Wine Enthusiast Podcast: A Wine Lover’s Guide to Mezcal

Mezcal Illustration for Wine Enthusiast Podcast
Illustration by Ellen Surrey
Terroir is a term often used among wine lovers to express a sense of place from which a product was cultivated. Soil, site topography, climate and more all impact the natural environment and growing conditions for agricultural products such as vines, but then why is this term near-exclusively used when talking about wine, and not for other beverage categories or types?

Today’s episode might just change your mind.

Spirits Editor Kara Newman speaks with mezcal experts Lou Bank and Salvador “Chava” Peribán about the wonderfully complex and absolutely delicious world of mezcal and agave heritage spirits, including why the concept of terroir is not just for grapes.

No strangers to artisanal mezcal, Bank and Peribán cohost the Agave Road Trip podcast. Bank is the founder and executive director of SACRED (Saving Agave for Culture, Recreation, Education and Development), a U.S.-based 501c3 not-for-profit corporation that helps improve lives in the rural Mexican communities where heirloom agave spirits are made. Peribán develops strategies and processes to achieve sustainable, fair and beautiful products, including agave spirits. He has worked as head distiller at Sombra, where he also helped reduce the distillery’s ecological footprint, and is currently immersed in a yet-to-be-revealed agave project in Mexico City.

There are many layers of consideration when it comes to defining mezcal and heritage agave spirits, but this lively and informative discussion shares production and product insight into why all mezcals don’t all taste alike, as well as which terms and bottles you should be seeking out now.

To learn more about agave spirits, start with this primer on the differences between Tequila and mezcal, then read more about mezcal production here. You can also check out recent reviews for recommendations on bottles to try today, or try this recipe for a Mezcal Margarita.

Episode Transcript

Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting.

Speakers: Lauren Buzzeo, Kara Newman,
Lou Bank, Chava Periban

Lauren Buzzeo 0:09
Hello, and welcome to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast. You’re serving of wine trends and passionate people beyond the bottle. I’m Lauren Buzzeo, the managing editor at Wine Enthusiast, and in this episode, we’re shifting gears a bit and taking a look at the wonderfully complex yet absolutely delicious worlds of mezcal and heritage agave spirits. It turns out that terroir is not just for grapes, as mezcal experts Lou Bank and Chava Periban discuss with spirits editor Kara Newman. This lively talk about artisanal mezcal and agave spirits, shares production and product insight, as well as personal accounts and experiences as to why it’s a good thing that they don’t all taste alike, and which terms or bottles you should be seeking out now. So grab your glass and settle in for a wild agave ride.

Kara Newman 1:04
Guys, I am so glad that you made the time to do this. Obviously, we are primarily a wine magazine, but my heart is with distilled spirits. And I am delighted to introduce people to the wonderful world of mezcal. So for those who maybe aren’t as familiar, would you like to explain what mezcal is?

Lou Bank 1:27
Well, even that’s a controversial question. Chava, why don’t you jump on that one? And then if I have any controversy with it, I’ll jump all over you for that.

Chava Periban 1:35
Well, I believe that actually, for wine lovers, this is not going to be such a challenging thing, because they’re so used to denomination of origins and geographic indications, right? So what we’d like to think about it’s usually when we’re speaking within us, we don’t even say mezcal, we say agave spirits, which will be saying like sparkling wines, instead of referring to Champagne. And just a really short answer to this is mezcal is one of the many geographic indications or denominations of origin that apply in the big world of spirits.

Lou Bank 2:11
So that would be basically you’ve got spirits that are distilled from fermented agave, and then you’ve got this designation of origin, denomination of origin for mezcal, and then a separate denomination of origin for tequila. And now you’ve got one for raicilla, so there are all these different kinds of agave spirits.

Kara Newman 2:31
So I actually just learned relatively recently that tequila technically is a kind of mezcal. I didn’t realize that it was this enormous umbrella. Did I step in something already?

Lou Bank 2:43
Kara, you did. You stepped into the big bear trap. So it’s, you know, it’s one of the the cliches that you hear often is, “All tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila.” Which was true up until 1993, but that is when this denomination of origin or this geographical indicator that Chava’s pointing out to called mezcal, when it was put into place in ’94. So as a consequence, now, that would be kind of like saying, all Scotch is Bourbon, but not all Bourbon is Scotch.

Kara Newman 3:16
Well, it would be all all Scotch and Bourbon is whiskey.

Lou Bank 3:21
But that’s my point. Mezcal used to be the umbrella term, but in fact now because it’s a denomination of origin, agave spirits is the umbrella term.

Kara Newman 3:29
Got it. Okay. Wow. I mean, it seems like every time I know what I’m talking about, things shift. And this is an especially murky, the agave world is especially murky sometimes, I think, to me.

Lou Bank 3:42
Well, you know, honestly, it’s not just you, it’s the beginning, you said two of the foremost experts on Moscow. And you know, and the truth is, it’s hard to be an expert on it, because—and I don’t consider myself an expert—because there’s so many things that are undefined, which is sort of the beauty of this. So much of the spirit is made in this pre-industrial way. And when you’ve got a lack of how would you phrase this Chava, like consistent methods of making the spirit?

Chava Periban 4:14
Well, I can maybe talk from my personal feelings. I feel extremely jealous regarding the wine industry and the Scotch industry and even some of the Asian spirits, or fermented beverages industries, because you guys have hundreds of years of research. You have institutions, academics are full time dedicated to study or define the things that you drink. And unfortunately, in agave spirits, we’re a much more humble environment. And we just don’t have a lot of the even basic information to make some assertions that are in wine or in Scotch will be just, you know, just like a terms you look out in your Bible of Scotch or whatever.

Lou Bank 5:01
So things can, to Chava’s point Kara, things can be very confusing, which is honestly the whole point of us wanting to come on and do a podcast with you guys at Wine Enthusiast because, you know, you’ve got all of these drinkers who are really knowledgeable. Knowledgeable about wine and have these really complex palates to taste all of these incredible wines. And we think—I truly believe with all my heart—that they will find the same kind of complexities in agave spirits. But it can be so daunting to approach because the information is just not available to help guide them on that journey.

Chava Periban 5:42
Yeah, I would even say they have an edge compared to many of the spirits drinkers, because I believe that there’s such interesting variations and such interesting nuances to agave spirits that most wine drinkers are really used to identifying or talking about. And it’s not something that we see as often or with such clarity sometimes when we talk with spirits people. S, maybe in a way, it’s the spirit that has a wine hearts in the bottom. I don’t know.

Lou Bank 6:15
The wine-hearted spirit.

Chava Periban 6:17
Yeah.

Kara Newman 6:18
I like it. Goodness. I mean, Lou, we’ve had a conversation about mezcals as industrial products or artisanal products. Why don’t we talk a bit about that? I know, you have very strong opinions here.

Lou Bank 6:37
You know, it’s funny, my opinions are getting. And again, I think this comes back to exactly what you said, Kara, that like, that things seem murky. And they change all the time. And my opinions change all the time. When I when I read interviews that I did just three years ago, like I want to yell at myself in the interview that you’re just so wrong about this. You know, I like I’m not a fan of industrially made mezcal in terms of the flavor profile, right? But I, I’m less opposed to the industrialization as I am just uninterested in the flavors, because I’ve spent so much time traveling rural Mexico tasting amazing stuff that I know what I like. And I like things that are super complex. And the truth of the matter is most mezcal that is made… I can think of one mezcal that’s made in an industrial way. I can think of a bunch of agave spirits that are made in industrial way, because then you start, you know, branching over to tequila, and a lot of that’s industrially made. But I’ve never tasted anything that came through that industrial process that was made from agave that interested me. I’ve never tasted anything that I thought was awful. Just not anything that I thought, “Oh, I need to taste that again.” But that’s, you know, that’s also my palate.

Kara Newman 8:03
It’s funny because most people go to mezcal assuming that it’s going to be smoky. That’s the stereotypical bottling, but they don’t taste like that. And they don’t all taste the same, that’s for sure.

Chava Periban 8:19
I think it’s almost, and I tell this story a lot. But I started drinking mezcal when I was about 18, 17 years old. And, you know, I had a fresh mind and a fresh approach to it. I hadn’t talked to anybody about it. And I found a lot of flavors into it. But it wasn’t until I started meeting people from America that we lovingly called gringos that everybody started saying, “Oh, this is smoky.” And at the time, I was starting to drink some peated Scotch. And it was like the flavor that I found and identified as smoke was peated Scotch, and I couldn’t find that specificity in mezcal. And for me, it’s sort of how mythology of searching flavors is built. Maybe sometimes it’s not even there. It’s just on everybody’s head. I’m not sure about that one.

Lou Bank 9:11
You know, I think that that could be a part of it. But I do think that there’s also maybe it’s because the cliches started that mezcal was tequila’s smoky cousin, that people started imagining that it was smoky. Or maybe it really is smoky. Or maybe they changed it, the flavor profile, in order to conform to what people expected. But, you know, this is this is one of the reasons, Kara, that I really wanted to have this podcast episode with you is because I think the people who are reading your magazine who are drinking these incredible wines, these fine wines, I think that they will find something that they love in heritage agave spirits and beautifully made mezcal, raicillas, bacanoras, tequilas, but I think it’s hard for them to find that stuff. I think that they are far more apt if they’re not actually knowing what to look for, I think they’re far more likely to find the things that are made for, I’m gonna say a mass market. Though the truth is, mezcal consumption just isn’t that great that you can use the word mass. But, you know, most mezcal which you’re going to find on the market is made to be used in cocktails. And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that=, but I am saying that the nuanced spirits that change flavor from one release to the next in the same way that, I don’t know Bordeaux from 2012 is going to taste different than the 2013 from the exact same vintner, I think to find those spirits, you’ve got to kind of go deep. And it’s hard to do that when the vast majority of the certified mezcal that is in the market is actually intended to be used for cocktails, and therefore, the producers are trying to get a consistent flavor from batch to batch in order to satisfy bartenders who want consistency when they’re making cocktails.

Kara Newman 11:14
I have two thoughts. Number one, I’m suddenly craving a mezcal Negroni. And number two, I mean, how do you know if you have a heritage mezcal? How would people even know what to look for? Let me clear up.

Chava Periban 11:33
Actually, that is a question that we get a lot, like which are the telltale on the bottles, or the brand’s communication in what could be characterized as a heritage agave spirit. And there’s also a denomination of origin part to it. Now, Lou, and you love to talk about that, the difference. And I think what you were referring to in a big part, when you’re describing the agave spirits or mezcals that are made for cocktails, they usually tend to land in this area of the denomination of origin that it’s labeled industrial mezcal. But then there’s artesanal, and ancestral. So yeah, I’ll leave you to that, Lou.

Lou Bank 12:14
So, I mean, it gets really confusing. So it’s really confusing. There are three primary sub categories, if you will, of mezcal. So there’s just plain old mezcal, right? And that can be industrially made, but it doesn’t have to be. And then there is artisanal mezcal, and artesanal mezcal, you know, it’s funny. If you go back to that first category that, you know, just mezcal, and when I say industrially made, there’s this there’s this tool called the diffuser and it is the most industrial tool you can use to convert agave into a spirit. So, to put a fine point on that, right, let’s talk a bit about that process to make it a little more understandable. So when agave—and Chava, stop me, because you’re the science guy—agave is this giant piece of vegetal matter. It’s a plant, right? That is full of these fructans, which is kind of like a starch. But they’re not fermentable and you have to convert them into fermentable sugars. Okay, so to do that, the primary way that’s done is you cook the agave. And there are a bunch of different ways to cook it. So once you start talking about artisanal mezcal, I believe you have to cook it in a stone-lined earthen oven. Is that right, Chava?

Chava Periban 13:50
Yes, you can use that and you can also use maybe a room that is fired with wood, but you cannot use a either an autoclave—

Lou Bank 14:04
Yeah, like autoclave is like a giant pressure cooker.

Chava Periban 14:06
Yeah. So you cannot use to that and you absolutely cannot use the diffuser. And the diffuser in the mezcal world, is everybody’s favorite archenemy. Everybody that loves and is fond of the agave spirits will talk out the diffuser as something very unfortunate. What they do there, is they attack these long chains of unfermentable sugars with acids and enzymes and some other mostly usually nasty chemicals to break those chains and convert those, those long complex chains of sugars into fermentable sugars.

Lou Bank 14:45
Yeah, so rather than cooking, the agave first, what you’re doing is shredding a raw agave, when you’re using the diffuser, shredding the raw agave and then, as Chava points out, you’re hydrolyzing those fructans, making them fermentable sugars using acids.

Kara Newman 15:02
How does that impact the final flavor?

Lou Bank 15:07
That’s a question that we wonder, you know, as I said, I’ve never tasted anything that came out of a diffuser, anything that was industrially made that I ever need to taste again.

Chava Periban 15:20
No, it’s usually, you know how there is this connotation of beige food—just a sea of beige food that it’s absolutely uninteresting? That tends to happen with a diffuser in my personal experience, and seems like in Lou’s personal experience as well.

Lou Bank 15:39
Yeah. So that was a long way to get to the first point. But the first thing that I’d look for on a label, if I’m buying a mezcal is, does it say just mezcal? Or does it say artisanal mezcal, because once you say artesanal, okay, you’ve not used the diffuser or an autoclave, that giant pressure cooker, so that gives you one level of security that you’re getting towards something that’s going to have all of the complex flavors that we love so much, right? And then there’s a third category of certified mezcal called ancestral, which also doesn’t allow for those tools to be used when they’re making the mezcal.

Chava Periban 16:22
And to the smoky point, in this part, it’s what everybody will argue that smoky flavor comes to fruition, or it’s where it happens, because you are cooking the agave under earth using a massive amount of wood, and creating some sort of a sauna, where it’s going to cook for days.

Lou Bank 16:45
Unless you’re using, as you pointed out earlier, unless you’re using that brick-lined, above-ground oven, that’s a steam oven.

Chava Periban 16:54
Yeah. But if you do cook it onto ground, there’s hundreds or thousands of reactions that again, there hasn’t been enough studies, or there’s not a very well understood academic convention of what exactly happens. There’s Maillard reactions, there’s all sorts of reactions between the agave and the smoke and the heat and the fire and the steam and it’s just a wonderful part, almost of alchemy, that creates a bunch of flavors. And depending on the wood you use, the two most used woods in that context are either mesquite or oak. And you can regulate how smoky the final product is going to be, depending on the type of wood that you choose.

Lou Bank 17:42
Well, the type of wood but then also when do you put the agave into that oven, right? Like at some point, the wood goes out, the fire goes out, and so the smoke starts to dissipate. And if you throw it in before it’s entirely out, you’re going to get more smoke. And if you throw it in well after you’re going to get less smoke.

Chava Periban 18:01
Even the geometry of the kiln can make a huge difference. So again, it gets really complicated. But that’s why it’s so interesting when you find a bottle that has agave that has been cooked under earth, because there’s all these variables that can potentially create marvelous flavors.

Unknown Speaker 18:19
Yeah, you know, in the cooking, but it’s not also just limited to the cooking. So after you’ve cooked it, let’s use that stone line earthen oven as the example, after you’ve cooked it underground for three days to seven days, you pull it out, and then you have to mill it. So you have to take this giant agave, which you know, sometimes it’s what up to 200 pounds Chava?

Chava Periban 18:41
I’ve seen pictures, you know how in ranch conventions in the United States they show they show the biggest cow? They love to that at agave contests as well. They love their picture with the 250 kilogram agave. That’s a picture you see inside the mescalero’s house. I’ve seen massive agaves. I don’t know the exact weights but more than 200 pounds for sure.

Lou Bank 19:02
Right. So you can’t just take that giant single piece and throw it into a fermenter. After it’s been cooked, you have to chop it into tiny little shreds. And so there are a bunch of different ways to do this. And even the shredding process can result in significantly different flavors. There’s a difference between just throwing it into, say, a wood chipper, or using what they call it tahona, which is this stone wheel that’s pulled often by horses or oxes. You see them in the pictures when people talk about mezcal pretty frequently. And then there’s also hand milling, literally using something that looks like Fred Flintstone’s softball bat and just ramming it up and down all day long until you by hand have crushed that agave into tiny little shreds.

Kara Newman 19:46
Sounds like a good way to get out some aggression.

Unknown Speaker 19:49
It’s also a really good way to screw up your back. Eight hours just doing that will mess you up.

Kara Newman 19:55
Oh my goodness. I’d like to play this quick recording Chava made Here he is translating a bit of his conversation with a mezcal producer in Oaxaca.

Chava Periban 20:05
When we mill the agave by hand it’s like when we make guacamole. We’ve placed the avocado molcajete and crush it with a stone or even using a mortar. We introduce a lot of new flavors. But if you take the same avocado and put it inside a blender, it becomes more rigid. It does taste like avocado, but nothing else. I talk about guacamole because I think it is a very universal thing. And I realized that the same thing happened with agave. When milling it with a machine, all the flavors become very clear, very defined. A Tobasiche was only a Tobasiche, and he didn’t have any more flavors around it. When you mill it by hand, you introduce more aromas. The mezcal smells like Tobasiche too, but it also smells like flowers, earth and many other things.

Kara Newman 21:01
Okay, so if people are looking for heritage mezcal that sounds like you need to look for artisanal or ancestral on the label. Those are the the key words to look for?

Lou Bank 21:11
Well, yes and no like, again, this is, as you pointed out, it’s confusing. And it’s not as though if it says artisanal, you’re definitely getting something that is going to have changed from batch to batch. So you’ll find that many of the mezcals that are on the market that are meant for use in cocktails will still be labeled artisanal. And because they’re meant for cocktails, again, the producers are going to be trying to homogenize the flavor. And there are a bunch of different ways to do that. But one of the ways is by mixing batches together until you get the flavor profile that’s at least somewhat consistent from from bottle to bottle.

Kara Newman 22:01
I’m gonna throw another curveball in here then.

Lou Bank 22:04
That’s all this is a day of curveballs.

Kara Newman 22:08
I would also love to hear your thoughts about non-mezcal mezcals, the ones that don’t have the certification.

Chava Periban 22:19
This is a dream question.

Lou Bank 22:23
Yeah, this is exactly honestly where I want to end up, you know, and I want to stipulate before we start talking about this, that it’s easy to listen to what we’re about to say and assume that we don’t love mezcal, which is just inaccurate. We have so many mezcals that we love. And even like, even as I’m talking about cocktail mezcals like, you know, give me give me Sombra’s Espadin and I’ll drink it neat. And that’s a major cocktail mezcal, and give me La Luna’s Cupreata, that’s another one. Like I love drinking those neat. So I’m not suggesting that a cocktail mezcal is bad. What I am saying is, for people who have grown to love all the variations in these wonderful complex wines, where they’re used to the differences from release to release, I think those people are going to fall in love with these heritage agave spirits, that are intended to be consumed neat, and that are going to change from release to release.

Chava Periban 23:34
And that most of the times are not certified either tequila, mezcal or raicilla. They tend to be the guys that prefer not to be certified because then the recipes they have been using for hundreds, someone will might even argue thousands of years, and the flavors that they love to having their weddings, their baptisms, and in their communities, those are the flavors that they’re trying to portray and capture in these bottles. And so many times that doesn’t comply with the rules. And at least for me, that—

Lou Bank 24:09
When you when you say the rules, Chava, I just want to clarify what you’re talking about are the rules that define mezcal and the rules that define tequila.

Chava Periban 24:17
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s maybe dangerous to say not compliant with the rules with something you’re gonna drink because I just started imagining all sorts of horrible things happening to you. That’s not the case at all.

Lou Bank 24:30
It couldn’t be brought into the USA if that were the case because the FDA has to give clearance to everything that comes in.

Kara Newman 24:36
One that I tried recently that I know is available here is Mezonte.

Chava Periban 24:42
We love you already!

Lou Bank 24:47
Pedro Jimenez does not know how to bottle anything that is less than amazing.

Kara Newman 24:53
It was delightful. I mean, it was it was just really wild flavors. And I remember I’m going to find the right vocabulary to describe it is just very minerally and citrusy and all kinds of good things.

Lou Bank 25:07
When you ask the men and women who make those spirits what it tastes like to them, right to get their description, they usually just come back with it tastes like agave.

Chava Periban 25:18
Yes. Which I wanted to say. I think something that it’s marvelous about agave spirits from people that are not from Mexico, is that there’s so many things there that you just don’t have access to in America, you have never eaten cooked agave as candy.

Kara Newman 25:36
I want to now.

Chava Periban 25:38
It’s like a phantom experience. You’re trying something that it’s absolutely, it’s like trying wine when you never have had a grape in your life.

Lou Bank 25:48
That’s an interesting comparison. I like that. So I think then the relevant question is how do people find those bottles? Right?

Kara Newman 25:57
Yes, please.

Lou Bank 25:58
So, you know, let me let me take a step back for a second and say, there are many styles where you will experience this as well. I wouldn’t even suggest that it’s going to be the minority of mezcals, it’s just the hard to find bottles that are labeled mezcal, right? The hard to find labels, look for the ancestrals, because those almost always will be like that. And then a whole bunch of the artisanals and, you know, there’s this website people can go to called mezcalreviews.com that will help point people to those mezcal bottles. And then, you know, for me, it’s look for something called agave spirits, though there are also industrially made agave spirits, which if you find a bottle that says it’s $20 it’s probably not a great bottle.

Chava Periban 26:54
Or that it’s bottled in plastic.

Lou Bank 26:56
Yeah, unless it’s in plastic, because somebody went down there and brought it back for you as a gift, in which case, you know, get it out of the plastic as soon as possible. But so how do you find these other spirits? You know, it’s funny, Chava and I, we were trying to figure out the easy way to explain to people how to find them, and you know, anytime you say, well, you if you just look for a bottle, where it tells you who made it, and then the entire process, what agave they used, how they cook the agave, how they milled the agave, how they fermented the agave, how they distilled the agave, how many times they distilled it, how long it took to cook? Did they use spring water? Did they use well water? The more details that are on there, generally will suggest that this is going to be one of those beautiful spirits that will have that complexity. But once you say that, you know, I’m a guy who spent his life in sales and marketing. I understand this. Once you say that, somebody’s going to go, “Oh, okay, well, I’m gonna take this garbage spirit, I’m gonna write all these things on the bottle about it, and then people will think it’s good.”

Kara Newman 28:08
You know, if these were ordinary times, and all the bars were still open, I would probably send people to someplace like The Cabinet here in New York to try to do the sample agave like a mezcal flight. And I’m sure they’d find some some heritage brands in there, and they’d be able to even sample industrial versus artistical side by side. That’d be really eye opening, I think.

Lou Bank 28:34
Yeah, absolutely. It’s one of the things I love doing whenever Chava and I host tastings. But you know, but in the meantime, there’s also there are a couple of what they would call like mescalero of the month clubs, where you can receive boxes in the mail, that I think is a great way to to go direct and try some of these spirits. So there’s this this company called Maguey Melate, and every other month for something like $100 every other month, you get in the mail these two 375 milliliter bottles that are uncertified agave spirits that are just going to blow your mind with how different they are from the things that you’re used to tasting.

Chava Periban 29:18
Yes, and a lot of these guys will never make it to a brand because their productions are so tiny. Every time I see when they refer to tiny productions in, say, wine, or scotch or whatever, they talk about thousands and thousands of liters. In the mezcal world, or agave spirits world when you say someone has a tiny operation, we’re saying 300 litres a year. So a lot of these guys will never make it to a brand. And it’s nice for these projects just to get to get these 300 liters and send them to the world and be like, we don’t know if this guy is gonna produce next year. But let’s have this moment of time and history and the biosphere of this place synthesized in this bottle and I think that’s beautiful.

Kara Newman 30:05
I love the idea of mezcal of the month club. I mean, who needs cheese of the month? I need mezcal of the month.

Unknown Speaker 30:11
Yeah, I need of the day. But that’s that’s my problem, Kara. So Maguey Melate is one way in the USA that you can do that, you can try those small batches. Another program in the USA is Agave Mixtape, where you get three flasks every other month to taste these beautiful, uncertified spirits. And if you’re in the UK, there’s a program called Sin Gusano. That does the same thing there.

Kara Newman 30:41
Excellent. I like they did the mixed case too, like a mixed beer case almost.

Lou Bank 30:47
Yeah, exactly. And oftentimes, it’ll be things that are related somehow, right? Like maybe it’s two producers using the same agave in different parts of Oaxaca. Or maybe processing it slightly differently. Maybe one of them is using a clay pot still, and the other is using a copper pot still.

Chava Periban 31:07
Yeah, and even for Agave Roadtrip, because one of our biggest, I guess agenda is to tell people that Mexico is a massive country, that what you can get in the north, it’s significantly different to what you you can get in the south and the middle. And because I think everybody thinks that Oaxaca when they think mezcal. And one of our projects or ideas is that people get to see all these diversities. So I probably said to this self promotion, but I’m gonna break my rule, Lou.

Lou Bank 31:39
Are you going to talk about how you’re single, Chava? Is that what you’re doing here?

Chava Periban 31:43
No, not right now. That’s for the end of the episodes. But we made this tasting box for Agave Roadtrip, where it’s basically from the north of Mexico to the south. And there’s this little flights, where is the same escalator in Durango, which is really up to the north using not even aagave, but sotol, which is a whole different story. And someone in Oaxaca using that same plant, and trying to catch the differences between those two spirits made by completely different techniques and completely different cultures. And plants are almost the same.

Kara Newman 32:17
Wow, I am learning so much today. This is fantastic.

Lou Bank 32:20
So when you when you talked about Mezonte, you were talking about this, this operation that’s out of Guadalajara, run by Pedro. And boy, when I think of when I think of Mezonte and I think of Pedro, the bottles are incredible. I don’t think there’s a place I would rather be in most any given moment than sitting at his tasting room in Guadalajara. But what he does is he finds these beautiful small spirits in primarily in Jalisco, Michoacan and where am I forgetting, Chava?

Chava Periban 32:59
I actually for the longest time I thought he only specialized in Jalisco, but I’d say Jalisco and Michoacan are his main areas of focus.

Lou Bank 33:06
Okay, but then you can go to somebody like a brand, like let’s say Rezpiral or Cinco Sentidos, and you can taste things that come out of Oaxaca and Pueblo, because there are all these different, as Chava points out, all these beautiful, different flavors from all over the country that you want to that you want to try.

Chava Periban 33:24
And I mean, and just to add on to that, also extremely different technologies to process agave. All of them ancestral, but you get Asian influenced stills that have nothing to do with the European tradition of distilling with copper. And there are 100% clay and seem more like they came from Korea. And you get that within 600 kilometers, which is insane.

Kara Newman 33:49
Wow. My mind is kind of blown. I’m thinking about all the different stills.

Lou Bank 33:54
Yeah, it can even it can be fascinating too when we’re driving through these rural communities visiting the producers. You know, we’ll drive 20 miles down the road, 30 miles down the road, which isn’t so far for us, you know, even on these these dried up river beds of roads where you know, that 20 miles or 30 miles might might take you a couple hours. But the people who live that distance apart won’t communicate. So we were in a part of the Mixteca talking to this producer who had never tasted a spirit made from a Tepaztate that they would—you know, there’s like 200 to 300 different kinds of agave, the Tepaztate is sort of legendary because some people will tell you it takes up to 40 years to reach maturity before you can harvest it to use it to make spirits. I don’t know that I believe 40 years. I don’t know anybody’s actually watching it from the little sprout and, “Oh, yeah, you know, I remember my grandfather….” I just am not sure I believe that but I do believe it’s a long growth agave. But anyway, so this producer in the Mixteca asked us if we’d ever tasted it. And like, yeah, of course we have, because there’s a guy just 15 miles from you who’s using it to make spirits.

Chava Periban 35:16
It’s almost like having all Europe within Mexico. We think there’s like, it’s like traveling from Belgium to France and Switzerland and Serbia, and just all these places with within Mexico. And it really gives me that feeling.

Kara Newman 35:32
Incredible. I’m getting very thirsty. This is great.

Lou Bank 35:34
Yeah. And, you know, while we’re talking about they like, you’ve just, boy, you just hit a couple of other things that I think are important for wine drinkers, Chava. Mexico is a big country, but it’s also it’s not like the entire country has one sort of environment. There’s all these different environments that lead to all these different terroirs that lead to all these different flavors that are contributing factors to the spirits.

Chava Periban 36:00
Yes, actually, I was geeking a lot on on the Wine Enthusiast podcast, and they have a whole episode on Bordeaux, right? And they said that the one of the defining characteristics of that area is the slopes. And I was thinking of Tobala. So Tobala is an agave that is famous for growing on slopes, and preferring those kind of conditions of not a lot of water and just the rains, washing the heels to get a very specific flavor profile. And you have that and then you have the beach, you have valleys, you have extremely cold areas where agave grows, and you have jungles, crazy deserts.

Kara Newman 36:41
Would you say that the terroir where it grows makes more of a difference than the type of varietal?

Chava Periban 36:47
That is a very strong fight, Kara.

Lou Bank 36:51
We get into this fight all the time. You know, in my heart of hearts, I think the primary influence—if there’s one factor that makes the most difference—it’s literally the person who’s making the spirit. I don’t want to set Chava off too much, or for that matter all of the people listening this who love wine, like to me wine, it’s beautiful. But it’s fermented. And it’s fermented from grapes. And grapes take like a maximum of four months to reach maturity, right? So you pull that grape off the vine, it’s converted into sugars, fermentable sugars—it actually comes with fermentable sugars, you have to do anything to it. And then you ferment it. And generally you’re fermenting it closed air, and I know there’s this whole movement now of open air fermentation. But the vast majority of agave spirits, they’re made from these sugar sources that take a minimum of four years and as I say, maybe as much as 40 years to reach maturity. There’s a variety of them, there’s two to 300 different kinds, each kind of agave, because they take so long to reach maturity wherever they’re growing, they’ve developed all these different chemicals to protect themselves from pests and other invaders. And then you have to take that agave and you’ve got to convert it into fermentable sugars. So there’s that cooking process. And then you have to chop it into little pieces. And as we said, like there’s all different kinds of ways to mill it. And then you’re fermenting it and generally fermenting it open air, so what’s the source it’s coming in and eating the sugar and converting it into alcohol. That’s gonna change every single time. And then you have to distill it, and you’re distilling it oftentimes in wood fired stills, sometimes clay pot stills, which means it’s a tiny little 50 litre still. There’s all these decisions that have to be made that aren’t controlled by by dials and knobs, right? That are literally the 400 decisions these men and women have to make in this process that are impossible to replicate exactly from one batch to the next. Did I just—I lost myself where I was. What was I talk about?

Unknown Speaker 39:18
Yes, but I think — I usually even say that the mescalero many times is not even really directing the agave. The agave’s environment are the ones directing the maker. So it’s almost like dancing. When you’re dancing with someone, you are choosing certain moves and steps but you have to be really aware of the other person because you don’t want to step on their feet. And I think that in agave, the environment, the technology, the woods, you’re using, these things that absorb everything around it for six, seven, 40 years and had to be adaptable enough to not die and still be able to ripen to reproduce. There’s so many things you have to consider that I actually think the best agave spirits makers are the ones that are able to collaborate with nature and their environment, and not just be stubborn and try to transform it to what they think that they should taste. I think that an amazing area of innovation and diversity that just happens because of the raw materials and the places where these things happen.

Kara Newman 40:35
I love it. This seems like a good place to to land our conversation. Why don’t you tell everyone where they can find you one more time.

Lou Bank 40:44
I’m just in my basement in Chicago.

Kara Newman 40:47
Well, if people want more information about your podcast is Agave Roadtrip.

Lou Bank 40:54
Agave Roadtrip. It’s a podcast that helps gringo bartenders better understand that agave spirits in rural Mexico. You can listen to it wherever you download download podcasts, or you can get it at AgaveRoadtrip.com.

Kara Newman 41:08
Excellent.

Chava Periban 41:09
Well, I’m in Mexico City. I’m based in Mexico because I cannot live anywhere where I cannot eat beautiful tortilla. And I’m usually here to do research and development for agave, and work with this crazy man, Lou Bank.

Lou Bank 41:24
To that point too, you’re in Mexico City, anybody listening to this who shows up in Mexico City, I promise you if you reach out to Chava, he’ll take you out for a taco and a drink. And you’ll have an amazing agave spirit and an amazing taco.

Chava Periban 41:38
Yes, and an amazing walk, by the way. I only walk around the city. So I know every little street that is worth seeing.

Kara Newman 41:46
You only walk, like meaning you don’t take any kind of vehicular transportation.

Chava Periban 41:50
No, I don’t. I mean with a pandemic that has gotten even more extreme. But I even got to the point where I don’t even use bicycle. I just walk.

Kara Newman 41:59
That’s interesting.

Chava Periban 42:01
It’s very tiring in a city this size.

Lou Bank 42:08
To be to be fair, Kara, it’s also the way that he ensures that he’s able to eat more tacos.

Chava Periban 42:14
Yeah. All the time. I’m scouting, that that’s the other part of it.

Kara Newman 42:20
That’s important. Well, Lou, Chava thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us today. This has been a really fun conversation.

Lou Bank 42:26
Oh, no, thank you very much, Kara. Greatly appreciate the opportunity to talk to you.

Kara Newman 42:32
Gracias, Kara. It’s been a pleasure as well.

Lauren Buzzeo 42:37
There are clearly many layers of consideration when it comes to defining mezcal and heritage agave spirits. And it’s especially daunting when you hear even the experts beginning question replies with well…, but based on all of the great topic points from today’s conversation, I’m ready to seek out artisanal, small batch selections that best share the unique expressions of mezcal’s true sense of people and place. Subscribe to the Wine Enthusiast Podcast on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you like today’s episode, we’d love to read your review and hear what you think. And hey, why not tell your spirits loving friends to check us out too. You can also drop us a line at podcasts at winemag.com. For more wine and spirit reviews, recipes, guides, deep dives and stories, visit Wine Enthusiast online at winemag.com and connect with us on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter @WineEnthusiast. The Wine Enthusiast Podcast is produced by Lauren Buzzeo and Jenny Groza. Until next episode, cheers.

Published on February 3, 2021
Topics: Podcast