It’s just one week until Cinco de Mayo, and this year I’ll be drinking something different. I’m no expert on artisanal mezcal – until my last trip to Mexico I’d never tasted one. But I’m glad I did, and I’ve been trying them ever since at bars that serve them, which these days is a lot of bars.
Good mezcal is to other popular agave-based spirits (tequila, cheap mezcal) what (most) single malt Scotch is to (most) blended whisky: smokier, heavier and more fiery but also capable of a much deeper, multi-layered set of complex flavors. In single malts you can get regional influences like salt, iodine, smoke, along with all the complexities added by the wood chosen for aging, from charred American bourbon barrels to recycled sherry, port and Madeira casks. Because the agave used for making mezcal is roasted in a pit in the ground prior to distillation, the spirit has an inherently smoky character that inevitably draws valid comparisons to Scotch whisky – read a review of almost any mezcal and you will see this reference. While the laws governing the production of Scotch are very strict, the geographic variety and creativity of the distiller still allow for wide latitude in the results. Same with mezcal.
For many Americans, the spirit’s very name conjures up images of fraternity brothers challenging each other to drink the worm in a shot. Now mezcal is trying to rehabilitate its reputation and has found an interesting ally – the current wave of creative and ingredient- obsessed next-generation bartenders (or “mixologists,” though I loathe the word, which is already on a slippery slope towards what happened to “baristas”).
Hip bars from New York to San Francisco and all sorts of places in between have mezcal-based cocktails on their menus. Some are adding hot peppers, others are doing mezcal-based takes on tequila classics like margaritas, some are inventing drinks out of whole cloth, and one LA bar is adding sticks of beef jerky. Middle of the road Food & Wine Magazine even ran an online slideshow of 10 mezcal cocktails, something it is hard to imagine just a couple of years ago. In 2011, LiquorDigest.com wrote about the exploding US (and global) market for both tequila and mezcal and noted that, “The U.S. market is just now beginning to see superb quality Mezcals from Oaxaca show up in creative cocktails in the trendsetting bars, and that means the retail shelves will see those same products as well.”