Ilegal Joven Mezcal Artesanal
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About Ilegal Joven Mezcal Artesanal
What Am I?
Mezcal or Tequila: but it’s all agave, right?
The agave plant is a beautiful sight to behold, particularly planted in lines spanning fields, with the bouquets of spiky leaves punctuating the skyline.
While tequila can only be made from the Blue Weber variety, mezcal can technically be made from any agave variety - including those found in the wild - but is most commonly made from the Espadín variety due to its faster maturation.
When it comes to growing agave to make tequila & mezcal, patience is key. Regardless of variety (and there are upwards of 270), it takes at least seven or eight years for the plant to reach maturity, with some even taking thirty years until they’re even close to being ready to harvest.
Once you see the scale of a mature agave plant, it quickly becomes clear how much of a manual task it is to manage and harvest them - and that’s well before we even get to the distillation process! Agave plants are handled by Jimadors, skilled farmers who look after the agave from propagation to maturity - hand-harvesting once ready and hacking away the leaves with a machete (aka a coa) to obtain the heart of the agave, which is also known as the piña.
From this point, the processes differ depending on whether the agave is destined for mezcal, tequila, or any other iteration of Mexico’s infamous traditional fermented beverages (like Pulque, Raicilla, and Bacanora - but that’s a story for another time).
- For tequila production, the leaves of the agave are hacked away to reveal the piña, which is most commonly baked or steamed in above ground ovens. Once thoroughly cooked to bring all those wonderful fermentable sugars to the fore, the cooked piña is then shredded or ground down to extract all the sweet agave juice, or mosto. This mosto is then added to water and fermented until it’s ready to be distilled.
- As far as further signifiers on Tequila labels, then there’s maturation: Plata (Silver) seeing no wood maturation, Oro (Gold) with no wood maturation, blending or flavouring, Reposado which sees at least two months maturation, Añejo which is aged at least a year, and Extra Añejo which is aged for at least three years.
- These days, Mezcal can only be made from 100% agave; up until 2014, ‘mixto mezcal’ was allowed, wherein only 80% of the fermentable sugars had to come from agave.
- To get from the field to the finished product, the agave is harvested & cut down to a piña, then commonly cooked by woodfire in underground ovens for a number of days, ground down by a stone mill known as a tahona (with the wheel pulled by donkey or horse), fermented, distilled twice, and often barrel-matured.
- One key distinguisher of mezcal can be its smoky character thanks to those underground ovens heated by wood fire - this can be more or less pronounced depending on the producer and their preferences. Once cooked and crushed, the whole agave heart (fibres and all) is included in the fermentation process, allowing for all sorts of flavour compounds and yeast strains that bring complexity to the final product.
- Markers of the maturation process for mezcal are similar to that of tequila, but in this category only three official terms apply: Joven (young), not wood matured, blended, or flavoured, Reposado (at least two months maturation), and Añejo (at least one year maturation).
As with any product, there are artisanal, small batch producers and commercial producers of both mezcal and tequila - and so many expressions of the wonderful agave plant across the whole spectrum.