Maybe it’s been a key ingredient in some of your signature cocktails, or perhaps there are bottles of it gathering dust on the shelves of your back bar, whatever the situation may be, mezcal is one of those enigmas of the spirit world. We take a look at this commonly misunderstood Mexican spirit to bring you your ultimate mezcal starter pack guide!
What is mezcal?
Mezcal is technically the term used to describe any alcoholic spirit that derives from all agave. Similar to how ‘all bourbon is whisky but not all whisky is bourbon’ – all tequilas are mezcal, but not all mezcals are tequila. Mezcal can be made from up to fifty different agave plants, but the most popular ones are tobalá, tobaziche, tepeztate, arroqueño and espadín. On the other hand, the tequila that we know and love can only be made from one plant, the ‘Agave Tequilana Weber’ or more commonly known as ‘blue agave’.
How is it made?
While the agave used for tequila is often steamed in ovens, the agave used to make mezcal is roasted in an underground pit. The hearts of the agave are placed in the pit and cooked for roughly three days, then crushed into a mash from what’s left to ferment. The liquid that follows is then poured into clay pots for distillation.
Mezcal production doesn’t face anywhere near as many strict regulations as tequila does, giving producers free rein to focus on making small, considered batches and experimenting with different flavours. This cheaper, easier route has led to mezcal being coined the ‘working class’ version of ‘moonshine’.
What about the taste?
Of course one of the main questions that will arise from the two different production methods of tequila and mezcal, is taste. The flavours of these drinks are quite different. It’s important to note that the flavour of mezcal will differ depending on the region, the water source, the agave plant used, the wood selected and the individual technique of the maker. Typically speaking though, tequila is smooth and rich, while mezcal brings a unique, savoury and smoky (thank you underground pits) taste to your glass.
How is it drank?
The first, most obvious choice here, is of course cocktails! A little goes a long way so if you’re experimenting, be mindful that mezcal is quite smoky and too much can be overpowering. Include just the right amount, however, and you can have a sultry, smoky twist to a classic cocktail like a Paloma or a Mezcal Margarita! If not adding it to cocktails, mezcal is best paired with food and is often served with a slice of orange, guava or grapefruit. While some bartenders may not agree, the rule of thumb is that mezcal is to be sipped neat so one can enjoy the savoury aroma!
Top mezcal brands
Del Maguey: Del Maguey is probably one of the most commonly known mezcal brands, they pride themselves on using only water and the heart of agave to make their famous mezcal. Wood red clay and copper stills are chosen for this twice-distilled spirit that’s bursting with smoky, deep and warm flavours.
Illegal Mezcal: Crafted sustainably in Mexico’s Oaxaca area, Illegal Mezcal is handcrafted in small batches and comes in the form of Joven, Resposado and Anejo (meaning young, rested and aged). Their mezcal is a full-flavoured spirit featuring a mouthful of agave at first sip, followed by a hint of smokiness.
Nuestra Soledad Mezcal: With its name paying homage to the patron saint of Oaxaca, it’s pretty easy to figure out where this mezcal is from! Made from 100% agave Espadín, it’s handcrafted using ancient techniques resulting in rich and full-bodied mezcal.
So which is better, tequila or mezcal?
Because of mezcal’s stronger flavour, choosing a preference is all down to personal choice. Whatever way we look at it, our beloved agave is the source of lots of fun, so much so that we’re still facing a shortage of it.
With the continuing demand for tequila and most notably, blue agave, we dare say this may positively affect mezcal sales in the next twelve months. Will tequila drinkers look to drinking more mezcal? Will bars start promoting it more while they await tequila stock? It’ll be an interesting one to watch!
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