Is Mezcal the coolest thing you’re not drinking?
Paul Mescal has something in common with his similarly sounding but otherwise unrelated spirit namesake. Coming from relative obscurity in the last couple of years to being one of the most on trend and talked about stars in their respective fields. Paul brought the raw unadulterated appeal of a Mayo man to a global audience, while Mezcal has brought Mexican spirit in liquid form to drinkers everywhere.
Mezcal (pronounced Mez . Kal) has until recently best been known as Tequila’s smoky cousin, it is however, rocketing to popularity among spirits drinkers. In 2019 the United States became the biggest global market for the spirit, with exports from Mexico growing to such an extent we may soon see a shortage!
Mezcal, like that other famous Mexican spirit, Tequila, comes from the native Mexican Agave plant. The Agave is not a cactus, rather it is a succulent which can take between 8-10 years to come to maturity, hence that impending potential shortage as they simply cannot be grown quick enough. While Tequila can be made from only one type of agave, the weber blue agave, Mezcal can be made from over 50. This leads to a huge diversity of flavours when it comes to Mezcal. Imagine if wine could only be made from one type of grape, say Sauvignon Blanc for example. The wine would still be delicious but more grape types equals a vast number of other possibilities, styles and flavours.
Just like wine or champagne the idea of provenance and place is important when it comes to Mezcal. Oaxaca makes about 90% of all Mezcal in Mexico, while Tequila production is centered around the province of Jalisco. Tequila is essentially a type of mezcal. When it comes to creating mezcal, production is generally small, old school and truly artisanal. Small clay stills for distillation, hand tools for breaking down the cooked agave which are smoked in underground pits and local traditions which will vary from village to village.
If any single spirit can put forward a claim for terroir, it is Mezcal. The bottle will generally cite not only the variety of agave used and the creator (mezcalero) but usually the tiny Mexican village of origin. There are many different styles with one production process, known as ‘pechuga’, involving the hanging of a raw chicken breast inside the still during distillation. The claim is that it provides fuller body to the spirit!
Mezcal can often have a faint hint of smoke owing to the agave being cooked in underground pits. Do not let that deter you, the fantastic earthy notes give way to deliciously floral tones as the spirit develops. Taste will vary massively depending on village, type of agave and production process so there is a lot to explore.
Mezcal is growing massively globally but nowhere more so than the US where the bartenders and bar owners are throwing their full weight behind mezcal with dedicated bars serving 100’s of varieties springing up nationwide. We are often a little slower to jump on trends on this side of the Atlantic, so while your local supermarket shelves will not be weighed down with artisanal mezcal, your local off-license should certainly be able to assist you.
Once you have the bottle in hand, what are you meant to do? Purists will obviously tell you to drink It neat but personally I love swapping out the tequila in my margarita for mezcal to add an extra level of complexity and depth.
Now, with your new found knowledge, go forth, pester your local off license owner and shake up some delicious drinks!
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