Making It with Mezcal

The Rise of This Mexican Libation

 

When it comes to modern cocktail culture, mezcal is having a moment. While it hasn’t quite reached the popularity of other distilled spirits in the United States, such as vodka or whiskey, it’s gaining traction and is weaving itself into restaurants and bars beyond those exclusively serving Mexican libations.

 

By Christina Cannon

How It’s Made

Mezcal and tequila are often thought of as two different spirits, but they may be more related than you know. Mezcal is essentially any liquor made from the agave plant, and while tequila is a type of mezcal, it is made specifically from Blue Weber agave and has a different flavor profile from many of the other mezcals on the market.

Mezcal can be made from a variety of agave plants, but the majority of the spirit comes from Espadin agave due to the plant’s availability. Agave plants are typically harvested when they are seven or eight years old before the spines of the plant are cut off exposing the heart, also known as the piña because of its resemblance to a pineapple.

Piñas can weigh up to 220 pounds and are typically cut into halves or quarters before artisans place them in an in-ground fire pit containing rocks, wood, or charcoal. These pits are called palenques and are used to roast or char piñas for several days. This is a key part of the process and is one of the reasons why many mezcals carry a different flavor profile from tequila, which is baked in above-ground ovens.

Following the roasting process, the agave hearts are crushed and placed into wooden barrels to ferment. Water is added to the barrel in several stages, and after fermentation is complete, the spirit is either bottled or enters a stage of additional fermentation. Unaged mezcal is often referred to as joven or blanco, while its aged counterparts are called reposado (aged anywhere from two months to a year), añejo (aged one to three years), or extra añejo (anything aged over three years).

The end result of this process is a distinctively different spirit that is generally clear, light gold, or amber in color.

 

 

Mezcals on the Market

With craft spirit connoisseurs and creative bartenders always chasing new flavor profiles, mezcal has been rising in popularity throughout the States. Despite its growing popularity, mezcal can sometimes be harder to find and more expensive than other spirits, and classic mezcal cocktails are just now starting to make it on American menus.

In 2005, Mexico began regulating mezcal production, and the spirit can only be labeled mezcal if it is 100% agave and hails from one of seven states within Mexico – the most popular of which is Oaxaca, a state that is responsible for 90% of the world’s mezcal supply.

In the United States, some of the most popular brands of mezcal include Del Maguey, Fidencio, Pierde Almas, Ilegal, and El Buho.

These brands offer a variety of mezcals each with their own price points and unique flavors. Due to its method of production, many mezcals have a slightly charred flavor akin to peated whiskey, but some varieties on the market boast floral, fruity, or earthy notes.

How long the mezcal is aged can also impact its flavor profile. In general, a long maturation period is likely to result in a more mellow and rich flavor. Other factors that play a role include the variety of agave used, soil, topography, and climate. Each of these aspects, along with the production method, can impact the overall flavor of the mezcal.

Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal – VIDA

Del Maguey pays homage to the history of mezcal production with its line of single village mezcals. Every mezcal in the lineup is made by individual family producers in old-style villages who produce the spirit the original handcrafted way. VIDA, loved by many as a quality spirit at an impressive price, uses small wood-fired copper stills to create a versatile mezcal. This twice-distilled spirit welcomes a nose of honey, vanilla, and roasted agave, while hints of ginger, cinnamon, banana, and tangerine round the palate. With a long yet soft finish, VIDA is another great option for those looking to explore crafting cocktails with mezcal.

 

Mezcal Clase Azul

For those ready to explore a more artisanal option, Clase Azul’s mezcal has you covered. This spirit’s agave comes from Durango, Mexico – a region known for its extreme climate, mineral-rich soil, and natural springs. All of these environmental factors work together to produce a mezcal that boasts an interesting flavor profile. Sweet notes of brown sugar, honey, and chocolate meet the earthy flavors of peanut, ash, and wood. Packaged in a hand-carved decanter with a bright beaded cap, this mezcal is both a beautiful and tasty addition to any home bar setup.

 

Xicaru Silver Mezcal

Hailing from the town of Matatlán in Oaxaca, Mexico, Xicaru’s silver mezcal is light in color but not in flavor. This clear spirit boasts all the characteristics of a robust, traditional mezcal and comes from a family recipe passed down for generations. Rich vegetal notes are followed by a hint of smoke, which complements the existing flavors without overwhelming its balanced nature. This earthy mezcal is both full-bodied and long-lasting, making it a great option for cocktails that leave a lasting impact.

Alesha Manning from Athens Distributing Co.

Photo by Emily Long

 

We Chatted with Local Expert and Market Manager for Athens Distributing Co. Alesha Manning to Learn More About Mezcal’s Uprising

 

SG: What are the most common flavors associated with mezcal?

AM: Some of the most common flavors associated with mezcal are smoke and spice! There is sweetness from the roasted agave, but at the same time a lot of herbal and deep earthy notes.

 

SG: What sets the flavor of mezcal apart from the majority of tequilas?

AM: The difference comes from the ingredients. Tequila is made from one type of agave: Blue Weber agave. Mezcal, however, can be made from assorted varieties of agave. There are about five common varieties used, but the list varies. This difference gives mezcal its distinctive character and a smokier, smoother flavor.

 

SG: What are the proper steps for tasting mezcal?

AM: Pour your mezcal into a glass and enjoy it neat – not chilled. Savor it in your mouth first before swallowing. It’s not a tequila shot.

 

SG: How are distributors, retailers, and bartenders contributing to the popularity
of mezcal?

AM: Mezcal is becoming more and more popular across the globe with bartenders, and this is where all the growth begins. When you have trending mixologists bringing specialty cocktails using unique spirits like mezcal, then consumers begin bringing those ideas into their homes. This moves the market with distribution and retailers.

 

SG: What are some good flavor complements to mezcal?

AM: Some unique complements are hibiscus, coffee, or fresh ginger. Citrus is another good flavor to pair mezcal with, and mezcal also goes well with a variety of pressed juices.

 

SG: What are a few cocktails someone should try if they are interested in mezcal?

AM: I would start with a riff on an old fashioned using mezcal and a nice reposado tequila like Roca by Patron, with a dash or two of some chocolate bitters. Another great and easy combination would be a little smoky mezcal in a shot of espresso – simple and delicious!

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