ABOUT AGAVE SPIRITS
Agave is an “evergreen” desert succulent that has very little ability to handle frost, which thrives in the arid, warm weather regions of North America, Central America, the West Indies, and South America. Known for their large, sturdy, fibrous leaves marked by serrated edges and sharp tips, the vast majority of agave genus flower just once during their five to ten year lifetimes. Depending on the species of Agave the flowering spike can grow as high as 20 feet.
As of May 2019, more than 270 varieties of agave have been identified, yet only about 40 are used to produce “agave spirits” such as Tequila, Mezcal, Bacanora, and Raicilla.
The use of agave as a distilled spirit dates back to the 1500’s, when the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors brought the art of distillation to Mexico. It was not long thereafter that native inhabitants acquired the knowledge and mastered the techniques to bake and process the agave plant to create the first distilled spirit of the Americas: Mezcal.
The word “mezcal” comes from the Nahuatl mexcalli [meʃˈkalːi], meaning "oven-cooked agave,” as its distinct smoky flavor is generated from the unique manner in which the plant is “baked.” The flavor of this agave spirit varies from species to species, according to the region, climate, and soil conditions in which it is grown.
Perhaps the most well-known mezcal is made from Weber Blue Agave, or Agave Tequilana, which is used to produce Tequila. Through an Appellation of Origin bestowed upon it by the Mexican government in 1974 - now recognized and accepted by virtually all other countries - Tequila can only be made from 100% Agave Tequilana. It is only permitted to be produced in the Mexican state of Jalisco, along with a few limited municipalities in Guanjuato, Michoacán, Nayarit, and Tamaulipas.
The process of making Tequila has remained relatively constant over the years. Once the Agave Tequilana plant has flowered, Jimadores use a special knife known as a Coa to manually strip the sharp leaves, revealing a heart (or piña). Plants harvested in different regions of Jalisco vary in size. Thus, each heart will weigh between 100 and 150 pounds from the lowlands, but almost 100 pounds more if harvested in the highlands.
The agave hearts are then transported to ovens, most often made of brick, where they are baked for several days. The cooked hearts are mashed or shredded to extract the agave “juice,” which is placed into wooden barrels or stainless steel tanks for fermentation. The fermented liquid, known as “wort” or “mosto,” is then distilled to produce “ordinario.” This ordinario is then distilled again, resulting in “silver” (or Blanco) Tequila. The national guidelines for Tequila require two distillations, and the finished product must contain between 35% and 55% alcohol by volume. Interestingly, the alcohol level must be 40% or higher in order to be sold in the United States.
Blanco is finished, unaged Tequila. However, Blanco may also be placed in Oak barrels, where it “rests” while drawing additional flavor from the wood. Tequila that rests between two months and one year takes on an amber color and is known as Reposado. If the liquid rests for more than a year, it becomes Añejo. Extra Añejo is the term given to Añejo which has rested at least three years.
In recent years, Tequila producers have begun to produce a product known as Cristalino. This is simply a Reposado, Añejo, or Extra Añejo that has undergone a filtration process to remove impurities and any amber color. The finished spirit is crystal clear and generally very smooth.
In keeping with its desire to provide the highest quality products, IZO Spirits - in conjunction with an award-winning distillery in the town of Tequila, Jalisco - now offers an exceptionally smooth and distinctly flavorful Extra Añejo Cristalino Tequila.
While “mezcal” originally referred to all agave spirits, the term was restricted in 1994 by Mexico’s issuance of an Appellation of Origin. Now, only nine states in Mexico - Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Michoacan, Oaxaca, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas - are designated locations where Mezcal can be produced.
In general, each state has one or two predominant varieties of agave that grow in abundance. Mezcal from Oaxaca is almost always made from Agave Angustifolia (commonly called “Espadin”), which makes up the majority of all Mezcal produced in Mexico.
IZO Spirits’ award-winning Mezcal Joven is made in the state of Durango, where the predominant agave is Agave Durangensis (commonly known as “Cenizo”), which requires eight to ten years to reach maturity. Other varieties of agave indigenous to Durango include Lamparillo, Masparillo, Castilla, Verde and Tepemete.
Just as with Tequila, the process for producing Mezcal has remained largely unchanged from its earliest days. However, unlike Tequila production - which has become a huge international business wherein numerous large distilleries produce vast amounts of Tequila products annually - Mezcal has, for the most part, continued to be produced in small batches in production houses called ”fábricas,” “palenques,” or “vinatas.” Any given village throughout the nine designated states may have dozens of vinatas, each using methods passed down from generation to generation.
The process of creating Mezcal is similar to Tequila, in that it starts with Jimadores stripping the leaves from mature plants to reveal the piñas. Since the Cenizo plant grows large, the average size heart must be halved or quartered for easier transportation. In Durango, because of the higher elevation and hilly terrain, our Jimadores use a team of burros to pack the split hearts to dump trucks, which then deliver them to the fire pits.
Each pit is lined with lava rock and filled with locally selected Oak. Sometimes these pits are referred to as “hornos”, but technically a “horno” is a “bee-hive” shaped clay oven, more frequently used in the production of Tequila. The agave hearts are then stacked on top of the burning Oak, and the entire pit is covered with a large tarp and a layer of dirt. The piñas are allowed to bake for several days. By baking the agave hearts directly over the burning wood, a distinct “smoky” flavor is infused into the agave, which is what primarily differentiates Mezcal from Tequila.
As with Tequila, the baked hearts are placed in a grinder or shredder to extract the juice, which is transferred into fermentation tanks. At our distillery in Durango, well water is then added to reduce the sugar content to the precise level at which fermentation will occur both naturally and at an optimum rate. No additives, including yeast, are used in the production of any of IZO’s products, allowing the fermentation process to run nature’s course (normally, this step requires 3-4 days).
The fermented juice is then distilled to produce “aguavino.” The aguavino is then distilled again, producing a Mezcal that is approximately 52% alcohol by volume. Filtered well water is added to reduce the alcohol content to 47%. Finally, the Mezcal is pressure filtered twice through a microfiber membrane filtration system. Each step in the production process is scrutinized by IZO’s Bio-chemist and Master Mescalero and Sotolero, José. It is through this last step that José removes virtually all impurities, while maintaining a lightly smoked and abundant flavor in each of our IZO spirits.
The exact process for the production of Mezcal will differ for each vinata, but all will bake the heart in a wood burning fire pit to ensure a “smoke” taste in the final product.
Mezcal Joven is unaged Mezcal. Just as Tequila Blanco is placed in Oak barrels to mature, so is Mezcal Joven placed in Oak barrels to “rest.” Mezcal that is aged for at least two months is called Reposado. Mezcal aged for at least a year is known as Añejo. Like Tequila, Mezcal that is aged in Oak barrels becomes infused with the flavor of the wood and turns amber in color.
IZO’s award winning Mezcal, Joven is rested in American Oak barrels for two months to produce IZO’s Mezcal Reposado. The alcohol content is slightly reduced during the resting process to 44% alcohol by volume, while the flavors are robustly enhanced.
IZO also plans to produce a Mezcal Añejo, coming to market in early 2021.
Ensamble Versus Blend
Combining two or more types of agave results in a Mezcal referred to as either a Blend or an Ensamble.
If the types of agave are baked, fermented and distilled separately to produce individual Mezcals, which are then mixed together, the product will be considered a “Blend”.
An “Ensamble” refers to agaves that are baked, fermented, and distilled together.
This distinction is critical, because even if the same agaves are used in both processes, the aromas and flavors of the two final spirits will not be the same. Ensambles and Blends can also be aged to produce Reposado and Añejo.
IZO Spirits’ Ensamble Joven is made by baking Cenizo and Lamparillo together. The resulting flavor profile is distinctly different from our Mezcal Joven, but equally complex, rich, and smooth.
A cousin of Tequila and Mezcal, Bacanora is produced only in the northern Mexican state of Sonora using a different variety of Agave Angustifolia, commonly called “Pacifica”. Though the production process is very similar to Mezcal, by using Pacifica versus Espadin, the result is an agave spirit that is distinctly different from any other Mezcal. As with Mezcal, the taste of each Bacanora will change due to climate and soil conditions, and the specific production process of each fabrique.
By aging the Bacanora in Oak barrels, Reposado and Añejo can be produced.
Although no Designation of Origin has been given to Bacanora, the Sonorense Council Promoting the Regulation of Bacanora - a state governmental agency - is responsible for certifying its quality and promoting it throughout the industry.
IZO Spirits has partnered with a distillery in Sonora to offer a full-bodied, smooth, and consistent Bacanora as part of its line of agave spirits.
Perhaps the oldest (but least known) agave spirit is Raicilla, whose origin is attributed to the southwestern portion of the state of Jalisco. Made from agave hearts, (except Blue Agave) it is essentially a mezcal. However, because it is a product of Jalisco, which is not one of the nine sanctioned states to produce Mezcal, it cannot be called Mezcal. Frequently referred to as “Mexican moonshine,” it was produced and sold for centuries without government sanction and primarily enjoyed by miners and farmers. Following the Spanish conquest, “Mezcal” became heavily taxed, which forced production to move underground. Villagers seeking to avoid taxation began calling it “little root” or Raicilla and claimed the spirit did not use the agave piña like mezcal (although it did), but that it was made from the “roots” of the agave.
Raicilla is usually produced in small batches and, depending upon the type and location of the “taberna” (Raicilla Distillery), the production process can look quite different.
In some cases, the agave is cooked for 24 hours in hornos. Others cook it for 3-4 days in below-ground fire pits. Some Raicilleros (distillers) separate the hearts from the wood, while others bake both together. The cooked hearts may be chopped into pieces and the pulp beaten by hand with large wooden hammers called “mazos,” or they may be mashed with a grinder. Fermentation usually occurs using clay or copper pots and can take anywhere from seven to thirty days. Distillation may be performed once or twice to produce the final spirit, which ranges from 35% to 50% alcohol by volume.
Upon completion of distillation, bottled Raicilla is referred to as “Blanco.” If it rests in oak barrels for less than a year, it is called “Joven”; between one and two years, it is “Reposado”; more than two years, it becomes “Añejo.”
Like Mezcal, the flavor profile for Raicilla varies widely due to many factors, including the type of agave used, the region in which it is grown, and the production process at the taberna. Distilling once or twice will also dramatically affect the final spirit. While Raicilla has been known historically as a harsher, rougher agave spirit produced in non-government-approved facilities, several distilleries in Jalisco have made a recent effort to produce it legally and export artisanal varieties to the United States. In fact, the Mexican Raicilla Promotion Council is currently working to obtain a Designation of Origin for the product.
Sotol is a distilled spirit produced from a desert plant, which is not in the agave genus. Commonly known in the United States as “Desert Spoon”, Dasylirion or Sotol, is actually a member of the same family as asparagus. The leaves are slender and have a serrated edge. While the tips are sharp, the leaves are not as thick or robust as agave plants, giving the plant a wispy appearance. Dasylirion produces a long flowering stem like agave, but each plant will flower every couple of years, instead of once in a lifetime.
Throughout the centuries, Sotol stems have been used as walking sticks, lances, and spear shafts. Sandals, baskets, ropes, mats, and many other items made of Sotol fiber have been unearthed at ancient burial sites, indicating that it was highly important to ancient cultures. Today, only the hearts are used in the production of the Sotol spirit.
Each plant takes approximately 15 years to reach maturity, at which time the leaves are stripped to reveal the core, or heart. The plants are smaller than most agave species, and as a result, it takes an entire Sotol plant to produce one bottle of spirit. While it has been historically produced through artisanal methods in smaller batches, the method of baking, fermenting, and distilling Sotol is very similar to that of Mezcal.
Unaged Sotol is known as Plata. Plata that is “rested” (or aged) for two months to one year is called “Reposado” and, if rested for a year or more, it becomes “Añejo.”
At IZO, we produce our Sotol using the same process as our Mezcal Joven. The result is a lightly smoked spirit with a very earthy, complex flavor profile that tends to linger pleasantly on your palate long after sipping.