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Mexican Mezcal, a Tradition Evolving

Mexican Mezcal, a Tradition Evolving

The last elBulli sommelier has been working in Oaxaca, Mexico, with a traditional handcraft mezcal master: the result is a high end agave-based drink.

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Once a humble beverage to be found only in rural areas of Mexico, mezcal drink has now become a nationwide phenomenon. Early adopters could be found sipping this spirit in Mexico City’s underground drinking spots, but it is now also served to sophisticates at the country’s top restaurants as well as in the hippest international bars. This surge in popularity is certainly born of mezcal’s recent fashionability, but also a sign of people’s growing appreciation for an entirely natural and craft production.

This boom is reminiscent of the time when everyone had a DJ-friend; now, we all have at least one friend keen to show off “his new brand of mezcal”. So it was not without a certain scepticism that I went along to Biko to meet Xavier Roca, an international creative guru from Catalonia and now based in Mexico City. As huge fans of mezcal’s herbaceous and smoky notes, Roca and several of his gastronome friends wondered how to produce a highly refined version. And who better to guide them through this uncharted territory than Ferran Centelles, sommelier at the world-famous El Bulli restaurant in Catalonia for its last 13 years.

Initially I wondered what would happen if such an eminently craft spirit were to be “gastrono-mized”. The result turns out to be OAX-BCN: a name that blends the knowledge and technique of two contrasting worlds in perfect harmony, and an unprecedented mezcal that combines the techniques used by the world’s best distilleries while fully respecting the ancestral process.

Magic and Mystery

The agave plant was regarded as a deity in pre-Hispanic times, and was dubbed the árbol de las maravillas, or wonder plant, for providing the raw material for clothing, food and drink; nourished by the soil and the sun, it takes from at least ten and up to twenty-five years to reach maturity, and its life ends when made into mezcal. Its flavours and qualities depend both on the species and on the skill of the local “Maestro Mezcalero”, whose wisdom and patience are equally vital ingredients. Hence it is truly remarkable how Barcelona’s master sommelier sensibility found his way into this wild new world. For mezcal is more than a just drink: it’s a regional emblem that is fitting for the complexities of Oaxaca, one that plays an essential part in communities throughout the state, and a cultural symbol that celebrates human relationships. It is served to welcome visitors, and considered a balm for body and soul.

The Craft Beverage

Labour-intensive work still prevails in this industry that starts with early-morning walks in search of agave plants which are then cut with a single-handed swoop of a machete. Most mescals have been prepared, generation after generation, according to unaltered ancestral traditions. “This adds value because there are very few drinks with this level of craftsmanship and no other spirit connects you to the land like this. Furthermore, it’s the land, and not the cask, that does all of the work, as it nourishes agave plants with deep flavours over the years. That’s the main difference between mezcal and other luxury spirits,” said Centelles when I interviewed him upon his arrival in Mexico City from Oaxaca last September, holding the first bottle of this exclusive mezcal. With production limited to one thousand bottles per year, producers expect to maintain a high level of quality, unique characteristics, and always the best available supplies (which are usually based on seasonal cooking practices).

The Joining of Two Branches of Wisdom

A particular connection bonded these two men, both known for their remarkable talent in the art of spirits. Both were eager to learn from the other, and to share their own knowledge. This was an encounter between two contrasting worlds, between the rugged landscape of San Baltazar Chichicapam, home to the Maestro Mezcalero, and the sophisticated avant-garde surrounds of Barcelona. The Oaxacan master Miguel Sánchez Altamirano represents the fifth generation in a family of artisanal mezcal producers, giving him a rare depth of knowledge and instinct for the spirit; an ability matched by Centelles’ refined nose capable of discerning the slightest whiff of an imperfection. Drawbacks of other mezcals, such as excess alcohol and unpleasant hints of acetone, are expertly avoided by this talented mezcal master.

The bond between the two men is thus created between the Oaxacan and Catalan terroirs and based on an ancestral substance: for this first edition, Ferran Centelles chose a wild agave variety called Madrecuixe—with an iodized, pungent, deep and wild flavour—having identified the molecular similarities between the agave plant family and Mediterranean botanicals in order to select the finest roots and seeds that are native to southern parts of Europe to blend the spirit by adding a touch of complexity to its aroma. The approach has been to refine, with respect. “We wanted to avoid altering the raw material or the production process; the idea was just to give it a special touch, a delicately distinguishing feature, without sacrificing any of the elegant smoky flavours that persist from start to finish”, explained Centelles. OAX-BCN is an exceptional mezcal resulting from two founts of wisdom that have merged to create the perfect balance between aromatic intensity, full-bodiedness and alcoholic sensation, resulting in an elixir that proves that evolution can fit in perfectly with tradition. Salud & Salut!

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