Back in 2013, we talked all things tequila with Gustavo Arellano, the editor of the OC Weekly and the man behind the "¡Ask a Mexican!" syndicated column. A student of Mexican spirits, he was surprised that mezcal — the equivalent of agave moonshine — was coming into vogue.
"Mezcal is the new tequila," Arellano told me. "It's as if white dog all of a sudden became trendy. Even with corn whiskey or moonshine, it was looked down upon. Mezcal was even lower than that. Not even the good old boys of Mexico would make it. It was the province of the drunkest of the drunks."
Not anymore. Distributors started introducing the better stuff to high-end Mexico City bars, then it made its way across the border to Los Angeles. Mezcal first popped up here in Charleston in some of our more ambitious cocktail bars, where it has been used primarily as a vehicle for imparting smoky flavors to cocktails. As a sipping spirit, it has so far remained in the shadows of its more respectable cousin, tequila.
Over the past few years, a succession of local tequila bars have opened their doors, stocking their shelves with dozens of bottles of all shapes and sizes. But even at those agave-friendly spots, mezcal has lingered in the background for a long time. Mex1 Coastal Cantina had perhaps the deepest selection, numbering 10 varieties.
When Sean Brock and Dan Latimer, the operations executive for the Neighborhood Dining Group, opened Minero this fall, they decided to double down and give mezcal its chance to step into the spotlight.
Cappie Peete, McCrady's beverage manager and Latimer did a lot of tasting and reading.
In the end, they selected a broad lineup — currently 23 varieties — that they felt not only were fine sipping spirits but also offered an apt representation of the full sweep of flavors and styles that can be found in mezcal.
"It's not just smoky tequila," Latimer says. "The depth and complexity, in my mind, was completely eye opening."
Mezcal seems perfectly suited for today's culinary sensibility, After all, if any spirit can be called "artisanal," mezcal can. It's the antithesis of mass-market tequila, whose trade is dominated by the "Jalisco cartel" of large industrial distillers. The state of Oaxaca is the center of mezcal production, and it's mostly made by hand in what amounts to tiny backyard operations.
Sure, there is large-scale, industrial-made mezcal. It's the firewater with the worm in the bottom that's associated mostly with college parties, blackouts, and vomiting. The good stuff, though, is complex and intriguing. It's a sharp nectar that burns like fire, but it has a rich flavor reminiscent of Scotch and an array of more subtle notes from the various agaves from which it's distilled.
There are reposado varieties of mezcal, aged in wood barrels for two to 12 months, and añejos aged a year or more, but most mezcal is still the joven (unaged) variety, which is how most of its fans prefer it.
"You lose all the nuances of the agave plant when you age it," Latimer says adding that due to the fact that they aren't aged, there's more freedom with the different varieties of agave used.
Mezcal is more primal than oak-aged whiskeys, it's earthy agave flavor accented by spicy, grassy, and sweet notes. Because it's hand-crafted by small producers, each using their own techniques and different agave blends, there's great variation in the final products, a difference best experienced sipping a selection of mezcals side by side.
We sat down with Dan Latimer to get a tour, and here's what we discovered.
Founded by artist Ron Cooper in 1995, Del Maguey was the first seller of artisanal mezcal in the United States and still the most widely known. The firm specializes in "single-village" mezcals, which are made by individual family producers in rural villages, and each has a slightly different way of making their spirits. Del Maguey's products are easily spotted thanks to their green bottles with colorful drawings on the labels.
All the Del Magueys at Minero are 100 percent espadin — a medium-size agave plant — but the firm also sells tobala and blue agave varieties. We sampled two: the Vida and the Minero (no, it's not Brock's private house brand. They already had the name of the restaurant picked out, Dan Latimer says, when they realized Del Maguey sold a version from a village named Minero.) The Vida mezcal is thick and chewy, showing signs of smoke, heat, and tobacco with a lingering brininess. It was the more mellow of the two Del Magueys we sampled. The Minero is the more complex — rich and robust with honey, spice, and dominant smoke.
Mezcaleros are the people who grow and harvest agave. The mezcal that's named for them is produced in a series of numbered limited releases, each made from a different blend of wild and semi-wild agaves. Tasting the various releases side by side lets you experience how dramatically the different varieties of agave can shape the flavor of the final spirit.
Release No. 7 is a blend of Sierra, Negra, Tepeztate, and Tobala agaves, and it has a boozy nose but fresh-cut grassy flavor on the tongue. Release No. 8 is made from Mexicano, Madrecuishe, and Tobala, and it has a strong grassy aroma up front but quickly turns into a smooth sipper. Completely different is Release No. 9, which is made solely from bold Arroqueño agave. There's a funky touch of blue cheese both when you sniff it and when you sip it, but that's balanced on the tongue by sweet, buttery, and fruity flavors with a strong alcohol kick.
Fidencio Jimenez started making mezcal in the late 19th century, and in the 1990s his great-grandsons began selling their family's spirits commercially.
The Unico is produced "sin humo"— that is, without smoke, since the agave is roasted in radiant ovens instead of wood-heated pits. The clear liquid is infused with the bright flavors of sweet pear and apple. The Clasico has a bit of a harsh nose but, along with delicate smoke, a much sweeter flavor profile. The Madrecuixe is made from wild agave and roasted five days with black oak. It has a spicy nose but is extremely smooth on the palate, with a bold smokiness and hints of wild herbs. A very complex, but well balanced spirit, it's one of our favorites of all those we tried.
The making of Pechuga involves a raw chicken or turkey breast, but don't shy away from it, for it's not as weird as it sounds. Oh, who are we kidding. It's really weird. Pechuga makers redistill mezcal with a mixture of fruits and grains, and a skinless poultry breast is suspended by its ribcage over the cap of the still so that it cooks in the steam.
Fidencio uses chicken and 100 percent espadin to make their version of pechuga, and they add quince, apples, bananas, pineapple, and guava to the mezcal as they pass it a third time through the still. The juice from chicken breast is said to soften the intensity and round out the flavor, and for all we know it might actually do that. The Fidencio pechuga is a good bit sweeter than traditional mezcal and has rich floral and fruity notes. And you can tell people you're sipping chicken juice. It's a must try.
Tequila and mezcal are both distilled from fermented agave, but that’s where the similarity ends. Premium tequila is made from 100 percent blue agave, and even the cheaper mixto must be at least 51 percent blue agave. There are no such rules for mezcal, which is made from as many as 30 different agave varieties, with espadin the most common.
Tequila-makers roast their agave in industrial ovens, but mezcaleros take the piñas — the pineapple-shaped agave hearts — and place them atop embers in conical rock-lined pits, cover them with earth, and roast them for days on end. The roasting is essential since it converts the complex sugars in the agave into simple sugars that can be fermented, and it imparts the strong smoky flavor that makes mezcal so distinct.
Next, the piñas are ground by a large milling stone that is usually turned by a one-horsepower engine (that is, by a horse), and the mash is fermented by natural yeasts in wooden vats before being double-distilled in copper pot stills.
That worm in bottles of rot-gut mezcal is a real worm — actually the larva of a moth that infests the maguey plant. It has no psychedelic properties. It’s essentially a marketing ploy that started back in the 1950s to move bottles of cheap mezcal.
You can injest worms with good mezcal, but they’re not in the bottle but in the salt that’s served alongside. Sal de gusano — literally “worm salt” — is a mixture of sea salt, ground fried agave worms, and ground chiles. A pile of worm salt and slice oranges are the standard accompaniment to a glass of mezcal, and you dip a slice of orange in the salt and take a bite to balance out the heat of the mezcal.
It may be the white dog of Mexico, but mezcal is no cheap breed. Bottles of decent joven start at around $50 bucks and go up from there. Minero’s by-the-drink prices start at $5.50 for a one-ounce pour and run up to $30, which is approaching Pappy Van Winkle territory.
It’s pricey for a reason: time and effort. It takes eight years for an agave plant to produce fruit, and then it dies. The harvesting, roasting, grinding, and distilling are slow, laborious processes. Mezcal is still largely an artisan, hand-crafted business, and you pay artisan prices for the work.
Dan Latimer admits that the steep price tag of good mezcal might be a bit of a barrier to some drinkers. But, he notes, “the whiskey craze has softened people’s sticker shock.”
“By charging by the ounce we’ve allowed them to be a little more approachable,” Latimer adds. This approach also encourages patrons to mix and match so they can experience a range of mezcals side by side — the ideal way to get to know the rich variety of the spirit.