequila, aged less than 2 months
reposado - rested - aged for between 2 months and year
añejo - aged for more than a year

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