The Artisanal Method
Harvesting & Growing
It’s all about the seed that grows into an incredible agave plant. The key to making a quality mezcal is to use only agave plants that reach their full maturity. Full maturity varies between each agave species (some up to 35 years!). Once ready, the sharp leaves are hacked off the agave plant and the pina or “agave heart” is dug up from the ground. These heavy weighing agave hearts are then brought to the distillery where they are broken down into quarters and halves for cooking preparation.
Cooking or “Roasting”
Once the agave is hacked up they are ready to roast! A deep pit often called a horno cónico, is dug out of the ground creating an “earth oven”. The oven is filled with wood and covered with rocks and the wood is burned making the rocks red hot for roasting. The piñas are piled into the oven by size with the larger ones on the bottom and smaller ones towards the top. The rocks are covered with a layer of moist fiber to prevent the piñas from scathing. The piñas are covered with banana or agave leaves, and the leaves are covered with petate (woven palm fiber) and then dirt.
The piñas usually cook in the pit for 3 to 5 days or sometimes longer to soften the fibers and transform the starches into sugars, making them fermentation ready. This is the part of the process where Mezcal gets its “smokey” tasting note. The dirt over the pit gets so nice and warm that often the dogs around the distillery will lay on top for comfort!
Once the agave is finished roasting, the earth oven is undone and the chopped up piñas are pulled out of the pit for cooling. The sugars from the warm piñas have been caramelized from the cooking process. You can bite into a piece and get a mouthful of sweetness (so good). The piña pieces are placed into a giant, circular stone pit called a trapiche to be crushed. A stone wheel called a tahona (usually made from volcanic stone) is pulled by a donkey or horse that walks endlessly around the pit until the piñas are crushed into strands of fiber and into a juicy mash, becoming fermentation ready.
The mash and its juices are placed into open air, wooden barrels called vats. These gigantic barrels are then filled with water creating mosto (blend of water, agave nectar and fiber). The magical process of making mezcal yet takes another step as the wild yeast and bacteria fuse together for several days. This creates a blanket of unique and fascinating flavors as the sugar converts into alcohol, now ready for distillation.
The fermentation process is complete and we are now ready for distilling (literally making mezcal!). The mash, fibers and liquid are placed into a copper or clay still, surrounded with brick, heated by wood and fire. Essentially in a distillation, the liquid evaporates into a vapor and then condenses back into a liquid again. In Mezcal making, we usually distill twice. The first distillation produces an impure liquid. The second distillation increases the alcohol level of the liquid which in turn gives us Mezcal!
We love it when we get to place a copita right underneath the spout as the Mezcal flows out to enjoy right away. We also produce Gin from agave in a third distillation, but that’s a story for another time…
Quick note: This is an outline for your basic understanding. The ancient process of making Mezcal is more detailed than you could probably ever imagine with many variables ranging from Mezcalero to Mezcalero and from origin to origin. The information listed is based on our experiences with producing mezcal in Oaxaca.