Long perceived as inferior to tequila, which is made from a particular species of agave in a specific region of Mexico, mezcal has its own unique personality and is enjoying newfound popularity in the U.S. Mezcal was once famous only for the gusanos (worms) that were traditionally deposited in the bottom of its bottles. Suddenly fashionable in American bars and restaurants, mezcal is getting new respect.
Tequila is technically a type of mezcal, but artisanal mezcals from Oaxaca and throughout Mexico are rapidly being discovered, appreciated for their diversity and nuance. Emma Janzen, a leading spirits journalist and author of the James Beard Award-nominated book, Mezcal: The History, Craft & Cocktails of the World’s Ultimate Artisanal Spirit, explains that large industrial producers gave the spirit its “bottom shelf” or “rotgut” reputation. The best mezcals are traditionally produced in remote rural areas and have only recently become widely available in the U.S.
“Mezcal is a spirit with a very distinct sense of place and is extremely terroir-driven,” says Janzen, who suggests that accounts for the diversity of flavors presented. She is concerned that large producers seeking to capitalize on mezcal’s newfound popularity may dilute its quality. “They’re more likely to view it as a commodity, without respecting the spirit as a cultural product,” she says.
Many mezcals have pronounced herbal qualities that showcase the essence of agave; some possess a minerality while others present notes of toffee, bittersweet chocolate and the earthiness found in full-bodied red wines. “Don’t just try one mezcal and say you don’t like mezcal,” states Janzen. “There’s an expression of mezcal for everybody,” she adds, noting this diversity is what initially attracted her to the spirit.
The most commonly cited quality in mezcal is a smokiness that results from the roasting of the agave, as opposed to the steaming that is traditional in the production of tequila. Mixologists have become enamored with mezcal and Janzen recommends pairing it with bright flavors like pineapple or citrus. “It also works really well with bitters, amaro or Campari, creating a marriage of dark, brooding flavors,” she says.
Mariena Mercer, head mixologist at The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, is also impressed with mezcal’s ability to enhance cocktails. “Mezcal has such a strong backbone of smoke and agave that it shines in mixed drinks,” she says, adding, “When used in a cocktail, mezcal always takes top billing.” Mezcal is served throughout The Cosmopolitan, and supper club Rose. Rabbit. Lie. offers the cocktail “Through the Looking Glass,” a clarified milk punch of mezcal, tequila, cachaça, passionfruit, and spiced pineapple presented in a sexy porthole-shaped glass. The trendy hotel showcases a wide selection of mezcal at Ghost Donkey, a branch of a New York bar specializing in agave spirits. “Its collection is like a carefully curated library of mezcal, with each bottle telling a story,” says Mercer, reporting bartenders are pleased to assemble flights for exploration-minded customers.
Las Perlas in downtown Los Angeles — the dark funky spot bills itself as the nation’s first mezcal bar — opened in 2010 and later expanded to Austin. It offers more than 300 mezcals — three new shelves were recently installed to accommodate the growing collection — that are served in traditional clay copitas or veladoras (glass vessels originally used for prayer candles). Bart Walsh, general manager at Las Perlas, reports that many tequila drinkers are converting to mezcal. “It’s such a unique spirit and as the tequila industry has become homogenized, people see that mezcal makers have a greater opportunity to express themselves,” he says. The bar’s most expensive one ounce pour ($52) is a limited release from Mezcales de Leyenda, made from a wild, high-elevation agave grown in a valley in the state of Tamaulipas. For those wanting to consume larger quantities, a bottle commands about $500 in retail shops. At Whisler’s in Austin, locals and visitors soak up the quirky atmosphere the city is famous for while enjoying craft cocktails. Upstairs is Mezcalería Tobalá, an intimate, candlelit speakeasy pouring more than 180 mezcals into copitas. “We pioneered the popularity of mezcal and we respect its cultural significance,” says mezcalería manager Sean Skvarka of the five-year-old bar. In Baltimore, Clavel offers one of the best selections of mezcal on the East Coast, ideal for washing down huitlacoche or cochinita pibil tacos. Other notable mezcal bars include The Pastry War in Houston, Estereo in Chicago and Mezcalería Oaxaca in Seattle. A solid list of single-village mezcals can even be found in South Carolina, at Charleston’s Minero.
Yola Mescal — co-founder Yola Jimenez opened Mexico City’s renowned La Clandestina mezcalería — brings a progressive culture to the spirit, with centuries-old artisanal practices overseen by an all-female bottling facility staff. In addition to building a legacy of economic independence for Mexican women, co-founder and CEO Gina Correll Aglietti reports the company utilizes a slow-cooking process for agave that is never picked ahead of its time and is unadulterated by chemicals. “It fits into the trend of people seeking more rustic, naturally produced and honestly made products,” she suggests, noting that Yola features softer notes than many mezcals, yet is rich in flavor and viscosity. $150 bottles of mezcal are becoming common and the price of a beautifully packaged Olvido Divino Anejo, aged 30 years, can exceed $1,000. But author Emma Janzen insists luxury is not always about price, and cites Banhez as a superior label available for about $35. She also praises the pricier Real Minero, a venerable producer whose use of clay (as opposed to copper) stills creates what Janzen describes as a “rounder, deeper personality.” Derrumbes produces mezcals from regions like Zacatecas, Michoacán and San Luis Potosí, as well as Oaxaca, showcasing distinct terroir-driven flavor profiles.
And the legendary gusano? Although she cites rare exceptions to the rule, Janzen reports, “If you see a worm in the bottle, it’s usually an indication of poor quality.”
By Roger Grody
This article originally appeared in Homes & Estates.