A Quick Intro To Mezcal
Mezcal is by far one of my favorite spirits around.
Recently had the opportunity to catch up with Emma Janzen, Imbibe's Digital Content Editor and the author of an amazing read: Mezcal: The History, Craft and Cocktails of the World's Ultimate Artisanal Spirit. The book goes into way more detail on some of these questions, but Emma was kind enough to give me the quick run down on this agave based goodness.
What is mezcal and how is it different than tequila?
Mezcal and tequila are both agave based spirits. Tequila, by law, is made from one kind of agave. Mezcal can be made from up to 50 different varieties of agave, each with its own unique characteristics. That alone yields a huge difference in flavor between the two spirits.
How does mezcal production lead to a different taste than Tequila?
The range of flavors within mezcal is much broader than what you'll find in tequila, because there are so many more variables within mezcal production.
Tequila is typically made from agave pinas that are steamed in ovens; mezcal agave pinas are often roasted in underground fire pits. That means the spirit usually has a smoky element to its flavor.
There's a quote on the Montelobos bottle tag that says, "It can be said that tequila is a kind of mezcal, but you should just as soon confuse a mezcal with tequila as you would a wolf with a coyote. Although both spirits are made with agave, the unique, dark craft of creating mezcal stands a world apart." I couldn't say it better.
How do you recommend people drink mezcal?
Honestly, however you please! Some people prefer it neat, others need cocktails to ease into the spirit's unique flavor profiles. I like to sip mezcal on its own, out of a veladora or other kind of glass vessel, because that way the spirit has full freedom to shine without interference from any kind of other material.
What are the 3-5 classic mezcal cocktail recipes a home bartender should try?
One of the most iconic mezcal cocktails is the Oaxaca Old Fashioned by Phil Ward.
Outside of this recipe, my favorite part of mixing at home is the freedom to experiment (even though I'm not great at it). With that in mind, because tequila and mezcal are cut from the same cloth (the agave), I've found they are almost seamlessly interchangeable in cocktails, so one of the best places to start is by looking at classic tequila drinks like the Margarita, El Diablo or Paloma for inspiration.
But instead of a straight swap, try splitting the base first to ease the mezcal into the equation, so 50/50 tequila and mezcal, or 70/30 tequila to mezcal. It'll work in almost any recipe. Mixing the two creates an even better depth of flavor and it's a more sustainable way of mixing with mezcal too since you're using less than a normal full cocktail-sized pour. Most times I find myself using both in a recipe, even when it calls for a full pour of mezcal, because it ends up tasting more interesting.
Also try out a mezcal negroni, mezcal mule, mezcal last word.
If you were to recommend a bottle to someone to start out with, what would it be? How much should they expect to pay?
These days, we're lucky to have a handful of really great beginner bottles available almost everywhere. Expect to pay at least $35-50 for a good quality intro bottle (usually of espadin at this price point). That might sound pretty high for folks used to buying well tequila, but it's usually justified because the production and exporting process is so lengthy, labor-intensive and costly. If you find mezcal that costs less than that, you're probably looking at something that's been made by cutting corners during the production process.
The range of flavor, intensity, and character found within mezcal spans such a broad range within the category, but for beginners I typically suggest looking for something that's a little softer, coming in at a lower ABV, to get a gentle introduction to the essence of the agave and the sometimes smoky character mezcal can have. With those criteria in mind, here are a few specific bottles from Mexican-owned companies:
Montelobos: One of the friendliest, most even-keeled examples of espadin mezcal around right now. It rings in at 43.2% alcohol, meaning it's soft and balanced when sipped neat but also mixes effortlessly. Sipped solo, you might notice a slight roasted sweetness buried underneath a bright layer of green herbaceousness, with a long lingering smoky finish.
Wahaka Espadin: I've converted many a naysayer to the category of mezcal using bottles from the Wahaka company, and their staple espadin is a reliable standby for all occasions. Made in San Dionisio Ocotepec in Oaxaca by fifth generation mezcalero Alberto Morales, the mezcal hits 40% ABV, which means its maybe one of the most approachable in terms of alcohol percentage. But that's not at the expense of flavor; there's a lot of depth and character here, with a deep herbal quality and zesty, peppery finish.
Banhez: The name Banhez means bliss in Zapotec (or so the bottle label says, anyway), and this blend of espadin and barril is a real delight for its surprising entry-level price point. The mezcal is made by a co-op of farmers and producers from the Ejutla district of Oaxaca, and at 45.8% it's got more structure and heat than the aforementioned brands. A prominent kick of smoke overlays the mineral qualities of the agave, and thanks to the higher proof, it really shines in cocktails.
You can learn more about Emma at http://www.emmajanzen.com/about/ or you can read her not paper writing at http://imbibemagazine.com/author/emma/.
Buy her book (It's the best).