spirits | liquids might lie on top of a scrubby plateau, or at the bottom of a steep ravine. Agave must be harvested at optimum ripeness, just before flowering when the sugar content is highest, as with browning bananas. The jimador must navigate the agave’s nettles and remove the leaves, exposing the piñas, which can weigh anywhere between 50 to 500 pounds. Once transported to the farmhouse distillery, called the palenque, the piñas are cooked for three or more days on hot rocks atop wood fires in earthen ovens — basically, pits in the ground lined with stone or clay. Tequila makers departed from this process long ago, but the venerable character of mezcal derives significantly from flavors and aromas redolent of fire, roast and smoke, which become fixed during cooking. The agave now softened, its aguamiel (honey water) must be extracted by pressing and pulping, which can be done by hand with mallets, or by use of the tahona, a stone wheel in a circular stone pit pulled by a draft animal. The aguamiel and remaining fibers then go together into open fermenters made of pine. Water is added, and wild yeast (sometimes with cultivated local strains) begin their work. Once fermentation has concluded, the liquid is distilled in copper or clay stills to an alcoholic strength of between 36% and 55%, with classifications including joven (unaged and clear), reposado (aged in oak for at least two months), and añejo (aged in oak for at least a year).
After all this time, nothing less than mezcal will do “Mezcal is the only spirit you kiss in order to taste,” Mendoza said, encouraging the drinker to breathe deeply of the aromatics in preparation for tasting his Cuishe (one of six Mala Idea expressions), then ingesting only a few drops to acclimate the tongue, followed by a second gentle “kiss” to receive the full chapter and verse. “It’s a beautiful dance of discovery. What can I find?” Silver Dollar’s Larry Rice, one of Louisville’s most knowledgeable drinks purveyors, finds much to like about Mendoza’s line. “Mala Idea is pretty exceptional,” he wrote in an email. “The Cuishe is as balanced as any I've had, and very complex. The Tepexate has interesting brine notes, but in a good way. I wanted some east coast oysters to go with it. “Mezcal is bold, so it holds up in cocktails and remains the star of the show,” he says. “A well-rounded mezcal has tons of flavors to play off, so it can be used to make anything from an Old Fashioned riff to a sour.” The real trick might be finding enough Mala Idea. By its very methodical nature, owing to the rarity of wild agave and the old-fashioned techniques, mezcal is a limited art form. Mendoza’s partner in Oaxaca state, a palenque with decades of distilling experience, is capable of producing only 60,000 bottles of year … for the entire planet. For Mezcal Mala Idea, singularity and patience are two manifestations of a single ethos. “I don’t want it to be for everybody,” remarked Mendoza. “Anything of high quality is worth waiting for it to be done well.” F&D
The Ba Luu Rita, a signature drink at Pho Ba Luu restaurant, is a play on a margatitia with Mala Idea and lemongrass syrup taking center stage.
www.foodanddine.com Spring 2017 31
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