Don’t You Dare Waste a Single Drop of Mezcal

I followed the distillers behind GEM&BOLT mezcal to see how the spirit was produced, from agave to bottle. Spoiler: The process is fucking magical.

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Nov 7 2016, 5:00pm

It's about a 30-minute drive from Oaxaca City to reach fields where espadín agave—used to make GEM&BOLT mezcal—is grown. The route takes you through Mitla, the town of death, and Santiago Matatlán, the world capital of mezcal. Standing in the back of an open-air truck bed, we wind through paved and dirt roads, passing donkeys and wild agave plants that jut out of rocky hillsides.

vincente-rests-at-the-front-of-the-truck-on-the-way-to-the-agave-fields

Vicente Reyes Cervantes rests at the front of the truck on the way to the agave fields. All photo by the author.
en-route-to-the-espadin-agave-fields En route to the espadín agave fields.

Vicente Reyes Cervantes has been giving us a crash course on mezcal production. He goes back and forth between using scientific terms and what he calls "cosmic language" to explain the fascinating details. Vicente is not only a superhuman encyclopedia on all things Oaxaca, he's a partner and director of operations for Mexico of GEM&BOLT.

We reach the agave fields in the valley of Tlacolula and take in the neatly planted rows of growing espadín, one of the easiest agave varietals to cultivate. Vicente introduces us to Ignacio Martinez, a fourth-generation mezcalero who tends to these fields along with his son, Claudio. We're here to see how mezcal is made, from the harvesting of an agave plant to the distillation process.

We follow the men to the chosen plant and watch in silence as Ignacio approaches it with his machete.

ignacio-and-vincente-lead-the-way-to-harvest-an-espadin-plant

Ignacio and Vicente lead the way to harvest an espadín plant.
rows-and-rows-of-growing-agave Rows and rows of growing agave.

Ignacio was 13 years old when he harvested his first agave plant. Now he is many decades older and works with a precision that looks like a mix of total mastery and muscle memory. He hacks through the agave pencas, or leaves, then uproots the massive plant.

ignacio-uses-his-machete-to-cut-off-the-agave-pencas-or-leaves

Ignacio uses his machete to cut off the agave pencas, or leaves.
ignacio-heaves-up-the-agave-cerbeza-from-its-roots-using-a-coa-de-jima Ignacio heaves up the agave cabeza from its roots using a coa de jima.

the-agave-juices-rupture-from-the-agaves-cabeza

The agave juices rupture from the agave's cabeza.

This espadín has been growing under the Oaxaca sun for nine years. Every single drop of rain and ray of light it absorbed since 2007 will contribute to the distinct terroir of the mezcal it yields.

Ignacio breaks into the massive agave heart with an axe, the plant's juices rupturing out of it in a sticky mist. After quartering the plant, Ignacio throws down his axe, wipes his brow, and carries the large pieces to the truck. Its 70-odd kilos will produce just seven precious bottles of mezcal.

In some nearby shade, Ignacio's wife, Carmela Molina, serves us tejate, a filling maize and cacao drink. After the refuel, we set off for GEM&BOLT's distillery, one of the few certified organic mezcal factories in Mexico.

ignacios-wife-carmela-molina-washes-her-hands-after-serving-the-tejate

Ignacio's wife, Carmela Molina, washes her hands after serving the tejate.

At the distillery, men prepare the underground pit with rocks that will cook the agave. The espadín will roast—or, as Vicente says, transform—for three days before it's time for it to be crushed by the distillery's tahona, a massive stone wheel. The wheel is very literally moved by horsepower. A horse named Taro heaves the stone around a circle until the roasted agave turns into a fibrous pulp.

distillery-workers-fill-the-roasting-pit-with-agave-hearts

Distillery workers fill the roasting pit with agave hearts.
the-distillerys-horse-taro-pulls-the-tahona-to-crush-the-roasted-agave The distillery's horse, Taro, pulls the tahona to crush the roasted agave.

"Everything has to do with patience here," Vicente says.

The macerated agave fibers are then put into open pine barrels, where they begin fermenting wildly right away. There's no yeast added—just warm, pure water from the distillery's well. It goes through a double distillation process; first in a traditional copper still, then with damiana in a custom still made with a combination of stainless steel and copper. The latter is better suited for handling the delicate essential oils of the herb.

the-gem_bolt-damiana-is-certified-organic-like-the-rest-of-the-product-and-grown-in-baja

The certified organic damiana is distilled with the agave during the second distillation cycle, marrying them into one.

Damiana, an alleged aphrodisiac, is what makes GEM&BOLT unique, as it's the only mezcal on the market distilled with the storied herb. Vicente explains that just because damiana carries that label, it's not only meant to boost your sex life. An aphrodisiac is energizing, strengthening.

We taste the mezcal fresh off the still. It's 65 percent alcohol by volume and tastes peppery, bright, and intense. It's combined with water to reach it's final state of 44 percent ABV.

While the distillery employs a chemist to scientifically measure the alcohol content of its products, they can also rely on Ignacio to measure it himself using a more traditional technique. He blows bubbles into a sample of mezcal through a long cane stalk and watches the reaction. The higher the ABV, the faster the bubbles will disappear. The method has never failed him.

ignacios-tools-for-measuring-the-mezcals-abv

Ignacio's tools for measuring the mezcal's ABV.
ignacio-measures-the-abv-of-the-mezcal Ignacio measures the ABV of the mezcal.

After a lunch of tamales, nopales, and mole cooked by the Martinez family, we head back to Oaxaca City in awe of what we've witnessed.

Good mezcal isn't the Jose Cuervo that made you black out in college. It's the product of incredible patience and backbreaking labor. It's patience; you can't harvest an agave plant for eight to 12 years. Hell, the agave plant even needs bats to pollinate it. The process is fucking magical.

seriously-dont-waste-it

Seriously, don't waste it.

So if someone offers you some mezcal, drink it up. Drink it all. Whatever you do, don't you dare waste a single drop.