You may remember mezcal from a booze-infused night in college or have heard a story about a ‘hallucinogenic’ drink (it’s not, by the way). You may even recognize it by the worm drowning in the bottom of the bottle, but this spirit is so much more than some of its more unsavory associations. Artisanal varieties are showing up on shelves across the nation, while forecasters are lauding it as one of the trendiest ingredients to hit the bar scene as of late. Without a doubt, mezcal is poised to make a big splash – and redeem its reputation – in the months ahead.
The word mezcal, sometimes written as mescal, translates to “oven-cooked agave,” a perfect description for what it actually is. The spirit is made with the cooked hearts, or ‘piñas,’ from various species of the agave plant. The most common variety used is Espadín, found in the Oaxaca region of Mexico. Mexican regulations allow for up to 30 different species to be used, and in some cases, several agaves are blended together.
The piñas are baked in conical earth ovens, filled with burning wood, and sealed for 2-3 days. These pits are lined with brick or stone, and while oak is the wood most often used, a few producers also use mesquite. This process caramelizes the sugars in the agave and ultimately imparts a smoky aroma and flavor in the resulting mezcal. For this reason, the spirit has been likened to certain types of Scotch.
One of the main differences between tequila and mezcal is that tequila is made from a single variety of agave, known as ‘Blue Weber.’ Another key point of differentiation is that here, the piñas are steamed in large vessels above the ground. Most of the steaming takes place in a handful of state-approved distilleries, whereas mezcal is largely baked and distilled by hundreds of mom-and-pop establishments (palenqueros) scattered throughout the Mexican countryside.
Like its mainstream cousin, mezcal can be classified in the same way as tequila, based on the length of time the spirit has been aged. “Joven” is young; “Reposado” means rested, “Añejo” has been aged between 1-3 years, and “Extra Añejo” is extra aged – more than 3 years.
When it comes to shopping for mezcal, many options exist depending on what you’re looking for. If you want to dive right in to the high-end of things, source a product made from the Tobalá variety of agave. Tobalá grows wild at peak elevations and tastes better to experienced palates than the cultivated version of itself. As only a small amount of this agave is available every year, Tobalá Mezcal is more expensive than its counterparts. Brand specific, Del Maguey is the pioneer in the industry when it comes to “Single Village” spirits, which are produced using ancient Oaxacan practices. Prices for a bottle of sipping mezcal will typically run upward of $50. You’ll be hard pressed to find larvae in premium brands either, as that practice is usually reserved for the type of bottle found on Spring Break. If you simply want to test the mezcal waters, several lesser-priced options have recently hit the market, and they’re perfect in mixed drinks.
Want to try mezcal at home? This blended cocktail recipe makes for a wonderful holiday drink, and can be tailored to your liking. Rinse the glass with a shot of the spirit for a hint of smokiness, or go all out and swirl it into the cranberry and orange mixture.
Mezcal Cranberry Chiller (Serves 2)
1 Tablespoon Agave Syrup
1 Orange, Juiced
½ Cup Fresh Cranberries
1 Cup Ice Cubes
2 Ounces Mezcal
- If you only want the flavor of Mezcal and not a full shot, rinse the interior of your serving glass with the spirit.
- Blend the remaining ingredients together, until smooth (Add the 2 ounces of Mezcal here, if you want a full-flavored drink).
- Pour and serve immediately.