A complete guide to mezcal
Let’s talk about mezcal
Words— Kate Dingwall
You’ve probably heard of mezcal by now. If you haven’t noticed it slip onto every cocktail menu worth its salt, you undoubtedly have heard of mezcal through a friend or two (probably the same friend who tried to get everyone into IPAs way back when). While mezcal has been a household spirit in Mexico for ages, it’s just now being picked up by the craft cocktail scene as the spirit to play with.
Mezcal versus tequila
Mezcal is most commonly referred to as tequila’s fancy, smoky cousin. And yes, while a lot of mezcal has those distinctive smoky qualities, mezcal is a whole lot more than that.
First of all, tequila is technically a form of mezcal. Mezcal can only be produced in Mexico, in one of nine states. Tequila can only be produced in five states. Oaxaca is the most famous of the mezcal-producing states, and the 85% of all mezcal you’ll see on shelves in North America are from Oaxaca. Oaxaca is also a rich culinary, and of course drinking, destination for your next time you’re looking to get rid of vacation time.
You may have heard of mezcal from one of the distinctive characteristics of mezcal: the worm in the bottle. Yes, there are worms in the bottle. No, the worms aren’t there to infuse flavor, nor do they have hallucinogenic properties (sorry!). Historically, Mexico’s corner store equivalents would carry mezcal and tequila in recycled bottles with no labeling. To differentiate tequila from mezcal, which are both a translucent clear colour, some crafty fellow decided to drop a worm in. This became the standard packaging for mezcal.
Another common misconception about mezcal: every mezcal is smoky. This misconception stems from how mezcal is made. Part of the process of making mezcal comes from heating agave hearts in an underground stone oven, imparting this delightful smokiness to the liquor.
How it’s made
Mezcal, as similar to tequila, is produced from the agave plant. While you can only make tequila from Blue Weber agave, mezcal can be made from any agave native to Mexico. This is one of the reasons people are freaking about mezcal: there are so many different varieties of agave that can be harvested and from such a variety of terroirs across the country. Wine geeks across the world are fawning over Mezcal for just that reason.
Unlike wheat-based spirits, there isn’t really a bounty of agave available for farming. Agave plants, which look similar to a very large pineapple (and, are called pinas) can take anywhere from four to ten years to reach maturity. Unlike an average farming plant, once you harvest the pina, it completely kills the plant. Meaning, you’re back to ground zero waiting another 4-10 years until the plant reaches maturation again.
The leaves of the agave plant are chopped off with a machete, and all that is left is the pina. Pinas are then harvested, chopped and thrown in a ten-foot-wide underground oven. The oven is lined with volcanic rocks, and a fire is lit and the base. Once buried, the pinas are cooked for eight to ten days, which highlights those smooth, smoky notes that have become mezcal’s signature.
How to buy it
When purchasing mezcal, there are a few indicators to look for on the bottle that will hint to the age and process.
Your entry-level mezcal, which is aged under two months or not at all. Better for cocktail application than sipping.
Aged anywhere between two and twelve months, primarily in oak barrels.
Aged anywhere between one and three years.
Aged for three years and up meaning, it’s probably really good.
How to drink it
Traditionally, mezcal isn’t served with lemon, it can be served with anything from an orange peel to chilli. You’ll traditionally find it served in not a shot glass, but a clay or wood bowl, or jicara.
Technicalities aside, mezcal is a deliciously versatile drink. Sub out Scotch for a smoky mezcal, or upgrade your usual tequila offerings for something with a little more flavor. Or, opt to drink it neat. It’s not the Jose Cuervo you shot back in college, we promise. If you’re hesitant to purchase a full bottle, head to your local craft cocktail bar and ask for the barkeep’s knowledge. We’re sure he or she will happily dive into their favorite mezcals to sip. Speaking of sipping, please don’t shoot mezcal. You wouldn’t shoot Scotch, so please, don’t shoot Mezcal.
So you’re entertaining at home. You want to break out a flashy cocktail recipe that isn’t actually that tough for you to make. Here’s what we recommend, designed for varying skill levels:
The beginner’s tipple
The Oaxacan Old Fashioned
You know the Old Fashioned. Add Mezcal and you take the classic cocktail, turn it on its head, and add a good punch of smoky mezcal. It’s surprisingly simple to execute at home, but complicated enough to woo whatever guests you plan on entertaining next.
From Robert Simonson
- 1.5 oz Reposado Tequila
- 0.5 oz Mezcal
- 1 teaspoon agave nectar
- 1 dash Angostura bitters
Method: Combine liquids in a shaker and stir until chain. Strain into a rocks glass with ice.
Show Points: Hold a match (Editor’s note: not a lighter, as your drink will then taste like gasoline) and hold an orange peel towards the flame, orange side in. Squeeze gently until the flame sparks and drop the peel into the drink.
For the more experienced barfly
Notes of Mezcal play with the sweeter notes of Lillet and honey for a light, refreshing cocktail.
From Brian Kane, General Manager/Bar Director at Abe Fisher
- .75 oz Cortes Joven Mezcal
- .75 oz Lillet Blanc
- .75 oz Lemon Juice
- .5 oz Honey
- .25 oz Bitter End**
- 1 dash La Muse Verte Absinthe