By Bruce Collier
First, mezcal has no relationship to “mescaline,” no matter what the guy next to you at the bar tries to tell you. It’s just a coincidence. Second, the worm in the bottle thing is not traditional, it’s marketing. But in Oaxaca, Mezcal Central, people sometimes do consume worms – they’re a cheap and abundant source of protein.
Mezcal and tequila, however, are related. The main difference is that, legally, tequila must be distilled from 100-percent blue agave. Mezcal is also made from agave, but it can come from other varieties of the plant, of which there are upwards of 50. Tequila is legally made in five Mexican states, mezcal in eight. There are some overlaps, and, interestingly, mezcal made in states where tequila is also made cannot legally be made with blue agave. Got all that?
My approach to mezcal was somewhat challenged by its relative scarcity, especially in these parts. If you have any interest in traveling in the land of mezcal, your best bet is to start with John McEvoy’s Holy Smoke, It’s Mezcal! It’s crammed full of mezcal fact and fiction (you can skip the latter, unless Meso-American mythology turns you on). McEvoy’s enthusiasm for mezcal borders on the evangelical, but he doesn’t spare the facts and figures.
Mezcal is made from ripe agave, which can take from eight to 30 years to mature. The pina, a pineapple-like core weighing from 10 to 100 pounds, is harvested and slow roasted in ovens (hornos) of various designs. This gives the pina a caramelized character, and mezcal producers (mezcaleros) have their own secret techniques to achieve desired results.
The roasted pinas are crushed by hand or stone mill to produce mash, which ferments in water via wild yeasts that vary regionally. It’s distilled twice (by law) in copper or clay pot stills, adjusted to desired alcohol by volume (usually 80-100 proof), and either bottled young (joven) “rested” for two to 11 months (reposado) or aged for a year or longer (anejo) in wooden barrels.
This is all done by hand, by mule, and by ancient methods, all of which add up to the generally high prices that mezcals can command. As with all craft spirits, cheapness is rarely an option.
According to McEvoy, while mezcal is gaining ground in the U.S., there are at present only 70 brands sold in America. In searching for local stuff, I found only a few, one of which, Wild Shot, is associated with country star Toby Keith and costs in the mid-$40s. All respect to Keith, but celebrity spirits are risky. Instead, I bought one out-of-state, and sampled two as part of a flight at a local Mexican restaurant. One was joven, one reposado, and one I took to be a sort of blend. I found no anejos except online, and they were out of my price range. Still, I got a good sense of the basics.
The first, likely a blend, was Monte Alban (80 proof, $25.99). If you find can mezcal at all in local stores, it’s probably this. Pale gold, its nose will evoke Saturday-night tequila. The taste is sharp, vegetal, cabbage-like, and there’s a palpable burn. As it airs, it softens. It can grow on you, maybe with a beer chaser. I think it would overwhelm a margarita.
Next was the real stuff. Los Amantes Joven (80 proof, mid-$50s), triple-distilled and colorless. The nose is subtle—pineapple and minerals. The taste is cool, smooth and fruity, and develops with patience. This would make a good sipper, or a caipirinha with crushed fresh fruit.
I invested in a bottle of Sacrificio Reposado (80 proof, $34.99), bought in Atlanta, and finally “got” what McEvoy was raving about. Sacrificio is the color of white wine, with an initial nose of sweet fruit and spicy pineapple, but little of the smokiness I’d read so much about.
The first taste revealed black pepper and more fruit. Then came the smoke. I sampled some single malt scotches last year, from Islay, and this brought them to mind. The smoke clings and coats the tongue, and is followed by caramelized pineapple, sweet bell pepper, vanilla, and fresh herbs, like a summer salad. It took me about an hour to sip, and the tastes came and went as through a revolving door.
My mezcal road ahead is paved with anejo, pechuga, sal de gusano and a whole world of discovery. A bartender told me that there’s not much call for mezcal around here. Let’s all get together and see if we can change that.