Monday, July 14, 2014

The Versatility Of Agave




The agave plant yields so much to the world. It has long been used for clothing, food and shelter, among other things. Oh, and did I mention that this plant also happens to be used for two of the world’s most flavorful and favorite spirits? Namely, tequila and mezcal. Well, although I knew about its use for manufacturing spirits, I have to admit that I did not know about its other uses – and that’s why I’m glad I took a course at The Astor Center of New York City called, “Agave Smackdown: Tequila Vs. Mezcal”, taught by Tess Rose Lampert.

Upon entering the class, we were greeted with a cocktail – a Negroni. But it’s not the standard Negroni you’d expect – this one substituted mezcal for gin. The Negroni was distinctly different from the ones I’ve had before and I was delighted to be introduced to a new way of incorporating mezcal in a cocktail. As we sipped the drink, our instructor said that we should think about being a little more experimental when making cocktails at home, using mezcal instead of the standard base spirit that would normally be included in the recipe. One example she gave was making a Manhattan with mezcal!


Agave plants take a while before they can be used for spirit production – specifically, they take anywhere from eight to 30 years to mature. There are over 200 species, 30 of which are used to make spirits. Although we tend to think of the agave as being native to Mexico, they have also been known to grow in the southwestern United States and some have even been reported in Africa. Just as grapes grown for wine, agave is very dependent on its terroir for flavor, quality and other vital characteristics.


Pulque is a pre-hispanic ritualistic and religious drink that was made by fermenting agave juice for four days. Low in alcohol – about 5% alcohol by volume – it is lightly sweet and effervescent, with a slightly sour finish. While it’s similar to wine in the way it’s produced, it’s closer to beer in its taste. It has a tendency to be thick and rather viscous. Although it’s possible to purchase pre-packaged, it’s thought to be best when fresh. Some believe it has hallucinogenic qualities, but due to its low alcohol content, it would require at least five glasses before you could even begin to expect getting any kind of a buzz.


As far as the differences between tequila and mezcal, tequila tends to be lower in alcohol; while tequila is usually around 40% alcohol by volume, mezcal can be as high has 65% alcohol by volume. Tequila can only be made from blue agave plants, but mezcal can be made from any type of agave plant. While tequila is made by steaming agave plants in ovens, mezcal is roasted in pits (this is what gives it the smokier taste compared to tequila). Also, tequila’s manufacturing process is considered more industrial in nature – it’s mass produced; by comparison, mezcal uses a more artisanal production method, often made in smaller quantities. In Mexico, only five states can actually manufacture tequila, whereas with mezcal, a total of eight states are capable of making the spirit.


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