How to Select a Mezcal, the Wild Bro of Tequila

Mezcal has a rep for being an outlaw beverage, which is only partly true.

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By David Hammond

Mezcal, like tequila, is made from the agave plant. You might have seen the huge agave (or century plant) that sprouted through the roof of the Oak Park Conservatory last year right about this time.

"When the stalk starts to head up," says Bank. "That's the sign that the plant is about to die. Before it dies, it wants to reproduce (like Charlie Chaplin). The stalk, left to its own devices, will produce blossoms, which would spread seeds. But if a master distiller wants to use that agave to make a spirit, s/he would cut the stalk before it blossoms. The plant doesn't 'know" it's been, in floral terms, castrated, and it continues to generate energy (sugars) to grow the stalk and birth the seeds; without the stalk to "receive" the energy, the base stalk of the plant (not the root) grows fat with sugars. The sugars have nowhere to go — they make the stalk of the plant big and wide."

Tequila uses only blue agave, by law, but mezcal uses any type of agave, including blue agave, so in a sense tequila is a type of mezcal. Mezcal also is made, many times, from wild agave which grows in many parts of Mexico.

What sets mezcal apart on the palate is the smoky flavor.

"The fact that the agave," Bank explains, "is roasted in a stone-lined earthen oven (not open fire — the agave is thrown in after the wood is down to embers, and the agave is covered by spent agave fibers, canvas, and dirt) certainly leads to a smokiness; but I would argue that, after the first several times you drink mezcal, the smoke become far less forward, and the flavors that become more pronounced are a result of the type of agave, the terroir in which it was grown, and the process that was used to roast, mill, ferment, and distill the spirit. In fact, when I was there last, I visited a distiller in Mitla who had a copper still and a stainless steel still. The day I was there, he was distilling an espadin mash — same mash in each of the two stills. The spirit coming out of the copper still was roughly 60% alcohol and tasted like sour green apples; the spirit from the stainless tseel still was roughly 54% alcohol and tasted of rich caramel."

There is a lot that's wild and strange about agave and mezcal. Mezcal has a reputation for being an outlaw beverage, which is only partly true. 

Like moonshine, mezcal is produced by many backyard distillers, but unlike moonshine, such private distillation is perfectly legal under the Mexican law. You cannot legally label what you're making "mezcal," but you can make what is essentially mezcal, and you can sell it. As Lou Bank mentioned during last Friday's mezcal master class, this freedom has led to a lot of experimentation.

We tried mezcals that had been produced from the juice of the agave plant distilled with iguana (yes, actual iguana), as welll as the breast of a goose, and, most interestingly, agave juice fermented in the skin of a bull, which tasted remarkably leathery.

Though mezcal is made with parts of some strange creatures, Banks' first rule for selecting a mezcal is "If there is a worm in the bottle, leave it on the shelf. Same goes for a scorpion or any other creature." To Bank, the worm in the mezcal is a marketing ploy and, indeed, none of the handcrafted artisanal mezcals he shared with us had any eye-catching creatures in them.

Mezcal, like tequila, gets more expensive the longer it's aged, but another of Banks' rules for selecting is mezcal is that it should be unaged. It can take 45 years for the agave to grow to maturity, absorbing all the flavors of its local terroir, so "why," asks Bank "would you want to taste wood?" If mezcal is aged at all, according to Bank, it should be aged in glass or clay, which imparts no flavor at all (to confer other magical earthly elements to the sip, mescaleros sometimes bury the glass or clay jar containing mezcal in the earth).

Because Bank feels it's important to savor the unique qualities of each mezcal, you want your mezcal "cut" with as little water as possible. Almost all distilled beverages are mixed with water before they're sold (when the liquor comes direct from the still, it's usually way too high in alcohol for most mortals to consume comfortably). However, mixing the distillate with water dilutes the all-important flavor, so Bank also suggests selecting a mezcal that's no less than 45% alcohol (90 proof), and he points out that "Because the rural farmers I work with use wood-fired stills, they are inefficient, and therefore do not always have to be cut with water."

Mezcal at 90 proof is powerful stuff, but tasting with Bank involves sipping, very slowly and thoughtfully, from "copitas" that contain something like a tablespoon of mezcal each. "Small sips yield more flavors" says Bank, and indeed when one consumes just a little mezcal, one is able to discern flavors more readily.

Mezcal has yet to make any real inroads in Oak Park; there is one mezcal cocktail on the menu at Maya del Sol and no mezcal on the menu at New Rebozo. I suspect this will change in the months and years to come; mezcal is a beautiful artisanal product of Mexico, and it's just a matter of time before this wild beverage becomes just as recognized as tequila, its beverage brother or, for that matter, even bourbon.

If you'd like to attend a mezcal tasting led by Bank, as well as a workshop on fermenting your own hot sauce, he'll be at Fermentation Festival in October. Click the link to find out more:




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