Witten by Chloe Gellar
As an ardent consumer of craft cocktails, I recall the rise of mezcal a few years ago, when the spirit was tapped (and some would argue pigeon-holed) to imbue a drink with a "smoky" flavor. And while mezcal and tequila are both distilled from agave, the former can
display a broad range of flavor profiles, from bitter to bubble gum. Archaeologists have estimated that humans began utilizing the agave plant 11,000 years ago for clothing, tools, and medicine. For thousands of years, the indigenous tribes of Mexico made pulque, a milky white alcoholic beverage made from the agave plant's leaves or sap. Spaniards were introduced to pulque during the Spanish Conquest. Once the liquor they brought with them ran out, the Spanish used their knowledge of distilling (learned from the Moors) to experiment with agave and create something with a higher alcohol content. The culmination of their efforts became mezcal.
The main difference between mezcal and tequila is that while mezcal can be made from nearly 50 species of the agave plant, tequila can only be made from Weber blue agave. Resembling a pineapple, the piña, the rounded stem of the agave plant, is used to make mezcal.
Each agave plant takes a minimum of four years to mature, with some requiring as many as three decades. This slow-growing process is what imparts mezcal with complex flavors and aromas. The word mezcal is derived from the Nahuatl word mexcalli, which translates as "oven-cooked agave." Once harvested, the piña is roasted, typically in underground pits, although some contemporary producers employ steam to mitigate smoky characteristics. As it cooks, the plant's fibers soften, and starches morph into sugar. In traditional distillation, a tahona, a giant stone wheel typically pulled by a donkey or mule, pulverizes the cooked plant. Today, this process has been made more efficient by some distillers through mechanization, though some craft producers employ a mallet and manpower to make the pulp. The pulp is fermented (with wild yeast in quality mezcals) and distilled, with some mezcals undergoing barrel aging.
Much of what you need to know about a bottle of mezcal is right on the label. Drawing parallels with wine grapes and regions, bottles of mezcal list the variety or varieties of agave plants used, along with where they were grown. Mezcal was first recognized as an Appellation of Origin in 1994, but it did not become law until 2003. Just like a bottle of sparkling wine labeled Champagne must be made in Champagne, France, mezcal must be made in one of nine Mexican states: Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Michoacán,
Oaxaca, Puebla, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas. Oaxaca is the largest producer.
While mezcal is a centuries-old tradition in Mexico, its popularity in the United States can be traced back to the mid-1990s, when Ron Cooper, a California native and founder of Del
Maguey, starting importing single-village mezcal, and thereby creating a "single-village" designation for the spirit. Cooper's tireless efforts paid off in 2017 when Pernod-Ricard purchased a majority stake in Del Maguey. The rising popularity of Mexico's indigenous spirit in the U.S. is a boon for small communities' economies where family producers have been working for generations.
A native of Oaxaca, Francisco Javier Perez Cruz saw firsthand the backbreaking work and hardscrabble existence of families making mezcal. Elected president of the National Mezcal Council in 2004, he went on to found the Consejo Oaxaqueño del Maguey Mezcal (Oaxaca Mezcal Maguey Council). Today, his Banhez Cooperative, a conglomeration of 36 farming families, is now run by his son Luis and ensures fair wages, consistent work, and a better quality of life.
Banhez Espadin Barril Mezcal ($35/750ML), which boasts tropical notes of banana and pineapple to balance the smoke, won Double Gold and Best Mezcal at the 2017 San Francisco World Spirits Competition Rooted in the traditions of his native Durango, Gaston Martinez founded IZO (izomezcal.com) in the early 2000s. He sustainably operates the company, including utilizing solar power and independent water resources. Using hand-harvested agave grown on high-altitude desert mesas, his team at IZO works to uphold and preserve a proud legacy of partnership with the land and its resources. IZO's award-winning Mezcal Jovan ($65/750ML) is made with agave hearts slow-roasted with smoldering oak in lava-lined fire pits. Double distillation results in a subtly smoky flavor with a clean finish.
For purists who want to savor the complexities of mezcal, the ideal way is to sip it neat from a copita, a small and wide clay bowl designed to emulate a jicara, Mother Nature's drinking vessel made from the dried fruit of the calabash tree. Perusing local Mexican craft markets, particularly in Oaxaca, you'll frequently spy these organic vessels transformed into works of art. Salud!