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Mine’s A Mezcal: The Mexican Spirit’s Big Moment

Why tequila’s smoky cousin is worming its way onto a cocktail menu near you

  • Mezcal cocktail. Photograph by Mr Jakob N Layman

If you have spent a respectable amount of time sipping hard liquor in recent years, chances are you’ve come across mezcal. No doubt you’re well aware that it’s like tequila, only wilder and smokier. Most likely you have smiled politely as a bartender banged on about the relative merits of the madrecuixe agave compared to the mercurial arroqueño.

Maybe you even heard too many tales of epiphanies in Oaxaca (a state south of Mexico City) and rashly labelled mezcal an “over-rated hipster spirit”. (I did this once and was accused of having a “neo-imperial” drinking agenda by some dude on Instagram.) Perhaps you’ve since experienced a mezcal conversion and now associate its paraffin-and-mesquite vapours with the very best of times. I blame Mr James Whewell, founder of Wilderness festival, who prepared a vat of mezcal margaritas for his wedding because, he insisted, “it gives a high like no other”. He isn’t wrong. It’s not just the proof – typically about 50 per cent ABV compared to tequila’s 40 per cent – but a certain blood-tickling spirit-suckling quality that never fails to give evenings an upward trajectory.

But whatever your state of mezcal awareness, you can learn a lot more from Ms Bricia Lopez at Guelaguetza in Los Angeles. Ms Lopez is a smart and stylish Oaxacan native who wears a necklace that spells “Mezcalifornian”, just so you don’t mistake her for someone who’d order a Malibu and Coke. She arrived in LA aged 10 with her parents, who set up Guelaguetza in what’s now Koreatown. It’s a fun, lively restaurant, renowned for the multifaceted deliciousness of its mole sauces, deep, rich, savoury pastes containing lists of ingredients as long as your arm. And now, thanks to Ms Lopez, it has become unofficial mezcal mission control. Many bartenders in the city credit her with turning them on to mezcal and now no cocktail list is complete without it.

  • El Hopper cocktail. Photograph courtesy of Guelaguetza

  • Guelaguetza restaurant, Los Angeles. Photograph courtesy of Guelaguetza

“My family has been making mezcal for generations,” says Ms Lopez. “My dad used to have a mezcal shop in our little town in Oaxaca – he would go and sell it around other states. Some of my earliest memories are of him running that shop. When I was five and my sister was eight, we’d package up the worm salt and tie them to the bottles.”

Worm salt? “Yes, that salt is made from worms,” she says pointing to a spicy-pink salt that I had been dabbing in between my sips of the spiny-strong spirit. The famed “mezcal worm” is actually a form of moth larvae which mezcaleros began adding to their bottles to differentiate mezcal from tequila, as well as to impart a certain wormy flavour. Mezcal has now developed to a point where worms are seen as a bit de trop – but they have a certain nostalgic appeal among mezcalistas, a bit like Pabst Blue Ribbon retains in the age of craft beer.

Get in the spirit

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Now we’re into the differences between mezcal and tequila, we may as well do the agave 101. Both spirits are distilled from the fermented heart – the piña – of the agave plant (which is not a cactus, by the way, but a succulent, like aloe vera or asparagus). Tequila is made in the northern state of Jalisco and can only be made from tequilana (“blue agave”). Mezcal is made all over Mexico, but primarily in the southern state of Oaxaca and it can be made from any number of agaves, wild or cultivated. With tequila, the piña is steamed prior to distillation; with mezcal it is roasted in underground ovens, then covered and cooked, hence the smokiness. Tequila is usually distilled in modern stainless steel vats and sometimes aged (añejo) or merely rested (reposado) in wood. Mezcal is usually distilled in copper pots or even in some cases traditional clay and it is not aged.

For a variety of reasons, it was tequila that caught the international market. It was only registered as a product with the World Industrial Property Organization in the 1970s and established itself as the party fuel of choice for Americans (who apparently drink 185,000 margaritas per hour) and also the 1990s British pop metal pranksters Terrorvision (“Tequila/ It makes me happy”). Mezcal meanwhile remained a rural, local, domestic sort of drink, notwithstanding the efforts of the handful of producers who tried to oomph up the interest with the whole worm thing.

  • Agave plant hearts being roasted for Real Minero in Oaxaca, Mexico. Photograph by Mr Brian Finke/Gallery Stock

  • Real Minero agave fields, Santa Catarina Minas, Oaxaca, Mexico. Photograph by Mr Brian Finke/Gallery Stock

Ms Lopez summarises the difference as a bit like the difference between sparkling wine and champagne. You can only label your product champagne if it is made from certain grapes to a certain method in a certain part of France – likewise tequila. “It doesn’t mean that you can’t have a sparkling wine from Italy that isn’t as good.” Or indeed that you can’t have really bad tequila, naming no names. The thing to look out on tequila labels is 100 per cent blue agave, which is to say, tequila that’s not cut with distillate or tractor fuel or strychnine. Reportedly this doesn’t give you a hangover – which I wish I could say were true, but certainly it gives you a much better grade of hangover. And happily, this is becoming more and more common. Tequila is one of the fastest growing spirit categories there is, with the vast majority of the growth coming at the more premium end, thanks to brands such as Herradura, Patron, Ocho, AquaRiva and Casamigos – owned by Mr George Clooney and Mr Rande Gerber (aka Mr Cindy Crawford).

Get in the spirit

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Meanwhile, the rural, local, domestic qualities that once made mezcal a little rustic are precisely what makes it so covetable. “It’s the same thing that’s happening with food with the farm-to-table movement,” says Ms Lopez. “Mezcal is the epitome of a farm-to-table spirit. It’s been like that for ever – it’s just that people have learned to value that now. Everything in Oaxaca is small-batched.” 

I get my really serious mezcal tasting accomplished in the evening at Petty Cash, a posh taco place in West Hollywood. Here, the bar programme director Mr Eric Nebel curates a mezcal wall that he reckons is the most complete collection in the city. “The thing with mezcal is there are so many rabbit holes,” he says as he preps a couple of Oaxaca old fashioneds. “It’s not only the name of the agave, it’s the name of the village, the name of the farmer… All of those components make it different.”

Still, the sheer variety of mezcal can equally be intimidating – so Mr Nebel offers mezcals by the flight so you can try a bunch of them. “The basic introductory mezcal is made from the espadin agave – and it’s always smoked,” says. “Just like Scotch is smoked. People who like Scotch usually like mezcal.” (It’s worth bearing in mind the until comparatively recently, no one really gave much of a damn about single malts, it was all about blended whisky.)

  • The mezcal wall at Petty Cash. Photograph by Ms Marianna Jamadi, courtesy of Petty Cash

  • Petty Cash’s Mezcal Margarita. Photograph by Ms Marianna Jamadi, courtesy of Petty Cash

“But the cool thing about mezcal is that it can be made from any type of wild agave. Some are made from agaves that take eight years to mature – some of them take 24 years to mature. Some of them are the size of a basketball and they produce one bottle. Some of them are a huge mass of leaves and they produce a lot more.” This is one reason why you can’t mass produce mezcal in quite the same way as tequila – at least, not unless you had incredible foresight about drinking trends a quarter of a century ago.

A good introductory brand is Del Maguey, which distributes a variety of single-village mezcals. Vida is its most approachable; it’s floral and peppery with a slight kerosene kick (I mean that in a good way). Its madrecuixe, from the lush region of San Luis del Rio, had a saltier, earthier kick, and a stone fruit note. “With a single village mezcal, you start to get the location, temperature, climate, elevation coming through – even after the smoking process. This is why it’s comparable to wine, you have these elements of terroir.”

Get in the spirit

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Particularly fine too was the arroqueño by Rey Campero and Real Minero. Generally speaking, the less fancy the label, the better, says Mr Nedel. An old bottle sealed with wax and scrawled with a Sharpie is the ideal. If you’re going to mix it there are two basic strategies. One is to do as little as possible since there’s generally a lot going on in a mezcal already. This is the mode of the Oaxaca old fashioned. Mr Nedel makes his sweetened with a little crème de cacao, with a spritz of orange flower water and a dash of chipotle chilli tincture. Each element subtly draws out the different notes in the mezcal – earthy-sweet, floral-aromatic, fiery-smoky.

Alternatively, you can ram it up against a bunch of other super-strong flavours and trust that it will hold its own (I’d use a less refined version for this). One of my go-tos in this vein is the Naked & Famous by Mr Joaquín Simó while at Death & Co in New York. Shake up equal parts mezcal, Yellow Chartreuse, Aperol and lime with plenty of ice and strain into a frozen cocktail glass. Yowzers! The tastes are complex enough that you will want to sip and savour as oppose to shoot. The price (a double-shot is typically around the $18 mark, a decent bottle around $100) also mitigates against shooting.

Still, Ms Lopez really doesn’t feel there is a wrong way. “Mezcal is meant to be drunk however you feel like drinking it at the time – as long as you approach it with respect. Give it kisses and take it slow.”

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