Wild Agave Mezcal

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I think most whiskey consumers today understand how maturity affects pricing when it comes to Scotch and Bourbon. They expect to pay more for a whiskey that’s older, and they justify the price by the time spent in the barrel. It’s an inescapable rationale that we just have to accept, even if those of us who work in the business know there are plenty of 12 year old whiskies that outshine a number of 18 year olds. That being said, I have to wonder what that same spirits consumer thinks when he or she sees the same price disparity between two bottles of mezcal, both of them unaged and as clear as vodka.

“The expensive one must be really smooth,” my electrician said to me the other day when I asked him what he thought the difference might be. He’s always in awe of all the open booze bottles around my condo, so we usually take a few minutes to discuss them when he comes by to fix something. His was a completely reasonable assumption. Delicacy of flavor is another reason why some spirits cost more than others. As I poured a shot from the $40 bottle of Yuu Baal Espadin and placed it next to a second glass of Yuu Baal Madrecuixe (about $130 per bottle), I asked him to tell me if that was the case.

“Neither of them are very smooth,” he answered after taking a sip of both, his face scrunched up in a ball of confusion. “I don’t understand why the Madrecuishe is so much more expensive.”

“Exactly,” I replied with a concerned look on my face. “This is the problem with wild agave mezcal. It’s not like eating McDonald’s fries for the first time. It’s more like a cigar. You might completely hate it the first time around.”

I remember speaking with dozens of customers who spent $100+ on a bottle of fancy mezcal without consultation, making the same assumption as my electrician, only to wind up with a spirit that tastes like plant water strained through a paper towel. “What do I do with this?” more than one of them asked me in response.

“Make some very expensive Margaritas,” I would usually say with a laugh; “Or let me tell you a bit more about it.” A bottle of wild agave mezcal is a lot like a fancy bottle of wine (in a number of ways that we’ll get to shortly). Understanding exactly why it costs what it does requires the buyer to dig a little deeper than a vintage or age statement, and once you arm yourself with that knowledge it’s a lot more fun to drink.

A wild Tepeztate agave in the mountains of Oaxaca

A wild Tepeztate agave in the mountains of Oaxaca

Part of what I love about mezcal is its diversity. No matter how many different expressions I taste, I’m continuously awed by the breadth of different flavors that can be coaxed from each species of agave, depending on where it’s grown, how it’s cooked, and the process of distillation. In the case of wild agave mezcal, the process is even more complicated due to the fact that most of them cannot be cultivated. Like truffles, they have to be found and foraged for in the wild, which is ultimately why the mezcal they produce is often so much more expensive.

Mezcal can be labeled, marketed, and classified in a number of different ways, giving the category a certain unruly freedom that calls out to the wild at heart. In no other category of booze can one find distillers making so many different versions of what is ultimately categorized as a single spirit, with so many variations of organization. For this reason alone, summarizing mezcal into a simplified overview is difficult and establishing a foundation for consumer expectations even harder.

Today one can find mezcal labeled simply by the producer or brand, by the species of agave used, as a blend or ensemble of different agaves, by a specific style or recipe, or simply by the village of origin. In this sense, understanding the basics of mezcal often has more to do with the world of wine than the world of distilled spirits. Much like a winemaker seeks to express the inherent nature of a single grape, a piece of land, or a region as a whole, a mezcalero seeks to translate the spirit of the agave into each bottle—be it a unique species of agave, the specific terroir of the countryside, or the singular style of village tradition.

While grape varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir share similar characteristics no matter where they are grown, there is still a multitude of factors that ultimately shapes the flavor of the resulting wine. These same factors—regionality, harvest conditions, fermentation, and processing—are what can distinguish one mezcal from another. Depending on where the piñas were harvested, the character of the soils, the cooking process used, and the distillation techniques chosen by the mezcalero, the results will differ from producer to producer. As an example, Espadin agave, while not a wild species, is generally cultivated in fields like Agave Azul in Tequila country. Where you plant it can make all the difference: in a valley, on the side of a hill, or in volcanic soils. Just like grapes on a vine, the flavors of an agave piña will differ depending on where it grows.

Espadin agave fields on the hillsides in Oaxaca look almost like Mediterranean vineyards

Espadin agave fields on the hillsides in Oaxaca look almost like Mediterranean vineyards

Most winemakers begin with certain expectations for their fruit—the vintage, the vineyard, the village, etc—and then carefully put their own spin on the resulting wine. Some winemakers use extraction and new oak maturation to make a richer, fuller style of wine. Others believe in minimalist, non-interventionist winemaking, where the goal is simply to capture the essence of what the land itself seeks to express using the grape as its vessel. The latter is the philosophy practiced by most mezcal producers I’ve worked with. In a sense, mezcal has much in common with French Burgundy, where producers are farmers first and winemakers second.

Talking this past week with Flor de María Velazquez, the director of Yuu Baal mezcal, it’s clear she thinks more like a vintner than a distiller. She spends far more time talking about the spirit of the agave itself, rather than the spirit-making process. That’s because the mission behind each expression of Yuu Baal isn’t just to create a fine tasting mezcal, but also to express the inherent nature of what’s inside the agave, bringing forth the individual character of each species with as little manipulation as possible.

In a sense, Yuu Baal is the Oaxacan mezcal counterpart to Burgundian wine philosophy. Each bottle constitutes the purest, most unadulterated expression of each species, delicately distilled to release the innate personality of the agave with every sip. Like Burgundian winemakers stress their vines, forcing the roots deeper into the earth in search of nutrients, Yuu Baal does the same with its agave plants—a process utilized by farmers who believe in the power of terroir.

But what exactly does each agave have to say to mezcal drinkers? What is so uniquely distinctive about each agave that merits further discussion and discourse? Let’s take a deeper dive into what specifically characterizes each agave species, according to Flor herself, and how those elements are present in each expression of Yuu Baal. I’ve added some tasting notes as well, just to give you an idea.

A group of farmers brings in a load of long, narrow Cuishe piñas for distillation

A group of farmers brings in a load of long, narrow Cuishe piñas for distillation

TOBALA

A wild species of agave, endemic to Oaxaca specifically, Tobalá is smaller and size and can take twice as long to mature as Espadin, nearly 12 – 14 years before reaching maturity. As a result, production is limited and prices for Tobalá are generally much higher than Espadín. Depending on where it’s harvested, the delicate flavors can range from herbaceous to sweetly-spiced, with an array of complexity that is unparalleled in the mezcal world.

Flor says: Tobalá reminds me of petate in its aroma, the woven palm mats used for sleeping in Mexico. It creates a dense mezcal that sticks to your lips on the finish.

My notes: Almost like a London dry gin, the Yuu Baal Tobalá is dry and clean on the initial palate with herbal notes that ultimately give way to saline minerality with a finish of citrus and quince.

MADRECUISHE

Madrecuishe is part of the Karwinskii agave family, another wild species that takes between 12 -14 years to fully mature and grows in a long, vertical stalk, often side-by-side other Madrecuishe agaves. The flavors of Madrecuishe are quite tangy with an earthiness that almost resembles bleucheese in character. It’s a robust flavor that allures just about everyone in Oaxaca over time. It is also the preferred mezcal of many Oaxacans.

Flor says: Madrecuishe is the belle of the ball, the woman in red who enters a party an immediatelycaptures the attention of every man in the room. It’s a straightforward, unmistakable expression that radiates personality.

My notes: Herbal and earthy up front, the Yuu Baal Madrecuishe gives way to potent notes of green apple, lavender, and savory spice, finishing in a flurry of scorched earth and sweet fruit.

TEPEZTATE

Tepeztate is an incredibly distinctive wild agave species that can take up to 35 years to mature and grow enormous in size with wide, wavy leaves jutting out from the center. Due to its long maturation process, Tepeztate is a rare mezcal that is difficult to summarize because of how long it takes to grow and the variance that maturation has on each individual agave.

Flor says: Tepeztate is jealous in nature. It demands your attention with its spicy, and intensely herbaceous character. If you decide to start with Tepeztate, you have to stick with it. It doesn’t pairwell with other mezcals.

My notes: Loaded with hot chili flavor and a supremely spicy kick right off the bat, the texture is simultaneously creamy with an oily mouthfeel that blends beautifully with sweet notes of cooked agave and more salty, savory chili pepper flavor on the potent finish.

ESPADIN

Like I mentioned before, Espadin is not a wild species. Rather, it’s the most widely-cultivated and distilled species of agave in Oaxaca, and has the most amount of variance between climate and region. Its flavor greatly depends on the process of production. In Matatlan, for example, the Espadin can be rather astringent, whereas in San Juan del Rio—a microclimate that supports endless fruits, vegetables, herbs, animals and plant life—the flavors can range from sweet and spicy to tangy and peppery. Generally speaking, most mezcal on the market is made from Espadin, so I’m including it here as a comparison.

Flor says: Espadin is like the table wine of mezcal: it’s versatile and can pair with anything. It’s whatyou drink on a weeknight.

My notes: Using the ancestral process of production (pit roasted agave, tahona crushing, and wood-fired copper pot stills), the Yuu Baal Espadin is clean and fresh on the palate with pure aromas of cooked agave on the nose. Honey, citrus, platano, caramel, and pepper come through on the finish.

Driving through the higher elevation mountains of Oaxaca

Driving through the higher elevation mountains of Oaxaca

Since I posted a photo of some wild Cuishe piñas earlier (the long, thinner agave that's part of of the Madrecuishe family), I thought I’d also talk a little about agave variation. Going back to wine as an analogy, variation in agave is consistent with that of grape varietals, often part of larger families of similar types. Muscat, for example, has many different versions and relatives in the wine world—more than 200 actually; Black Muscat, Muscat de Alexandria, etc—so it’s not necessarily the same around the globe.

In addition to Madrecuishe, there's also Cuishe and Bicuishe—each a little different than its close relative—and some distillers use them interchangeably. If you think wrapping your head around the variance within a family of wild agave sounds difficult, there's also a huge difference in the flavors of Madrecuishe depending on where it’s harvested: i.e. mountain madrecuishe versus flatland, valley-floor Madrecuishe. So not only do you need to know which type of Cuishe you’re dealing with in, you need to know where it came from. But how many consumers really know the difference between wild, flavorful mountain Cuishe and a mediocre Cuishe distilled from a less-flavorful, cultivated crop? Ten? Fourteen? I don't know. I certainly wouldn't know the difference unless I had two prime examples sitting side by side. That’s why top wine labels make sure to let consumers know the difference by designating the vineyard location right there on the label. Since they’re going to charge you more for the better fruit, they want you to have some sort of justification.

Napa, for example, has a region called Howell Mountain; an AVA known for producing powerful and long-lived Cabernets like Dunn. There's also Spring Mountain, where Keenan Winery makes incredible, structured wines with balance and delicacy. There are many reasons for the supremacy of mountain fruit, but much of it has to do with climate, drainage, and sun. When you grow crops on the side of a mountain slope, you don't have to worry about flooding because the excess water runs downhill. The grapes don't get too much sun because at some point during the day it will be on either side of the hill. Higher elevations also tend to be cooler, which allows for a longer and slower ripening process (you don't make a flavorful soup by boiling your vegetables in water for five minutes). The same is true for mountain agave: the longer they mature, the less they soak up water and the more they soak up complexity.

Better labeling is something mezcal producers can think about for the future. As more consumers better understand and appreciate the spirit, the more they’re going to want specifics as to what they’re drinking and what exactly they’re paying for as it pertains to quality. While I’m certain that some wine consumers will continue to buy $140 bottles of Dunn Howell Mountain, expecting a big silky Cabernet, only to wind up with a mouth full of tannins, we’ve come a long way in customer education. As time goes by, wine drinkers are becoming aware that expensive wines from the world’s top terroirs need time in the cellar before they’re ready to drink. I have to think we’ll see the same consumer evolution with mezcal.

As time goes by, more and more mezcal drinkers will know that a $100+ bottle of madrecuishe is an expression of a rare and wild species of agave, something of an acquired taste rather than a straightforward sipper. Not necessarily the smoothest mezcal, but definitely one of complexity.

-David Driscoll