Mezcal—Mexico’s other agave-based spirit—is gaining steam.
When it comes to agave-based spirits, tequila tends to attract the lion’s share of attention—and it has the sales figures to back up the hype: Over the past decade, top-of-the-line bottlings’ sales have increased almost 500 percent in the U.S.
But as interest in tequila expands, so too has the profile of mezcal, another Mexican spirit that is often described as tequila’s smoky cousin. Once hidden in tequila’s shadow on account of rarely being imported, mezcal has recently established itself as one of the world’s great spirits among the spirit world’s cognoscenti, with top bars in San Francisco (Nopalito), Los Angeles (Las Perlas) and New York (Mayahuel) devoting prime shelf space to the spirit.
“In the last five to 10 years, mezcal has gained in popularity in the U.S.,” says chef Paris Nabavi, of Lahaina’s Sangrita Grill and Cantina, which has carried a selection of sipping mezcals on its menu since it opened in 2014 (not, though, as much as he’d like, noting only a handful are currently imported to Hawai‘i).
What is driving interest? Rare in the spirit world, mezcal lovers prize its ability to show off a sense of place. Like tequila, mezcal is made from distilling the hearts (piñas) of the agave plant. But whereas tequila must be made from the blue agave variety, mezcal can be made from 28 types of agave (espadin is the most common). And instead of steaming the piña hearts as with tequila, mezcal gains its smoky profile from roasting, often over mesquite or charcoal, before distillation; the smoke from the fire carries over to the final spirit.
Climate plays an important role in flavor—those made from agave, grown in higher elevations, tend to hold fruitier flavors, while lower altitude sites yield earthier notes. Add in variables produced by wild yeasts and decentralized production spread across many small makers, and it becomes easy to see why the concept of terroir—borrowed from the wine world—often gets used when describing mezcals.
Sipping regional mezcals, such as the ones included in Del Maguey’s single village series, offers a peek at range of possibilities for the spirit. For Nabavi, this is the truest way to experience mezcal.
“If you mix it with juice, you diminish the quality of the beverage,” he says, noting that the true test of quality comes not by measuring the amount of smokiness, but rather how smoothly the spirit drinks.
Nabavi cites Del Maguey’s Pechuga bottling, which is distilled with plums, mountain apples—and unusually for the category (or any spirit), a whole chicken—as a favorite.
Though high-end mezcal may be best for drinking neat, there is vast movement to use the spirit in cocktails. Brands, such as Sombra or Del Maguey’s entry-level Vida bottling, offer the smoky mezcal character without the preciousness (and price point) of the more rarified bottles, and therefore, make good choices for mixing.
The smoky character can pose some challenges for cocktails, especially for those who aren’t fans of the bonfire-in-a-glass aesthetic. But when done with an eye for balance, the effect can be truly great. For a twist on the familiar, try swapping mezcal for smoky scotch in the classic cocktail, Blood and Sand. For a more spirit-forward experience, subbing mezcal for gin or bourbon can work in the Negroni or Old Fashioned, respectively. For the smoke averse, achieve a more subtle effect by using half-mezcal and half-tequila in a Margarita or Paloma.
Nabavi, who keeps several mezcals on the Sangrita Grill menu, says the trick to using mezcal in cocktails is to not compete with the spirit by using other assertive flavors. Sangrita Grill offers an off-menu cocktail made with prickly pear, which he says has a light enough flavor to “bring the mezcal out, rather than drowning it down.”
DEL MAGUEY PECHUGA
In the third distillation for this limited-production, single-village mezcal, the producers add mountain apples, plums, rice, plantains, pineapples and almonds to the distillate for a fruitier profile.
DEL MAGUEY VIDA
This versatile, entry-level bottling from Del Maguey stands at “just” 84 proof, lower than most mezcals.
SOMBRA ORGANIC MEZCAL
Created by sommelier Richard Betts, this smooth mezcal, with notes of citrus and earthy smoke, makes a good mixer for cocktails.