After visiting a few palenques recently, I thought I would share the process of mezcal. Mezcal prices are quite high in Australia, but I believe they are worth it and more so after my visit to Oaxaca. Mezcal is made with love, soul and skill! I’m not saying other products aren’t, but the traditional mezcal process hasn’t changed with technology in the palenques I visited. I’m sure you can find a factory mass producing mezcal, but not with the brands I visited.
Starting with the base ingredient, agave, which can take up to 40 years to grow for some varieties. You will mostly find mescal made from espadin agave because it is commonly farmed in Oaxaca and takes about 8-10 years to grow. Some agave including espadin are grown in the wild but with the increased interest globally for mezcal, the supply of wild agave is decreasing.
Once the agave is about to die, it will grow a shoot into the air. The producer will harvest the agave by cutting the leaves off the piña (heart) of the agave and transport them back to their palenque. They are cut (depending on the size) to be prepared for the cooking process.
They start a fire in the horno (earth oven) and put rocks on the fire to heat up. Some producers will add fibers from previous batches to protect the piñas from burning. On goes the agave and then dirt is placed on top to seal the oven. During this process it takes about six workers as it needs to seal quickly. The horno will be left to cook the agave for three to four days. This converts the starch inside the agave into fermentable sugars.
When the cooked agave arise from the oven, they are cut up into smaller pieces for crushing and transferred to the crushing pit. This stone pit contains a tahona wheel (stone wheel) that rolls around crushing the agave into fibers. The wheel is heavy and normally powered with a horse, which will turn the wheel around for about three hours per day.
With the fibers crushed, they are moved into a one hundred litre wooden fermentation tank along with water. The tanks are left to naturally ferment with wild yeast for about four days.
The tank is emptied with each distillation. They add the fibers and liquid of the tank into the stills. During my visits all the stills have been made from copper but I have heard some producers use clay pot stills. The two fifty to three hundred stills will run for around four hours and are heated by fire, creating a distillate that will be around forty to fifty percent. When the still heats to seventy eight degrees, the alcohol vapours will rise up the still and along the pipe, into a condenser. The condenser, will convert the vapour into liquid again. Then it will go through another distillation and come out somewhere between seventy to ninety percent.
The new spirit is then stored in tanks until it is tested and ready to be bottled. It can be rested in large glass bottles and surprisingly mature and round out the mezcal. Some producers will age their mezcal in wooden barrels before bottling.