Mezcal is to Tequila, what Rye is to Bourbon, which is to say, a still lesser-known, under-appreciated by most, but very interesting cousin. Curious imbibers tend to start with an approachable mezcal that is mellow, fruity, and sweet, before moving into the more polarizing flavors of smoke and spice.
People, far more mono-spirit focused than I, have written dissertations (truly, one goes by Mezcal PhD) about the distinctions, deviations, and delicacies of this enchanting agave spirit. But this is what we chat about when people want to try Mezcal.
There are 3 defining characteristics to any spirit: What it's made from, where it's made, and how it's made. Here's how Mezcal stacks up:
What's it made of: 30+ varieties of agave (in contrast Tequila can be made from only 1 type, the Blue Weber Agave.)
Where it's made: Like Champagne and Tequila, Mezcal has an Appellation of Origin. That means you have to be produced in 1 of 9 Mexican states to call yourself Mezcal. If it is made elsewhere, it might taste the same, but you can't call it Mezcal.
How it's made: In the production process the pinas (hearts of the agave) are harvested and roasted for several days in earthen pits (that's how the spirit gets its smoke!). After that, the process looks just like making Tequila.
Most of the time when customers are hunting for a great Mezcal, we ask 3 questions:
- Mixing or sipping?
- How smoky?
- Vegetarian? (more on that later)
Most of those answers point to 5 types of Mezcals, and here are the 9 bottles we're reaching for first (this week).
Espadin: The most popular and sustainable choice for mezcal producers, Espadin is "cultivated" (farmed), accessible, and affordable. They make great sippers, and incredible mixers.
Agave De Cortes Joven Mezcal is a beautiful expression of 100% Espadin Agave from the area of Santiago Matatlan. On the nose, subdued smoke lays the groundwork for vegetal ripeness and floral notes. On the palate, bright acidity and 45% ABV balance with layers and layers of flavor: lemongrass, damp earth and dense clay/mineral are coated by rich body and silky texture.
Borroso Artesanal Espadin Mezcal - Each lot of Borroso is made in an artisanal way, inside a traditional mezcal palenque in Oaxaca, property of a family where the legacy of the mezcal masters has been passed on for generations. Agave is cooked in an underground stone oven fueled by white oak; once cooked, the piñas are milled in a horse-powered tahona mill. Fermentation is naturally occurring, and takes place in open-top wooden vats for approximately 8 days.
Wild: This is a hot button issue in the world of mezcal. Most wild varieties are harvested in an unsustainable way. PUNCH did a great piece on the perils of over harvesting wild agave.
Punch defines the category: Wild, in this context, refers to uncultivated plants that grow haphazardly, usually in rocky hillsides, while “cultivated” agave is typically planted in rows on tilled soil. Mezcal producers also use the phrase semi-wild or semi-cultivated to talk about wild agave varieties that have been grown from seed and then planted in their native environment. While Espadín is a cultivated agave, others like Tobalà, Madrecuixe and Barril have traditionally grown wild, but can also be replanted.
The thesis is that like all newly popular, highly sought after, exotic things, the rush of demand has outpaced the producers ability to responsibly produce it. There was previously no need for regulation, so in the absence of that, the wild varietals have been massively over harvested, leading to a near extinction of some wild varieties.
These are a couple of our favorite bottles in the category.
Bozal Cuixe Mezcal has a dry entry driven by intense citrus and strong minerality. Rich tropical fruit on the palate moves to sweet potato on the front, green vegetal notes in the mouth and a dry smoky finish follow. An immensely enjoyable complex flavor profile.
Don Mateo Alto Mezcal has notes of agave, pine, and citrus with an herbaceous undertone on the nose. On the palate, citrus fruit and peel mingle with earthy notes. Long finish with citrus and smoked agave lingering.
Pechuga: The less well known Mezcal de Pechuga is an involved production method where a finished mezcal is redistilled with a raw chicken or turkey breast hung over the still (frequently along with nuts, fruits, and grains). The vapors of the protein add to the Mezcal's flavor. Also not a vegetarian product.
Tosba Pechuga Mezcal is a triple distilled mezcal using a combination of fruits that include wild pineapple, bananas, wild apples, rice and a wild turkey breast.Tosba Pechuga has a lot of character that includes robust nose of almonds, basil, chocolate.
Vago Elote Mezcal is very unique. Between normal second and extra third distillation, the batch is infused with roasted corn. Produces a nose full of smoky toasted corn and dry river stones. Body sweet with wood tones and layers of honeycomb, green tropical fruit, and smoke. It tastes exactly like the smell of roasted corn. Wild and absolutely delicious.
Aged: Most of the time when people think of aged agave, it is always Reposado and Anejo tequila. But that process can be applied to Mezcal, adding an oaky, vanilla component that subdues the smokiness and softens the spirit. These make for excellent sippers, and great "conversion" choices (when someone has alleges they don't like Mezcal, or says the prefer Anejo Tequila or Bourbon).
Wahaka Reposado con Gusano Mezcal is a aged up to six months in recharred American oak barrels, the epitome of smooth with its light golden color and lustrous flavor. Enhanced with the addition of an agave worm, which balances the spirit with notes of earth and salt.
Los Amantes Anejo 2 Year Mezcal aged for two years in new French oak barrels, with a small percentage agred in American oak. It has a great body, with unique characteristics. Very aromatic, with complex wood scents, vanilla, coffee, caramel, and floral aromas. A rounded flavor, oak spice, dried fruits (figs, prunes), and slightly smoky.
Sweetened: Sometimes you just want a fun looking bottle, that has a touch of smoke, and some added sweetness. We think of this as a great option to bring to a party, and a total crowd pleaser.
Gem & Bolt Espadin Mezcal has a relatively low amount of smoke, but is notable for the added sweetness of Damiana (a natural sweetener, frequently thought to be an aphrodisiac). Needless to say, this is a very social spirit.
In the last week alone, the Washington Post and New York Times have written 3 (1, 2, 3) pieces about Mezcal. In that time, 0 have been written about Bourbon. Give Mezcal a try, and see what all the fuss is about.