WHY GOOD MEZCAL IS BETTER THAN GOOD TEQUILA
Here’s Don Valente Angel in his distillery. He’s completely at home. His work is part of who he is, not separated from his life.
See the shovel against the wall? Don Valente didn’t go to the hardware store when the handle broke.
Someone made that handle by hand, likely from some nearby small tree. Handles like that feel different when you use the shovel. You’re sharing the work with the man who made the handle, not with some machine lathe in a factory.
When you drink a well-made artisanal mezcal, it was distilled by an actual human being with his own hands, not in some distilled spirits factory. .
When you visit a small family distillery, there are always kids around. The guy you’re talking to, the guy running the still, used to be one of these kids. When he was a baby, his mom or his older sisters carried him around inside the distillery, and when he could walk he started hanging around the distillery, and when he got old enough he started to help out. Mezcal was always part of his life. No wonder he makes good stuff.
So we’re saying that one of the reasons good mezcal is better than good tequila is because artisanal mezcal is authentically the work of an individual human being who made it largely with either his own hands or with the help of the hands of a couple of other human beings living nearby. The other reasons derive from the agaves themselves and from the use of traditional artisanal methods
Note the caring focus
Most artisanal mezcal is distilled from agaves grown at high altitudes on sloping terrain: these agaves work harder to exist and produce flavors with more clarity, elegance, richness, complexity, and length. They also vary in flavor because they are grown in differing soils and differing microclimates: good mezcals are individual.
There are also significant differences in flavor even among agaves of the same species/varietal because agaves grown in a separate region for many years develop genetic differences: diversity of flavor
Tequila agaves are grown on relatively flat and fertile soil. They are by regulation all of one species, and are reproduced by cloning, meaning that they mostly all taste the same
Artisanal mezcal agaves are roasted in rock-lined below-ground pits. A fire is built at the bottom, then rocks are piled above the fire to protect the agaves from getting burned. Different firewood gives different flavors: mesquite, oak, cypress
Raw agaves are cut into smaller pieces and piled on the rocks, then covered up and slow-roasted for 3 days
Tequila agaves are steamed for about 6 hours in giant autoclaves. Agaves, like an ear of corn you cook at home, develop richer flavors when roasted, not steamed.
Artisansal milling is done with a stone mill, or even by hand (with mallets in a hollowed out tree trunk). Uneven milling is important for the quality of fermentation.
Tequila uses shredders and a water wash: what they want is the liquid, so they spray water to wash the liquids fout of the shredded fibers. This dilutes the juice being fermented. The fibers are thrown away
You can see the richness of this artisanal fermentation in a small wood vat. Wild yeasts convert the sugars (developed by roasting) into alcohol. Yeasts like the irregularity created by the fibers, so the fermentation is more complete: you get deeper, more complex flavor, with a vegetal qual;ity more true to the original plant
Tequila fermentation: no fibers
The differences here are crucial. In artisanal mezcal, the agave fibers are included in the distillation, meaning more flavor, flavor that’s richer, more complex. Small copper stills, like the one he’s standing on so he can put the fibers from the fermentation in the pot, yield better spirits, and also allow you to check on, and adjust, how the distillation is proceeding.
Small copper potstill running in San Juan del Rio, Oaxaca
Commercial tequila distillation is in massive single-distillation stills (these are stainless steel) that are mostly automatic: no human intervention during the run.
‘Nuff said? Artisanal mezcal is skilled, experienced human beings working by hand on more interesting agaves. Like we wrote in the disclaimer, there are excellent tequilas. But in our opinion, for all the reasons illustrated above, no tequila scan match well-made artisanal mezcal.