A lot has been written about mezcal. One of my top books from two years ago covers the spirit in depth. However, if you’re not deeply obsessed with spirit trivia, like I am, you might be wondering what mezcal is. I feel like I am still asked whether I’ve had mezcal when ordering a cocktail in a bar. The assumption is that most people aren’t accustomed to the smokey flavor and might not enjoy their drink. This used to be me before American bartenders found the sweet spot of balance and flavor in their drinks. Now, whenever I order a mezcal cocktail at a craft cocktail bar, or make one at home, I know I’m going to love it.
What is Mezcal
Not only are agave plants are beautiful, they are the basis for spirits like tequila, pulque, and mezcal. While tequila must be made from blue agave from five Mexican states in the Tequila region, mezcal has more freedom. Mezcal can be made from more than 30 types of agave from nine Mexican states, but the majority comes from Oaxaca. The relationship between the two is similar to a square and a rectangle, tequila is a mezcal, but not all mezcals are tequila. Both are distilled twice. Mezcal can reach an alcohol content of 55%. (For reference, tequila ranges between 35-55% ABV.) The process of making mezcal varies primarily in what happens after the piñas (heart of the agave plant) are roasted.
Piñas can weigh up to 200 pounds and take up to seven years to grow. They naturally produce inulin (fructose chains) that need to be broken down before they can be converted into alcohol. After the piñas are roasted, they need to be crushed. Depending on the type (see below), a commercial method or a traditional tahona (a stone wheel) and a donkey are used, or somewhere in between. Craft mezcal distillers include the fermented agave solids, while tequila producers discard the agave fibers. This is one of the reasons well-made mezcals are richer and more complex in flavor than tequila. Distillation then takes place. This is another process that varies from one mezcal to the next. Vessels from clay pots to copper stills to steel tanks are used. As you refine your palate, the difference can be tasted.
Types of Mezcal
Defining mezcal is part of what makes it slightly confusing. There are three main categories of the spirit: mezcal, mezcal artesanal (handcrafted), and mezcal ancestral. Each category has a set of rules for how the spirit needs to be made. The rules also include the types of equipment that can be used. These rules are set forth by the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal (CRM). The ancestral category must adhere to the most rigorous process and specific equipment. For example, distillation must occur in clay pots over direct fire. More than 6 million liters are produced in Mexico each year, under more than 150 brand names.
Aging and Types
There are three classifications for aging mezcal, Joven (unaged), Reposado (aged at least two months), and Añejo (aged at least one year). Like with whiskey, increased aging deepens the color from clear to caramel. In addition to age, there are also types of mezcal based on the type of agave that is used, like Espádin which makes up 90% of mezcal produced. For more information on how to read a label, which is quite fascinating, this guide is very useful.
Another kind of mezcal worth mentioning is Pechuga. It comes from Oaxaca and involves adding fruits and spices and hanging a raw chicken breast inside the still during fermentation. It’s rumored to be incredible, but isn’t one I’ve tried.
What Does Mezcal Taste Like
There’s such a wide range of flavors from bottle to bottle. The dominant flavor is usually smokey, but there are plenty of other flavors present. You might taste gasoline, cheese, floral, fruit, earth, or something else entirely. Tasting mezcal is often done in clay copitas. They allow you to see and smell the mezcal. (Plus, you look like a pro!) The best way to get the full range of flavors is to sip it neat, no ice or water.
Due to the small batch nature many bottles are priced at a level where you want to be sure you like it first. There are bars dedicated to mezcal tasting, called mezcalerias. But, depending on where you are in the world, you might not be near one. If you have a liquor store near you that offers tastings, check those out! Many Mexican restaurants also offer flights so you can try different expressions. A few of my favorites are pictured above. I would definitely say for the price and consistently excellent quality, Mezcal Vago Elote is a great one to start with.
How to Use Mezcal in Cocktails
Mezcal has to be one of my favorite spirits to experiment with in a cocktail. If you’re just starting out, it’s amazing in a basic margarita, either on its own, or split 50/50 with tequila. I love it in my Fire Margarita as well. However, you don’t have to just stick with using it in place of or alongside other agave spirits. Although, Mezcal Palomas are amazing! It plays well with plenty of others, even gin! You have to try the Ruby Diamond and then let me know what you think. If you really want to highlight the flavor, try it in a Mezcal and Soda. Super simple, just 2 ounces of mezcal, soda water, a pinch of sea salt and a slice of your favorite citrus fruit over ice. Refreshing and delicious!
Once you start exploring mezcal, you’ll know that this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you want to learn more about this highly interesting spirit, check out this book from agave expert, James Schroeder.