Why is Aged Mezcal Not a Thing
by Alfred MacDonald
Why is aged mezcal not a thing.
Why is aged mezcal not a thing?
Why is aged mezcal not a thing.
I am using periods in lieu of question marks to let you hear my discontent through text.
By “a thing” I mean a sort of consumer movement, like how aged scotch is a thing. Scotch is not separated into blanco, reposado, añejo or “white”, “rested”, “aged.” Are you dumb? There is no such thing. There is not “rested” rye whiskey or “rested” scotch. If you buy scotch it’s assumed that it’s aged for a period of time, usually 5 years minimum though for scotch 10 years is extremely common. There has been a trend recently of moonshine or “white whiskey” which, admittedly, is a nice alternative but it’s not assumed that the STANDARD is white, kind-of-white, aged. The standard for Mezcal (and tequila, by association) is blanco, reposado, añejo, and occasionally extra-añejo but unfortunately the latter two are regarded as luxuries at best.
From the unexpectedly informative AskMen:
“The agave plant requires roughly eight years to reach maturation, which is eons when compared to its rivals white, potato, rye, and corn. It takes so long for the agaves to grow that farmers use the space between the plants to grow beans and corn so the land doesn’t go to waste. These agaves are laboriously harvested by jimadores who work in teams of five, gathering 20,000 kilos — about 400 plants — in five hours. Using a spear-like tool with a round shovel tip called a coa, the jimadores chop off the spiny agave leaves to reveal the sugar-filled piñas inside. It is brutal work, usually done in sweltering heat conditions.”
Blanco tequila makes some sense when you consider the difficulty of maturing the agave plant, doubly so when you consider the difficulty in aging and especially so when you consider that the tequila-drinker stereotype is someone in a hot climate. Blanco tequila is more like gin or, even more appropriately, grappa or pisco, where you have a light and sweet natural flavor that can easily be lost by heavy aging. Unlike, say, barley, where lord knows you’d want to drink that unaged, the agave is a fickle plant and you can’t just throw it into a barrel for 10 years and come out with something halfway decent. It takes discipline to know how to distill and age tequila in a way that brings out its ideal flavors.
Reposado, though, doesn’t make any sense. It is to tequila as teenage agnosticism is to a religious position. It is a thing because low-grade mixtos are usually colored yellow, and a lot of people have seen that imagery in movies/TV/Breaking Bad. It has stayed a thing because so many people have grown accustomed to the flavors of half-aged tequila. There is a charm to the gritty shittiness of mixto tequila, which inspires the appeal of reposado tequila, but reposado is the worst of both worlds: a light wood sweetness and light agave, while still maintaining, usually, the saltiness that comes from a strong agave flavor. It is to the agave plant as vodka is to grain spirits, and the contexts in which they are usually drank parallel accordingly.
In an ideal world, tequila would go like this: unaged, 2-year, 4+ year, specifying the year/months and the type of barrel it has been aged in. But most tequilas don’t even do that, opting for fancy bottles or whatever the hell else they think makes them cool with idiots. (Scotch and wine, thank god, have at least standardized bottles.) The amount of variation that can occur in an “aged” tequila is enormous. I maintain that the ideal aging length for tequila is somewhere around 2 years, give or take 2 months. If you surpass the 4-year mark, which some extra-aged tequilas do, the agave flavor starts to get lost in the wood notes that tend to come with aging. While I’m sure there are extra-añejos that manage to get around this (and I would love to try them), the majority don’t.
Mezcal is different.
Mezcal demands to be aged.
The flavors of mezcal are notoriously jarring when drunk unaged: there is an intense agave sweetness, yes, but a woodiness and oiliness and smokiness and saltiness that reminds one of Islay scotches. This is not a novel observation on my part, but it’s one worth reminding. Getting these flavors from something as light as an agave-based spirit seems weird, and it is weird. Getting these flavors from a peaty scotch isn’t that weird because there are other flavors as a result of aging that make sense with the smokiness and saltiness. And more prestigious producers of mezcal (e.g. Del Maguey) have started to produce their mezcal at less diluted proofs — which they should — the equivalent of “cask-strength” in scotch. They do this without aging. This contributes, I’d imagine, to the perception a lot of people have of mezcal: “interesting take on tequila, but not for me.”
Other writers I intensely disagree with, like Eric Asimov of the NYTimes, had this to say:
But a number of mezcal producers are experimenting with aging in oak. So far, it seems rarely to be a good idea. [...] For the most part, we felt oak robbed the mezcals of their distinctive features. Some took on an almost syrupy texture, or tasted of vanilla and cinnamon, leading Philip to warn of the dangers of what he called over-refinement.
I have tried reposado mezcal in the form of Los Nahuales, which proved to be a far better mezcal than the unaged mezcals I have had. The smokiness of the roasted agave lended itself very well to time in oak, which entirely confirms my biased theory that mezcal is better aged. And, like I would argue here, there is something missing: more aging. The merger of agave/wood was just like it was in reposado — not as smooth of a blend as it could have been. Give it two years (or more) and I’m betting the smokiness blends in an obviously satisfying way.
To the mezcal world’s credit, there are a few aged mezcals. Not all of which are cask-strength, but they exist:
- Ilegal mezcal, aged 13 months in medium char French and American oak barrels, $120 list price.
- Scorpion mezcal 1-year, 5-year and 7-year mezcals, aged in unspecified oak barrels, bottled single-barrel. 1/5 years are double-distilled, 7-year triple-distilled; 1/5/7 years are $50, $210, $270 respectively.
- El Tinieblo, 1-year in American Oak, $133.
- El Zacatecano, unspecified age and barrels, $42.
- METL, 13-months in in American oak, triple-distilled, $48.
- La Fogata, unspecified aging and barrels, double-distilled, $40.
- Maria, 1-year in American oak, double-stilled, $50.
- Los Nahuales, 2-year in French oak, $115.
- Sacacuento, 1-year in white oak, $70.
- Agave de Cortes, 1-year and 3-year in white oak, $70 and $120 respectively.
But this list is microscopic in comparison to the number of aged scotches, whiskeys, and brandies that exist on the market.
I’m betting aged mezcal has not become a thing because the market for mezcal is still new, and anyone who makes mezcal still running a business, so they necessarily have bills to pay. If they know they can make money from their existing product, it’s going to take a lot of cushion to say “let’s do weird new stuff, like putting our pants on our heads and making 4-year mezcal at the risk of potentially tanking our annual income.” But everyone I know who has tried mezcal has agreed that this is something that would benefit from aging, because the smokiness in such a light spirit is just weird, knowing what flavor profiles most people have come to expect.
In an ideal world there would be an equal and opposite community of tequila/mezcal fanatics to combat the scotch fanatics, sharing bottle stats on mezcals like they do scotch: 32 months, french oak, from the Whatever region of Mexico. And the mezcals wouldn’t have dumb names to signify their edginess; they would instead have names with actual basis, similar to the names of scotch distilleries. And in an ideal ideal world, this blog entry would be circulated among other people who are wondering the same thing: “why isn’t aged mezcal a thing? Because it should be.” But more than likely that last part won’t happen, and I’ll just be remain here dissatisfied and talking to a wall. At least that wall has heard a pretty good case for why aged mezcal should be a thing, though.