Move Over, Tequila: Why Artisanal Mezcal Is on the Rise
August 20, 2015 5:37 pm by Chantal Martineau
Mexico’s most iconic liquid export has long been tequila. But before tequila, there was Mezcal. This ancient spirit, distilled from the agave plant, is made in remote mountain villages around Mexico. Once misunderstood as little more than moonshine, Mezcal started gaining a cultish following a few years ago for its intense, smoky flavors and the hyper-artisanal way it’s made. Today, Mezcal is having its moment.
“There is this romantic quality to it,” says Ivy Mix, a partner in Leyenda, a new cocktail bar in Brooklyn inspired by Latin American flavors. “Mezcal tastes rustic, like it has a story behind it. You look at pictures of the guy and his burro out in the agave fields and it looks like a postcard. And people are, like, ‘Hey, I want to drink a postcard!’”
While tequila is mostly made from farmed blue agave, Mezcal can be made from more than two dozen varieties of the agave plant, many of which grow wild. Considered sacred by the Aztecs, agave has been a Mexican staple for 11,000 years. More than 200 varieties exist worldwide, but most are native to Mexico. Certain types used for Mezcal can take a decade to reach maturity, while others might take 25 years. Consider that grapes and grains can be harvested annually for wine or whiskey production and you start to grasp Mezcal’s romantic appeal.
After waiting so long for the main ingredient, traditional Mezcal is produced with great care in extremely small batches in rustic open-air distilleries. The heart of the agave is roasted in underground pits, sometimes over several days, then crushed either by hand with a mallet or with a tahona: a two-ton stone carved out of volcanic rock that gets pulled along by a mule, horse, or donkey. Once the agave juices are collected, they are fermented naturally in open wooden or concrete tanks, then distilled in small copper or clay pot stills. The resulting spirit can be potent, oftentimes well over 90 proof compared with tequila’s standard 80 proof. But it’s meant to be sipped rather than slammed and a little goes a long way in a cocktail.
Despite the two spirits coming from the same plant, tequila and Mezcal can be like night and day. Mezcal is smoky thanks to roasting the agaves underground rather than cooking them in an oven, as with tequila. Mezcal can also be more vegetal, more herbaceous, spicier, and more savory than tequila. Replacing tequila with mezcal in a cocktail can be tricky. For some drinks, it can work measure for measure. But you might start by substituting half the tequila in a recipe for Mezcal. Really smoky expressions should be used most judiciously. And, just like you wouldn’t make a whiskey sour out of a fine single malt, the rarest varieties are best enjoyed neat.
Mezcal has been made in Mexico for at least 500 years, but certain researchers believe it may be even older than that. Given its history and indigenous raw material, many consider it the first truly native American spirit.