Agave Spirits 101

(and drinks)

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Pulque

Pulque is the first and traditional alcoholic agave beverage that has been made for over 2,000 years in Mexico and has had a big historical influence on the development of the country. Pulquerias, locations (bars) where pulque is consumed) used to be central gathering places for communities and acted as forums for political and social discourse. Pulque and its traditions are core to Xoma and its idendity.

 

Production Process:

See "Dig Deeper" page for a more graphic representation.  In the Mexican plateau, the agave plants (in this case agave atrovirens and agave salmiana) have been utilized for thousands of years for food, medicine, building material and more. After waiting 10-12 years for the plant to mature, a core (the heart) of the Maguey plant is carved out using a machete, a knife, and a traditional barretta (a long iron rod with a spade at the end). After about 6 months, the cavity of the Maguey which has begun to heal will be reopened. One week later, the hollow cavity of the plant is scratched. The next day, the tlachiquero (a Maguey laborer who specializes in the extraction of aguamiel) collects the aguamiel with a traditional air drawn gourd. The tlachiquero siphons the Aguamiel from the same plant every dawn and dusk for 3-6 months, scratching the cavity to promote more secretion of sap until the plant dies 4-6 months later. Each plant can produce around 1,000 liters of sap within its lifetime. Upon being exposed to oxygen, aguamiel immediately and spontaneously begins to ferment into a probiotic, and slightly alcoholic liquid with a viscous consistency. The fermentation process begins inside of the plant and continues in a tinacal, or fermentation room, where the sap is deposited into fermentation tanks and kicktarted by a "mother starter" (similar to a mother yeast for sour dough bread). Once the aguamiel has been fermented to a certain degree (between 4% and 7% ABV) it is called Pulque. Pulque is usually consumed after 7-14 days. 

Mezcal

Mezcal historically was the broad term for distilled alcoholic products derived from cooked agave hearts (piñas).  Mezcals can be made from a wide mixture of agave varieties and show strong regional distinctions. These liquors are generally 40-60% ABV. 

Production Process:

Considered the mother of tequila and a broader conception of the distillation of agave spirits. It is made in nearly all of Mexico’s thirty one states but is only legally recognized in seven of them, with Oaxaca being a cultural mecca.  It is typically made with wild agaves and, unlike modern tequila, harvested by the same hands that cook, ferment, and distill the mezcal.  The wild agave (primarily the espadin variety) hearts are roasted in underground pits where they are covered by smoldering wood logs, which gives it its distinct “smokey” flavor.  These caramelized piñas are then mashed in a stone mill or beaten by a club. The liquid (aguamiel) is then fermented in open wooden tanks with the piña fibers. This fermented product is then distilled in very small batch copper stills to create a higher proof spirit. 

Legal Definition: Designated product of origin. Must be produced with 100% agave from the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero, Durango, San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, Michoacan, and Puebla.  Based on recently passed new regulation, there are three categories depending on how it is produced:​

  • Mezcal: includes any industrially produced mezcal where piñas can be cooked above or below ground and utilize modern machinery to cook and crush the agave.  The fermentation can occur in stainless steel, wood, stone containers and distilled in copper or continuous columns.
  • Artisanal Mezcal. A more restrictive categorization, this covers producers who cook piñas in pit ovens or brick wells.  Producers can mill the hearts in modern machinery, but there still is an emphasis on wooden or hand milling. Fermentation more closely resembles the traditional method as it is done in wood / stone containers or in animal skins (which change the taste profile).  Distillation is required to be over direct fire in copper or clay stills. 

  • Ancestral Mezcal: This categorization most closely aligns to the historical production process, restricting roasting to be done in direct-fire pit ovens and requiring hand crushing in stone or wooden mills. The agave sap (aguamiel) can be fermented in wooden, clay , or stone vats, with the agave fibers unfiltered. Distillation must occur through direct-fire clay stills with wooden or clay still tops.

Types of Mezcal -what do these all mean? ​

  • Blanco (white): unaged spirit.

  • Reposado (rested): stored in barrels for between 2 to 12 months                                                     

  • Anejo (aged): stored in barrels for 12+ months 

  • Madurado (glass matured): this category bottles ancestral mezcal to mature in glass bottles.

  • Distilado con (distilled with): the mezcal is redistilled with fruits, grains, or raw meats (most commonly chicken or turkey breast for pechuga styles) for additional flavor and different complexity.

  • Abocado con (flavoured with): mezcals that are macerated or flavored with flavor essences, or with an added worm after distillation.

Industrialization of the trade: Government designations have been better at trying to maintain traditional practices by creating distinct categorizations of mezcal by their manufacturing process.  

Environmental / Production Issues: Certain international investors have begun industrializing mezcal brands to increase production volume, thus starting the process that transformed the tequila industry.

Friends of Xoma: These are brands that maintain the traditional forms of producing tequila and sustainable agriculture of blue agave plants.

 

 

VIDEO EXPLANATION: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mSEMddNRE-8 

Tequila

In the Central Mexican plateau, agave plants are grown in abundance and have been utilized for thousands of years for food, medicine, building material, and more. Throughout the plateau Agave is called Maguey,  a truly  marvelous plant.

Originally known as “Mezcal de Tequila” or mezcal from tequila,  tequila was a regional variation of distilled agave spirits from the set number of Mexican states that gained domestic and international recognition. The name tequila derives from the town of Tequila in the state of Jalisco, the heart of the tequila region in Mexico. 

Production Process: Agave plants are grown for 7-12 years in before the jimador (agave farmer) harvests the agave hearts (piñas). The piñas are then traditionally baked in a clay oven for up to 36 hours before being milled in a traditional animal-drawn tahona to retrieve the aguamiel (agave juices).  These are traditionally fermented with added yeasts in wood containers before being double distilled in copper pot stills. 

 

Legal Definition: Designated product of origin. Just like Champagne can only be from specific grapes, in a specific regions according to a specific process, Tequila is a protected product of origin. Tequila must be made from blue agave (agave tequilana) in the state of Jalisco and certain municipalities states of Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.

Types of Tequila. Blanco, joven, reposado what do these all mean? ​

 

  • Blanco (Silver): unaged tequila bottled after distillation

  • Joven (Gold): unaged but with added colorings and flavorings. Can be 100% blue agave but typically include other sugar alcohols to create 51% mixto tequila. 

  • Reposado: Aged tequila in wood (typically french or white oak) barrels for 2-12 months, adding subtle nuances to the tequila

  • Anejo (vintage): Tequila aged in oak barrels for a minimum of one year, typically 1-3 years. These are darker in color and typically are smoother with more complex flavors: 

  • Extra Anejo: Newest classification of tequila that mandates minimum aging of three years. 

 

Industrialization of the trade: While few tequila producers utilized traditional production methods, most tequilas exported to the US have mechanized the cooking and fermenting process by using autoclaves, diffusers and other machinery to speed up the process and lower production costs, to the detriment of flavor and product complexity.  There are roughly 150 distilleries that produce for over the 2000 tequila brands. 

Environmental / Production Issues: By law, tequila can only be made of blue agave, thus has promoted harmful monoculture that is impacting the biodiversity of tequila-producing regions. Given the advent of large multinationals, local a majority of production and harvest controlled by large corporations and small producers and farmers have lost connection access to the product. 

Friends of Xoma: These are brands that maintain the traditional forms of producing tequila and sustainable agriculture of blue agave plants. 

Pulcatta (Destilado de Pulque)

Other Agave Spirits

Pulcatta

Pulcatta is a new product category that Xoma is trying to bring awareness to in the United States.  Our partners at the PAD cooperative have experimented alternative value-added products with their traditionally produced pulque.  By distilling their pulque, the cooperative created Xoma, with is aromatic complexity yet delicate aftertaste. Pulcatta, in its way is the most direct agave-to-spirit category, as the aguamiel does not undergo any sort of alteration through baking, roasting, smoking, or steaming before the all natural fermentation and distillation.

Production Process: After the manufacturing of pulque (see above section), Pulcatta goes through a single distillation through a french press to create a 40% ABV spirit.

A complex and fascinating diversity

Every region in Mexico has historically had its version of "mezcal" before the official designations mandated by government regulation. ​The diversity and regional flavor of spirits in Mexico are what make it such a fascinating country to visit and explore.  More know local varieties include:

  • Raicilla: Originating from the state of Jalisco, raicilla is different to tequila as it is typically made with two varieties of agave—lechuguilla and pata de mula and undergoes a single distillation in traditional copper pots. Raicilla tends to be sweeter and fruitier than most other mezcals.
  • Sotol:  Although similar to agave, sotol is made out of a different succulent plant called desert spoon in the northern states of Chihuahua, Durango and Coahuila.  Sotol can either be steamed like tequila or roasted like mezcal. 

  • Bacanora: Another mezcal-like spirit from the state of Sonora. 

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Hecho en México, Raised in Philly