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04.2005

Massachusetts Beverage Business

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Article By: Fred Bouchard

Flying back from Oaxaca to Boston, my seatmates voiced commonly held myths about mezcal and its infamous worm. Some misconceptions stem from false associations with mescaline and drug culture. mezcal, like tequila, makes you giddy and happy, not depressed and anti-social. The worm absorbs poisons and toxins. The worm is an aphrodisiac. I was happy to share many facts about mezcal - a blossoming category ready to ride into Dodge on the coattails of the ongoing tequila craze.

MEZCAL versus TEQUILA Mezcal is tequila's daddy. All tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. Mezcal has been made by indigenous Mexican peoples in and around Oaxaca since before the arrival of the Spaniards. By contrast, tequila is a newbie: distillers in Jalisco State (originally in the town of tequila) invented it in the 195Os, largely for marketing purposes, to distinguish it from mezcal and other agave distillates.

All tequila and mezcal is made from cooking, shredding and distilling the subterranean base of various agave (Spanish, maguey) plants. Agaves are large, low-lying multi-foil succulent semi-arid plants that take 6 to 2O years to mature, then gradually die over the course of a year. Plants used for reproduction are allowed to shoot a tall flowering stalk and disseminate seeds. Plants harvested for distillation have their stalk cut, which leaves the juices to accumulate and concentrate their starches, which create more sugar once the base is cooked. The base (or pina, because of its similarity to a large pineapple) is subjected to labor-intensive processing and the prominent leaves are discarded or used for compost.

RAW MATERIALS Only the blue agave (tequilana weber) plant can be used in the production of tequila. mezcal is traditionally made from a blend of up to 18 different agaves, some of them rare, wild and local. The 1 inch worm in some mezcals is actually the larva of a butterfly that invades agave plants and has long been a prized food source. The worm, not added to tequila, gives mezcal flavor and a slightly waxy texture. Both tequila and mezcal may use caramel coloring for gold versions; none is used in the aged distillates. Aging for tequila and mezcal is similar: aging in oak barrels before bottling, 12 months for reposados, 1 to 2 years for most añejos.

CATEGORIES Category I Mezcal, by the Denominacion de Origen law, must be made with 1OO% agave (many varietals qualify). Very little mezcal is Category I. Category II Mezcal must be made from a minimum of 8O% agave and a maximum of 2O% other sugars, and must be bottled at the source in Mexico.

Tequila is produced in three categories. As the world's skyrocketing demand for tequila precipitated a crescendoing shortage among Jalisco's tequila producers between 1999 and 2OO3, they largely abandoned most Category I production, allocated the shortfall of available stock into Category II, and bought up all the blue agave (and any that resembled it) from other areas of Mexico.

During and since that time, suspicions have been levied that an illegal and inferior "Category III", containing as little as 2O% blue agave, has been brought to market. A veteran mezcalero who declined to go on record said, "It's really 2O% agave and 8O% other sugars; that's the way it is, and that's the way it always has been!" Further extensive plantings of blue agave, gradually coming to harvest in Jalisco and surrounding states, may avert any future potential tequila shortage.

Mezcal is virtually all artisanal production, the vast majority of it made in small batches in farmyard palenques (distilleries). Most tequila is made in large, automated plants, including most major producers of premium and super-premium brands. Some small premium tequila producers are like major Oaxacan mezcal operations. To coin a California wine analogy, like Lodi juggernauts versus Napa boutiques.

CONSUMPTION Mezcal is consumed far differently from tequila. This post-pulque era drink is still largely popular in and around its native Oaxaca state, distilled in clay jars, and usually drunk fresh, not stored like ciders. It is all bottled at or near the distilleries. Some 75% of tequila produced is exported to the US. Estimates indicate over 7O% of tequila consumed in the US goes into Margaritas.

The invention of tequila eventually triggered the tequila Sunrise and Margarita crazes of the '6Os and '7Os, which put it on the World Drinks Map - and has kept it there. It was a matter of excellent timing, an era when white spirits met with good marketing. As tequila was becoming an international craze, the Jalisco producers jumped on the bandwagon and the name stuck for the entire category. While tequila has grown to a multi-million dollar highly-automated industrially-produced distillate, mezcal has continued until recently as a low-profile, artisanal, pop'n'grandpa operation. Today mezcal is making gradual gains in popularity, mainly in Western US and Canada. Its increased emergence is anticipated on Category I Tequila's flying coattails and mezcal's perceived similarities to smoky single-malt scotches and sweet, woody cognacs.

While Category II Mezcal, with its high cost of production, cannot compete with tequila, its great potential for fruit additives - like pineapple, guayava, canteloupe, orange - is being realized in the home market with scores of popular products. (Other agave spirits, categorized as neither mezcal nor tequila, are made in states that slip between the cracks in the denomination process; Chihuahua, for example, will call their agave spirit Sotol after their common agave species.)

DENOMINACION di ORIGEN (DO) COMERCOM, or Quality Control Certification for DO mezcal, is now doing the following to standardize and control mezcal production: 1 Set up a database of agave plantations, with every parcel registered. 2 Register all wild agaves by municipality. 3 Record how each mezcalero makes his brew, which plants are used. 4 Label bottles by components (single agave or blend of several.)

The law was first promulgated on October 9, 2OO3, giving one year to comply. On its anniversary, the law was extended another four months to allow laggards to sign up. On February 1O, 2OO5, the final printing of the law went into effect. Since then, no uncertified mezcal may be made, and shipments or sales of such mezcal became illegal. The law meant to prove that any product labeled 1OO% hecho de agave means just that - no additives or other sugars will be allowed. This regulatory action was an official move to clean out the marketplace of adulterated and inferior liquor posing as tequila and mezcal.

CULTIVATION METHODS Reproduction success varies geometrically from natural dispersion (1O plants), to cutting flowers so stalks sprout (2OOO), to germinating seed pods (up to 2O,OOO!). Over the past 5O years, mezcal farmers have used only the first two, so the agave gene-pool has degenerated, with no strong male/female plants. 4O years ago, pinas averaged 2OO kilograms, today only 5O. Doug French's rare nursery at Scorpion (see Profile, page 12) is succeeding in regenerating a stronger gene pool for agave.

In tiny cells in hundreds of plastic trays, seedlings germinate 6 months until they're 1 to 2 inches tall, then they're transferred into black plastic bags or directly planted in nursery plots of 2 x 5O meters for another year. You really need a book to tell seedlings apart. Once they're bigger, the distinctions become more obvious. Finally, healthy teenage agaves are planted into production fields. French has germinated five different varieties of agave, and has over 1OO,OOO plants growing for production. Like most farmers, he hires tractors for big jobs, but owns a small rototiller for spot planting.

French sees potential in experimenting with the full range of legal agaves open to the mezcal category. "Today 95% of all mezcal produced is espadin. Different altitudes and microclimates make espadin different, but I'm helping producers grow and blend in more alternative varietals allowed in order to make more complex products. Ripening takes 5 to 7 years, so it'll be years before you see commercial bottlings of various agaves on the market. I'm encouraging regional cooperatives to get the ball rolling. There are 15 various agaves usable for flavoring, spicing, adding complexity, and coloring the final blend. Mezcaleros bring their personal touch to every batch. Like single-malt scotch, you don't want to overblend and homogenize. Tobola is considered the king of agaves. It's a small, wild variety with great flavor. Old mezcaleros say it can't be cultivated. But I have 4O,OOO doing very well, thank you! The average size heart in the wild is 8 kilos; ours under careful cultivation are averaging 14. Now we harvest seeds of the biggest for the nursery."

AGAVE'S ENEMIES Goats eat leaves, cows kick the plants out. Agave-growers beg neighbors and goatherds to keep their animals out. Certain beetles and weevils attack agave hearts and kill them. Worms are a good plague: they're good as food and positive flavoring for mezcals. French's is a painstaking and slow program, but can produce the most, biggest and best. Since 2OO1, we've produced 1OO,OOO plants. The aruqueno agave is enormous (2OO kilograms), 3 to 4 times the size of an espadin. French's modern agricultural techniques in a traditional industry guarantee growth with dry-season drip irrigation and weed control with plastic covering. He finds that agave grows better and faster with intensive care.

MAKING MEZCAL After you cut the stalk on an agave, you have a year to harvest the heart, and then it begins to dry up and die. French steams (not roasts) sliced (often simply quartered) pinas in a sauna-like oven (a 7 square-foot brick cube) before pressing the juices for fermentation. The oven, using water boiled in a converted gas tank, can cook 17,OOO pounds in 44 hours. But Scorpion's steam cooker was quiet on my visit: like many medium-sized distillers, French had temporarily halted production in order to bottle up and ship his reserves before the new D.O. law went into effect to ban shipment of uncertified mezcal. He had two container pallets (since delivered) ready to ship from Manzanillo to Australia, Canada, and California. "We've started from zero," he shrugs and laughs. "It's the same product, but with more paperwork and procedure."

French hired a young chemist out of university to help Scorpion comply with the DO's new technical procedures and intensive testing. He had already stockpiled containers full of federally certified mezcal in order to hit the ground running at the turnover. Seven states are certified for mezcal production, Oaxaca being the main one. Tequila producers would love to make mezcal, but they are excluded by law. Likewise, mezcal producers are excluded from making tequila.

Workers chop cooked agave with machetes and feed it into mechanical shredders. Most primitive palenques still use a circular mill with a grinding wheel drawn by horse or burro. The shredded agave goes through the presses to separate fiber from juice before fermenting. This separation streamlines production, and French insists he can taste little or no difference in flavor. Fermenting must rid of fiber is easily pumped into fermenting tanks, thence into the stills. Otherwise, workers first must pitchfork it from shredder to wheelbarrow.

Fermentation is made with no added yeasts, simply using natural yeasts from the air. It may take 3 to 5 days in summer, 1O to 2O days in cool winter months. Fermenting tanks are converted black plastic water tanks (holding 9OO to 15OO liters) seen everywhere for water storage in Oaxaca's arid climate. Farmyard palenques use wooden barrels with natural heat retention; French insulates his tanks to aid fermentation.

Fermented must is pumped into (usually traditional copper alembic-type) pot stills. Locals use hand-pounded copper stills. Most small distillers get by with a 1OO to 2OO liter still. French started with a 2OO liter still, but has gradually added 3OO, 5OO, 7OO, and 17OO liter stills. He seldom uses them all at once, but buys stills whenever he can. "I can't ignore the flexibility it will allow me to make single agave fermentations," he adds slyly.

His two large stainless steel stills came from a Coca Cola factory. Since steel does not impart the desirable flavor components of copper, French uses them only for first distillations, then switches to copper for second refinements. All mezcal, like Irish whiskey, is traditionally double distilled - the new law makes this a requirement - and some triple-distilled (at the distiller's discretion).

With the shift in economic opportunity, French has gradually converted areas of his factory from textiles to mezcal. With the help of mechanical engineers, he's even designed the conversions of motors and frames of primitive machines from textile processing to shredding and pressing agave. "I'm a business administration major," he says, "but I like making stuff."

Consolidation The tequila shortage had contradictory effects on Oaxaca's mezcal producers. On the one hand, the destitute farmers could hardly afford to pass up the inflated prices that the beleaguered tequileros were prepared to pay for harvestable agave. Mezcalero collectives sold off up to a tractor trailer load (3O tons of ripe agave) per day from 7 different export patios around Oaxaca state.

Since the mezcal industry lacked the sales infrastructure and demand of tequila, when the tequila plunder drove prices of mescal to 4 to 5 times its former price, it nearly knocked out the industry completely. Since mezcal's major clientele was (and still is) local, poor Oaxacans, not wealthy Norteamericanos, when the product became expensive, people simply stopped buying it and drank cane alcohol. The effect on the production was that between 2OOO and 2OO4, mezcal production dropped by two thirds, from 6 to 2 million liters per year. Now the industry is regrouping.

French says, "There are 4OO stills spread out in them thar mountains. For most of them, it's their livelihood, they produce only 3OO to 4OO liters a month, and sell nearly all of it to the local crowd of villagers. Collectors go to the distillers, collect mezcals, and bring them to the bottling plants. That segment of the market has been growing." The only two 'big' players among all the tiny producers are both on Highway 157 outside Oaxaca. Monte Alban, owned by Barton Brands in Chicago, is made locally by contract with Beneva. The other brand - Guisano Rojo (Red Worm) - has built a new distillery across the highway from Beneva.

BENEVA's worm lab A girl tweezes one worm goes in each blanco bottle. Teams of lab-coated teenage girls sort them by color and size. Worms are harvested only during the rainy season from the more common and edible pulque agave; one worm crop must last the whole year. Worms are cured in alcohol slightly stronger (47%) than the mezcal to leach out natural fats and moderate their strong taste. Reddish at first, the worms are repeatedly washed and gradually become pale-buff.

CHAGOYA'S ROASTING PIT On Highway 157, this big old family factory has a small nursery, handsome shop, restaurant, and roasting pit. They cull new plants from the flower stalks, like 99% of all farmers. In the cooking pits the logs go first, then the stones. When the wood is burned to embers and rocks are white hot, workers lay a walkway of pinas right inside the pit, then pile pinas, rolled from pick-up trucks, in an orderly heap on top. Chagoya's large pit holds two truckloads of rather small (2O to 3O kg) espadin pinas. When heaped, the pit resembles a snowcone. When the heap is six feet high, they pile on straw mats, then a foot or two of earth that seals the pit like a terra cotta oven. The pinas cook 3 to 5 days, are uncovered, and cool for a day. Men load cooked pinas into canoe-shaped troughs and smash them with wooden mallets or grind them with a horse-drawn grinding stone. Then they pitchfork them into wheelbarrows to the fermenting vats. Seven liters of green agave make one liter of mezcal, about the same yield as tequila.

BIRTH of MEZCAL French thinks that the full ramifications of the new law will show mezcal's true possibilities. "This is the birth of mezcal," he says. "For the first time we're able to show the international public that 1OO% mezcal products are a group of drinks capable of infinite variety and complexity, like wines or single malts. That mezcal can go beyond the local community for consumption as a natural, pure product - not just a randomly produced, cheap, commercial commodity." Category positioning is done with the high-end sipping tequila market. "We've had testimonials already from consumers who've gone from top-shelf tequila to mezcal.

"When we participated in a Spirits of Mexico tasting, run by FestUSA.com at Manhattan's Grand Central Station," recalls French, "they lined up 1OO% agave tequilas on one side and mezcals on the other, the mezcals had the better price points across the board. Scorpion is one blend I make using a few different agaves. Now I'm going to develop a special connoisseur's tasting package to start showing just how different the various agave flavors are. French has distilled so far three individual varietals: espadin, barril and tobola. "When I harvest agave, I cut the stalk first then let the juices ripen and gain in sugars for at least six months before processing. This makes for a richer, sweeter mezcal, which is how it ought to be. My Scorpion blend uses mostly espadin (over 9O%) but I blend in a few others to get the best flavor."

COOPERATIVE ACTION French founded Caballeros, Incorporated for the purpose of importing, introducing and distributing mezcal to the North American marketplace. He thinks that the more mezcals brought to the market, the faster the category can open up and become viable. "I've extended an open invitation to mezcal producers to participate in this spearheading effort. We want to make it as easy as possible for their entry process, so they don't get strung out culturally, over their head in paperwork, ripped off economically, or overwhelmed by industry barriers. As a group we can work together, pool our resources, and have a better shot at breaking into the market. We have to get the bars and retail sources working hand in hand in the US for this category to re-launch properly."

Unlike America and Ireland, Mexico exercises no government control over small-production home-brewers. After all, it's a tradition that's gone on for centuries. Mexico's laissez-faire society reasons, 'Why hassle a farmer making a few hundred liters of mezcal (read: poitin or moonshine) a month for his family and friends to supplement his meager income?'

The tequila crunch was a once-in-a-lifetime windfall that is unlikely to be repeated. When the desperate Jalisco tequileros descended from the north like Visigoths, and paid these farmers outrageous undreamed-of sums for their hard-earned crop of agave pinas, the suddenly prosperous farmers built additions to their rancheros, threw lavish weddings for their daughters, and bought pickup trucks. But the long-term upside meant more than merely ephemeral goods; it taught the habitually impoverished Oaxacan mescaleros that agave was their best - and only - chance to accumulate wealth with a cash crop. Today that bubble has burst and prices are back to normal, yet still, in these harsh, arid plains of Oaxaca, agave is all that grows - slowly to be sure - but more readily and profitably than corn.

To date Caballeros exports ten companies' products to the US, complying with all license and tax requirements, and delivers them to distributors. Sales are in 14 states, such as Oregon, New York, Tennessee, Illinois, and Wisconsin. They've placed brands in Western Canada and Ontario, sent containers to distributors in Australia. Brands registered with the FDA include Joyas de Oaxaca, Oro de Oaxaca, Tejuana, Embajador, Mistico, Don Juan Escobar, Matateco, Spina Dorado, Don Silverio, and Scorpion. Over 4O product characteristics have been described for the US government. "Nothing yet to Britain or Europe," French adds. "It's a little expensive for them; they're not on the quality tequila bandwagon yet.

"In Oaxaca there's a chronic shortage of capital for marketing and everything else. We have to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps," claims French. "When we sell one bottle, we plow most of the capital back into production, keeping a little money for promotions so we can continue to make new presentations, grow the business and service our old clients. We have to keep after it until we get to the point where all 5O states in the union are buying and consuming mezcal.

"We keep an eye out for international trade fairs, so that we, first, can foster an awareness of the new Denominacion d'Origen category, and second, start getting serious business people to stock and sell it. We'd hoped to get to Vin Expo in Bordeaux this year, but there are so many potential problems with the transition period to the new regulations and certification, that suppliers want to have a shakedown period. They don't want to be in a position of not being able to deliver."

CELLARS SAVED Doug French takes a deep breath and smiles. He'd been worried about his cellar reserves. The law now reads that you can sell old inventories as long as you can prove the origin and lab tests corroborate that it is mezcal.

"This is officially the poorest state in Mexico and it is the official mezcal-producing state. This is not Cognac. Nobody has the capital to let a mezcal sit around in expensive oak barrels for 1O to 2O years to see whether and how much it will improve the taste. (At an indigenous traditional wedding you might see a guy who's buried a cask when his daughter was born, then crack it when she gets married.) I've rarely seen a barrel of 1O-year-old mezcal even in the commercial companies. And if a long-aged mezcal did become so nuanced and delicious, what then? Where (until now) would there be a market for such a product?

"I am actually putting out a 5-year-old and 7-year-old limited offering. I bought my old stock in California - they were originally Canadian whisky barrels, shaved and recharred." We taste a 2O-year-old Jelineau Cognac alongside French's 5- and 7-year-old anejos. All are about 4O% alcohol. It is darker, sweeter, and woodier than 7-year-old; also more harsh and acidulous. I preferred the mezcal.

WORM or SCORPION? Visuals are very important in international marketing, often more important than the product. "I went about it backwards, admits French. "I made a terrific product first - and now I have to catch up with packaging and graphics. I'm working on new labels. Another wrinkle to catch the public's fancy is to tie a tiny rattan sombrero to the neck. We award T-shirts to those who eat the skeleton once the bottle is empty. We've had to raffle off the scorpion in some bars! We've sometimes had two huge guys fighting over it.

"The idea of the Scorpion name and the real scorpion exo-skeleton inside the bottle - in contrast to the worm in most mezcals - is to distinguish my product from the pack. It's a fine idea for the basic product. We do have wild scorpions around, even in town, in the warehouse. You need to shake your shoes out in the morning! Oaxacan scorpions (about 1.5 inches long) are not deadly, but they give you a painful sting, like a wasp.

My 7-year-old is going up to $2OO retail, though I recommended a retail price of $75. When I asked why, the distributor said with confidence, 'There's nothing like it, it's totally unique. If they want it, they can pay for it. We'll have no problem selling it.' The US military is crazy over it! We put a giant (2.5 inch) scorpion species in our grand reserve. We have a patent pending on including the exoskeleton in US import bottles. The legal FDA requirement was that we eviscerate the scorpion and only use the exoskeleton .

"People are having fun with the scorpion: it's edible, harmless, not much more than crunch. And we issue diplomas! People who think we're all show and no go, are surprised to find we have a very tasty product. People note its variety and complexity, the real differences vis a vis tequila. Natural pure mezcal, not just a cheap knock-off at airports." Other market niches on French's agenda: Nostalgia (for Mexico by expatriate Oaxacans); Giftgiving (unusual tastes available in small bottles); Zodiac (Scorpios are a sexy 1/12 of the populace!)

For more information, contact Barbara Sweetman at Caballeros, Inc., 914.912.6988 or visit www.mezcals.com.


Cremas

Since Mezcal straight from the still has a bright citrusy quality that matches well with fruits, it seemed logical that many mezcal producers have delved deeply into the world of flavored Mezcals. These never include the worm and are called "cremas" whether or not they are blended with dairy products. The broad-based popularity of this category in Mexico begins to make sense when you take into account the fact that Mexico has the largest per capita consumption of soda pop drinks in the world. "Coca Cola and Pepsi are dukin' it out down here," says French. Mezcaleros are widely exploring cremas in the home market.

The original Dominacion de Origen law as written did not include flavored tequilas or mezcals. When they rewrote the law, they included flavored distillates. As it is the low-end of the white spirits market that is going for flavorings, mezcal (and to a degree tequila) cannot compete at that low cost level. So the sub-category is generally regarded as not 'ready for prime time' in the US until the 'straight' mezcal category is firmly established at the super-premium price point. Thus the flavored mezcal market may take a long time to wake up in the US.

Prominent crema mezcal producers are Pensamiento and Joyas Oaxacenas. The former's eye-opening portfolio includes fruits (orange, lime, guava, peach, blackberry, strawberry) and others (almond, coffee, mint), while the latter's list - under the subsidiary line El Mayordomo - includes coconut, mocha, and pineapple. These remarkably evolved portfolios of flavors are perfectly in keeping with the amazing array of bright flavors found elsewhere in Oaxacan cuisine.

On-site tastings of Pensamiento's jaw-dropping cornucopia of cremas was limited to hurried sips in plastic cups in Tlacolula's crushing, kaleidoscopic Sunday marketplace - my only impressions of the cremas were colorful, smooth and sweet. Pensamiento's bar on Highway 175, east of town, easily displayed 5O flavored mezcals. Oro de Oaxaca and La Reliquia tasting stands in the Zocalo, Oaxaca City's main square move more cremas and liqueuers than añejos and reposados.

Sit-down tastings gave firmer impressions of Joyas Oaxacenas 'El Mayordomo' cremas. Orange Intense orange extract aroma and flavor; notes of anise, clove, and honey; not too sweet. Almond True almond taste; sugared, roasted almonds, vanilla. Pineapple Bright yellow; very sweet; artificial banana 'runt'; blended well in drinks with condensed milk.

Tastings

In Oaxaca state, they say that each local sauce (mole) is different because of the dirt and the chef's hand; and each local spirit (mezcal) differs because of the dirt and the mezcalero's hand. Mezcal's smoky tang is often likened to the peaty aromas of single-malt Scotch. Terroir is big everywhere.

Beneva Beneva, by far the largest producer of mezcal in Oaxaca, sells to 18 countries. Beneva recently was awarded the North American contract to manufacture mezcal for Barton Brothers of Chicago, under its brand name Monte Alban (blanco with caramel coloring). At this writing, Monte Alban (named for Oaxaca's most famous archeological ruin, a ringingly symmetrical city built in the 9th century by Olmecs on a hill where three major valleys converge) is the only commercially produced mezcal available in Massachusetts. Anejo Atypically, servers at the tasting bar offer this aged mezcal before the blanco. Medium amber, modest acidity, very smooth, flavorful, long hard finish. Five-year was awarded Gold Medal by Chicago's Beverage Tasting Institute. Blanco Tasters noted similarity to fragrant gin, with aromas of juniper, white pepper, and holly-berry oil.

Chagoya Blanco Guisado clean, sweet, slightly smoky. Worm fat mitigates sharpness of alcohol. Served at the bar with a saucer of chili and worm salt. Anejo (4-years-old) Sharper nose, pale amber, more heft, more bite, lots more flavor, including oak barrel (toast, vanilla). Pechuga Raw turkey breast, hung in still, imparts more color and texture than flavors; fruits also added to the mash. Cremas (22% alcohol) include cinnamon, banana, maracuya (passionfruit), membrillo (quince), and coconut. Cremas zarzamora (blackberry) was not at all sweet, quite appealing, and the pecan - nutty, dry, flavorful - would favor a pecan pie.

Joyas Oaxacenas This fourth generation family business is owned and run by Carlos Leon Monterubio. He collects and buys batches of mezcal from scores of farmers. He makes straight mezcals at 72 proof so they'll be more appealing to women; when he exports them to the US, they'll be 8O proof. A large portfolio of flavored mezcals (liqueuers and cremas at 4O proof) under the subsidiary label El Mayordomo shows Monterubio posing formally in sombrero and serape. Don Ausencio, in a hexagonal bottle named for his grandfather, and Joya, a voluptuous blue glass bottle, make up the line of aged and rare mezcals. Silver Clean, smooth, less peppery than Beneva. Neat and clean, less rough edges but a tad less character, as well. Pechuga This full-bodied reposado - sweeter and smoother than most - has had the traditional raw turkey breast (pechuga) hung in the fermenting vats. Fruits in this version are prune, raisins, apples, peaches, pineapples, then filtered thoroughly. Honey in mouth (not nose) yet finishes with citric sharpness and touch of apricot bitterness. Anejo Pecan, nut flavor. Like a pale, dry, powerful Frangelico.

Rey Zapoteca This rustic farmstand palenque, run by the young Hernandez Blas brothers and their mother, is on the main road in Matatlan, an historically prominent mezcal town. Driving through I was struck with a compelling (if superficial) deja-vu of villages in Rioja, Spain: low-rise dwellings, stands of cypress trees, red-tile roofs, brick fronts, stubby steeples and stucco-walled churchyards, kids and dogs. Anejo Medium amber, good body, flavors noted are smoke, oak, vanilla, allspice. Some noted a light sting on the finish, perhaps of mesquite or other wood used to roast the agave. One taster called it 'sharp, dirty'.

Scorpion Scorpion is the first producer to market single-agave mezcals. They are all blancos (straight from the still), 76 proof, available in 25Oml bottles. Straight espadin Sharp, attractive nose, tart flavor, somewhat citrusy, creamy high esters later. Lean and dry, more like straight gin than flavored (juniper and coriander) gin. Or, if a grappa, one from Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc. This varietal accounts for easily 9O% of all commercial mezcals. Straight barril Sweeter nose, non-lactose creaminess, mild spiciness, less citrus, more body, richer texture, more complexity. Subtle fruitiness, dried fruits, not unlike white-grape grappa or poire eau de vie. Barril is a hardy, hefty agave used mostly for blending. Straight tobola softer and more yielding in the nose; rounder in texture, sweeter in flavor, not unlike Alsace eaux de vie from quetsch or mirabelle. Appealing, like apple or pear brandy. Continues the direction of rounder, smoother, sweeter. Tobola, a 'wild' agave species, is junt beginning to be cultivated by French and a few other producers. Blanco a more traditional blend of the three above agaves, heavily espadin. Agave is steamed, not roasted, so wood and smoke flavors are absent. Embajador 5-year-old anejo Lovely amber hue from oak barrels only, no artificial coloring. 1OO% blend of three agaves: espadin, barril and tobola. Steam cooked, so no smoky aromas. Embajador 7-year-old anejo Pale amber. Nose reminiscent of low-wood cognac or armagnac. Faint smoke, little vanilla. Charred tang of used French-oak whiskey barrels. Medium weight mouth-feel, finish shows less wood than fruitiness. No burn or back-bite.

Debate exists over whether mezcal continues to improve/mellow in the bottle. "My experience is that it does continue to improve," avers French. "Why are 2O- to 4O-year-old rums so fantastic?"

Airport Tasting Traveling back, I ran into a marketing woman pouring a tasting of three tequilas and one mezcal at one of the airport's many duty-free shops. Gran Centenario Anejo ($26) Big, bright, brassy, acidic, long firm finish. Herradura Anejo ($4O) More obvious oak imparts a vanilla/woody brandy tang. Fragrant nose, fruity mouth and exceptionally long caramel finish. Jose Cuervo Tradicional Reposado ($24) Aged 11 months. Light color, clean taste, citrusy, chewy texture, more heat on finish. Talapa Mezcal Añejo ($21): Lean, smoky, watery, kinda rough. A poor step-cousin!

Cooking

MEZCAL works in cooking. Its natural acidity breaks down meat fiber and may impart a smoky mesquite-like aroma. Its fruitiness makes a good vehicle for flambee fruit desserts at relatively low calorie count. Anejos may match deliciously with chocolate dishes.
Shrimp Flambe Beneva's Rancho Zapata Restaurant
Sauté onions in butter and garlic oil. Add celery and chopped smoked bacon. Add shrimp, salt, pepper and lemon juice. Flambée with 1oz. mezcal blanco.

&Mixing

Beneva Bar's Mezcal Cooler 1oz. mezcal blanco, 1/4oz. lemon juice, 1oz. orange juice, ice to taste, fill glass with grapefruit soda. Rub wet glass rim in Worm Salt, which is 1 lemon rind and 1 orange rind, ground up with two pinches of rock salt and a pinch of chili. (How many worms?)

Caballeros, Inc. is developing a repertoire of bar drinks for release on bar cards or bartenders' booklets in their Phase II program for introducing mezcal abroad. They have been quite proactive in recruiting creative mixologists in responding to the mezcal challenge. Here are two drinks created for Caballeros by master mixologist Dale DeGroff, author of the Craft of the Cocktail (Clarkson Potter 2OO2), and his wife Jill.

SCORPION STINGER Original drink by Dale deGroff
3/4oz. Scorpion Silver Mezcal 3/4oz. Kahlua Especial (7O proof) cocoa powder and dried chile powder mixed.
Coat the rim of a shot glass with the mixed cocoa and chile powders. Add the two spirits to a cocktail shaker with ice and shake well to chill. Strain into shot glass.

PUTA de MAYO Original drink by Jill DeGroff
1.5oz. Scorpion Mezcal 2 slices of mango juice of 1/4 lime 4oz. cranberry or orange juice fresh mint leaves.
Muddle mint, mango in a bar glass. Add juices and mescal. Shake well with ice and strain into a chilled martini glass. Garnish with mint sprig.
Others combine cremas with Coca Cola, Sprite, grape juice, or light red wine.
Moca combined tastily with Carnation condensed milk and Coca Cola; it tasted pretty good even with light red wine.
Coco, delicious on its own, would be terrific with fresh coconut water and a touch of citrus. The presence of honey in these cremas adds richness to flavor and texture, and aids their versatility.

Carlos leon Monterubio's cocktails made at Joyas Oaxacenas (as yet unnamed) are mainly low-alcohol, fruity and thirst quenching.
1oz. pineapple Mezcal, 2oz. mineral water or Sprite, 4oz. pineapple juice, squeeze of lime.
1.5oz. pechuga Mezcal, 2oz. orange juice, 4oz. strawberry soda, pinch of salt.

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