The Tasting Panel magazine

August 2016

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august 2016  /  the tasting panel  /  43 school and travels. During my early career, I was living in Aspen, working as a sommelier, and I became captivated with the way tequila made me feel. I ultimately traveled all over Mexico and drank many different things before falling in love with Oaxacan mezcal and how it was so connected to the people, place, geology, geography, history and cuisine—Oaxaca is a very special place." Twenty-six of Mexico's 32 states have a history of mezcal production, but Oaxaca, with its varied terrain and diversity of agave varieties, has become the epicenter of the mezcal movement. Betts has taken full advantage of Oaxaca's potential for his super-pre- mium mezcal brand, Sombra. "We're producing in three villages in Oaxaca and each has its unique characteristics, which I then blend to create something that we find very beautiful, complex and complete. Sombra is not about a single element; we see it as being about many elements, each contributing to a complex and elegant whole." Betts is adamant about following the tradition of using underground ovens that create a signature smoky quality for every mezcal. "My partner and I were fortunate to meet Ron Cooper of Del Maguey along the way, and he introduced us to the first distiller with whom we worked. It's also been really interesting to see the recent prolifera- tion of brands, each of which has its own unique angle. There exists a great diversity of ideas as to what this is all about. The one thing that we're all beholden to is that for mezcal to truly flourish, it requires many people doing good work." Continues Betts, "Sombra is produced in the same way that mezcal has been made in Mexico for several hundred years. It's about organically farmed, mountain-grown agave that is hand- harvested, stone tahona ground, roasted in the ground, wild-yeast fermented and copper pot still distilled. It's a painstak- ing process that requires much time, effort and age-old expertise. It's also 90 proof, which I believe is very important; the alcohol carries flavor and texture. You don't see much 80-proof mezcal in the market for a reason." Since most mezcal is not aged, most versions do not carry the aging statements blanco, reposado or añejo that have become a defining element of tequila. To speak to the type of produc- tion, many in the industry are suggest- ing categories like Industrial, Artisanal and Ancestral. For Betts, it's not only about the liquid inside the bottle, but the impact that his company has on the area. He is constantly looking for ways to improve on the traditional methods of the process in order to produce less waste and continue to be responsible with their resources. "We're just about to open a new palenque (distillery) that will be like nothing ever done in Oaxaca. We expect to lead the way with environmentally-friendly practices and to be an open book so everyone can learn from what we're doing. It's also very important to me and my partners to contribute to the com- munities beyond just the work and the money that goes into the community from our production. With that, we've been working with the community of Matatlán on an educational initiative for the children. It's been really gratify- ing to teach music classes, English classes, break dancing and folklórico classes. The kids are loving it!" Many believe that mezcal is due for some very large growth in the future, and Betts believes that "this growth is coming from an interest in authenticity as consumers look for not just the next thing, but the real thing." And we can't disagree. On the differences between the taste profiles of mezcal and tequila, Betts notes, "Among the many things you should look for, but not be overwhelmed by, is smoke. It's a big part of mezcal that comes from the traditional roasting process, and if done properly, it contributes a beautiful, gentle smoky quality. I find that good mezcal also really speaks to the species of agave it's made from. You'll find all kinds of fruit flavors as well as pretty vegetal components too, and it should never be harsh. These are the elements that make mezcal so interesting, especially when compared to many tequilas that are striving to be ever-smoother, potentially at the expense of flavor and interest." Richard Betts, MS, also makes a small amount of tequila, under the brand Astral. He strives to make the product as it was done in the mid-1800s, when it was known as vino de mezcal.

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