Barely a decade ago, mezcal was an obscure oddity to most American drinkers. It was a spirit you might try on a trip to Tijuana, but couldn’t really find at most bars back at home. Today though, mezcal is entering the mainstream, and we’re all lucky for its rising popularity.
Lots of wines and spirits talk about terroir, which is about capturing the essence of the places they’re made. But when mezcal lovers talk about the spirit’s terroir, they go even further, speaking in almost mystical terms about the spirit’s ability to encompass not just the soil but also the people and the culture of the region it comes from. “There’s a culture that’s been captured in mezcal, and it’s special. Something beautiful and rare,” says Sean Skvarka, who’s been bartending in Austin for almost 20 years, currently at Mezcaleria Tobala, a bar with more than 80 mezcals at your fingertips.
So what is it about this spirit that inspires such devotion? Let’s start at the beginning. Like tequila, mezcal is made from agave, a desert plant native to Mexico and the American southwest. In fact, the word “mezcal” (which means “cooked agave” in the Aztec language Nahuatl) originally encompassed all agave spirits, tequila included. But while tequila can be made only from one type of agave in one specific region, mezcal can be made from many varieties of agave (there are hundreds of species in total, though only about a dozen are commonly used for mezcal) in a large swath of Mexico.
People in Mesoamerica have been fermenting agave sap into a beer-like beverage called pulque for thousands of years, and after the conquistadores brought distillation technology with them from Spain, mezcal was born. Recently, historians have found evidence that Mesoamerican natives have actually been distilling alcohol for thousands of years, but mezcal as we know it today began with the Spanish colonizers.
Mezcal’s homeland is Oaxaca, a mountainous state in southern Mexico that’s known as much for its food (both mole and tamales originated there) as its spirits. “When I came to Oaxaca, it really changed my life,” says Cecilia Rios Murrieta, founder of the La Niña del Mezcal brand. “The rich culture, bright colors, noises, smells, a rich sense of tradition—that’s what I was longing for. I felt at home, and I found my calling.” Born in Mexico City and also raised in Southern California, Murrieta fell in love with Oaxaca and mezcal. She started La Niña del Mezcal, as what may have been the world’s first mezcal blog in 2011. It’s since blossomed into a brand that now sells six different mezcals, as well as a bacanora and a sotol, similar spirits distilled from native plants in Mexico.
“You don’t find other spirits with such a range of flavors,” Murrieta says. “There are mezcals that are floral, herbal, mineral, buttery, earthy and spicy.” Production methods and where the agave is grown affect mezcal’s flavor, but the most important aspect is the particular species of agave used.
Think of it like varieties of apples, Murrieta says: “You use different types of apples for different things, and they all have their own flavors.” If that’s true, then espadin agave is the red delicious of the mezcal world: It’s the most popular type of agave for mezcal, yielding a fruity and slightly citrusy mezcal. Tobala agave makes for an herbal and floral spirit, while madrecuixe becomes earthy and mineral in the bottle. Other, rarer varietals can create truly unique flavors: Murrieta swears that mezcal made from arroqueño agave tastes like cotton candy, and both she and Skvarka have high praise for tepeztate agave, which can take up to 30 years to grow to maturity and yields bright, rich, grassy notes.
Agave has to be cooked after harvest, and whether a producer uses a steam-powered autoclave or an earthen pit filled with burning wood, this leads to at least some level of smoky character in nearly all mezcals. And that’s important to consider when making cocktails with the spirit. “I think of mezcal as tequila’s older sister, who smokes and has a lot of attitude,” Skvarka says. His favorite mezcal pairing is with grapefruit, though he also enjoys combining it with coffee, chocolate, rhubarb, strawberry and, oddly enough, beets. Murrieta says mezcal can replace just about any other base spirit in a classic cocktail: Try it in a Margarita, Old Fashioned or Negroni.
Once you’ve tried a few basic types of mezcal, you can also turn to its strangest iteration: pechuga. To make pechuga, mezcal producers pack the still with fruits, nuts and grains as well as a piece of raw meat (usually a chicken or turkey breast, but some producers use rabbit, and there’s even one bottling that uses a whole ham), and redistill their spirit. People tend to focus on the weirdness of a meat-flavored spirit, but the fruits and nuts have much more influence on pechuga’s taste. “The whole point is making this very tropical, fruity mezcal,” Murrieta says. “It’s the gin of mezcal.”
Mezcal’s seen incredible growth globally in the last decade, and unfortunately that growth is not all good news. Depending on the species, agave can take anywhere from a few years to three decades to reach maturity, and many of the most sought-after types only grow wild and cannot be cultivated. Demand for mezcal is increasing much faster than the supply of agave, but Murrieta isn’t too worried: “We’re going through an agave shortage but only because people didn’t plan ahead. Production will catch up,” she says. She’s more worried about global conglomerates swooping in to replace all the small-time producers who make up most of the market right now. “Growth is good for everybody, but I hope there’s a sense of ethics, tradition and authenticity behind it,” she says.
Ready to dive in to the world of mezcal? Here are a few bottlings Murrieta and Skvarka recommend.
DEL MAGUEY CHICHICAPA
America’s current love for mezcal can be traced directly to Ron Cooper, a New Mexico-based artist who started importing artisanal mezcals from dozens of producers in 1995 under the Del Maguey label. Skvarka calls this espadin-based bottling an “archetypal mezcal,” with a strong smokiness backed up by a nice and fruity finish.
EL JOLGORIO TEPEZTATE
Tepeztate mezcals tend to taste grassy, green and fresh, and this is Skvarka’s favorite example of the genre. Tepeztate agave only grows wild at the moment, but El Jolgorio’s producers are currently working on ways to raise seedlings in greenhouses and transplant them to the fields.
MEZCALERO SPECIAL BOTTLING #2
Mezcalero specializes in limited-edition mezcals made in tiny batches by the finest producers. This one was distilled from a wild agave called dobadaan and rested in tanks for three years before bottling. “It’s a treat that’s super-special and you might not be able to taste it again,” Skvarka says.
LA NIÑA DEL MEZCAL ESPADIN
Murrieta recommends her own espadin for mezcal beginners. It offers a lovely balance of sweet and spicy.
MEZCAL SIETE MISTERIOS ARROQUEÑO
Try this for a taste of something a little more unusual. Arroqueño makes for a sweet, buttery and rich mezcal, and Murrieta is a big fan of the version made by Siete Misterios, a brand committed to maintaining traditional production.