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Sonoma County mesmerized by mezcal

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Special Section: Latino Lifestyle

Visit our Spanish language publication, La Prensa Sonoma

The smoky, complex distillate known as mezcal — one of the oldest distilled beverages in the New World and quickly becoming one of the trendiest as well — has been flying under the radar for centuries.

Made in tiny batches, from the fruit of up to 30 varieties of agave plants, the smoky cousin of tequila is currently being heralded as the ultimate artisanal spirit, with wild varietals such as Tepextate selling for over $150 a bottle. Mezcal sales between 2007 and 2011 grew by 48 percent, according to data from the Mexican government, and Mexican restaurants such as Agave in Healdsburg are championing the higher-end mezcals in special tasting flights and cocktails.

“We introduced mezcal to Sonoma County about 12 or 13 years ago, when nobody wanted it,” said Agave owner Octavio Diaz, who also opened Agave Uptown restaurant in Oakland last year. “People are just hooked into it, and they drink a lot of mezcal now.”

One of the high-quality mezcals that Agave restaurant serves comes from Benesin and San Juan del Rio, two brands of organic mezcals made by Santa Rosa resident Efrain Nolasco, who grows and ferments mezcal in his Oaxacan hometown of San Juan del Rio.

During a tasting by a New York Times Wine Critic in 2010, two of Nolasco’s mezcals were singled out for best value among a total of seven brands. In 2013, the product review site, TheFiftyBest.com, awarded the Benesin Añejo a Double Gold medal.

After those accolades, industry insiders started referring to Nolasco as “Señor Mezcal.”

“We started doing mezcal tastings with Efrain in 2011, and foodies loved it,” Diaz said. “When it comes to mezcal, he is very hands on — he’s the number one guy in the states who knows the whole process, from harvesting and planting to distillation.”

Growing up in the tiny, mountainous village of San Juan del Rio, Nolasco learned the artisanal craft firsthand from his father.

Using the same methods practiced for hundreds of years, the maestro mezcalero harvests the heavy plants, then extracts the heart, or piña, by cutting off the leaves and roots. The hearts are cooked in rustic, underground pit ovens lined with river rock, then crushed by a stone wheel turned by a horse and fermented in wood vats. Finally, the fermented mash is distilled in clay or copper vats and bottled.

“As a kid, I would go out to help harvest the agave and push the horse,” recalled Nolasco, 56, who has lived in Santa Rosa for the past 30 years. “It’s very hard work.”

Throughout Mexico, mezcal is known and loved as the “elixir of the gods” because of its mythical creation story. Mezcal — derived from the Nahuatl word mexcalli, meaning “oven-cooked agave” — is believed to have been born when a lightning bolt struck an agave plant, cooking and opening it,

“We connect mezcal to the gods,” Nolasco said. “In my hometown, we use it for everything … to ease terrible pain and childbirth. And when we have a party, we have to toast with mezcal first, and we pour a few drops on the ground … the earth gave it to us, so we have to give back to it.”

In 1987, Nolasco emigrated to the states in search of a better life and ended up working in construction and landscaping. After the 1990s, when he found out that his hometown’s mezcal industry had bottomed out, he decided he had to do something.

Special Section: Latino Lifestyle

Visit our Spanish language publication, La Prensa Sonoma

“In the 1990s, when the tequila boom started, the state of Jalisco came and bought all the agave, and the mezcal production collapsed,” he said. “Then Jalisco started growing their own and stopped buying the agave.”

That meant that the agave grown by his town became worthless. With about 80 percent of the residents employed by the mezcal industry, it was a near-fatal blow to the local economy.

Around 2000, Nolasco started making plans to produce his own, high-quality, organic mezcal in San Juan del Rio that would rely on natural processes and a double distillation process. He spent the next five years learning about all the regulations surrounding mezcal production.

By 2006, Nolasco had launched his mezcal business and became the first maker to become certified organic. His distillery was built with gutters on the roof to catch the mountain rainwater used in the fermentation process.

“The pureness is important,” he said. “I also improved the production, using no chemicals and only natural fermentation.”

Nolasco said he produces about 2,000 liters of mezcal per month. A shipping company delivers the cases to Tijuana, where it goes through customs, then he sends a truck to pick it up.

“I was the first person from Oaxaca to export to here,” he said. “There are a lot of brands now … the good mezcal is pricey; my mezcal is affordable. I want to educate people, and let them know what good mezcal is.”

The mystique of mezcal may be linked to its limited supply. Agave can take between 7 to 35 years to mature, depending on the species, which means mezcal production is small.

“You get maybe 100 cases, and you have to wait for another harvest,” Diaz said. “I think that’s what people appreciate.”

Nolasco makes one mezcal under the San Juan del Rio label, which is 96 proof, or 48 percent alcohol by volume. The other six mezcals, made under the Benesin label, are 92 proof, or 45 percent ABV.

“The bartenders and mixologists want to work with the 43 and 45 up to 46 and 47 ABV,” Diaz said. “Otherwise, it becomes overpowering. You want a nice balance of flavors and tastes.”

The white or silver mezcal is not aged, but simply bottled and sent out on the market. But many mezcaleros, including Nolasco, will rest the mezcal for a few months, creating a reposado mezcal, or age the mezcal for a few years, creating a mezcal añejo. If you sit on it longer, it gets even better.

“My father has a mezcal in Oaxaca that has been sitting for 20 years,” Diaz said. “It’s like a fine cognac. It’s very smooth, almost like honey … you want to sit on it, but you want to drink it.”

Under the Benesin label, Nolasco also makes a mezcal from the wild Tepeztate agave, from the wild Tobala agave and a blended mezcal from a mix of three agaves. To celebrate Dia de los Muertos, he distills a special pechuga mezcal from a chicken breast infused with fruits, herbs and spices.

“We share it with the people who have passed away,” he said. “We put it on the grave.”

Although they are siblings, tequila and mezcal are produced under different rules. Tequila must be distilled from one kind of agave — the blue agave — in one of five states: Jalisco, Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit or Tamaulipas.

Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made from any agave, and its Appellation of Origin is much larger, comprising the states of Oaxaca, Guerrero. Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, San Luis Potosi, Durango and Michoacan.

The mineral, smoky flavor of mezcal comes from the roasting of the agave hearts. Nolasco uses oak wood to roast the hearts, which he harvests from the espadin agave, which accounts for about 90 percent of the mezcal production.

“Some mezcal is smoky and some is not — it depends on how it’s made,” he said. “Each maestro mezcalero has his own techniques. The flavor depends on the type of agave, and the water, soil and altitude where it was grown.”

The history of mezcal has deep roots in the Mexican culture. It originated as a fermented agave drink known as pulque, which was enjoyed by the indigenous people before the Spanish arrived in the 1500s. After the colonizers brought their distilling technology, mezcal was born.

“Mezcal was the first distilled spirit in the New World,” Nolasco said. “Then came bourbon.”

Along with the pure, mountain water, the distillation process is key to the quality of the final product,

“All the water becomes steam and the steam becomes the magic drink of mezcal,” Diaz said. “It’s considered a sacred drink.”

At Agave in Healdsburg, you can order a margarita made with mezcal and lime juice, but in Mexico, the custom is to drink it straight with slice of orange, lemon or lime on the side.

“In the towns, you drink it with oranges to cleanse your palate,” Diaz said. “It tastes really good with that, and you can pick up the aroma of the herbs and the minerals from the dirt and the plant.”

According to Diaz, mezcal is considered a soothing drink, because it helps people relax and reflect on where they came from.

“It brings you the sense of who you are now, who you were, and the process in between,” he said. “It takes you on a journey where you can see your life.”

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com.

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