A Field Guide to the Agave Used For Mezcal

Agave angustifolia (Espadin)

A. karwinskii (Madrecuixe)

Mezcal is the precursor spirit to modern day tequila; it has been produced since the mid 16th century, and many distillers still use ancient techniques for much of it’s production. Unlike tequila, which can only be made from the Weber blue species of agave, mezcal is produced with multiple species that are either cultivated or foraged from the wild. Each individual species varies in flavor and aroma complexities depending on their specific region of growth, which are spread between the eight mezcal producing regions of Mexico: Oaxaca, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, and Michoacan.

A. capreata (Paplometl)

The laws that regulate the production of mezcal, known as NORMA, designate five species of agave that are used for its creation: Agave angustifolia (espadin), A. asperrima (maguey de cerro), A. weberi (maguey de mezcal), A. petatorum (tobala), and A. salmiana (maguey verde o mezcalero) — but it also states that any agave with the proper sugar content that grows within the eight regions of production can be used as well. There are over 200 known species of agave that grow within Mexico, and around 30 to 50 of them are believed to be used to produce mezcal.

A. marmorata (Tepextate)

The dominant species that is used is the A. angustifolia (espadin) species that makes up 90% of mezcal production. It is the genetic parent of the A. tequilana (weber blue) species that is used for tequila, and it shares some of the floral and tropical flavors of its offspring, which can vary depending on its region of growth. It is harvested at around nine years old, and it is both cultivated and grows wild throughout Mexico.

The more elusive bottlings of mezcal use wild species that fall into a category many producers are calling “vino de mezcal.” Most of these agaves that are used usually grow in hard to reach places or are semi-cultivated within certain regions. These agaves are also harvested much later in their growing cycle and can be up to 25 years old. As a result, they tend to be more complex in flavor and aroma. Some examples of these species are the A. marmorata (tepextate) that has tropical, floral, and spicy notes, the A. karwinskii (madrecuixe) that is vegetal, fruity, and herbaceous, and the A. capreata (paplometl) that is earthy, fruity, and meaty.

A. petatorum (Tobala)

A more easily found example of the wild species in the A. petatorum (tobala). Know to many as the “king of mezcals,” the tobala is described as being vibrant and complex with earthy, tropical, sweet, and spicy characteristics. This species grows at higher elevations (around 5000 ft), and prefers rocky canyons that have plenty of shade. It is much smaller in size than traditional agaves at a ratio of eight tobala to one normal sized agave, and it is harder to procure because it does not produce offspring on its own. Instead, this species relies on animals to spread its seeds, which makes its placement sporadic throughout each region.

There are many other wild agaves that are used in mezcal production, but a complete list doesn’t really exist. Some experts and connoisseurs have taken it upon themselves to try an create such a thing, but information is scarce. On the plus side, there is an increasing interest in mezcal here in the states, and we are now seeing more producers that use the wilder species taking the time to educate the drinker on what specific agave species are used and where they comes from.

With more than 1000 distilleries making mezcal throughout Mexico, you’ll find plenty of wonderful examples of espadin mezcal available, and companies such as Del Maguey, Wahaka, Mezcal Mayalen, Ilegal, El Jolgorio, Real Minero, Mezcales De Leyenda, and Mezcal Vago also have wonderful portfolios that include many of the wild growing species. Most of these producers can be found around the U.S., but be warned that the rarer the species, the higher the price tag.

All photos courtesy of Del Maguey and Sazerac.

How Patrón Turns Technology into Tequila

High-tech has finally made its way to the agave fields of Jalisco, where Patrón is working to leverage tech to bring drinkers around the world closer to the brand.

The first technology involves VR, in which Patrón showcases the company,and production facilities in virtual reality. Using a Samsung Gear VR Virtual Reality Headset with a Samsung Note 4, we were able to visually walk the paths through their agave fields, watch an enormous wheel made from volcanic rock crush the roasted piñas, and look down rows of the aging barrels stacked high. The VR technology lets you look  left and right…even turn back and look where you’ve been or up at the sunny sky above. The music adds to the experience, and we liked the little honey bee who guided us in. It was fun and, of course, we had to watch it several times to take it all in. Kudos to Patron for producing a marketing video that’s actually fun to watch.

Up next is the Patrón Cocktail Lab, which uses Amazon Alexa (Amazon’s virtual assistant web app which interacts and responds to voice commands) and powers the Amazon Echo. Patron uses Alexa to help you narrow down the thousands of cocktail possibilities into something that fits that evening’s mood. By answering a few basic questions about what you like, Alexa recommends, and provides recipes for, drinks tailored just for you. You can save them for future reference if you like. It’s a fun way to interact with your guests at a party by letting them tell Alexa their likes and selecting the perfect cocktail, though you may have to try it more than once if you’re missing ingredients. If you don’t have any devices with Alexa, you can still access the Patrón Cocktail Lab from their website.

Review: GEM&BOLT Mezcal

GEM&BOLT? Such a bizarre product name doesn’t come our way too often. In this case, one has to surmise, the Gem refers to the mezcal base of the product, and the Bolt is the little something extra added — Damiana, which is a popular herb in Latin America and which is sometimes used to make a liqueur on its own. The Mezcal is made in the San Felipe del Agua region of Oaxaca.

A little information from the distillers:

Fair-trade and sustainable, GEM&BOLT Mezcal is created by a 4th generation master distiller in Oaxaca, Mexico and is the only mezcal on the market distilled with damiana, a mythical Mexican herb that naturally complements the essential “heart opening properties” of this 100% pure agave mezcal. Unlike Tequila (by regulation) which only has to be 51% agave, mezcal is closely regulated to adhere to strict traditional methods, and must be 100% agave. Making GEM&BOLT Mezcal a clean, unadulterated product for consumers who care about what they put in their bodies.

The nose immediately indicates that something unusual is in the mix, with a distinct sweetness above and beyond even the most sugar-forward of mezcal bottlings. Intensely floral on the nose (that’s the damiana talking), with overtones of cinnamon sugar, it still has that lightly smoky, vegetal funk that is the hallmark of mezcal. On the palate, the spirit offers a similar experience, which includes heavy herbal/floral notes that play out over a strange base of roasted mushroom and wet forest floor. The finish evokes the burnt embers of a dying fire — it’s distinctly light on the smoke compared to most mezcals — but also layers on a bitter, vegetal note that mars the more effervescent early character of the mezcal and leaves you wondering where all that sweetness on the nose ran off to.

All told, this might work as a mixer in an herb-heavy cocktail, but on its own the lack of both focus and balance leave the imbiber wanting.

88 proof. Aka Gem y Bolt Mezcal.

C+ / $58 / gemandbolt.com

Recipe: Two Tequila Cocktails for National Hot Toddy Day


The typical Hot Toddy is made with whiskey. In honor of National Hot Toddy Day, here’s a spin on the formula. The following two recipes have a nice tequila twist to them and are brought to us from 1800 Tequila.

The first is Miner’s Cough, which will delight coffee lovers around the world. The tequila enhances the bitters just enough to bring out an underlying chocolate note. Boldly sweet, the dark roast coffee intensifies towards the end of the sip. The lager whipped cream is not as sweet, which makes it an airy compliment to the entire cocktail.

Miner’s Cough
2 oz. 1800 Añejo Tequila
1 oz. dark roast coffee
3 dashes chocolate bitters
1/2 oz. agave nectar
top with lager whipped cream

Combine all ingredients into shaker. Shake for 10 seconds and strain into a rocks glass. Top with Lager Whipped Cream and garnish with shaved chocolate.

To make the lager whipped cream:
1 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup powdered sugar
2 tbsp lager beer (We used Sam Adams Boston Lager)

Add the cream and powdered sugar to a stand mixer. Beat on high until soft peaks form. While mixer is running, add the lager and vanilla, beat until soft peaks return. (A stout beer may also be substituted if preferred.)

For a more traditional Hot Toddy, except for the alcohol base, try a Jalisco’s Toddy. It is lightly sweetened by the honey which is punctuated by the ginger and lemon. The chamomile and cinnamon mix with the cider and tequila for a belly-warming drink. Be warned though—drink this while it’s hot. Once tepid, it’s taste resembles a cough drop. Then again, if you have a cold, that might be just what you need.

Jalisco’s Toddy
2 oz. 1800 Añejo Tequila
2 oz. chamomile tea
3/4 oz. apple cider
1/2 oz. honey syrup (equal parts honey and water, simmered for five minutes)
1/2 oz. lemon juice
2 slices ginger root (ground ginger can also be used but it will not be as prevalent in the overall drink taste)
pinch of ground cinnamon

In a pot, combine the apple cider, ginger root, lemon juice, and cinnamon.  Allow to heat up to a rolling boil. Next brew the tea. Add more than one tea bag, so flavor is heightened. In a glass, add the tequila and honey syrup. Stir and combine heated tea, cider, and tequila mixture. Garnish with lemon peel and a cinnamon stick.

Review: Expresiones del Corazon Barrel-Aged Tequila (Blanco, Buffalo Trace Reposado, Thomas Handy Anejo & Old Rip Van Winkle Anejo) 2016

For a few years now, Corazón Tequila has been releasing special, limited editions of its tequila under the name Expresiones del Corazón. The idea? Age tequila in barrels that used to hold some of the most prized whiskeys from Buffalo Trace Distillery. This year’s release includes the usual blanco, plus tequilas aged in Buffalo Trace, Thomas H. Handy Sazerac (new to the lineup), and Old Rip Van Winkle barrels. (To compare, check out the 2015 and 2013 releases of these tequilas.)

All are 80 proof.

Expresiones del Corazon Artisanal Edition Small-Batch Distilled Blanco – Unaged tequila (rested for 60 days in stainless steel), this is the base for what’s in the barrel-aged expressions that follow. The nose offers gentle herbs along with a detectable sweetness, plus notes of white pepper and lemon peel, a fairly complex introduction. On the palate, lemon-dusted sugar kicks things off, backed by notes of light agave and some forest floor character. It’s a blanco that’s on the soft side, but it’s also lively, sweet, and quite harmonious. On the whole, it’s a fresh and versatile blanco that comes together well without overly complicating the formula. B+ / $60

Expresiones del Corazon Buffalo Trace Reposado – Aged 10 and-a-half months in Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels. Light and fragrant on the nose, with some butterscotch and ample vanilla notes. The body is also quite light considering the time spent in barrel, but pleasantly laced with milk chocolate and vanilla caramel before notes of black pepper and gentle agave make their way to the fore. The finish has a bit more oomph than in previous years, making this the best expression of the Buffalo Trace Reposado I’ve encountered to date. A- / $70

Expresiones del Corazon Thomas H. Handy Anejo – Aged 19 months in Thomas H. Handy Sazerac whiskey barrels. On par with the color of the Reposado above. Lots of red pepper on the nose, with very heavy herbal notes of thyme and rosemary. The body is a surprising bit of a blazer, again with red pepper and spice — think cinnamon red hots — paving the way for notes of burnt caramel, dark chocolate, and smoldering embers of a wood fire. Fun stuff, and wholly unexpected given the general gentleness of the series. The official tasting notes say only that this tequila has “a light, sweet taste,” which could not be more wrong. Very limited quantities. A- / $80

Expresiones del Corazon Old Rip Van Winkle Anejo – Aged in Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon barrels for 23 months. As with prior renditions, this is extremely light in color. A nutty tequila, with notes of marzipan alongside the butterscotch and vanilla. It’s light on the agave, but it’s there. On the palate, there’s a peppery start that quickly segues into vanilla and caramel notes — the two sides play off one another quite beautifully — before finishing with a bit of an herbal lick. This is a nicely rounded tequila that offers both great balance and more complexity than you’d think. A- / $80

expresionesdelcorazon.com

Review: Espolon Tequila Anejo X Extra Anejo

Looking for a really old tequila? Espolon Anejo X takes the extra anejo formula to new heights, with this expression spending a full six years in barrel before bottling. In a world where most extra anejos top out at 5 years, Espolon is trying to push the boundaries… while keeping prices lean.

Surprise #1: Espolon Anejo X offers an herbal intro on the nose, a rarity in a world where even a typical two-year-old anejo has long lost its agave character, replacing it with thick vanilla and caramel notes. Here, the agave remains at the fore, though it takes on an earthiness you don’t see in most tequilas – somewhat mushroomy, with notes of wet earth, but balanced by some cinnamon character. I catch a little lemon peel and some mint in the nose, as well.

The palate kicks off with more of a traditional extra anejo character, big with vanilla-caramel notes – before quickly segueing back to agave. Here it takes on a more heavily pepper-fueled character, with a bitter note of lemon zest behind it. The finish takes things full circle; it’s lightly sweet — think cinnamon sugar – with just a touch of red pepper behind it.

In the end, if you served me this blind I’d never guess it was an extra anejo, let alone a six year old tequila. Rather, it comes across more like a really great reposado – although I suppose I’d be shot for putting this into a margarita, no?

82 proof.

B+ / $99 / tequilaespolon.com

Review: Blue Nectar Tequila Complete Lineup (2016)

We first encountered Blue Nectar in 2014. The Lowlands tequila producer had an avant garde approach to production, which included a reposado-anejo blend and a flavored reposado in the mix. Since then, the company has done some rebranding (while keeping the perfume bottle profile), shuffled some labels and product names, and added a full anejo to the mix, while sticking with its “agave forward” flavor profile.

Here’s a fresh look at the full (and now complete) lineup of tequilas. All are 80 proof.

Blue Nectar Tequila Silver – A triple-distilled blanco, this tequila noses with notes of green pepper, some cinnamon, and ample, herbal agave. On the palate, the flavor of roasted agave dominates, with black pepper notes clinging to the back of the throat. Sweetness is present, but elusive, as hot vegetal notes tend to dominate. B / $43

Blue Nectar Tequila Reposado Extra Blend – Double-distilled. Aged six to eight months in charred North American oak barrels and blended with three-year extra añejo. This effectively corresponds to the 2014 Reposado bottling. Though the nose is restrained and agave-heavy, it drinks with more oomph, offering notes of vanilla, nutmeg, and ample orange peel. The finish is lingering with notes of cola and barrel char — almost whiskey-like at times with a dusty, coal-fired finish. B+ / $48

Blue Nectar Tequila Reposado Special Craft – Double-distilled. Aged six to eight months in charred North American oak barrels and infused with essential oils and a hint of agave nectar. This is the equivalent of the 2014 Special Reserve. This surprisingly noses more like a traditional reposado, with clear cinnamon, cloves, and vanilla aromas. The body is all kinds of crazy, though, very sweet, with notes of marzipan, banana, whipping cream, and saltwater taffy. The finish is gummy and lingering, impossibly sugar-rich. C+ / $53

Blue Nectar Tequila Anejo Founder’s Blend – A new addition. Double-distilled, and aged for one to two years in charred American oak barrels and blended with extra añejo, including a limited production five year old extra añejo. It offers a relatively traditional, old tequila nose, with deep vanilla, dusky barrel char, and sweet caramel notes at the fore. The palate is equally well-formed, offering more dark caramel, some chocolate, a touch of maple, and cinnamon. The agave hangs in there, showing its face on the finish as an afterimage of what’s come before. Nicely made. A- / $67

bluenectartequila.com

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