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Reinventing Mezcal Anejo and Con Gusano
Why is it that many in the mezcal business, self-proclaimed experts, and others who claim to know, avoid the idea of drinking mezcal con gusano with any kind of aging product be it reposado or añejo? What’s even more troubling is that many advisors refuse to even touch their lips with anything other than blanco or joven (unadulterated) mezcal. This story is particularly puzzling because corn whiskeys, brandies, scotches and other wines are aged in oak barrels. And, world-renowned chefs and traditional Oaxacan chefs use gusano del maguey or agave worm to spice up some of their recipes.
In the old days, before the mid-1990s, we drank a few varieties of mezcal. Other than that our choices were limited, reposado (aged in oak for several months), añejo (aged in oak for less than a year), “and worm,” and if we were lucky. we can get our hands on the occasional bottle of tobalá. The selection options are very different these days, almost innumerable. Many imbibers have never known or forgotten that good mezcal can come in several forms, including aged and infused.
Mezcal and Gusano
Mezcal con gusano first appeared on the market many years earlier than today. It became popular on college campuses as a cheap way to get drunk quickly from heavy drinking, and indeed, the traditions and legends surrounding its infusion furthered its popularity. The “maggot,” is actually a moth larva that hunts and destroys the roots and heart of some agave species. [variously identified as Aegiale hesperiaris, Hypopta agavis and/or Comadia redtenbacheri] it became a marketing tool for wholesalers, importers, exporters and distributors. But the infusion also changed the flavor of the mezcal in which it was placed. Many have spent a lot of time thinking about how mezcal is changed, and they cannot consider this type of mezcal as a good spirit. Maybe back then it wasn’t like that.
But what if today you enjoy the nuance of mezcal combined with gusano? A few years ago I picked up a bottle of mezcal con gusano from the shelves that stock agave spirits. I drank slowly. The taste reminded me surprisingly of a couple of my favorite whiskeys, peaty single malt scotches from Islay!
Today there are good and bad mezcals with gusanos, and our review is based on subjective opinion, just as there are good and bad mezcals that are not bought. The quality can be affected by, among other things, the type of gusano (although it is usually the same type used to flavor mezcal), how the worm is prepared to be infused into the mezcal, the type and type of agave used to make it. The lower mezcal, is the skill of the master distiller. The point is that, yes, this type of mezcal should be sold with the aim of increasing the sales of the spirit because of its uniqueness, but we should give it a chance, as we can make examples of joven mezcals. Not all mezcals made from madrecuixe, tepeztate, jabalí, tobalá and espadín are the same. Some we like and some we don’t. You can find the same thing with mezcal con gusano. And if you find a few brands you like you might just end up spending $100 USD on a bottle of Lagavulin. So don’t write mezcal con gusano because at this point in history it’s not fun to like, or your memory has been distorted by what it meant to you years or decades ago.
Now the story of aged mezcal is completely different, from the past mezcal con gusano, añejos and a little reposados were considered quality sipping spirits. Fortunately in many circles they still are, and indeed many brands have been able to benefit from the continuation of these ideas. But since the early 2000s a movement has begun, and seems to be gathering steam, to disrupt aged agave spirits, especially mezcal. The reasoning goes like this: they are not “traditional” mezcals; aging covers the natural flavors of mezcals that come from the agave variety and are affected by production and commercial equipment, and the microclimate; and the list goes on. Therefore, we should avoid drinking reposados and añejos at all costs. Advocates of these ideas discuss this, publish their ideas on their websites, and promote their “knowledge” in print, all in the name of promoting the industry.
What could be more traditional than a centuries-old tradition? Depending on the history one registers, the aging of agave spirits in oak barrels began somewhere between the 1500s and 1700s, and not recently. The oral histories that I have personally collected are based on elderly palenqueros telling me what happened to them since the 1940s. The modern crop of owners and representatives was not born at that time.
The history of aging mezcal in wood begins with the Spanish arriving in the New World with brandy being transported in oak barrels. Many barrels were left in what is now Mexico. Even using the most recent date of the 15th century for the birth of distillation in Mexico, we get old age. That is why. At some point, when distillers started making agave spirits and storing and transporting them in clay pots, they realized that the carrying capacity was limited to 70 – 80 liters due to the size of the containers. And since the pots were fragile, they were prone to breaking. Oak barrels from the beginning in Spain were found for the same reason, that is, to store and transport the spirit. They became popular because they were bigger and more stable than the clay “cántaros.” So, if it wasn’t made then by chance, palenqueros were aging in oak, a long time ago, and consumers enjoyed it. Aging mezcal is traditional. Ask the purists who say that mezcal should be kept in a glass. Glasses are traditional? No, clay is, dating earlier than oak. The clay also alters the notes of the agave spirit. Perhaps we should distinguish between traditionalists and purists.
But some of the same “experts”, the purist group, drink, sell and promote mezcal de pechuga. Usually this type of mezcal has been distilled for the third time, where there are many proteins (chicken or turkey, rabbit or venison, etc.) hanging in the upper room of the copper alembic or clay pot, where the steam. This goes through giving subtle changes to the spirit. Many of today’s distillers add more fruits, herbs and spices to the stills while continuing to use the stills. There are enough variations on this topic. In any case, the amount of these added substances changes a lot, and yes to some extent they hide the natural taste provided by the type of agave, production methods and commercial equipment. Where aged agave spirit is not allowed, mezcal de pechuga is, and is sold at attractive prices. Is there a link?
There are other reasons to encourage drinkers to avoid aged mezcal:
1) “I don’t sell añejo at our mezcalería because I haven’t found a good one.” Really? I have certainly found others. I won’t mention brand names, but there are many good añejos out there made by master distillers who take their aging seriously, resting in one type of barrel for six months, then in another type for a year or two, and so on. of course there are palenqueros who stick to some joven espadín in old whiskey or wine barrel and do not take their age too much. But there are some who practice resting their mezcal in oak as an art, a true art; very similar to the Scottish scientists who use, for example, Glenmorangie, with different types of casks and differences over the years. Some of our Oaxacan palenqueros age not only espadín, but also agave varieties such as karwinskii (ie barril and madrecuishe), potatorum (tobalá), etc.
2) “There is a trick in the game, some producers put a drop or two of caramel coloring in their so-called aged mezcals thus tricking people into buying what is not añejo.” Yes, this happens. But when something is added to mezcal, the law dictates that the label show this, making the product look like avocado. And yes, sometimes manufacturers don’t follow the rules. The easiest way is to taste the mezcal, and if it has an oaky or charred or whiskey or other nuance that appeals to you, and you like it, then buy it and enjoy it.
The recent promotion of mezcal based on the type and quality of agave instead of the few groups mentioned earlier, and on the village or region where the agave tree is grown and transformed into mezcal, has helped the industry to reach that point. and today. But the disappointment was that añejos were left behind, and many who have become mezcal aficionados never had the opportunity to try the aged product. And he wouldn’t even think of trying mezcal con gusano. It’s not fun or acceptable in most of today’s society.
It is time to start accepting the differences that include gusanos, reposados and añejos, and either ignore the critics or tell them clearly that their opinion is less valid than ours. If we, the lovers, try mezcal with something in a bottle or something that doesn’t sound right, and we don’t like it, we won’t try it again, or we can try it from another brand or batch. But don’t say it’s not traditional or good quality. Let us be the arbiters. Vendors, mezcalerías and tasting rooms, should consider carrying a small amount of the product so that we can choose it ourselves. Otherwise they are insulting the producers who are still working hard to try to create interesting and diverse mezcals, and most importantly they are restricting the choices of their customers, for no good reason.
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