Smoke in the Water
An introduction to Mexico’s magnificent Mezcal
Posted on Feb. 13, 2017
Often touted as Tequila’s smokier cousin, Mezcal is the Mexican agave spirit now distillate all over cocktail lists throughout the world. So, what is it? Is it any good? The answer starts in the southern state of Oaxaca, where most of the Mezcal sold globally originates. It’s also the area where the boundaries of the drink’s denominacion origen lie.
Mezcal is simply the name for any spirit distilled from the maguey plant, also known as the agave. While all agave spirits are technically Mezcals, including Tequila, only the drink made in specific locations and by a specific process — beginning by roasting the heart of the agave, called the piña, in an underground, earthen pit — can legally be called Mezcal. After roasting, it’s mashed by hand or horse-driven stone grinder, fermented in open tanks, and twice distilled. Unlike Tequila, which can be made using only one agave, 30 types are available for mezcaleros, though the most common is the Espadín agave. Long sipped throughout Mexico as an everyday drink as well as a special occasion tipple, Mezcal first became more commercialized in the 1990s.
An American artist named Ron Cooper took a liking to Oaxaca and the special spirit over the decades. In 1995, Cooper decided to export Mezcal to the United States. That brand, Del Maguey, still maintains the largest market share. The company’s philosophy revolves around a “single family, single village” approach, which means each type of Mezcal they sell comes from one family farm in one village. It inherently localizes the process. Other companies have sprung up, some more industrial and some with a similar local model, and the spirit’s popularity has only skyrocketed.
The taste is smoky and a bit medicinal — not unlike a peaty scotch at first quaff. There are leafy, sweet, and anise notes as well. Depending on the type of agave used and where it was grown, chile, mango, and even seaweed are often other noted flavors. First timers might want to look into Del Maguey’s “Vida,” which is more or less their entry-level Mezcal, though it’s still high quality. It’s also usually the favored selection for cocktail mixing, says Christian Siglin of Pacific Beach’s The Grass Skirt.
Some advice on how to drink Mezcal straight: As it says on every Del Maguey bottle, “Sip it, don’t shoot it.” Jackie Bryant
Christian Siglin of Pacific Beach’s The Grass Skirt, one of the top mixologists in the San Diego region, custom-crafted a proprietary cocktail exclusively for Ranch & Coast featuring Mezcal, which he named
“The Chronicles of Naranja:”
1.5 oz. Del Maguey “Vida”
0.5 oz. Aperol
0.75 oz. lime
0.5 oz. cane syrup
2 dashes orange bitters
2 dashes tiki bitters
Cocktail: Photo by Christian Siglin All other images: Photography by Gabe Bonfanti