Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Introducing Mezcal Miercoles

Whiskey Wednesday is on hiatus, south of the border, for the next two weeks...so get ready for Mezcal Miercoles.

I love the whiskey, but sometimes you need a break, and when I do, I often reach for mezcal, the Mexican agave based liquor that is growing in popularity. So, join us for the next two weeks as we explore this enticing drink.

First, the basics:

What is mezcal?

Mezcal is a distilled spirit made from the agave plant. Agave is a large succulent with leaves shooting out in a flower-like pattern. The American century plant, which you may be familiar with if you live in the southwest, is a variety of agave.

But isn't Tequila made from Agave?

Yes. Tequila is actually a type of mezcal, just as Bourbon is a type of whiskey. In practice, however, when people talk about mezcal, they are usually referring to the Oaxacan variety, and that is how I will use the term here.

Tequila must be made with the blue agave species. Mezcal, in contrast, can be made from any variety of agave but most mezcal is made from the espadin variety. Most Tequila is made in the western Mexican state of Jalisco (home of the town of Tequila which gave the drink its name), while most mezcal is made in the southern state of Oaxaca.

Is mezcal aged?

It can be. Pursuant to Mexican law, mezcal uses the following age designations:

Blanco (White): Unaged
Reposado (Rested): Aged from six months to one year
Añejo (Aged): Aged more than one year
Extra Añejo (Extra Aged): Aged more than three years

Gold tequila, as in Cuervo Gold, is an unaged Blanco with gold color added.

All of the aging takes place in oak barrels.

The Extra Añejo designation is new and, consequently, many Tequilas and mezcals currently labeled Añejo are actually more than three years old. Unlike whiskey, exact age statements are rare on mezcal labels, so it is sometimes a guessing game.

Is mezcal a new drink?

Hardly. Mezcal dates from the sixteenth century when the Spanish colonists brought distillation to the Americas. In recent times, it has often been equated with fire-water and moonshine, largely due to worm-in-bottle rot gut being put out by large producers. In Oaxaca, however, it has long been considered a refined spirit made by artisans in small batches.

Mezcal was late in coming to the premium spirits party sweeping North America, and it suffered through the 1990s watching its upstart cousin Tequila become chic and expensive. But now, finally, mezcal is getting some recognition as the complex and interesting spirit that it truly is.

Now is actually a great time to get into mezcal because, while it is getting some recognition, most mezcal hasn't yet made it to the triple-digit, sold in a unique hand-blown bottle status that makes so many Tequilas and whiskies out of reach financially.

What does mezcal taste like?

Mezcal has its own flavor profile. Oaxacan mezcals do not taste like Tequila, though they have some commonalities. Mezcal tends to have sharper, stronger flavors, often with intense smoke or tangy qualities absent in today's smooth premium Tequila. To me, it's a more distinctive flavor than that of Tequila, and the various mezcals offer more variety of flavor than do Tequilas, which tend to stick to a pretty consistent flavor profile.

How do I drink mezcal?

Mezcal should be enjoyed like any fine spirit...neat in a snifter or other glass that allows you to enjoy its aroma. While there are a few mezcal cocktails out there, I don't think the strong flavor of mezcal lends itself particularly well to mixing, but then, I'm not generally a cocktail buff.

Where can you buy mezcal in LA?

Premium Mezcal is still somewhat hard to find in LA, but you'll find decent selections in the same premium liquor stores where you find good whiskey selections. This includes Wine & Liquor Depot in Van Nuys and Hi-Time Wine in Costa Mesa.

What are some good mezcals?

Next week, we will have a Mezcal tasting comparing a number of Mezcals. If you are looking for a place to start, the Del Maguey series of single village mezcals offers a variety of different style mezcals, each made in a different Oaxacan village. Next week's tasting will include a variety of Del Maguey mezcals.

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