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Mezcal: The Complex, Amazing World of a Mexican Spirit Explained

William Scanlan’s company Heavy Metl imports rare, small-batch Mexican spirits made with integrity

“Mezcal is more than just a spirit,” says William Scanlan. “It’s a way of life, the transfer of knowledge handed down through generations. It’s about family and keeping a centuries-old tradition alive.”

Scanlan is the founder of Austin’s five-year-old Heavy Metl, the nation’s only importer of six rare, small-batch mezcals, and several other esoteric Mexican spirits. Recently, while talking with him, I had an epiphany: While I’ve always been an advocate of small, sustainability-minded makers from around the world, the events of this year had led me to develop tunnel vision with regard to this column. I was so concerned about our local foodshed (including distilleries and breweries) and economy, I’d forgotten that for those of us who imbibe, it’s no less important to support boutique distilleries, breweries and wineries in other countries, especially those in developing nations that make regional products according to traditional – and often endangered – methods.

William Scanlan of Heavy Metl.

Scanlan developed a passion for mezcal after moving to Oaxaca and Mexico City in the early aughts. He learned there were critical environmental, infrastructural and fair trade issues stemming from the global boom in mezcal consumption. While he’d once contemplated starting his own mezcal brand, he realized instead that he wanted to work with family-owned palenques (distilleries), especially if they grew their own agave from seed.

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“Making mezcal the right way is increasingly challenging,” says Scanlan. “One of the biggest issues the industry faces are the widespread planting of agave clones by farmers. This causes a lack of biodiversity, which reduces disease resistance, and mutes the complexities that make wild agave mezcals so compelling.” It’s important to plant from seed and allow the agave to flower (agave is slow growing and only flowers once; a single plant might contain up to 10,000 viable seeds). Overharvesting is another problem in mezcal production, particularly with wild species, which can take decades to mature. Allowing these plants to flower is critical to maintaining biodiversity.

The dispersal of seed via cross-pollination maintains genetic diversity, which makes for hardier, healthier plants. The families Scanlan works with collect the seeds before they disperse and germinate them in nurseries before planting. “In the wild, only four to ten of those seeds might develop into plants, but when grown in a nursery like the one at Real Minero, they have a 90 to 95 percent success rate. This translates into land accessibility being a serious issue. Commercial distilleries – many of which are owned by foreigners – drive up land prices so locals can no longer afford to cultivate agave,” says Scanlan.

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Scanlan also wanted Heavy Metl (the name is a play on the Nahuatl word for agave) to be a relationship-driven company, so he could eliminate the “layers of people” usually involved with importing and distribution. “The minimum wage in Oaxaca state is 55 pesos ($2.73 USD),” he says. “Because I work directly with the families, that allows me to put more money directly into their hands. I also don’t negotiate on price – it’s set by the mezcaleros.”

Demystifying Mezcal

Mezcal is made from agave, an indigenous succulent also used to make tequila (which is a type of mezcal). The plant, which can take seven to 30 years to reach maturity depending on the species, is native to the subtropical and tropical Americas, where indigenous peoples have used it for thousands of years as a source of food, fiber and liquid refreshment. The Aztecs and Nahuatl considered agave sacred and associated it with health and fertility.

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Prior to the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century, agave sap was fermented into a beer-like beverage called pulque. The native peoples learned distillation from the conquistadors and the result was mezcal (a corruption of the Nahuatl word for boiled agave, mexcalli). Today, over 50 species of agave – out of some 270 – are used to produce mezcal, which can only be made in Oaxaca, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Puebla and Michoacán.

The Mexican government oversees the production of mezcal (tequila has its own regulated regions of production and distillation methods) through its governing body, Consejo Regulador de Mezcal (CRM). Mezcal was designated a Denomination of Origin (DO) product in 1994 to protect the heritage of the spirit. As such, the legally defined categories of mezcal are based on production method.

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Artesenal mezcals are made by roasting the piñas, or agave hearts, in underground pits called hornos (this is what gives mezcal its distinctive smokey quality). The bagaso, or agave fibers, are crushed with a mallet or stone wheel called a tahona, which is pulled by a draft animal, to extract the juice and fibers. The juice and fiber is then fermented in natural materials such as wood, clay or stone, and distilled in clay or copper pots. Ancestral mezcals follow a similar process, but the bagaso must be mashed by hand and distilled in clay pots. Industrial uses autoclaves (industrial ovens) to steam the piñas, and modern extraction and distillation methods.

While cheap mezcal is harsh (FYI, the worm-in-the-bottle is a marketing gimmick, but it’s best to avoid industrial brands in general), a well-made spirit is nuanced, smooth and incredibly diverse. A mezcal’s flavor profile depends upon not just quality and production method but agave species and terroir. Like wine, mezcal’s flavor is an expression of plant variety and the climate, altitude and geography in which it grows. For example, some wild agaves grow in cliff habitat, which may impart a mineral flavor. Herbal, vegetal, tropical fruit, earthy, chocolate, coffee, black pepper, grassy – all of these are terms are used to describe specific mezcals.

Heavy Metl’s small portfolio includes Rey Campero, Real Minero, Mezcalosfera, and Gusto Historico. Some, like Chacolo – an exceptional wild agave spirit made by the Partida family of Zapotitlan de Vadillo, Jalisco – are produced outside of CMR jurisdiction, which means they can’t legally be called mezcal. Instead, the spirit is labeled, “destilado de agave.” Heavy Metl also carries sotol (a wild-harvested plant in the same family as agave) from Sotoleros in Chihuahua, and Uruapan Charanda,  a DO sugar cane distillate from Michoacán.

Still, Scanlan’s first love will always be mezcal. And despite the devastating impact Covid-19 has had on the bar industry, the families behind all of Heavy Metl’s brands are finally able to earn a living.

“It’s tremendously rewarding to see these small businesses expand,” he says. “They’re able to hire employees, or buy a new truck, send their kids to private school, or build a house. My objective was always to give back to these communities, and now some of these producers are also giving back. One built a library, and another is installing a purified water system for their village. It’s amazing to see how things have come full circle.”

To learn more about mezcal

Austin has several excellent mezcalerías (Mezcalería Tobalá, Bar Illegal, Las Perlas Mezcaleria, Techo Mezcaleria & Agave Bar) and restaurants (Comedor, Suerte, ATX Cocina, La Condesa) with extensive mezcal offerings, but Covid-19 may have affected their business hours and/or ability to operate. At the liquor store, Scanlan suggests the following:

Look at labels: Espadin refers to mezcals made from widely grown cultivars that ripen relatively quickly (in approximately eight years). Wild agaves yield more complex flavor profiles, but some species take decades to reach maturation and have smaller yields; varieties like Tobalá, Jabali and Tepezate are examples of what you might see on a label.

Joven indicates an unaged mezcal (the equivalent to what blanco is to tequila); reposado and añejo, like tequila, refer to the length of time the spirit is aged in oak. Pechuga refers to mezcal infused with animal protein that’s suspended above the still. Often, pechugas are distilled with the addition of local fruit, grains and/or botanicals.

Make your dollars count: Buy mezcals from the brands mentioned in this story and ask mezcal-savvy bartenders and liquor store employees about other small, sustainable producers. Your purchases will have the combined effect of supporting multi-generational family farms, conservation initiatives and regenerative agriculture.