Make Room for Mezcal

You may be familiar with tequila’s unique taste (or hangover), but mezcal is making its way out of the shadows. Like tequila, mezcal is a distilled agave product. Often described as citrusy, woody, or honey-scented, mezcal is the Mexican firewater known in the US for the worm in the bottle. Tequila may have won fans around the world with its decidedly smoother taste, but mezcal is quickly closing the gap.


Strictly speaking, tequila is actually a type of mezcal. Both are derived from agave, a native Mexican plant. However, in Mexico, the two are regarded as differently as wine and champagne. A specific variety of agave is used to make tequila, which is mainly produced in Jalisco State. Mezcal, by contrast, is made from a broader class of the plant and many people view it as tequila’s earthier cousin. Mezcal is distilled in a process that’s both centuries old and quite distinct from tequilas. The alcohol content of mezcal typically exceeds 45 percent.


Artisanal mezcal producers are building quite a following with their focus on the finer points of the spirit. Their hard work is paying off as mezcal takes an unexpected star turn. It may go down like lightning, but part of the reason for its newfound popularity (besides its historical importance in Mexico) is, in fact, its taste. As mentioned above, it may have citrus or woody notes, and it usually has a smoky flavor – achieved by the roasting of agave hearts in the making process.


One of the things that influence the taste of mezcal is the type or species of agave used to make it. For example, espadin mezcal is made from a type of agave that grows fast and strong and contains a lot of sugar, and these mezcals tend to be more floral with fruit notes. Tobala, while not quite as approachable as espadin, is still delicious with more complex flavors including some minerality along with its tropical fruit flavors. And the “smoky” flavor mezcal is known for is, in fact, a complex quality that can call to mind anything from chipotle and roasted bell peppers to coffee beans and leather.


For those who aren’t interested in drinking mezcal straight, there’s good news: it’s highly versatile and can be used to create a variety of cocktails. Mezcal can be mixed with any number of different flavors for a wide array of results, including lime, orange, chocolate, sour apple, even tomato and serrano pepper.


For flavourists wishing to give a traditional drink new life, there are countless ways to combine mezcal with new ingredients and tastes to create signature drinks. One thing is for sure: mezcal is a piece of Mexican history worth preserving.