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Why Is Mezcal So Darn Expensive?

Why Is Mezcal So Darn Expensive?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a customer’s complete shock upon picking up a bottle of tobala (a wild agave used to make mezcal) and checking out the price. Compared to tequila, mezcal can be significantly more expensive, and without much background on the process, it can be hard to understand why. Mezcal is a complicated spirit, much too complicated to explain in just one post or article--it’s a spirit that involves hundreds of years of Mexican culture, family tradition, and countless socioeconomic factors. It is misunderstood and often taken for granted. I won’t get into all of that here, but I will tell you why that $150 price tag is worth every last simoleon. First, mezcal production is the most labor intensive spirits process you will ever encounter; from start to finish, this is about as “farm to bottle” as you get. Witnessing first hand the work that it takes to grow, harvest, trim, and transport the agave is mind-boggling. All this effort just for the plant and we haven’t even gotten to the cooking, fermentation, and distillation! Many different species of agave can be used for mezcal production, unlike tequila, which uses only one (blue weber). The average blue weber plant takes (depending on the land and other factors) 7-10 years to reach maturity--in the world of mezcal, the closest relative is espadin, which reaches maturity in a similar time frame. From there, the wait gets much longer. You have dozens of agave varietals to choose from, with an average age of 15-20 years at harvest. And then you have plants like the wild tepeztate that can take up to 30 to 35 years to reach their peak! Imagine purchasing a bottle of 30 year old whiskey for under $200. Makes you think, huh? There are no machines involved in traditional harvesting, just good old fashioned elbow grease used to power a machete and an axe. Each tenacious plant is removed from the ground by hand. Donkeys and horses are often used to carry the heavy piñas from hard to reach spots, as many areas are not accessible by truck. The leaves of the plant are trimmed off, a very specialized job also done by hand that can have a big impact on the flavor. The agave is then roasted in an underground pit for several days, before being crushed either by a stone wheel called a tahona (often pulled by burro or horse) or with a machete. The cooked agave is transferred to large wooden vats for fermentation that lasts for several days, or even up to a week. Finally, the last step is distillation. The stills are rustic and heated by wood fire. Don’t expect any fancy gauges or even a thermometer; the mezcalero (distiller) does everything using intuition and the knowledge passed down from previous generations. WIth many spirits, distilling can be the most important part of the craft, but with mezcal, each step is equally important. And a heck of a lot of hard work.
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What To Drink Now: Japanese Rice Whisky

What To Drink Now: Japanese Rice Whisky

Two years ago, the most popular toy on the shelf was a bottle of Yamazaki 12 year. It moved fast, and there was plenty to be had. And if you were a fan of Japanese whiskey before the articles and reviews and ratings that made it highly sought after -- dare I say trendy! -- I wish I had some good news for you. Japanese single malts are an endangered species, and not just in whiskey thirsty markets like the Bay Area; stock is dry everywhere. For those of you late to the party, you’ve heard countless times, after asking for age statement bottles, “that’s no longer available.” Even the non age statement whiskeys are slowly disappearing. But some good has come from this; you just need to be up for a bit of adventure.

The good news: there’s a ton of interesting Japanese whiskey for you to try that wouldn’t be on the shelves if not for the popularity of those single malts such as Nikka, Yamazaki and Hibiki. I’m talking about whiskey made from rice. While technically considered a whiskey by US standards, you could certainly make the case for describing it as a barrel aged shochu. Whatever you choose to call it, these rice whiskeys are unique and quite tasty. Flavor profiles can vary vastly depending on what sort of barrel it was aged in, so you won’t get bored any time soon.  

Here are a few we recommend you try:

Kikori -- They’re making a great entry level rice whiskey that will appeal to many palates. It’s aged for about three years, primarily in New American with some time in Oloroso and Limousin barrels. It’s very light, a bit fruity, and extremely food friendly. I would recommend sipping this neat with sushi, or making a highball that’s perfect as an aperitif or alongside your meal.

Fukano -- This malted rice distillate is aged in new charred oak, so it gets dark and toasty. As far as flavor profile, this lands more along the lines of a traditional whiskey, nutty and rich, but also quite elegant. Due to Japanese labeling laws currently having no category for this spirit, these are only available outside of Japan.

Ohishi -- Founded in 1872, they are primarily known for sake and shochu production, sourcing all of their rice from the region and even growing a percentage of it themselves. My favorite fun fact about their estate grown rice: they use koi fish as a natural “weed killer,” as they love to snack on the weeds that pop up in the rice paddies. They produce both brandy- and sherry- barrel aged whiskeys, unfiltered.

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