If you have not been properly introduced to Mezcal, let me go ahead and make that introduction right here…
- Mezcal is a spirit made in Mexico. The word Mezcal is derived from an Aztec word that translates into “Cooked Agave.” It is Tequila’s huskier, big-boned cousin.
- It comes from the genus Agavacae – hence its name, Agave. See what they did there?
- All Tequila is Mezcal, but not all Mezcal is Tequila. Mezcal is a spirit made from agave and can come from anywhere in Mexico, whereas Tequila must be made from one specific agave species called the Weber Blue Agave and must be made in the Tequila region (predominately in the Mexican state of Jalisco). Therefore, any agave spirits made outside of the Jalisco region is called Mezcal.
- Mezcal most commonly uses the agave species called Espadin (there are 200 other species up for use), which can take 8-10 years to fully mature. The Weber Blue agave plant used in Tequila takes up to 7-10 years to fully mature.
- The center of the agave plants is called the pina and is where all the sugar and starch lives. The smoky character that Mezcal unique comes from a process during its production where pinas are cooked in pits in the ground – this step is skipped during Tequila production.
- Mezcal consumption in the US was up over 32% from the previous year (2018) according to the global alcohol-industry tracker IWSR and continues to grow. The US is already hot and heavy with Tequila and has been for several years.
CAN YOU DO THE WORM?
It’s not Tequila but rather Mezcal bottles that made that little floating worm famous. If you’re hoping to make Mezcal your favorite hallucinogenic drink you might be disappointed to discover the worm (which isn’t a worm at all), will not cause you to slip deep into a peyote-like state trace. Bummer. You will, however, be considered fearless, and score major bravery points with your friends. Not all will be lost and there is alcohol in that bottle, so don’t fear. It may pose more of a challenge to conquer this heroic feat once you find out that worm is actually a month larvae called gusano de maguey?
The name stems from the fact that this pest lurks around maguey plant roots. Several stories in circulation about why the “worm,” was added in the 1940’s and 1950’s including one about a farmer that found them during production and thought surely they must add to the character. Others say it was simply a marketing ploy to get people to drink more Mezcal, still others say if it pickled, once added to the liquid, it was a sign that enough alcohol was produced during production. Whatever the story, it’s floated in many a bottle of mezcal.
RON COOPER – THE YODA OF MEZCAL
Now that we’ve made proper introductions to the category, let’s talk about one of the leaders – Del Maguey (pronounced ma-gay). Artisan Mezcal visionary Don Cooper, founded the company in 1995, several years before the world was properly introduced. His vision was simple, to create single village Mezcal representing the “Terroir” from which the agave came, while highlighting the special people and ancient methods in that village that created the spirit. Think single vineyard, family wineries for reference. This was super cutting edge in the world market and Del Maguey continues to be the category standard. You might recognize the iconic emerald green bottle with bright colored label on your local back bars?
Del Maguey’s VIDA was developed with bartenders in mind and is the most affordable in the line. Start here, this is your training wheels for Mezcal and a perfect way to start your home cocktail creations. More brownie points: it’s organic and you can be certain the spirit of Mezcal is actually in the bottle. Tradition is also very important to the family, so much so that they even do all their milling with a wheel and horse!
What can you expect the liquid in this bottle to taste like? Roasted agave with honey and vanilla with hints on banana and tangerine.
BEWARE OF THE PRODUCERS CUTTING CORNERS
As you might imagine, with increase demand in Mezcal and the long Agave plant maturation lengths (7+ years), cutting corners is inevitable. Producers pumping out inferior juice in order to capitalize on the current consumption trends has plagued the category.
What does this mean for quality? Well, although there are several laws in place to protect Tequila, the laws are lacking in terms what the actual production processes looks like. Regions like Cognac and Champagne have specific rules in place to that keep this confusion out of the production process. In the case of Mezcal, Tequila rules were simply “copied and pasted” for Mezcal, leaving a big hole in execution and room for shady practices.
Traditional brick ovens have given way to giant pressure cookers (autoclaves) and diffuser machines that add hot water and chemicals to withdrawal sugars from unripe, not fully mature Agave (2-4 years early). Because these plants aren’t fully matured they’re lacking the ripe sugars needed to ferment and so they even go so far as to add corn or cane-based sugars to speed things along. It’s an ugly underbelly of Tequila/Mezcal production that Ron better explains in his book. It’s worth understanding what you’re actually drinking. As you can imagine, this also pushes out the farmers doing things responsibly and respectfully. Keeping up with the low cost producers pumping out a half-ass spirit is very difficult. If you want to start down the rabbit hole I found this to be a simple breakdown of some of the new regulations on Mezcal as they work hard to fix a long running problem.
SO WHAT DO YOU DO WITH IT?
Ron’s book Finding Mezcal – A Journey into the Liquid Soul of Mexico contains not only a comprehensive look at Mezcal history, culture and its evolution but also contains some stellar cocktail recipe ideas as does the Del Maguey website. I’ve even made some elevated Vida Mezcal jelly-shots (naturally) doing a play on a mule with a cucumber simple syrup and lime zest that came out pretty bomb.
Are you willing to give this smoky spirit a chance? Want to learn more? We’ve just scratched the surface! Try my Mezcal Mule Jelly Shots.