Make Mine a Mezcal
Mezcal has finally splashed onto the UK scene: a brief guide and a few to try
If you Google “Mezcal is having its moment” you’ll find it’s been having its moment for several years now. While popularity for the Mexican agave spirit has grown significantly in the states, it’s not as prevalent across the pond. However, it’s increasingly gaining some shelf space, especially at cocktail bars. Of course, the typical misconceptions associated with it persist.
What mezcal is and what it isn’t
Let’s kick the whole “Mezcal is the drink with the worm in the bottle” notion to the curb once and for all. Mezcal has no tradition of putting a worm in the bottle. This was invented in the 1950s as a marketing gimmick by one company, and some others copied them (the idea is that if the worm stays in tact, the drink is safe enough to consume). But this practice has no real historic relevance to the spirit, which has been produced by skilled distillers at typically small, family run, distilleries for generations and enjoyed for all sorts of celebrations and traditions throughout the year, including Día de los Muertos.
Mezcal is sometimes thought of as tequila’s smokier cousin. This is not technically wrong, but it’s not 100% accurate either. Many mezcals are indeed smoky, like a peaty Scotch, but just as not all Scotches are smoky, neither are all mezcals. Also, mezcal is more like tequila’s sibling rather than a distant cousin.
Tequila is technically a mezcal since it is also a spirit produced from the agave plant, but there are a few distinctions:
Tequila is only made from one type of agave, blue weber (a.k.a. agave azul or agave tequilana) while mezcal can be produced from other species of agave.
Tequila is only produced in and around Jalisco (which includes the actual town of Tequila), in its high and lowlands, as well as Michoacán, Guanajuato, Nayarit and Tamaulipas. Mezcal is produced primarily in around the state of Oaxaca as well as Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Michoacan and Puebla.
Agave must be cooked first in order to make spirit. Tequila’s agave is steamed in ovens while mezcal’s agave is typically baked in clay pots, sometimes along with different types of wood or other fuels like charcoal, which is what contributes an earthier, sometimes smoky flavor.
There are 30-40 different agaves that are suitable for making mezcal, and just as the blue agave distinguishes tequila, different agaves have different flavor profiles. The ultimate taste is also affected, of course, by the cooking and distillation process, and, where applicable (a large percentage of mezcal is released as a blanco) by the aging process. This is one of the fascinations of mezcal—that it’s capable of infinite variety and subtlety and truly exhibits terroir as with wine.
Mezcals that can be found in the UK
About 90% of mezcals are made from the espadín agave plant. It’s abundant, easy to work with, and gives consistently smooth results, such as Del Maguey Chichicapa. Founded in 1995 by Ron Cooper, Del Maguey was the first major importer of mezcal into the USA, and remains one of the biggest, with its mezcals now available worldwide since the company was picked up by Pernod Ricard in 2017 . Like most of the mezcals in the Del Maguey lineup, Del Maguey Chichicapa is named for the single village in which it’s produced. Chichicapa is 100% espadin agave, with that distinctive smoky aroma and taste, but there are earthy elements too, as well as a sweetness, and some peppery spice reminiscent of chipotle.
In fact, one could taste six different mezcals, all made with espadín, and get six different experiences. QuiQuiRiQui (“cock-a-doodle-doo”) was one of the first mezcals to be imported into the UK and is now widely available in UK supermarkets. It is also 100% espadin, but, though similarly rich in texture, very different from Chichicapa. It smells like a buttery chardonnay, with vanilla creaminess, and just a hint of smoke.
Ilegal is another big exporter of mezcals from Mexico, its name being a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that its founder, who ran a bar in Guatemala called Café No Sé, first brought his mezcals back illegally. Demand was such, though, that he decided he’d better go legal. Ilegal mezcals are now available in several countries, including the USA and the UK. Their Joven (young/unaged) Mezcal (they also produce a reposado and añejo) is also 100% espadín, its nose having hints of smoke, spice, hay, and a vegetal earthiness. In the mouth it’s incredibly smooth, with a little smoke, and a little pepper.
So, even just comparing three espadín mezcals, you get three different results. But what of the other agave plants, with exotic names like tobala, tepeztate, madrecuixe, and arroqueño?
A UK company Sin Gusano (the name means ‘without a worm’), sells two gift boxes with three mezcals in each. One allows you to compare three espadín mezcals from three different places, the other has three mezcals using different agaves: a tepextate, a jabalí, and then a blended mezcal using six types of agave.
The jabalí agave is notoriously difficult to work with, and it’s also labor-intensive as the plants are not common and are so small that more are needed to harvest to make enough product. When made well, though, the results can be stunning. Sin Gusano’s jabalí has hardly any smoke, with more earthy farmyard aromas and tastes, like a pinot noir, and with citrus, meaty and nutty elements too.
Bruxo is another mezcal brand that is widely available, and which produces a range of mezcals from different agaves, including tobala, espadín, and barril, as well as blended mezcals. If you’re not into smoky spirits, then try their Bruxo X. which is a blend of barril and espadin. There’s no smoke at all, but it’s both creamy and savory, with hints of straw and the vegetal notes. There’s also a bit of spiciness mixed with rich caramel and vanilla flavors too.
In short, there’s probably a mezcal for every palate, and the spirit is as varied as any other. The delight of mezcal is that it is still made in small quantities, not on an industrial scale like some tequilas, and for centuries most mezcals have traveled no further than the area where they’re made. The down side to that is that it does make it expensive, but well worth the cost given the true artistry that goes into crafting it. May mezcal’s years-long ‘moment’ continue.