Mezcal: The last untamed spirit

In a time when vodkas and whiskeys are being over-proofed, under-proofed and flavored every which way, a spirit that hasn’t changed for centuries is finally, quietly, entering the consciousness of the American drinker: mezcal.

Mezcal is produced from the agave plant, or maguey as it’s known in Spanish. To make craft mezcal, a mezcalero roasts the piña, or heart, of the agave in a wood-fired pit for days. After the roasted piña is milled with mallets or by horse-powered stone mills, its solids and juices are then fermented in wooden vats with yeast for nearly two weeks before being twice distilled in copper or clay pot stills.

“It’s the last undiscovered spirit,” said Christopher Stevens, regional distribution manager for Craft Distillers, known for its handcrafted liqueurs and spirits, including artisanal mezcals like Alipús, Los Nahuales and Mezcalero. “It’s a misunderstood spirit,” he continued. “People think it’s a poorly made product, bottom shelf. It’s not. It’s made by villages – many which depend on it for economic survival. And it’s been made the same way for centuries. Mezcal came before tequila.”

Agave aficionado Bill Norris, beverage director for the agave bar 400 Rabbits, in Austin, Texas, was eager to dispel more myths about mezcal. One such myth? “That it’s rocked out with a worm in the bottle and that the worm will make you hallucinate,” he said.

Yet, misconceptions surrounding mezcal are slowly changing. “Our clients are definitely asking because they hear about it,” said T.J. Vytlacil, co-owner of Blood & Sand. “They want to know what it is – what’s the difference between mezcal and tequila.”

On the surface, mezcal shares several properties with tequila. Both are agave-based and native to Mexico. Also, similar to how sparkling wine is only deemed Champagne if made in the Champagne region of France, both tequila and mezcal have a protected appellation where they can only be produced in certain Mexican states. Yet, there are key differences. Tequila, when it’s labeled 100 percent agave, must be made entirely from Weber Blue agave; whereas, mezcal that’s labeled 100 percent agave can be made from a number of agaves. That’s why all tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. The production processes are distinct as well. To make tequila, agave is cooked in an oven, while the agave in artisanal mezcal is roasted in an underground pit with local wood that varies between villages, giving each mezcal its own distinction.

The fact that some bartenders can explain these nuances between the two spirits may be one reason mezcal is gaining ground among American drinkers. Also, its protected appellation, granted in 1995, has helped to change its negative, cheap-souvenir perception and has led to increased international sales. But Stevens proposed that the answer also is related to money and distribution. “It has been cost-prohibitive. Now that the price has come down, more people are being exposed to it. Also, there is more accessibility,” he said. “Not too many years ago, few bars had even a selection of mezcal.”

While St. Louis can’t claim an agave bar like 400 Rabbits (which boasts 24 bottles of mezcal), a growing number of places around town have at least one mezcal on the shelf – and not just Monte Alban with the gimmicky gusano (which isn’t a worm at all, but the larva of the agave moth).

Want to taste character? Try Del Maguey Santo Domingo Albarradas that’s sweet and chock-full of citrus and tropical fruit, or go loco with pechuga mezcal, made by hanging a raw chicken breast in the still during distillation.

Mezclar con Vermu, the only mezcal-based cocktail on Mission Taco Joint’s menu, is not the most popular drink on the menu, but “people who know about cocktails think it’s very special,” said bartender Jorge Vazquez Jr. And how does Vazquez sell mezcal to Mission drinkers who don’t “know” about cocktails? Vazquez role-played his approach: “You like scotch? You might like it.”

Because of mezcal’s smoky character, scotch drinkers might just be mezcal drinkers who don’t know it yet. Vytlacil noted that at Blood & Sand, “a lot of business people who typically drink scotch are asking for it” – whether neat or in the Espadin & Sand, a variation of the scotch-based classic Blood & Sand.

Making a mezcal riff off a well-known cocktail is one of the most common ways that bartenders are easing people into the mysterious spirit. In the mood for a margarita? Go for the Smoke & Mirrors at Diablitos Cantina. A martini? Try the aforementioned Mezclar con Vermu at Mission Taco Joint, where mezcal and Peruvian Pisco replace gin or vodka, and orange essence softens mezcal’s smoky side. Once you’re sold, bartenders are ready to help you dive deeper with creative creations like Vytlacil’s Way Down South, which holds sloe gin and the heat of jalapeño. “I’m using [mezcals] a lot more in cocktails than tequila,” said Vytlacil. “They have a lot more character than straight tequila.”

Ready to give mezcal a shot? You’re not the only one. Even big companies have caught the mezcal fever. William Grant & Sons, maker of Hendrick’s Gin, came out with a mezcal last year. “If a company like that is doing a mezcal, it means that their accountants have taken notice,” Norris said. “They aren’t going to do a mezcal because 140 dorky bartenders love the stuff, which is where it was a few years ago.”

But just like a pristine vacation spot that gets discovered – Tulum, Cinque Terre, Yosemite – popularity can lead to mobs of tourists, or, in mezcal’s case, a debased product. Agave takes seven to 12 years to mature, but as Norris pointed out, it’s being harvested at an unsustainable rate. “There is a real issue with how you approach the agriculture. A lot of major liquor companies have bought or invested in tequila industries. They are working within the laws but changing centuries of tradition. There’s a real danger of that happening in mezcal. It’s the last frontier of [the] un-corporatized, untamed spirit – when it’s made right.”

How long will mezcal continue to be made “right”? That’s a story still in the making.

Find cocktail recipes using mezcal here, here
and here.

For a slideshow on where to get the best mezcal cocktails around town, click here.