The following 5 steps describe the artisanal production of Corte Vetusto mezcal. Based largely on centuries-old techniques, this is as authentically craft as spirit production gets and a real labour of love, taking over a month to make a batch. There are no formulas to follow or scientific equipment to rely on. Instead it requires patience, a watchful eye and a skilful touch.
The Harvest / Jima:
- The agave itself has the greatest influence on a mezcal. Juan Carlos and Santiago select only the finest, most mature agave. These cost more and take longer to reach maturity, but this is vitally important, as mature agave yield richer, more flavoursome and more complex mezcals. Armed with a machete, they cut away the pencas (leaves) with precision, exposing the piña (heart) of the agave. The piña is then removed from the ground using a coa, a long wooden stick with a sharp, flat blade at the end. Depending on the species of agave, the piña can weigh anywhere between 25-350kg! The piña are then either loaded directly onto trucks or onto donkeys, in order to bring them down from the mountain slopes. This is laborious work, often done in the early morning to avoid the draining heat. Once at the palenque (small distillery), the piña are weighed and then individually cut by axe into similar sized pieces, to ensure even cooking.
- Unlike tequila or mass produced mezcal which are cooked in an industrial autoclave or large brick oven, artisanal mezcal is cooked in an horno (a conical earthen pit oven). By roasting the agave, the agave’s natural starches are converted into fermentable sugar. Juan Carlos’s horno is lined with volcanic rocks in order to absorb and maintain heat. Regional hard woods, including mesquite, are placed at the centre of the oven and lit. Mesquite is chosen specifically for the flavour it imparts. The wood is then covered by river stones until they are white hot. At this stage, Santiago performs a ritual to ward off any evil spirits and to ask the Gods for their blessing on the oven. The stones are then covered with a layer of bagaso (agave fibres) from a previous distillation to prevent the agave from burning and resulting in overly smoked or bitter tasting mezcal. Finally, the agave are covered with tarp and then with soil to seal the oven. Depending on the type and size of the agave, the agave are cooked for between 3-6 days before the cover is removed and the perfectly roasted, caramel coloured agave are allowed to cool.
- The cooled, roasted agave is now sweet-smelling and tender, so it can be easily chopped into small chunks by machete, to prepare it for milling. These chunks are then slowly crushed by a tahona (a large volcanic milling stone), pulled around a circular stone base by a horse called Payaso (Clown), due to the distinct markings on his face. The resultant bagaso (agave fibres) and juice are then transferred to large, open-topped wooden vats for fermentation.
- Once the bagaso has been loaded into the fermentation vats, water is added, which will influence the final flavour of the mezcal. Juan Carlos is blessed with pure spring water, which runs off the mountains behind Mitla. Unlike some Mezcaleros who use cultured yeasts or accelerants to shorten this phase, Juan Carlos allows fermentation to occur naturally, initiated only by the wild and native airborne yeasts surrounding the palenque. These yeasts are unique to each palenque and another key factor in the taste of the end product. Depending on the season, humidity and the altitude of the palenque, this process can take anywhere from 1 – 2 weeks. During this time the yeasts convert the sugars to alcohol, generating heat and carbon dioxide and a thick, paste-like cap forms on the top of the vats to protect the process from the elements. Juan Carlos and Santiago monitor this process by observing the bubbles that break through the paste cap and checking the temperature of the liquid. Once complete, the resultant tepache (mash) is transferred to the still.
- Unlike tequila or industrially produced mezcal, artisanal mezcal uses both the liquid and bagaso in the still for maximum flavour and complexity. It is then twice distilled in small batches in either a copper or clay pot still. The choice of still influences the speed, output and flavour of the mezcal. Juan Carlos is experienced in both distilling methods and actually combines them for the Tobala and the Ensambles. This is totally unique and marks him out as both a true Maestro Mezcalero and a genuine craftsman. According to legislation, mezcal must be between 36% and 55% ABV. Knowing when and where to make the corte (cut) is the Maestro Mezcalero’s ultimate skill. By taking mezcal straight off the still and simply observing the size and quantity of the perlas (bubbles) and the speed at which they dissipate, the best are capable of determining the alcohol by volume (ABV) within 1 or 2 degrees. Perlas are created by pouring the mezcal into a jicara (gourd) from a height. Once the Mezcalero is satisfied with the product, it is ready to bottle as a joven (unaged) mezcal.