Unraveling the Mystery of Mezcal

An introduction to tequila's exotic, smoky cousin


   One of my favorite spirit myths is “I can’t drink ________, because ________makes me act crazy!” To date, there has been no medical proof that consumption of a specific spirit is what made you get a tattoo you can’t remember. Even so, a 2012 study shows that many people believe it to be true, and more often than not, tequila gets the blame. There’s even a Kenny Chesney song with a lyric to this effect.

   If tequila is bad, its relative mezcal might be even scarier. The former might make you a little wild, but mezcal would make you see things that weren’t there and land you in a foreign prison. Or, so rumor would have it. There’s even a worm in the bottle you’re supposed to eat!

   The truth is that this is more mythology. More importantly, there has been a wave of premium mezcal arriving in America that might just blow your mind, only in a good way. Most people think mezcal is a variation on tequila, but it turns out to be the other way around. Both spirits are distilled from agave cacti, but tequila is limited to blue agave. Mezcal comes primarily from Oaxaca, Mexico, but it is also produced in other Mexican provinces. I asked Brandon Cummins, the senior brand development director with Altamar Brands, a specialty spirits importer, to help illuminate what makes mezcal unique.

   “One of the key differentiating factors between tequila and mezcal is the type of cooking method used,” Cummins says. “Quality artisanal and traditional mezcals utilize agaves that have been cooked in earthen ovens for multiple days or weeks, lending a distinctive smoky essence that can vary producer to producer.”

   This cooking technique gives mezcal a smoky note that tequila, which uses steamed agave or agave baked in brick ovens, does not have. Cummins notes mezcal tends to be a bit higher in acid and more intense in flavor than tequila.

   Most craft mezcal is released unaged. Cummins prefers this style over the rarer oak-aged styles.

   “In my opinion, the unaged is the really good stuff,” he says. “There are some producers now releasing aged products into market, but arguably, they're a bit of a departure from what is historically relevant and over time not only does the barrel change the spirit, but so does the exposure to air, mellowing it but also losing some of the beautiful, bright flavors.”

   Cummins prefers to sip mezcal neat but loves using it in margaritas and other traditional tequila drinks.

   “For starters, though, I think Del Maguey's "Vida" and Mezcal Vago's "Elote" are two you cannot go wrong with,” he says. “Vida is a great entry into mezcal, showcasing smoke and acid; and the Elote shows a unique blend of both agave and, well, elote or “corn,” a flavor that is much more familiar to many of us here in the U.S. From there, graduating to some of the higher-end expressions from both brands certainly won't disappoint.”

   Del Maguey was founded by Ron Cooper, an artist who discovered mezcal while visiting the Mexican countryside. This company produced a series of single-village mezcals. For a mind-blowing experience, search out their Tobala, made from a rare, wild agave and produced in miniscule quantities. 

   Mezcal Vago was started by an American who fell in love with an Oaxacan woman, whose family happened to make amazing mezcal. They also produce small batches, with informative labels that gave the proportions of agave, the source village, the name of the mezcalero and other details.

   One last mezcal secret: If you do see the famous worm in the bottle, put it back. Not because the worm is dangerous, but because this is an old marketing trick from the days when mezcal was first introduced to American tourists. 

Mezcal Paloma

‚ÄčMezcal Paloma Recipe

   This is a variation of the classic paloma using mezcal. It’s my excuse to have Fresca, but you can make fresh juices if you’re feeling fancy.

• 2 1/2 ounces mezcal
• Fresh lime juice
• Grapefruit soda or fresh grapefruit juice and club soda
• Lime wedge
• Salt (optional)

   If you like, salt the rim of a highball glass by turning it in lime juice, then a small plate of salt. Fill glass with ice, then add mezcal and a splash of lime juice. Top with grapefruit soda or mixed grapefruit juice and club soda. Stir ingredients and garnish with a small lime wedge.