The agaves are piled 3 feet high, shorn of their sword-like paddles and stacked on the precipice of a pit lined with volcanic rock and radiating heat like a subterranean furnace. Each piña—as the agave hearts are called, because of their resemblance to enormous pineapples—represents about eight years of slow growth and a harvest so difficult it makes what is usually referred to as “foraging” seem ridiculously twee. This is wild Mexicano agave, pried from the scorched hillsides surrounding Oaxaca, Mexico, but only after resisting with every fiber of its being—beyond the sharp paddles that can grow 6 feet high, it exudes a liquid that causes a nasty rash on contact. The men who gather it have built up an immunity to the agave’s sting, and now, with expert swings of a long-handled ax, they split, quarter, and toss the piñas into the pit, where they will roast for three days, until they are the color of aged tobacco, sweet as honey, and tinged with the flavor of mesquite and oak, eucalyptus and pinecones.
That a process so primitive produces a drink of such exquisite subtlety is one of the many paradoxes of mezcal. A sip of this powerful spirit—some of the finest examples are more than 90 proof—carries the delicate, piney flavor of the agave, expressing not only the variety, but also whether it is wild or farmed and the specific woods used to roast it. Other distinctions depend on the type of water used to distill it—river versus well—and whether the still was made of clay, copper, or stainless steel. Connoisseurs can even taste how closely the palenqueros chopped the leaves from the heart of the plant. “All of this,” says Vicente Cisneros of El Silencio, the premium mezcal that the roasting agaves will eventually become, “is the art of the mescalier.”
Such hyper-artisanal details are making mezcal a star among mixologists and chefs. Premium tequila may have created a taste for agave-based spirits, but mezcal is a craft product of a higher order. Tequila is made from only one variety of farmed agave—the Weber blue—but mezcal can be made from dozens of different varieties, and only one is widely cultivated, the espadín. Mezcal agaves may be 50 years old when they are harvested, and some species are extremely rare. Lorena Terán, sommelier at Pitiona restaurant in Oaxaca, offers a list of 62 mezcals, including selections such as a Real Minero mezcal made from the blanca agave, a variety that is nearly extinct and generally no longer used. Terán has two bottles of Real Minero’s final, 26-bottle batch, distilled in clay pots in the nearby village of Santa Catarina Minas. It costs about $1,100 a bottle. “For very rare bottles, we sell only by the bottle,” she says. “It’s like a rare wine—you would not sell that by the glass.”
The production process is also more nuanced. To make tequila, the piñas are simply steamed, but for mezcal, small batches of piñas are roasted “in a borderline prehistoric way,” says chef Alex Stupak of Empellón Cocina in New York City, who features mezcal on his spirits list and in dishes on his menu. “There’s a growing awareness of how labor-intensive and artisanal mezcal is, and it makes it more special.” Still, as celebrated as mezcal may be, it represents but a drop in the ocean of tequila, which at retail is a $6 billion industry in the United States. “Mezcal is less than 1 percent of tequila sales,” says Frank Coleman of the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. “It’s a craft distilled product and it is just getting a toehold.”