With the recent introduction of the singer Maluma to the spirits business more people become interested in Mezcal, specially, in “Mezcal cristalino”. But you should know that it is a new style and it is not a category approved by the Mezcal law.
Tequila began with this style some years ago. The process used to get the “purified characteristics” is not a new one. It is a process widely used in Vodka production.
But, What is a Mezcal Cristalino? It is a Mezcal aged in barrels and passed through activated charcoal filters to remove the colour and many of the flavours extracted from the wood. The liquid will remain transparent, how it was a Mezcal Joven (new make mezcal), but smoother and with some aromatic accents originated during its oak maturation.
This “cristalino” style follows to the consumer preference for Mezcales blancos or jovenes, which moves from 19.8% of the total sales in 2011 to 89.2% of the total sales in 2019. Mezcales of this class tend to be intense in flavours and character. Probablly, they don’t fit with the new consumer’s taste, whom usually look for lighter Mezcales as starting point. Therefore, developing a crystal-clear product with a “smooth and subtle profile” instead of a water white mezcal with strong character, was the “solution”.
It’s important to know that Mezcal blanco or joven (young) is bottling how it comes from the still and it is water-white and transparent. Meanwhile Mezcal reposado and Mezcal añejo pass throug a post-distillation process of maturation in wood barrels, which adds colour and flavours compounds. Usually, they turn lemon color and over the time become more intense and change to gold, then amber and finally brown. With regards to the aromas, vanilla, coconut and spices are the most commonly aromas extrated from the wood.
At the same time, volatile compounds from the spirit (such as ethanol and acetaldehyde) are lost by evaporation and the char on the inside of the barrel removes sulphur compounds and off-flavours (aldehydes). On top of that, chemical reactions between components of the spirit or between components of the spirit and wood, take place and allow acetal formation and esterification*.
If wood ageing is a complex and expensive process, what is the pourpose to remove the results to become “cristalino”? That question keeps in my mind and “it doesn’t make any sense to my senses”. Usually, spirits with amber tones and woody aromas appel to the majority of the consumers. But the trend to become “authentic” by drinking a white spirit without mixers; and sales tendency, are the reasons behind this “innovation”.
When a spirit passes throug activated charcoal filtration, aroma, colour and texture components are removed. It is widely used in Vodka production in order to get the smoothness that is sought after in that category, Indeed, the term “filtration” is often used in the marketing of Vodkas in order to establish in the minds of consumers that is extremely pure and smooth.
It is not just used in neutral spirit production. Some Japanese Shochu distilleries have also used this technique to smooth out the texture, allowing its complex aromas to express themselves more clearly. In Rum category, activated charcoal is used to remove the colour from short aged rums and they are commercialised as white rums (how it is happening with Agave spirits).
There is another Mezcal class that it does recognised by the Mexican law (NOM 070) and it passes through a maturation period but it remains colourless as a newly made spirit. It is Mezcal madurado, a mezcal matured in glass vessels, which does not have color change as Mezcal añejo. And, in longer ageing, its texture becomes smoother and more mouthfilling and its flavours evolves too. Mezcal’s characteristics change because its own components react with each other and esterification* takes place. The spirit develops richness and complexity. And this could be a good option for who look a “subtle” Mezcal made by traditional process. But these mezcales take so many years to reach these characteristics and to be launched into the market, that they are expensive and probably, they are not the best option for new consumers (besides, they would not be properly appreciated).
Anyway, “Mezcal cristalino” is already in the market and it is supported by a celebrity, due to, it will become very popular. But this post is just to make you think that if Mezcal has unique characteristics, why they should be removed to transform it in a generic distillated? Every spirit’s category is different. There are spirits which pursue to express clarity and purity, as Vodka; and others which want to highlight the expressiveness of the raw material, as it is the case for Agave spirits. Agave with all its species, give to Mezcal a wide array of aromas that deserve to be value for themselves.
*Esterification: During maturation the fatty acids and alcohols continue to react with each other to form new esters. Furthermore, some existing esters break apart, adding to the material that can form new esters. The number and type of esters in the matured spirits is very different from those that were in the newly made spirit. However, the amount and nature of the change that can take place is entirely dependent on the quantity and type of fatty acids, alcohols and esters in the spirits as it comes off the still (WSET, 2019).
Brewing and Distilling General Certificated (text book), Institute of Brewing & Distilling (2017).
Ridgell, Mark, Spirits Distilled,Infinite Ideas (2016).
Spirits: Looking behind the label, Wine & Spirits Education Trust (2017).
Understanding spirits: explaining style and quality, Wine & Spirits Education Trust (2019).
Norma Oficial Mexicana NOM 070-SCFI-2016 Bebidas alcohólicas-especificaciones Mezcal, Diario Oficial de la Federación. Recuperado de: https://dof.gob.mx/nota_detalle.php?codigo=5472787&fecha=23/02/2017
Informe CRM 2016 e Informe CRM 2020.