Cuchara and The Pastry War collaborated on a dinner last week in honor of three very special guests who had never before all been in the same place at the same time in the United States. Many would not know them, but to those interested in agave spirits, these men are rock stars.
Aqualino Garcia Lopez, Migurel Partida, Emilio Vieyra are all maestro mezcaleros, or master mezcal producers. Lopez is one of two who create the Mezcal Vago brand. Partida and his family produces a mezcal known locally as Tuxca. Vieyra's family has a distillery in Michoacan.
Philadelphia restaurateur David Suro Piñera is among the concerned restaurant and bar industry professionals in the United States who have made it part of their mission to connect these small batch producers with bars and retailers. Suro-Piñera owns the Siembra Azul tequila line, is the president of the Tequila Interchange Project (TIP) and is collaborating with Partida and Vieyra to bring their mezcal to the United States. It will be produced under the label Siembra Metl.
These types of across-the-border business arrangements are critical to sustaining small producers. Due to rising production costs and an overall shortage of agave, an article at the Beverage Industry web site predicts that tequila prices will rise more than 100 percent by 2018.
The article goes on to say:
"...these large distilleries could capitalize on the high-price scenario and acquire small and medium-sized distilleries that would shut down, unable to withstand the severe rise in cost in the coming years. [...] Small distilleries are the ones that are expected to feel the worst effects of the agave shortage in the coming years. These distilleries will not have sufficient funds to engage in contract farming in the current scenario."
Agave, the plant from which tequila and mezcal is produced, can take seven to 10 years--or even longer--to fully mature. Its development cannot be rushed, but the worldwide demand for tequila has increased nonetheless, leading big corporations to get more deeply involved in its production.
The time-honored methods of harvesting, roasting and fermenting the hearts of the agave plants, called piñas, are not compatible with mass production techniques. One such technique is the use of a diffuser, a machine that results in a product that
is over-distilled and "smooth." lacks the traditional roasting processes used for tequila and mezcal.
That's an undesirable quality in a spirit that has "terroir" just as much as wine does. This link has an in-depth look at the issues surrounding the use of diffusers in high-volume tequila production.
How can the general public best support small producers who still use artisanal techniques to produce tequila and mezcal? It's easy. "Seek out these small batch products and buy them," says Bobby Heugel, proprietor of The Pastry War, a bar that specializes in these types of mezcals and tequilas.
For tequila, Heugel recommends:
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- Siembra Valles--The latest release from Siembra Azul. A tequila from the Tequila Valley with a softer texture and tons of flavor.
- Siete Leguas Reposado--the best balance of agave flavor and aging.
- Fortaleza Blanco--Another lowland tequila and Heugel's personal favorite.
If you're interested in the smoky, full taste of mezcal, seek these brands:
- Mezcal Vago Elote--An elote (roasted corn) infused Espadin-based mezcal from Oaxaca.
- Del Maguey Minero--A increasingly rare chance to try a mezcal distilled from traditional clay pots. You can taste the minerality.
- Siembra Metl Michoacán Cupreata (Coming Soon): A mezcal from the pine forests of Michoacán that showcases the floral, sweeter quality of cuperata, the primary agave in the region.
By the way, don't look for a worm in any of these high-quality bottles of mezcal. That's an old marketing ploy, based on a myth that eating the worm would give you special powers. However, if you're dying for a taste of the worm, The Pastry War will be happy to sell you a tiny dish of sal de gusano to accompany your mezcal. We suspect the mezcal works more like an aphrodisiac than the salt does.