A rare opportunity dropped into my lap recently, thanks to a contact from a major liquor distributor who knew I had a thing for mezcal. With a great many thanks to her, I got to try a new product by Del Maguey that’s set to hit stores starting July 1.
Before I ponder over the unique flavors and aromas of this tongue-tingling spirit, let’s first talk briefly about mezcal and tequila: both are made from agave, but have very different end products.
Tequila, made primarily in the Jalisco region of Mexico (with a short list of municipal exceptions outside the state), comes from only the Blue Weber agave plants, and it cannot be mixed with corn syrup or other additives (otherwise the spirits obtain the moniker of mixto). In order to receive its name, tequila must meet these three criteria.
Production of tequila can follow one of two paths, but the most traditional method involves first harvesting, then “baking” the agave hearts in clay ovens, followed by shredding the baked agave, fermenting the extracted sugars from shredding, distilling the fermented spirit, and finally ageing the product prior to bottling. If you’re interested in a more in-depth discussion on tequila production, check out these resources.
By comparison, mezcal can be made from different (upwards of fifty) species of agave other than the Blue Weber, or a blend of two or more agaves; two of the most common are Barril and Espadín. Like tequila, though, mezcal must be made in any of nine states of Mexico to earn its name.
When making mezcal, instead of using clay ovens, the agave hearts (piñas) are either roasted in a pit or steamed. Kara Newman of Wine Enthusiast elaborates on the next processing steps:
The cooked plant then gets pulverized. A tahona, a giant stone wheel often drawn by a donkey or mule, is the customary way to crush the agaves. A growing number of distilleries have mechanized this process, which is less romantic, but certainly more efficient. Other smaller producers may use a mallet or machete to smash the cooked piñas.(Newman, 2019)
The smokiness often associated with mezcal can come from a few sources, including the agave species, the type of woods used in roasting, and roasting itself. However, mezcal does not have to be incredibly smoky! Several brands out there keep it to a minimum.
Del Maguey, a major player in building mezcal’s reputation since 1995, focuses on the styles and traditions of individual villages throughout Mexico, with subsequent releases (such as with tonight’s review) coming from new locations and therefore new “expressions.”
A notable quotation I found on the Del Maguey Instagram page states to “sip it, don’t shoot it;” while their Vida bottles give the curious and adventurous an opportunity to blend mezcal into cocktails that originally call for tequila, their single-village series seems meant more for slowing down and enjoying straight and neat.
Now, let’s dig into the Vida de Muertos itself, which again will be available for purchase starting tomorrow, on July 1.
Named for autumnal agave harvests within the village that lead to a release on the famous Dia de Los Muertos, this 100% Espadín hails from the village of San Luis Del Rio in Oaxaca. Post harvest, the agave piñas were roasted for an average of a week, with a similar timetable for fermentation, and then distilled in a copper still. The final product clocks in at a solid 45% ABV or 90 proof, with promotional materials touting its virtues of incredible complexity.
Okay, okay… I can hear you all urging me to get on with it and try the mezcal. Believe me, I’ve been looking forward to this all day!
Del Maguey “Vida de Muertos”
Beautifully clear. Maybe the slightest hint of pale straw, but it’s barely discernible.
Quite a bit happening here! I made the mistake of sticking my nose in the glass when I really didn’t need to — with a brief swirl, the aromas came to life a good three to six inches away.
Smokiness is present, but pleasantly muted. I discovered some high floral notes with a middle ground of delicate tropical fruit, grounded by the aforementioned smoke and dried herbs. Overall a prominent aroma profile, with key players of oregano, roasted peppers, white flowers, and ripe melon.
Obviously, I can’t follow the same standards here as I would for a wine, but I’d definitely call this mezcal complex.
Earthiness and spice are much more prominent on the palate: smoked green peppers, chives, and white pepper immediately come to mind. Fruit takes a bit of a backseat but still has strong representation through guava, melon, and other tropical examples I can’t quite put my finger on to identify.
My tongue sizzles from the smoke and spice, but the mezcal softens and rounds out at the end of its looooooong finish. While a bit warm due to the ABV, it actually helps develop those green pepper notes and herbaceousness into something akin to a dish freshly served from the oven and immediately savored — it’s that kind of burn, and not the unpleasant “bad day with tequila” kind for which we all have that story.
First off, I completely agree with Del Maguey’s solemn admonition to sip; there’s far too much going on in the nuances of this mezcal to fully appreciate when shooting it.
Seriously, don’t shoot this. It’s wasteful. It’s too good for that.
In terms of cocktails, the Vida de Muertos would blend beautifully into a Paloma, a Sour or a Ranch Water, all of which would highlight each layer from earthy to floral. Anything with more ingredients I fear would overpower the spirit in its entirety. Simplicity is key here.
If I wasn’t already a huge fan of mezcal, the Del Maguey Vida de Muertos would hands down make me a convert. Without knowing what to really expect, I was not only surprised, but downright shocked by just how much flavor the palenquero and mezcalero were able to nurture and tease from these autumn-harvest agave plants.
Have I piqued your interest yet? The Vida de Muertos is a brand-new release by Del Maguey, so talk to your local liquor merchant about ordering a bottle for you if it’s not already on the shelf. If asked where they can get it, tell them to contact their distributor for Pernod-Ricard products.
Special thanks (x1000!!!!) goes to Debi for offering me a sample of this extraordinary spirit. Don’t miss your chance to try it, too.