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Types & Qualities of Agave Spirits

This is mainly about Mezcal and Tequila, as we mainly offer these in our SHOP. But besides Raicilla, Bacanora and Sotol, traditional categories are also mentioned. For the sake of completeness, it must be said that agave spirits are also distilled in other countries, for example in Venezuela, South Africa, India or the USA.

Mezcal according to NOM-070-SCFI-2016

This standard is mainly implemented by the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM). Mezcal must always be distilled from 100% agave and can be distilled from different species, unlike Tequila. The standard distinguishes three categories (categorías), depending on the type of processing.

 

  • Mezcal: No restrictions on production, so can be industrially produced.
  • Mezcal Artesanal: Cooking in earth pits or masonry ovens, choppers for crushing are permitted in addition to traditional methods. Distillation in copper or ceramic pot stills.
  • Mezcal Ancestral: Cooking exclusively in earth pits, crushing by hand or with tahona, distillation exclusively in ceramics.

 

These categories can be combined with six classes:

  • Blanco or Joven: Unaged and not further processed.
  • Madurado en Vidrio: Stored in glass for at least 12 months
  • Reposado: 2 to 12 months in wood, without further definition on this.
  • Añejo: More than 12 months in wood without any specifications, only less than 1000 litres capacity.
  • Abocado con: Processed with ingredients, e.g. infusions such as plants or agave worm.
  • Destilado con: Distilled with ingredients, for example fruits and poultry, to produce Pechuga (see below).

 

Category and class must be shown on the label. All other information is explained on the next page under LABELLING.

 

 

Barrel ageing is possible with mezcal, but not traditional, instead it is traditionally stored in glass balloons (damajuanas) or clay pots (cántaros). These are often buried, which is both a legacy of mezcal prohibition and protects the fragile vessels. With porous clay, there is an exchange between the contents and the environment and the distillate takes on mineral notes. Glass balloons are occasionally opened and aerated by some producers to create a controlled oxidation. This makes for a rounder taste. Also traditional are processed spirits, such as pechuga or infusions, which derive not least from traditional medicine.

Traditional Categories

Despite modification of the standard in 2016, it is hardly possible to formally record the distilling culture for mezcal within the framework of a DO. While the regulation was until then a copy of the Tequila norm - apart from region and raw material - it is now more differentiated and better adapted to reality, but still far from covering all aspects, which still leads to much criticism of the state-imposed regulation.

 

The group "Mezcales tradicionales de los Pueplos de México" has compiled some criteria for traditional Mezcal:

 

  • Renunciation of any form of chemical additives during production and bottling.
  • Full acceptance of the local cultural and technological processes and the "historical taste" (gusto histórico), which have been developed in the place of production throughout history.
  • Distillation in discontinuous distillation processes in apparatus made of ceramics, copper, agave, reed, wood, stone and other materials.
  • Alcohol content of at least 45% by volume and in accordance with local customs, which originate from the local tradition.
  • Processes and products are subject to the social control of the local population and their professionals (maestros mezcaleros).
  • Acceptance of the product as an integral part of the local culture, such as festivals or as an ingredient in dishes, which means that the product should also be consumed locally.
  • Mezcal should always be consumed as a joven, never as a stored product from barrels.
  • Only traditional methods - as described under MANUFACTURING - should be used for quality testing, i.e. bubble formation by drop testing and odour and consistency testing by rubbing. Furthermore, all the usual on-site testing procedures by the manufacturers.

 

This approach not only reflects reality far better than the standard, it also sets a higher standard for the product. There are, of course, other groups and individuals who demand regulations that focus on the preservation of traditions and traditional techniques, e.g. by means of a standard that reflects regional differences in production. The DOs for European wines often serve as a model here.

 

Nevertheless, especially for foreign consumers, laboratory testing by the CRM means a level of product safety that did not exist before. In short: A CRM-approved mezcal definitely doesn't make you blind, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's a top product.

Mezcal de Pechuga

A special form is Mezcal de Pechuga (engl: breast), where Mezcal is distilled a third time and various fruits, spices (sultanas, cinnamon, pineapple, banana, apple, etc.) and sometimes sugar are added to the still and a raw chicken breast is hung in the helmet around which the vapours brush before condensation. The meat takes the strong notes from the added spices and fruits out of the distillate, but without coming into contact with them itself. Sometimes the ingredients are added during the second distillation process. Each producer has its own recipe here, and products without meat are increasingly to be found.

 

DON MATEO DE LA SIERRA from Michoacan uses meat from beef, deer and iguana for their PECHUGA. This is finely chopped with other ingredients and the mixture is hung in a cotton bag in the still.

 

Mezcal de Gusano

Probably the best-known Mezcal product is Mezcal de Gusano ("Mezcal with worm"). It contains one or more butterfly caterpillars of Hypopta agavis (gusano rojo, chinicuil, belatobe).

 

The origin of this product has not been clarified beyond doubt; relevant sources claim that it was a marketing trick by the founders of the Gusano Rojo brand in the 1950s. In Europe, it is commonly believed that the "worm" indicates a sufficient alcohol content because it is preserved in the liquid. In Japan, mezcal drinkers believe in the potency-enhancing effect of the larva, which is why products with several insects are made for the market there.

 

What is certain is that various insects, including these larvae, are part of the traditional regional cuisine and that they give the mezcal its own flavour. However, a mezcal de Gusano is usually middle-grade and the insect is meant to mask undesirable flavours. Good mezcals never have a "worm".

 

Puntas

This usually refers to the preliminary run of the distillation, but also to the highly alcoholic fraction of the main run and is a traditional speciality in mezcal distilling. Puntas are not officially marketable in Mexico because they exceed the legal limit of 55% alcohol. Puntas are drunk or bought at the distillery itself.

 

Tequila according to NOM-006-SCFI-2012

This standard is implemented by the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (CRT). There are two categories: Tequila and Tequila 100% Agave. The former is colloquially known as Mixto and can be produced with up to 49% foreign sugar that does not come from agaves. In the past, this was molasses, but today it is usually corn syrup. If the label does not explicitly state "100% agave" or "Puro de Agave", it is a Mixto and is cheap mass-produced. While the 100%s have to be bottled in Mexico, Mixto can be exported in large tanks and reduced to drinking strength and bottled in the country of destination.

 

Tequila is distilled from Agave tequilana Weber. The barrel-aged qualities may have up to 1% volume of the following additives to manipulate colour and/or taste:

  • caramel
  • glycerine
  • sugar syrup
  • oak extract

Both categories have the same ageing levels:

  • Blanco: Unaged up to a maximum of two months in oak barrels.
  • Joven or Oro: Mixture of Blanco with Reposado and/or Añejo tequila.
  • Reposado: Stored for between two and twelve months in oak barrels.
  • Añejo: Storage for at least twelve months in oak barrels with a maximum capacity of 600 litres.
  • Extra Añejo: Storage for at least three years in oak barrels with a maximum capacity of 600 litres.

 

Bacanora according to NOM-168-SCFI-2004

Bacanora is distilled exclusively from A. angustifolia Haw. The traditional production is comparable to that of mezcal. There are the following categories:

  • Blanco: Unaged up to a maximum of two months in oak barrels.
  • Joven or Oro: Mixture of Blanco with Reposado and/or Añejo tequila.
  • Reposado: Stored for between two and twelve months in oak barrels.
  • Añejo: Stored for at least twelve months in oak barrels with a maximum capacity of 200 litres.

 

Raicilla, a standard is currently being prepared (as of 5/2020)

The DO Raicilla is being promoted by the Consejo Mexicano Promotor de la Raicilla, A.C.. The aim is to achieve a full Protected Origin with the following characteristics.

  • Raicilla shall be distilled from 100% agave.
  • Ingredients may be added to the distillation (for Mezcal: Destilado con).
  • Ingredients may be inlaid, i.e. infused (for Mezcal: Abocado con)
  • Two production regions are distinguished: Raicilla de la Costa (coast) from A. angustifolia and A. rhodacantha and Raicilla de la Sierra (mountains) from A. maximiliana Baker, inaequidens Koch y Valenciana. However, other species should also be allowed.

 

Traditional Raicilla is distilled in Jalisco mainly from wild agaves. The new standard is to allow both wild and cultivated agaves, but A. tequilana Weber is excluded, as it is already used for Tequila production in Jalisco and is granted a kind of "exclusive right". Similar to Mezcal, there are supposed to be the categories Raicilla, Raicilla Artesanal y Raicilla Tradición Ancestral. The definitions are essentially identical (see above). This is also where the criticism of the DO's elaboration comes from. While the initiators -many small producers- had very ambitious goals for the preservation of the distilling culture based on the experiences of the DO Tequila and Mezcal, other actors enshrined the use of autoclaves and continuous distillation in the proposal, which is in fact a gateway for industrial production.

 

Sotol

This distillate is actually not from agave, but from the relatively closely related Dasylirion, but is produced in a similar way to agave spirits and is therefore mentioned with them as a separate category. Sotol is produced in northern Mexico and historically also in the south of what is now the USA. These US regions belonged to Mexico until 1884.

 

Sotol knows qualities of 100% Dasylirion or Mixtos with up to 49% foreign sugar, like Tequila. There are slight variations in the age grades:

  • Blanco: Unaged or aged for up to two months.
  • Reposado: aged in wood for two to six months
  • Añejo: aged in wood for up to 24 months
  • Abocado: Processed with infusions

 

Unlike agave, Dasylirion grows back when properly harvested.

 

In conclusion, Mezcal (and Raicilla) are best distinguished by agave type and maestro mezcalero. That is, the raw material and the person who processes it. This information should be on the label. They are also traditionally named after their place of origin, for example.

  • Solteco, from Sola de Vega: potatorum, distilled in ceramics.
  • Matateco, from Santiago Matatlán: angustifolia, distillation in copper
  • Ixcateco, from Santa Maria Ixcatlán: cupreata, distillation in ceramics, fermentation in animal skins
  • Minero: From Santa Catarina Minas, from various wild agaves, distillation in ceramics
  • ....etc

 

Local consumers know which special characteristics are associated with the respective spirits.

 

More on this on the next page under LABELLING AND TASTING.

 

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