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Feria Nacional del Mezcal
(National Mescal Festival)  page 1 -- page 2 -- page 3

Feria Nacional del Mezcal in Oaxaca, Mexico:  Annual Festival Skyrockets in Popularity

Alvin Starkman, M.A., LL.B. (Alvin’s archive)

Mezcal, the timid little sister of tequila, has always had a rough time of it both in Mexico and further abroad.  But at the beginning of this decade things began to change for Plain Jane.  Mezcal has come into its own, gaining increased popularity and more importantly respect on the domestic front and internationally. The 14th annual Feria Nacional del Mezcal (2011), held as always during the second half of July in the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca, bore witness to the metamorphosis.

The state of Oaxaca has traditionally been known as the largest and most important producer of mezcal (also referred to as mescal) in all Mexico.  Santiago Matatlán, a town about 45 minutes outside of the state capital, boasts being the world capital of the spirit. It’s home to about 150 palenqueros (mezcal producers).  A full size copper still stretches majestically across the highway at its entranceway. And so what better city than Oaxaca to host an annual festival dedicated to exalting and promoting the agave based alcoholic beverage “with the worm.”

A Primer On Mezcal In Oaxaca

Over the past several years the worm has actually been part of the problem in legitimizing mezcal as a spirit worthy of sipping and mixing.  The other main impediment has been mezcal’s lingering reputation with the college crowd as the Mexican spirit used to get inebriated, fast and furiously.

Piñas, Cactus and Full Agave

But the world has finally come to learn that mezcal is often as smooth and complex a spirit as fine single malt scotches, and can be consumed as such.  The worm, actually a larva known as a gusano, is more often than not absent from both bottle and recipe.

Mezcal in Oaxaca is produced from a number of varieties of agave (often known as maguey), though commercial production utilizes almost exclusively agave espadín.  In the preferred, traditional method of production the plant is harvested after 8 – 10 years of growth. Its heart, or piña, is baked in an in-ground oven, and then crushed.  [While the leaves are not used in the process, they are nevertheless employed in other industries, thus contributing to the reputation of mezcal as a sustainable industry.] The fibrous mash is fermented for up to two weeks, usually in pine vats with water, and nothing else added.  Yeasts are naturally produced in the environment. The fermented liquid is then distilled.  Mezcal drips from the spigot, usually ready for consumption after a second distillation.

Mini Copper Still

Hundreds, if not thousands, of small, hillside and village mezcal producers follow the age-old production method.  Some families tell a fascinating history of mezcal production dating back centuries. Most researchers and aficionados believe that distillation was introduced into Mexico subsequent to 1519 by the Spanish. However there are studies which suggest that distillation was practiced by indigenous groups.

In addition to these quaint palenques, large industrial multi-million dollar mezcal production factories have come onto the scene over the past 20 years or more.  Brands such as Benevá and Zignum exemplify the most commercial mezcal production imaginable.  While these facilities also cook, crush, ferment and distill agave, both the means of production and the machinery employed could not be any further removed from the fascinating and often highly ritualistic small-scale production.   They are the polar opposite of what one envisions as Slow Food mezcal proponents.

Zignum - Rich Kid on The Block

Commercial  producers nevertheless play an important role in disseminating the positives about mezcal and have carved out an important niche in the marketplace.  Their advertising and promotional campaigns at least to some extent aid the cause of elevating traditional mezcal to its proper place alongside fine, small-batch whiskeys and other spirits. While it is suggested that their products are perhaps not the spirits one hopes to sample in American or Mexican mezcal tasting rooms they are nevertheless welcomed and well represented at mezcal fairs and expos.

NEXT page 2: Historical Context                  .
page 3 (end): 14th Feria Nacional Del Mezcal




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