What is Mezcal? Tasting Notes from Mexico

by White on Rice Couple on April 8, 2011

Mezcal. Beyond the worm…

Until recently I’ve never had much inclination to try mezcal. In the youthful and stupid years, we were more of a Jack Daniels crowd. Then as appreciation and a slightly more sophisticated palate developed, the worm-laden fire water Mezcal didn’t have much attraction. Or so I thought.

Fortunately, I’ve gotten a little less stupid over the years and have began to challenge my preconceptions. Many culinary nemesis are now favorites. “Why bothers” are “How did we ever live with-outs?”

In the past couple years I’ve been exposed to amazing tequilas and even incredible raicillas (a wild agave Mexican moonshine), but haven’t meandered through a  mezcal tasting expedition. Until now.

La Casa Que Canta , the venue

Thanks to the opportunity to shoot and explore the Food and Wine Festival in Ixtapa/Zihuatenejo Mexico, we have a new-found love of Mezcal . Sans the worm.

Although when dried, ground, chilli-ed and salted, the mezcal worms do make an excellent pairing with a nice mezcal! In fact, most quality mezcals won’t have the worms anywhere in sight. It tends to be a marketing ploy of modern creation to attract the hormonal and stupid… of which there is no short supply. Especially during spring break.

For a beginner breakdown, mezcal and tequila share a relationship like whiskey/bourbon and brandy/cognac. The later being a sub genus of the former. Both mezcal and tequila are made from agave, but tequila is specifically from the blue agave (at least 51% but the better tequilas are 100% blue agave) and must come from specific regions (the state of Jalisco and a few additional limited regions in 4 other Mexican states.) And tequila is banned from bottled with a worm of other curious additions.

Mezcal on the other hand is less limited, can come from any number of the maguey plant species (a form of agave of which over 150 types grow in Mexic0), is most commonly from Oaxaca, although many other Mexican states are producing fine mezcals as well, and has no restrictions on worm accompaniments (thank goodness or else there would be one less thing to taunt the young and dumb with.)

Mezcals tend to be much smokier than tequilas. They are often from small village distilleries, handcrafted and made using old school methods. The agave cores are mostly cooked in earthen mounds over pits of hot rocks rather than in ovens- giving the mezcals their distinctive smokiness.

Each village has different nuances in distillation, water, and plants.  All of which give Mezcals a great variety in complexity and taste. Of the ones we tasted, they ranged from slightly smokey, smooth and sweet, to ass-kicking scary nose but amazing goes down smooth, to George Burns smokey combined with Mexicana sexy. They all will distantly remind you of their tequila brethren, but still remain distinctly their own beast.

It was a fascinating introduction which had us curious and hooked. Cocktail mixing can be a little more challenging with mezcal, due to its smokey nature, but with a little experimentation great cocktail can be made. A good start is with a blood orange mezcal margarita (try adapting this recipe). The blood orange goes nicely with the smokiness.

But mostly mezcal is meant to be enjoyed straight up. Especially before or after a nice serving of pozole on Thursdays! Fortunately it is becoming easier to explore the wonders of mezcal in the U.S. with many bars offering a home to the adventurous agave elixir. Here’s a few in NY and LA for starters.

-Todd

La Casa Que Canta infinity pool, made famous from movie “When Harry Met Sally”

fantastic mezcal tasting in a gorgeous setting

stunning view of Zihuatanajo bay

mezcal experts on hand to guide us

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 John McCollum April 8, 2011 at 6:24 am

I’d love to try quality mezcal. My wife and I have become quite fond of tequila, but have had bad experiences with the mezcal we can find here at home. In fact, I threw 90% of a $30 bottle into the fire after none of my guests could stomach it.

Do you have any recommendations for mezcals that are readily available in the States?

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2 White on Rice Couple April 8, 2011 at 10:42 am

That’s a tough one since most mezcal operations are small scale productions. It’s hard to find the same labels in different areas. The brands we tried in Mexico were Zacbe, Jaral, and Leyenda and they were all nice. Each had a different appeal and they varied quite a bit. I’ve seen a few mentions, including in the NY Times article, about Ilegal Mezcal. It’s one we want to try and hunt down.

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3 Joubin April 12, 2011 at 11:36 pm

Del Magauy Mezcal is arguably leading the American trend. It is all of excellent quality and comes in several varieties based on regions within Oaxaca. They ship anywhere in the US. Their stuff is AMAZING.
http://www.mezcal.com/

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4 Michelle April 8, 2011 at 7:22 am

My husband and I have spent a considerable amount of time in Mexico. Some of my fondest memories was learning the craft of making mezcal and tequila. Well that and the food – oh and the beaches…. I like mezcal straight up while in tucked in some sweet little spot in Mexico.

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5 Boulder Locavore April 8, 2011 at 9:01 am

What an incredible venue and opportunity! I first met Mezcal when visiting Puerta Vallarta years ago having taken a boat out to a tiny ‘Island of the Spirits’ (translated). They made it there, total home brew. Loved the smokey flavor and the organic aestethic with the particles of who knows what floating in the bottle! We actually brought a bottle home. It was given to us in a recycled liquor bottle, about as indigenous as it gets! Thank you for introducing it to all and sharing the scenes from your trip!

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6 Kiran April 8, 2011 at 9:16 am

Incredible landscapes and views! Wow! Simply beautiful :)

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7 Elizabeth @ Saffron Lane April 8, 2011 at 1:04 pm

Our spring-like weather is being overtaken by clouds as we speak, so thank you for the temporary escape to a sun-kissed spot. Sounds like it could be time to stage my own mezcal tasting expedition soon. Many thanks for the inspiration, once again.

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8 Bianca April 8, 2011 at 2:44 pm

Stunning views. Ixtapa and Zihuatenejo is breathtaking. Thank you for sharing these loving photos and your experience with Mezcal!

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9 Stephanie April 8, 2011 at 3:31 pm

WOW! I had no no idea about Mezcal. It kind of sounds like going from a PC to a MAC. Oh, and that first photo is my favorite! Did you get to keep the bottle?

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10 Averie (LoveVeggiesAndYoga) April 8, 2011 at 9:45 pm

Thanks for the mezcal 411 and tutorial.

And thanks for making me want to go to Zihuatanajo on vacation. Like tomorrow :)

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11 moowiesqrd April 9, 2011 at 11:05 am

Oh, I love mezcal! On the rocks, with orange slices to dip in sal de gusano (worm salt). Incredible mix of smokey, sweet, and umami. I first tried it at a bar in Oaxaca, La Farola (I’m pretty sure that’s the name), that has an expansive mezcal list. I like the stuff much more than tequila, even with the similarities. A little more refined and a little less reminiscent of collegiate misadventures. ;) Beautiful shots, as always… the resort looks like an incredible place!

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12 Candy A.@help-at-home.biz April 11, 2011 at 5:19 pm

What a breathtaking scenery for us to enjoy. I wish I can take a vacation there someday.

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13 Veronica April 12, 2011 at 11:36 pm

Ahhh, a drink after my own heart…thank you for sharing. I too love tequila and some mezcals. Looking forward to hunting down a good one. Las Perlas in LA is certainly worth a trip…May sounds like a good time to visit.

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14 Dave Millard April 15, 2011 at 11:53 am

I did some engineering work in Mexico City and Veracruz 10 years ago. Pepe one of the people who worked for me on project had relatives from Oaxaca. One of the uncles worked in a Mezcal refinery. I had the chance to taste some of the better aged Mezcal he gave to Pepe’s father. VERY, very good. At the end of the project the father gave me an unlabeled bottle of Mezcal with the comment “If you were to purchase this you would pay over $200USD a bottle.” Double distilled, casked, and aged. It was fantastic. Sufficiently so that I rarely shared it. It lasted almost 4 years before it ran out.

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15 merry jennifer April 15, 2011 at 3:36 pm

I’d never tried mezcal before my trip to New York City in March. A good friend of mine is in the craft cocktail business there and she and her boyfriend/business partner took us to Mayahuel for drinks. It was really an incredible experience. I’m sending anyone I know who’s headed to NYC to Mayahuel for cocktails. It’s so worth it, and I’m itching to get back there.

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16 Brooke@FoodWoolf April 17, 2011 at 1:58 pm

Sigh. It’s so wonderful to see that beautiful place once again! Your pictures and descriptions of mescal brought me back to that wonderful spot on the Mexican seaside! Thanks for sharing!

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17 Brian @ A Thought For Food April 17, 2011 at 6:17 pm

I first tried mezcal at the New York Food and Wine Festival last year… and I so enjoyed it! The flavor reminds me of a combination of scotch and tequila, both of which I adore. I can only imagine how wonderful this tasting was.

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18 Pedro April 18, 2011 at 9:01 am

Great article!

This kind of writing contributes to introduce a mezcal culture in America.
I am bringing Mezcales de Lyenda (bottle in picture #1) to the U.S. We will start sales in the NYCF region! Hopefully, by early summer it will be available.
Initially, Leyenda will be for sale in the big wine & spirits stores such as Astor Wines & Spirits, Drink Up NY, as well as in Mexican restaurants that use mezcal for their cocktails.

Hope to share it with you guys soon!

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19 Miss Lolly April 28, 2011 at 1:55 am

Fabulous article !!

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20 allen May 24, 2011 at 5:41 am

Del Maguey Santo Domingo mixed with a puree of ripe pears/strained through a fine mesh, a little agave nectar, lime and a splash of Grand Marnier, I find it the only way to drink it other than straight for me. The best!

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21 Priest June 25, 2011 at 4:41 pm

I have a question that i hope someone can answer for me, i keep hearing about a tequila that people can bring back from mexico and declare it at customs , but it’s unlabeled, and from what i keep hearing, is it’s about 140 proof, can someone tell me the name of the product, and how i might be able to go about having it sent to me?

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22 Bacocho August 6, 2011 at 5:18 am

El Rincón del Mezcal has information on over 300 different mezcals both artesanal and commercial, many available in the US. Links to the mezcaleros web site are provided when available. Site is in English and Spanish

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