Everyone has a tequila story and, more often than not, they’re variations on Choose Your Own Adventure books that all end with a handful of ibuprofen and solemn promises to never to drink tequila again. When you’ve sworn to leave tequila on the shelf forever, you’re ready for mezcal, its increasingly en vogue sibling.
Mezcales de Leyenda is doing its part to honor the stories and traditions of the mezcaleros who continue to practice their craft, working with them to release some very special spirits. For its most recent offering, it has partnered with mezcaleros in Tzitzio, a town in the western Mexican state of Michoacán, where some mezcal is aged in glass bottles and buried underground for nine months. This Cementerio Mezcalero (Mezcal Graveyard) is then unearthed during the three day Día de Muertos celebration each year.
We spoke with Danny Mena, a partner in Mezcales de Leyenda, about the origins of this tradition, about mezcal itself and the best possible way to enjoy it.
Eat Sip Trip: For starters, what is the difference between mezcal and tequila?
Danny Mena: Tequila has to be made from blue agave that comes from the Tequila region in northeast Mexico, and Mezcal has a denomination of origin too, just like cognac. True mezcal is from one of nine [Mexican] states and must be made from 100% agave. You can’t do any mixtos. Mezcal has two meanings, though. There’s a cultural meaning: the word itself means ‘cooked agave,’ so all tequilas technically start as mezcal. There’s also a political meaning, which is the denomination of origin.
EST: Do you know when or where the tradition of burying mezcal underground started?
Mena: I’ve heard a couple of different stories. Mezcal has a murky past within Mexico. The government was against it for a while, because it was kind of like moonshine: there was a lot of bathtub mezcal, there was no control and if it was not well-distilled, it could cause harm due to its methanol content. They would hide it from the government to avoid paying taxes. In Jalisco, the tequila producers didn’t welcome any kind of competition, so they’d steal the mezcal and destroy the stills, so the mezcaleros started to hide theirs too. But in other regions, they learned that storing it underground would keep it from weather changes, sunlight or temperature extremes that could degrade it. They’d bury the good stuff – the triple-distilled stuff – underground and they’d pull it out when they wanted to do something special for a wedding, a birthday or a quinceanera.
EST: Or for Day of the Dead?
Mena: As Mexicans, we look at death a little bit differently. Day of the Dead in Mexico is a special celebration, a happy celebration. The mezcaleros we’ve been working with in Tzitzio have been doing this for about seven years, using what they call the Mezcal Cemetery and uncovering the mezcal. There’s a beautiful aspect to it, because Tzitzio is a small community in Michoacán, the second-to-last state that became part of the denomination of origin. Now they’re seeing a little more economic reward from resurrecting this mezcal. The cemetery and the Day of the Dead are bringing this community back to life.
EST: In your opinion, what’s the best way to drink mezcal?
Mena: When there’s some sort of event like this, when they uncover the mezcal, it’s about the celebration and the camaraderie. There’s two aspects to mezcal that I think are important: one is to enjoy and embrace the culture, tradition, time and energy that were put into the drink. The other is to just sit back and enjoy it, without over-examining it. So I’d say drink it amongst friends, in a nice glass, neat.