Friday, May 5, 2017

Ten Reasons To Drink Mezcal (Instead of Tequila)

Mezcal is one of the world’s great spirits: complex, gorgeous and endlessly intriguing, distinguished like great wines by a strong sense of place.”
--The New York Times (August 16, 2010), “Mezcal, Tequila’s Smoky, Spicy Cousin” by Eric Asimov

As it is Cinco de Mayo today, there will be much Tequila consumed all across the country, most of it probably in Margaritas. Cinco de Mayo celebrates the Mexican victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla, which occurred on May 5, 1862. It isn't a significant holiday across much of Mexico and Americans generally use it as an excuse to party, consuming vast quantities of Tequila, Mexican beer and Mexican cuisine. However, it might be more appropriate for them to drink Mezcal, as Tequila, as a separate entity, essentially didn't exist back in 1862.

At its simplest, mezcal is any distilled spirit made from the agave plant, which is more commonly called maguey in Mexico. Thus, mezcal is an expansive term, encompassing such agave distillates as Tequila, Bacanora, Racilla and others. You probably didn't know that Tequila is really a type of Mezcal. In 1830, there were only nine documented distilleries operating in Santiago de Tequila, a town in the Mexican state of Jalisco. By 1897, there were 45 distilleries operating in the state of Jalisco. During this period, the spirit was sometimes referred to as Mezcal de Tequila, simply reflecting its place of origin.

At some point, very likely during the early twentieth century, this spirit started becoming referred to just as Tequila, eliminating the "Mezcal de." And for various reasons, Tequila started receiving far more attention, acquiring its own unique identity, than Mezcal from other regions of Mexico. The first official rules for Tequila production were promulgated in 1949, stating it needed to be created from 100% Blue Agave grown in Jalisco. Eventually, that restriction would be lowered, so there ultimately became only a requirement of 51% Blue Agave. In 1977, Tequila acquired a denomination of origin classification and there would be a series of subsequent new regulations defining what could legally be labeled as Tequila.

Mezcal is real and has nearly 500 years of history. It is hand-crafted and artisanally produced…. It has deep cultural significance in Mexico, from births, to weddings, to funerals, and is deeply woven into the fabric of community life.
--Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal: A Complete Guide From Agave To Zapotec by John McEvoy

Interestingly, though Mezcal is much older than Tequila, it didn't acquire its own denomination of origin until 1994, and its regulations didn't even become law until 2003. There have been continued efforts to introduce new regulations but they have been controversial for numerous reasons, with some allegations that they could be harmful to the indigenous peoples of Mexico who have been producing Mezcal for hundreds of years. For example, though Mezcal is produced in all 31 Mexican states, it is officially recognized in only 9 of them, including Oaxaca, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Puebla and Michoacán. That needs to change, to recognize all of the other  Mezcal producing states.

Tequila seems to garner most of the attention from restaurants, bars, consumers and the media. To show how little attention Mezcal receives, consider that Mezcal exports constitute only about 0.7% of Tequila exports. Less than 1%! In 2014, Tequila exports constituted about 172.5 million liters while Mezcal exports constituted only 1.2 million liters. This number has fortunately grown, so that in 2016, Mezcal exports increased to 2.7 million liters. However, it remains a small account and it needs to increase. The U.S. is currently the primary consumer of Mezcal, accounting for about 64% of all exports. Chile and Spain, the next largest consumers, only account for about 7% each.

"William H. Hildebrant of 1373 FuIton Street; enthused by an overindulgence in mezcal, shot up his neighborhood early yesterday morning...Firing with a repeating rifle at blue zebras jumping over pink elephants that he pair through the empurpled haze of a mezcal jag."
--San Francisco Call, September 26, 1906

More people need to embrace the wonders of Mezcal, and give it the due it deserves. Forget about your previous experiences, when you were young, with Mezcal that contained a "worm." That was cheap Mezcal and that worm was actually the larvae of the agave snout weevil or the agave moth. There is a wide world of small batch, artisanal Mezcal which will impress you so it is time that Mezcal takes center stage and shines on at least an equal base with Tequila.

Let me provide you a list of ten reasons why you should explore Mezcal, why you should seek out this compelling, intriguing and delicious spirit. Be adventurous with your palate and drink some Mezcal.

Mezcal hits every magic word—artisanal, organic, gluten-free, vegan. It comes from a small village, and you have to drive there to get it. It’s made by a family. It automatically became cool when knowing what you eat became cool. Tequila got to the point where it’s like Tyson chicken—that’s Cuervo. Now I want to know my chicken’s name. That’s mezcal.”
--The New Yorker (April 4, 2016), "Mezcal Sunrise" by Dana Goodyear (Quoting Bricia Lopez)

First, Mezcal has a lengthy and fascinating history.
Mezcal is the oldest distilled spirit in the Americas, thought to extend back nearly 500 years when Spaniards or Filipinos introduced distillation equipment to the country. There is also a theory, which still requires more supporting evidence, that the indigenous peoples of Mexico might have independently created their own distillation equipment long before the arrival of the Europeans. Nonetheless, the precursor to Mezcal was a fermented spirit called Pulque, which was also made from the agave plant, and extends back over 1000 years. During the centuries, Mezcal has been an important element of Mexican culture. Thus, each sip of Mezcal brings with it a sense of history, a connection to Mexico's past.

Second, Mezcal can be made from many unique agave plants.
Over 200 types of agave exist, most of them native to Mexico, and they come in a myriad of shapes and sizes, though they usually have long, sturdy leaves with a margin of sharp spines. Despite the existence of all these different agave plants, Tequila can only be produced from a single type of agave, the Blue Weber. What a restriction! On the other hand, Mezcal can be produced from at least 30, and maybe as much as 50, different varieties. Espadin is the most commonly used agave for Mezcal, but you'll also find others such as Tepatze, Tobala, Lumbre, Mexicano, Cuixe, and more. Mezcal possesses a clear and significant advantage in this respect, possessing the ability for so much many more flavors and aromas. Besides all of the single varietal Mezcals, there are also blends, known as ensembles, allowing the Mezcalero to produce an even more unique spirit.

Mezcal was like a slap to the face from a beautiful woman -- sure it hurts a little, but you savor the sting. Because you know she wouldn’t hit you if she didn’t care.”
--Judah Kuper, co-owner of Mezcal Vago

Three, Mezcal is often made by traditional methods.
Most Mezcal isn't made through a large, industrial process like many Tequilas. Instead, many Mezcals are made by small family businesses which have a long history of Mezcal production. These Mezcaleros commonly use more traditional techniques, such as the tahona, a huge grinding stone, to extract the juice from the agave piñas. Many Tequilas use industrial machines to mill the piñas but they also shred the fibers, leading to a more bitter taste. The tahona process though is more gentle and leads to a rounder, smoother taste. There are plenty of other more traditional, artisan techniques and methods which are used, producing intriguing Mezcals.

Fourth, Mezcal possesses Terroir.
The aromas and flavors in Mezcal derive from a myriad of multiple factors that start in the field, meaning that Mezcal is a spirit that can possess terroir, a sense of place. For example, are you using wild or cultivated agave? Which variety of agave is being used? What is planted near those agave? What is the composition of the soil? What are the climatic influences? What is the altitude of the plants? So many different factors to consider, and these questions only scratch the surface of the elements of terroir in Mezcal. Most commercially produced Tequila lacks that sense of place, being produced more for quantity rather than quality.

"Tequila is to wake the living. Mezcal is to wake the dead."
--Source unknown

Fifth, Mezcal often has a smoky edge.
During the production of Mezcal, the piñas are roasted in a horno, an earthen oven, which contributes to providing a smoky edge to the Mezcal. For Tequila, the piñas are usually cooked in large, industrial ovens so they don't acquire that roasting. For Mezcal, it can acquire smokiness from another element as well. The distillation often occurs near the horno, so the smoke in the air affects the process, adding an additional element of smokiness. Now, not all Mezcal has a smoky edge, and the amount of smokiness can vary widely. I think the smokiness is an attractive quality in Mezcal, reminding me of some whiskies.

Sixth, Mezcal possesses plenty of diversity.
Mezcal possesses the potential for far more diversity in aromas and flavors than Tequila. Mezcal can use far more than just one type of agave. The use of traditional methods and techniques can create more diversity than the use of large, industrial methods. Mezcal's terroir leads to greater aromas and flavors than the more industrially made Tequila. The smokiness of Mezcal also adds an additional aspect of diversity. Plus, there are three main categories of Mezcal, including Joven (unaged), Reposado (aged two months to less than one year in oak) and Anejo (aged for a minimum of one year in oak in containers limited in capacity to 200 liters). These categories further elevate Mezcal's diversity. Tequila may have similar categories, but they don't have as great an impact due to a smaller base diversity.

"He who has not indulged in a tipple of Mescal with a garniture of salt, has missed something the native Californian will tell you, and he is right.”
--Los Angeles Herald, August 6, 1888

Seven, Mezcal is versatile in cocktails.
As both Mezcal and Tequila are agave spirits, Mezcal can easily be used to replace Tequila in any cocktail, from Margaritas to Palomas. However, because of the greater diversity of aromas and flavors in Mezcal, it can create more interesting cocktails. For example, the smokiness of Mezcal can produce a more intriguing Margarita. Plus, the greater diversity will also allow you to use Mezcal in more unique cocktails in which Tequila might not have worked. Mezcal is flexible and versatile and you should experiment with it in a myriad of cocktails.

Eight, Pechuga Mezcal is fascinating.
There is a special variety of Mezcal known as Pechuga, a flavored version that often is made with some type of meat. The Spanish term "pechuga" basically translates as "breast" and generally refers to a breast of some type of poultry. To make Pechuga, a Mezcal is commonly distilled for a third time with a raw piece of meat suspended inside the still. You can find versions of Pechuga made from a variety of animals, including turkey, deer, goat, cow, pig, rabbit and even iguana. In addition, various fruits, herbs, nuts, grains and/or spices are added into the still. The meat may help to mellow and soften the Mezcal, or give it a fuller body. It may also add a more savory element to the spirit.

"As to the mescal, the bulk of it is consumed in Mexico, but there is great market awaiting it in this country. Its medicinal virtues are fully recognized by the Mexicans.”
--Los Angeles Herald, March 8, 1895

Nine, Mezcal pairs well with various foods.
Because of all the diversity of aromas and flavors in Mezcal, it has the potential to pair better with more foods than Tequila. Sure, it can easily pair with various Mexican cuisines, but its pairing abilities extend to other cuisines too. With its smoky edge, it can do well with grilled meats and veggies, so would be great for the summer. Its herbal nature can pair well with other dishes, from chicken to seafood. You could pair your dishes with Mezcal on its own or in a cocktail. You could even use Mezcal in your cooking, adding an intriguing element to recipes.

Ten, and most importantly, Mezcal is quite delicious.
It is a simple thought but sometimes gets forgotten amidst everything else. In the end, the most significant aspect of any spirit is that it tastes good. No matter what else a spirit has going for it, if it does not taste good then it has failed. I've enjoyed many tasty Mezcals, and appreciate Mezcal for many different reasons, but first and foremost, taste remains the most compelling reason to drink Mezcal. Mezcal isn't appreciated enough and now is the time to showcase this compelling spirit and spread a passion for it across the country.

So, are you convinced to give Mezcal a try? If so, seek out producers such as Piedre AlmasDel MagueyMezcal AmarasFidencioMezcal VagoEl JolgorioLos AmantesAlipus, and Derrumbes. In the Boston area, check out Mezcal bars including Tres Gatos in Jamaica PlainThe Painted Burro in SomervilleLone Star Taco Bar in Allston CambridgeOle Mexican Grill in Cambridge, and Amuleto Mexican Table in Waltham. 

What's your favorite Mezcals?

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