Mezcal Straight Up
From the worm to the burn, there are many myths associated with the godfather of Tequila.
Mezcalería Los Amantes is a sexy, clandestine mezcal bar in the southern Mexican city of Oaxaca devoted to extremely small-production mezcals from across Oaxaca state, a land known for its distinctive cuisine and indigenous traditions. Scan the bottles curated by proprietors Guillermo Olguín and León Lory, and you’ll find more than a few that are handblown, with no worm in sight.
The liquid itself, says Olguín as he carefully pours, is “beautiful.”
Facts, not frat-party myths: Mezcal is not a type of Tequila (it’s the other way around), bears no relation to mescaline or other hallucinogenic drugs and the worm is an outdated marketing gimmick. Mezcal is a distinctive, handcrafted, historic elixir finally getting its due among spirits devotees.
Mezcal refers to any distillate from the spiky agave plant (known as maguey in Mexico), which, contrary to popular belief, is neither a cactus nor related to aloe.
Maguey is as emblematic of Mexico as corn, and its remarkable versatility has provided Mexicans with food and water, needle and thread, and—oddly enough—both weapons and cures since ancient times. The process of fermenting the sap of certain magueys to make the mildly alcoholic drink pulque goes back about 1,000 years. Mezcal wasn’t produced until the 1500s, when the Spanish Conquest brought distillation technology.
There are over 200 documented species of agave, and about 40 have been found to be used for mezcal. Tequila is just one type of mezcal, made exclusively from Agave tequilana Weber var. azul (Blue Agave), with production legally restricted to the state of Jalisco and certain municipalities in four neighboring states.
Roasted or steamed
The distinction between Tequila and traditional mezcal is significant.
Tequila is usually produced in massive quantities from steam-cooked agave. For mezcal, the meaty agave hearts (called piñas for their resemblance to pineapples) are slow-roasted in rock-lined pits over wood fires. The cooking can take several days (not to mention the 8-plus years for the agaves to reach maturity), and the resulting complexity and depth of flavor as compared to steam cooking is akin to a microwaved pork shoulder versus true Texas barbecue.
The cooked agave is then crushed by a horse towing a giant stone wheel, and the extracted juice is naturally fermented in wooden vats and then distilled in wood-fired copper or clay stills. The entire process takes place outdoors and without electricity.
The result is wildly variable and has all the particularity of a single-malt Scotch, with which fine mezcals are often compared. Neighboring towns might produce mezcal in the same manner from the same agave types, but with vastly different results, even from batch to batch.
“Mezcal is not about consistency,” says Jonathan Barbieri, a painter who bottles powerful, small-production mezcals under the name Pierde Almas.
Though Tequila received a Denominación de Origen (Appellation of Origin) designation in 1977, it wasn’t until 1995 that mezcal was given separate protection. This has proven controversial within Mexico, however. Under the new designation, only seven of Mexico’s 31 states are legally allowed to call their product mezcal, even though it has been produced throughout the country for centuries.
The vast majority of exported Mexican mezcals are made in Oaxaca from Agave angustifolia Haw. (commonly known as Maguey espadín in Spanish).
As with Tequila, the first step in bottle shopping is to look for “100% agave” on the label. Even given that, the differences among brands can be striking, albeit more a matter of personal taste than intrinsic quality. The taste, smell and mouthfeel of mezcal generally have more to do with farm-specific environmental factors and the mezcaleros’ special touch than immutability among agave types or regions.
A pivotal moment for mezcal
Mezcal is typically served neat, usually with orange slices and sal de gusano (salt ground with the dried caterpillars that infest agaves), though salt with chili is an acceptable substitute. A wide-mouthed glass helps capture the often-powerful nose.
Like Tequila, there are mellow, oak-aged reposado and añejo mezcals, though most aficionados prefer unaged blancos for their clear expression of the agave. Héctor Vázquez, maestro mezcalero for Mezcal Los Danzantes, says that, like wine, “mezcal can have every flavor—fruity, savory, herbal, floral, spicy, mineral.”
As with most spirits that purists insist should be savored solo, mezcal can also be a fascinating cocktail ingredient. This might be key to its further diffusion in the United States.
“Mezcal is challenging for the average Tequila drinker, similar to how Scotch Islay whiskies are difficult for most whisky drinkers,” says Andrew Friedman, owner of Seattle’s Liberty Bar and president of the Washington State Bartender’s Guild. “But creative bartenders are starting to use them in cocktails.”
At Liberty Bar, for example, they’re likely to pair mezcal with complex bitters rather than citrus or fruit, an attempt to display the full range of mezcal’s flavor. Friedman has seen mezcal consumption steadily increase in the last year.
It’s a pivotal time for mezcal, as corporate interests are carefully noting its explosion in popularity, much like what occurred with Tequila.
“Tequila isn’t a Mexican industry anymore,” says Vázquez, referring to the vast majority of Tequila production being owned by multinational corporations. “I don’t want that to happen here.”
Ron Cooper of Del Maguey, who in 1995 introduced true mezcal to the U.S., agrees.
“My concern is the huge industrial plant built by a wealthy conglomerate that owns Coca-Cola bottling and making something called Zignum,” Cooper says. Zignum is a bland spirit that barely resembles “real” mezcal, but they have a massive marketing budget and export as far afield as New Zealand.
Back at Mezcalería Los Amantes, Olguín points out that mezcal’s distinctiveness is its appeal. He doesn’t see mezcal going the way of Tequila, but vice versa.
“I’m seeing new Tequilas in Mexico City,” he says. The producers, he says, “see what’s happening with mezcal, and they’re starting to talk about traditional production and unique flavors.”
He offers a rare mezcal made from the tiny Agave cupreata, which has a tangible creaminess and the briny flavor of black olives. “It’s very beautiful, no?”
La Otra Palabra ("The Other Word")
This drink, created by Los Angeles bartender Eric Alperin, takes its inspiration from The Last Word, a ginbased cocktail that originated at the Detroit Athletic Club. Opt for a mezcal with a clean, peppery zing.
2 ounces Sombra Mezcal
1 ounce fresh lime juice
¼ ounce Yellow Chartreuse
¼ ounce agave nectar
1 teaspoon Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur
Shake all ingredients with ice, and strain into a rocks glass over a large chunk of ice.
The Gentle Cousin
Created by mezcal booster Bobby Heugel of Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston, Texas, this drink has a sophisticated profile, transposing lightly smoky notes of Chichicapa against bitter amaro and rich reposado Tequila.
1½ ounces Siembra Azul Reposado Tequila
½ ounce Del Maguey Chichicapa Mezcal
¾ ounce La Cuesta Reserva Vermouth
½ ounce Montenegro Amaro
1 teaspoon turbinado syrup* or agave nectar
2 dashes Angostura Bitters
Orange twist, for garnish
Combine ingredients in a mixing glass with ice. Stir and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange twist.
* To make turbinado syrup, dissolve 2 parts golden turbinado sugar into 1 part simple syrup (which is, itself, 2 parts sugar to 1 part water).
94 Del Maguey Chichicapa Cask (Mexico; Del Maguey, Ranchos de Taos, NM).
This limited- edition, “single village” mezcal (only 14 three-bottle sets were produced and is available at New York City's Park Avenue Liquor) is aged for 14 years in glass bottles and then finished in a Stags’ Leap Cabernet barrel for 43 days. The result is a light nut-brown color and offers beautiful aromas of raisin, vanilla and dark chocolate, with a mellow pepper note in the background. Sweet agave nectar and honey flavors finish with a muted peppery sting.
abv: 47.8% Price: $320
90 Sombra (Mexico; Domaine Select Wine Estates, New York, NY).
Beneath an edgy Hells Angels-esque black-and-silver label, the clear liquid gives off aromas of jalapeño, green bell pepper and a sun-warmed savory-
sweetness that hints at ripe tomatoes. A slightly sweet flavor quickly gives way to a pleasant hot pepper singe and just enough alcohol for balance. Silky feel on the tongue, medium body. Outstanding for a Bloody Mary or other tomato-based cocktail.
abv: 45% Price: $45
89 Scorpion Mezcal Reposado (Mexico; Caballeros Inc., Manhasset, NY).
This aged spirit has a light straw color and an intriguing mix of smoky spice and caramel aromas. After airing, the caramel scent intensifies. The flavor starts as vaguely sweet and vanilla-like, with a soft feel on the tongue, then turns peppery, and finishes with anise and a strong alcohol bite. Despite two off-putting scorpions at the bottom of the bottle, a sophisticated approach to mezcal.
abv: 40% Price: $45
88 Ilegal Reposado Mezcal (Mexico; Fredrick Wildman and Sons New York, NY).
Restrained, mellow, balanced, elegant— not something usually expected from the mezcal category. This aged mezcal has a light gold color and soft aromas—a whisper of pepper, a hint of smokiness, later opening to a big caramel scent. Peppery flavors and some agave sweetness finish with a sharp bite, which might mellow over ice.
abv: 40% Price: $68
Try other delicious mezcal-based cocktails:
At Liberty Bar in Seattle, Washington, Owner Andrew Friedman finds that bitter flavors can help accentuate mezcal's complexity. "I love exposing people to the amazing range of tastes in the many different brands available," he says, noting that he's seen mezcal consumption steadily increase over the past year. This cocktail, a variation of one Friedman makes with his own barrel-aged mezcal and Campari, is both simple and delicious.
Courtesy Liberty Bar, Seattle
1½ ounces mezcal
¼ ounce Campari
½ ounce Cointreau
½ ounce fresh lemon juice
¼ ounce simple syrup (or to taste)
2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
Combine all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake. Serve in a cocktail glass with ice.
Mojito de Té Limón
Courtesy Dulce Patria in Mexico City
10 mint leaves
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
2 teaspoons sugar
1½ ounces mezcal (preferably blanco)
¼ cup cold lemongrass tea
Muddle the mint leaves with the lime juice and sugar in a highball glass until sugar dissolves. Add the mezcal and tea and stir well. Pour all the ingredients into a cocktail glass with ice.