With each new month comes a new reason to drink. A few months ago it was St. Patty’s Day, aka the prime excuse to crack open a Guinness at 8 in the morning, though apparently the Irish are getting a little touchy about millions of people wearing green and drinking themselves into a stupor in honour of their patron saint. To that we say: “have another drink and get over it.”
Here in May it’s Cinco De Mayo, a holiday (okay, fiesta) honouring the unlikely victory of the Mexican Army over the French at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. It’s an occasion that practically obliges you to be as festive as possible, and certainly doesn’t judge you if your celebration means getting completely loaded all day long with your closest mates.
For that we suggest ditching the tequila and instead checking out our latest Spirit of the Month: Peloton De La Muerte Mezcal Joven Artesanal from Mezcales de Leyenda. Don’t be fooled by the overt “Day of the Dead” vibes, this one is absolutely perfect for Cinco de Mayo. It’s also priced right and smooth tasting. Read on for some background, tasting notes, and an interview with brand co-founder Danny Mena.
Contrary to popular belief, mezcal came first and tequila second. In fact the word mezcal translates to “cooked agave” and was more or less the only liquor in Mexico for centuries. The process of making mezcal is time consuming and truly artisanal. It involves allowing agave plants to age properly before cutting them, cleaning them and roasting them in pits filled with lava rocks, the whole process being overseen by a master mezcalero. Next comes fermentation and then distillation and voila: mezcal.
As a result of using certain types of wood to roast the plants inside those earthen pits, mezcal often retains a distinctly smoky essence, though apparently too much smoke means something went slightly awry during production. But that’s merely one component to mezcal’s diverse flavour profile, which can vary depending on everything from region to agave plant to type of wood to aging methods to the mezcalero him or herself.
In the 19th century some industrious folks in the region of Tequila began mass distilling blue agave plants using steam ovens and rolling mills with copper stills. A new variety of mezcal was born and then officially dubbed as its own spirit in 1974. Tequila, with its mellow, adaptive and ultimately less imposing flavour took off like wildfire and quickly usurped whatever dim spotlight mezcal enjoyed. As a result, mezcal was pushed further into obscurity, hardly registering among drinkers worldwide and viewed among Mexicans as proverbial backcountry moonshine.
However, the recent trend placing emphasis on alcohol as craft has brought mezcal back from the brink (as did plenty of marketing, for sure). The same antiquated production methods and unique flavours that once deterred consumers are now attracting them in record numbers. Mezcal is officially the lobster (also once considered low class) of the spirit world, with a slew of big name brands importing it as fast they can while specialty bars pop up in virtually every major city.
Meanwhile, Mexican chef Danny Mena and the distillery he co-founded, Mezcales de Leyenda, were heralding the virtues of mezcal all along. They created the first mezcal bar in Mexico City over a decade ago, and have gone on to establish ventures like the popular Manhattan restaurant Hecho En Dumbo, which put Danny himself in the kitchen and naturally hosts a healthy selection of the agave-based spirit.
And while most mezcal is produced in the hills of Oaxaca, Mezcales de Leyenda remains the only brand with expressions from both the Oaxaca region and then 5 different states in Mexico. It’s also one of the only brands owned by Mexicans and available in Mexico, whereas most other brands are small time distillers who get scooped up and then distributed by global corporations (at a hefty mark up of course). Mezcales de Leyenda is therefore a producer within arm’s reach, exuding passion, craft and quality with each and every statement.
Peloton de la Muerte Mezcal Joven Artesanal is produced organically in the Central Valley of Oaxaca by master mezcalero Cutberto Santiago and his family, who cook Espadin agave under lava rocks in stone pit ovens using methods that go back centuries. “Joven” means young and while the plants themselves grow for about seven years before being chopped down, they’re aged 4-6 days inside the pits, fermented in wooden vats for another 4 days, and then double-distilled in copper pot stills before bottling.
In spite of ample smoke on the nose, Peloton de la Muerte is primarily a dry, neutral spirit. In fact it’s the first “Spirit of the Month” that I don’t recommend sipping neat, which isn’t to say the taste is harsh or brittle–it’s actually quite smooth–rather that the flavours are somewhat muted on their own. However, toss in a splash of lime and a squirt of simple (or agave) syrup, shake and strain, and the flavour profile is enhanced exponentially. Suddenly every note is bursting to surface and the spirit becomes an instant craft cocktail complete with delectable layers and complex taste. Given the affordable price point, Peloton de la Muerte is also an effortless way to add artisanal flair and delicious distinction to the standard Cinco de Mayo beverage fare.
Here’s a breakdown:
Nose: A balanced bouquet of grass, smoke, and earth.
Taste: Contrary to the nose, the taste is mellow and dry. There’s a light smoke element joined by a light sweet element. Also present are notes of earth and grass, and even the faint taste of liquorice.
Finish: A little more smoke comes forward on the finish along with some spice, while the spirit primarily retains its overall mellow, dry qualities.
On its own merits, Peloton de la Muerte is smooth, balanced and dry with a touch of smoke, a touch of sweetness, and an earthy backbone. However, upon adding a splash of lime and a splash of agave syrup the expression really came to life. Now present was a bounty of smoke balanced by exquisite, perfect sweetness. There were even new notes like banana and fruit. It was honestly one of the best alcohol-forward cocktails I’ve ever made or tasted at home.
At a time when even Mexicans were snickering about mezcal as being the liquor of peasants, Danny Mena saw a genuinely exciting spirit rife with complexity and backed by centuries of craftsmanship. With little more than his passion to go on, Danny co-founded Mezcales de Leyenda Distilleries, which explores mezcal to its fullest potential by bringing different regions, plants and family-owned producers into the fold. Not one to hold a grudge, Danny is more than happy to offer his product to both fellow Mexicans and worldwide drinkers alike, while most competitors remain focused primarily on the global market.
It took years, but Danny is now seeing the fruits of his labour pay off. Like whisky and to an extent rum or tequila, mezcal has developed a veritable following that appears to be only gaining in numbers. Meanwhile, Danny continues to pursue his passions one venture at a time. Read on for a brief interview.
Apparently, tequila is a variety of mezcal (and not the other way around)–what process does mezcal undergo to become tequila and why do the two spirits differ from one another in terms of flavor and character?
Mezcal means “cooked agave”. So, for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years they were all mezcal. The region of Tequila industrialized their vino de mezcal, transforming in the late 1880s from artisanal mezcal to a more industrialized process using steam ovens and rolling mills with copper stills. In 1974, Tequila officially received its denomination of origin (DO). Mezcal as we know it continues the tradition of centuries old maintaining the process and the history of mezcal. If you look at the difference in process, it would be like comparing the difference between barbecuing a pork shoulder to that of boiling one. By no means is it saying one is better than the other, as I have made pork soup that is out of this world! But the flavour development of slow cooking with the maillard browning and caramelization give a level of complexity that is unparalleled.
What is the process of making your mezcal from plant to bottle?
This is the best part of mezcal, in that it’s the simplest of process, just time consuming and incredibly inefficient. The plant is left to mature around 7 years. The plant reaches maturity and begins to shoot up its quiote or inflorescence, and at that is cut and allowed the plant to sweeten up as all the sugars concentrate to the heart of the agave plant. The agave is then cleaned by removing its pencas or leaves and dug up from the ground. The agave is then taken to the distillery commonly known as fábricas or palenques, where the plants are roasted traditionally in earthen pits that have been lined with lava rocks for about 5 days. Then the plants are then crushed, put into fermentation tanks and left to ferment naturally for about 5 more days. Then the fermented juice and plant is put into the still where it is double distilled.
What causes the “smokiness” in mezcal?
Mezcal by law does not have to be cooked in earthen pits, but traditionally in most states within the DOC, it does. The size of the pit, the care the mezcalero puts into protecting the agave from burning, the type of woods, the time that the pit cooks and the care of covering the agave are all factors for how smoky a mezcal can be. The smokiness of a pine cooked agave vs mesquite vs oak will really affect the flavour profile of a mezcal.
Any particular story you’d care to share about your brand or your personal background?
We got started in Mexico City over a decade ago, creating the first mezcal bar in Mexico City. Until then nobody paid attention to mezcal and we all wanted imported garbage spirits, because imports are always better than what we locally can produce. After many years, it is fascinating the progress Mexico as a society has made. Now there are mezcal bars all over Mexico, the US and Europe. We all appreciate this wonderful spirit and it’s really an amazing way to help all these small mezcal producing communities.
What do you feel is a common misconception about mezcal?
That is just burnt tequila…or the “one with the worm”. I am starting to see these misconceptions less and less, but I still think they’re the most common!
Best cocktail(s) using this particular spirit?
That is one of the toughest questions to ask. Mezcal has a very unique aspect, where it has the floral and some botanical notes you get from gin, the grassy notes you get from tequila, and the smoky earthier characteristics you get from whisky, meaning mezcal can be used as a myriad of options. One that I really dig is the Last Word Riff, where you use equal parts mezcal, Green Chartreuse, lime and Maraschino liqueur. I am also a sucker for equal parts cocktails!
What are some differences between the various regions where you make your product and how do those differences affect the result?
This is where mezcal really flexes its muscles. Mezcal DO represents regions in 9 states of Mexico–from the south in Oaxaca and Guerrero to the north of Tamaulipas and Durango and everything in between. Mexico is the 5th most bio-diverse country in the world. So the complexities of mezcal are multiplied when you have difference of over 200 varietals of agave, in a terroir that are drastically different, using different woods to cook the agave, different airborne yeasts in every region, and then the impact the master mezcalero has, makes mezcal the complex spirit in the world by leaps and bounds. Somebody once told me what they love about mezcal comes just by looking at the bottle and having no idea what they’re about to put in their mouth. So from desert like conditions in Durango to pine forests in Tamaulipas to almost tropical conditions in the south in Oaxaca, these all really influence the flavours of the mezcal.
Any words of advice for emerging distilleries?
Do this for love of the spirit. We have been moving along for 8 years and no one is getting rich any time soon. The dreams of making it big usually stays as that. You should want to make a spirit because you like what it represents and what it tastes like (in moderation, of course!). But it’s a slow and long winding path. If you have time, love and patience you can start to reap the rewards one day. Now, more than ever, people are excited about small batch distilleries and are more willing to try something new, instead of their father’s drink.