The Glengarry Spirits store was full to capacity on Tuesday evening, for a Mezcal tasting with Xaime Niembro, one of the owners of Gracias a Dios Mezcal. These are handmade in Santiago de Matatlan, Oaxaca, Mexico. A truly artisan product, the name means ‘Thanks to God’, and they have a tiny total production of only 6500 liters a month.
What is Mezcal? There are 250 maguey (agave) species in the world, and 170 of them are found in Mexico. The most well-known spirit made from agave is of course Tequila. The major differences are firstly the agave itself. Tequila can only be produced from one species, the blue weber agave, Mezcal can use any of the 250 species in its production. They are also grown and made in very different regions of Mexico, Tequila is produced around the state of Jalisco in the west, Mezcal comes from Oaxaca in the south. Tequila is now mostly made in huge quantities, via bulk industrial processes to satisfy demand. Traditionally the agave was cooked in stone ovens, but today it is more likely steam cooked in an autoclave, or worse, shredded raw and put through an industrial diffuser.
Mezcal like Gracias a Dios is still produced by small family firms with everything done by hand. They are 5th generation Maestros Mezcaleros, use no pesticides in their fields, and believe in fair trade from the field to the bottle. The agave are at least 8 years old, then cooked in deep pits in the ground almost exactly like a hangi. A fire is built in the pit and volcanic rocks heat on top of that. The agave is placed on the rocks and covered over by earth for 2 days cooking, and 2 days cooling. It is this part of the process that gives Mezcal its distinctive smoke character. The cooked agave is then crushed to pulp in the traditional method, by the huge stone Tahona wheel pulled by horse. It is naturally fermented by wild yeasts in open air wooden vats for around 12 days. It then goes into the copper still where it is distilled twice.
Gracias a Dios produce a number of Mezcal from their own plantations of Espadin agave, the most common variety in the region. They also have some very exciting limited editions, made from wild agave species such as Tobala, Cuixe, El Mexicano, and Tepextate. These plants are aged between 10 and 25 years, and literally are growing wild on steep hillsides, sections of deserts, and along the roadside throughout Oaxaxa. Gracios a Dios will approach the landowner and pay them for these plants, each a one off small lot never to be repeated. Even two different lots of the same species will taste totally different, as they will have come from wild plants in different locations and different ages. We also tasted an extremely rare Mezcal de Pechuga de Guajolote, literally ’ Mezcal of the breast of the Turkey’. A mere 120 bottles a year are produced of this special occasion Mezcal that has a long tradition in the region. Once a year everyone special to them gets together for a celebration, and bring local fruits like Bananas, apples, raisins, pecans and cocoa. Turkey is highly prized for important events, so the best part (the breast) is hung inside the copper still, along with these fruits. The distillation occurs directly through these, cooking the Turkey and infusing the flavours into the spirit, truly a unique experience drinking this with only 6 bottles allocated to us.