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What I used to know about mezcal -- tequila’s brawnier brother -- could have fit into a shot glass.
That was before a tasting in Mexico City with Cornelio Perez, president of a group called Mezcales Tradicionales de los Pueblos de Mexico, and Ricardo Pandal, owner of a year-old mezcal cantina and restaurant named Patrona. I now know that most of what I knew was wrong.
Perez and Pandal demolished the hype about mezcal that importers have been pushing in the spirit’s expanding market in the U.S. and China, not least the assertion that mezcal’s identifying mark is the smokiness acquired by cooking the maguey plant (a form of agave) in earth-covered pit ovens.
“Those smoky mezcals they sell in the U.S. are not very good,” said Pandal. “They are made that way just to create a market different from tequila’s. They want people to think that mezcal is a rougher, more macho drink than tequila, which is made only from the blue agave plant.”
Perez, who was busy estimating the alcohol level by an ancient method of blowing into a straw pipe to create bubbles in cups of mezcal, chimed in: “Ha! There are hundreds of species of agave, and the blue agave is one of the worst! Blue agave has been cloned so much it is genetically weak, so the plants are given chemicals and pesticides to keep them healthy, which helps to hurry along their maturation.”
Until the 19th century there was no difference between tequila and mezcal, other than the fact that the former acquired its name from being made around the town of Tequila, said Perez. Pre-Columbian Mexicans made a fermented, milky maguey juice they called pulque. When the Spanish arrived, they taught them the distillation process to make mezcal.
“Tequila’s success is all due to those Hollywood western movies,” said Perez. “Mezcal used to be made in nearly every state in Mexico.”
While 21 states still make the drink, most comes from around the southern city of Oaxaca. The government regulates the hundreds of artisanal mezcals in order to preserve their traditional taste, said Perez.
To be artisanal, mezcal must be 100 percent agave, although the government allows other sugars to be added to both mezcal and tequila. Some mezcals are triple distilled with fruit and nuts, even infused with chicken. Some are made by single farmers on little plots of land.
Many have about 45 percent alcohol, and several I sampled that day ran well over 50 percent.
Of the half-dozen artisanal mezcals I tasted, only one, made by Rogelio Martinez from a wild maguey called tobala, was smoky in aroma and taste, somewhat like a single-malt Scotch from Islay. Another from the Oaxacan town of Yojana, made by Jose Garcia (55 percent alcohol), used two types of maguey and was very powerful but not smoky at all, more like grappa.
Mezcal Zapotitlan (50.7 percent) from Jalisco state was said to be 100 percent organic, distilled twice, from a farm that grows 14 different magueys and produces only 80 liters a year. A bottle of Alipus was very smooth, with just a touch of sweetness. I also tasted a Mexican moonshine called Michoacan that is made in seven states. It had a little natural pulque added that gave it a very fruity, slightly soapy flavor.
Back in the U.S., I spoke with master sommelier Richard Betts, who, with entrepreneur and art collector Dennis Scholl and New York wine seller Charles Bieler, imports Sombra mezcal ($30-$35), made from green espadin agave grown 8,000 feet up in the Oaxacan hills.
“We’re fanatical about every step in the process, and smoke is but one part of that,” Betts told me in a phone interview from Boulder, Colorado. “It’s like the bass in an orchestra. If it’s played too loud, it runs over all the other music.”
Betts uses oak wood from the surrounding hillsides for roasting the agave, to give a milder smokiness. He said of the 50 or so mezcals imported into the U.S., only a half dozen are of artisanal quality.
Another premium import, Zignum mezcal, introduced last December at the Food Network South Beach Wine & Food Festival, is also made from the green espadin agave, in silver ($26), reposado ($29) and anejo ($55) styles. Steam cooking rather than roasting eliminates the smoky flavor. These mezcals are silky, not harsh, and the anejo is a revelation of complexity.
And what about the worm (actually an insect larva) found in about half of mezcal bottles?
“If it’s a brand with a bug in it, it’s purely a gimmick,” said Betts. There is no history of mezcals containing the larva beyond the promotional effect, he said. The Mexican government is trying to get rid of the worm in an effort to upgrade mezcal’s image.
Still, a new entry, Wild Shot ($55), complete with worm and a touch of smoke, is supported and promoted by country music star Toby Keith, whose hits include “Big Ol’ Truck” and “Get Drunk and Be Somebody.”
“It’s not there for the looks,” said Keith. “It is there to be eaten. It is believed that the worm will bring wondrous experiences and every individual’s will be different.”
Shucks, and just one worm to a bottle!
(John Mariani writes on wine for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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