Mezcal, Tequila’s Smoky, Spicy Cousin

Mezcal is one of the world’s great spirits: complex, gorgeous and endlessly intriguing, distinguished like great wines by a strong sense of place. Mezcal is little known, however, and even less understood, but paradoxically has been anointed in the last few years as the Next Big Thing.

It’s a designation that may send shivers of delight among publicists but is somewhat meaningless since mezcal — good mezcal — is made in minute quantities and is relatively expensive.

Discovering mezcal offers a wonderful opportunity to question our definition of greatness, as it pertains to spirits. By tradition the standard is set by whiskeys and brandies, which are celebrated for their refinement, mellow complexity and delicacy.

But mezcal, even more so than its sibling tequila, takes greatness out of the library and into raw nature, where jagged, elemental yet ethereal aromas and flavors offer different sorts of thrills from the quieter pleasures of a fine single malt, yet without losing subtlety or complexity. Mezcal also allows us to examine how a spirit that has largely been made on an artisanal scale for local consumption comes to terms with global recognition.

What does it mean if mezcal is indeed the Next Big Thing? Does the spirit-loving world adapt its tastes and standards to mezcal? Or does mezcal fundamentally alter its character to appeal to tastes formed by other drinks?

These were among the weighty questions conjured up in a recent tasting of 20 mezcals. On the panel, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Philip Ward, of Mayahuel, an East Village restaurant that specializes in mezcal and tequila, and Joel Cuéllar, a spirits sommelier at Brandy Library in TriBeCa, which offers a fine selection of mezcals and tequilas.

Of course, the most basic questions are: What is mezcal? And how does it differ from tequila?

Both are distillates from the fruit of agave plants. Tequila is a form of mezcal that by law can be produced only in several designated areas centered on the state of Jalisco in western Mexico. It is made from the blue agave, and while the law requires only that tequila be 51 percent agave, all good tequilas are 100 percent blue agave.

Mezcal comes from the vicinity of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. While mezcal can be made from any number of varieties of agave, the vast proportion uses the espadin agave. Oh, by the way, the legend that a bottle of mezcal always contains a worm is simply colorful marketing shtick.

Tequila is mostly produced in factories, but most if not all good mezcals are essentially handmade in small family operations. The agave for tequila is generally roasted in large ovens. For mezcal, the agave is usually roasted in palenques, or rock-lined pits, accounting for its characteristic smokiness.

In Scotch terms, you can think of mezcal as possessing the challenging, distinctive flavors of peaty Islay malts, and tequila as a smoother, gentler Speyside variation.

Joel put it another way: “Mezcal is to tequila as rye is to bourbon.” Which I took to mean that mezcal is the spicier cousin of easygoing, sweet tequila.

But if comparisons give you a sense of where mezcal stands, the only way to really know is to taste a few. For me, the flavors in mezcal are unlike those in any other spirit, even tequila. They are diverse, fitting for a spirit that reflects its terroir so well, and gorgeous in their rusticity.

I understand that rusticity is often a pejorative term, but not as far as mezcal goes. The flavors of a great mezcal are unmediated by oak or long aging. They offer no vanillas or chocolates, honeys or heathers. Instead, you get a briny, vegetal burst, with Tabasco-like hints of vinegar, salt, oily smoke and earth, and an uncompromising purity.

By any account, and as confirmed in our blind tasting, the mezcals of Del Maguey offer an opportunity to taste some of the best in the world. Ron Cooper, an artist, founded Del Maguey 20 years ago in an effort to introduce to everybody the mezcals he had discovered on his forays into the backwoods of Oaxaca. He now imports a number of single-village mezcals, as well as a couple of high-end specialty bottles and a less-expensive entry-level mezcal, all with beautifully rendered labels.

Each of the villages may have a slightly different production method, and the results are highly distinctive.

Our No. 1 mezcal in the tasting was Del Maguey’s Chichicapa, which was smooth, pure and astonishingly complex. Our No. 2, Del Maguey’s Minero, was a bit smokier, with a more oily texture but a touch less complexity. Both of these bottles are $72, but Del Maguey’s entry-level Vida, at $40, is a fine mezcal in its own right, with intensity and a briny character. All are simultaneously rustic yet sophisticated, unpolished yet sublime.

None of the Del Maguey spirits are aged in barrels, which contributes to the purity of their expression. But a number of mezcal producers are experimenting with aging in oak. So far, it seems rarely to be a good idea.

Along with the 13 unaged mezcals, sometimes called silver, blanco or joven, for young, we tasted five reposados, which are aged in oak for less than a year, and two añejos, which are aged at least a year. Only one reposado, the Los Amantes, made our top 10. It was the most refined of the mezcals, and the only one in which oak left a positive impression.

For the most part, we felt oak robbed the mezcals of their distinctive features. Some took on an almost syrupy texture, or tasted of vanilla and cinnamon, leading Philip to warn of the dangers of what he called over-refinement.

Except for the single reposado, we far preferred the raw intensity of the pure white mezcals, like the San Juan Del Rio, our best value at $35, and the powerful, direct Sombra. The joven from Los Amantes was fascinating to compare with the reposado, more forceful and ferocious, truly mezcal with the bark on.

Will there still be room for these sorts of mezcals if it actually becomes the Next Big Thing? Joel said he believed that an explosion in popularity is not very likely, for practical reasons.

“I don’t think there’s an infrastructure to satisfy a growing demand,” he said. Maybe not right away, but if enough agave is grown so that big factories can make bad tequila, I suppose it can happen with mezcal as well.

Meanwhile, the time is ripe to explore mezcal, not in a haphazard salt-shot-and-lime sort of way, but with care and thought. It may well be that mezcal is not to everybody’s taste, but it is without a doubt worthy of everyone’s respect.

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