Spirit of the month: Mezcal Amarás Verde
This month’s top spirit comes from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Mezcal Amarás Verde is an eco-friendly, community conscious and seriously delicious example of Mexico’s national beverage. It’s also, unlike other mezcals in the UK, at a price that makes it accessible for many who may have been put off in the past.
But what is mezcal? And what sets it apart from its more famous cousin, tequila, which is also made from the agave plant? As usual at OWC, we’re here to help you take your first steps into this fascinating and tasty spirit.
So what is mezcal?
Mezcal, in many ways, can be considered a cousin of tequila. In fact, there’s a school of thought which suggests that tequila should be considered a certain type of Mezcal. While these interlinking factors are undeniable, it’s important to acknowledge that mezcal very much has its own identity and unique cultural heritage that bears little resemblance to the classic image of tequila that many of us have.
Where does mezcal come from?
The mezcal “Geographical Indication” covers nine states across Mexico but, in reality, the vast majority is produced in Oaxaca (pronounced “Wah-hah-cah”) in the south of the country. Quality mezcal is typically made by small-scale village producers who often hold tradition and cultural heritage in much higher esteem than profits and commercialisation. This fact presents a problem with the continued rise in demand for mezcal worldwide creating commercial pressures on the supply of agave.
If production is on such a small scale, how has the industry been able to grow?
While some large-scale companies have begun to pop up over the past few years, the most interesting mezcal examples have come from passionate entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs have launched umbrella mezcal brands, sourcing product from numerous single village producers. This has allowed them to export en masse without damaging the artisanal approach to production. The most famous of these brands is Del Maguey, who began exporting their Single Village range as early as 1995.
Before this, producers had no way (and little interest) in expanding their operations beyond their local areas. Laws have been set in place, most recently in 2017, to ensure individual producers and villages are well represented, safeguarding culture and heritage.
What’s mezcal made of?
Like tequila, mezcal is produced from the agave plant, part of the succulent family. More specifically, the pineapple shaped “piña”, which sits in the middle of the plant surrounded by its leaves and stems.
Unlike grape vines, agave plants can only be harvested once in their lifetime and take at least seven years to reach maturity. A popular phrase mezcal fans like to use is that, “Mezcal matures in the field, not the barrel”. When the plant is ready, it has one single dramatic flowering in order to disperse its seeds. After that it dies.
While tequila can only be produced from one type of agave (the blue webber variety), mezcal can be produced from any number of different species. The most common you’ll find is “espadin” which accounts for 90% of production. Most of the mezcal you’ll find on the shelves will have been cultivated, but the rarest bottles are produced from foraged wild agave.
Multiple species of wild agave exist. They include the extremely rare “tobala” which produces mezcal with sweet and floral notes and “tepextate” which grows horizontally out of mountain cliffs and produces mezcal with intense spicy flavours. These different species take much longer to reach maturity and are often extremely hard to find. In fact, it’s common to see the kids from the village heading out to scour the countryside and bring back wild varietal piñas to sell to local producers.
This brings us to an ethical dilemma, with demand for these rare agave species far outweighing the supply. In several cases we’re beginning to see species of agave threatened with extinction and this is something producers need to be aware of to preserve Oaxaca’s biodiversity and its peoples way of life.
How is Mezcal made?
Once the piña has been harvested it gets roasted in an earthen pit, which then gets covered and left to smoke for an average of three to five days. The cooked piña is then crushed, shredded and left to ferment for five to ten days. Prior to distillation the fermented liquid usually reaches about 8% abv.
Mezcal is usually distilled twice in small copper pots. Extremely rustic, artisanal clay pot stills are used on occasion, but these are seen less and less as they are less efficient. Traditionally, mezcal is bottled immediately after distillation, but these days you’ll find reposado and anejo bottlings, produced exclusively for the international market, which have been aged for varying degrees of time in oak barrels.
And our spirit of the month, Mezcal Amarás Verde?
Mezcal Amarás Verde is produced close to the city of Tlacolula de Matamoros in the State of Oaxaca. Carbon neutral and certified organic, they produce mezcal from 100% espadin agave, cooked in stone ovens, fermented in pine wood vats and distilled in copper pots. They are keen to pursue an ethical, community conscious approach to business with 10% of their profits being put towards local sustainability projects.
Should you purchase more than one bottle, you may find that the label on the second is completely different to the first. This is because the labels are produced as part of a catalogue of local artists Mezcal Amarás have chosen to promote. Do not fear, the liquid inside is exactly the same!
Nose: Gentle and sweet jasmine with hints of pinewood
Palate: Intense smoky notes of cooked agave with small touches of spice
Finish: Sweet caramel and BBQ char