In Mexico, mezcal is tied to the history and the culture of the country. It is mystical, magical, traditional, and revered. Not to mention delicious. It is served to celebrate births, weddings, funerals and nearly every occasion, big or small, in between.
In the U.S., mezcal is all too often that harsh shot you do with the worm in it. It is served to celebrate Spring Break and other events and occasions of similar dignity, solemnity and import.
Clearly there is some cultural dissonance going on here, but fortunately while we were in Mexico last week at the FOOD & WINE Festival in Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo we sat in on a seminar being given by wine & spirits maestro Mark Oldman, where he attempted to bridge the cultural divide and demystify mezcal for all.
Tequila vs. Mezcal. Both are tasty adult beverages made from the agave plant. (Which by the way, prickly leaves aside, is not a kind of cactus. The agave plant is a member of the lily family.) Mezcal is the name given to all agave-based distilled spirits. Which means that all tequilas are actually mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequila. Tequila is made only from the blue Weber agave plant, and only in the state of Jalisco. Mezcal is made in 7 other regions of Mexico — much of it in the state of Oaxaca — and from as many as 30 different types of agave.
What’s Up With the Worm. It’s a marketing gimmick cooked up by some mezcal exporters in the late 20th century. There is no long-standing historical or quaint eating the worm tradition and, yes, its a pretty gross thing. Don't do it. Quality mezcals come sans worm. The real connection between mezcal and the worm is that there is a variety of worm that likes to feed on the sweet agave plant and sometimes they get swept up in the harvest and baked with the agave pinas. Also one of the traditional ways to drink mezcal is straight up or on the rocks with orange slices dipped in sal de gusano — a powdered combination of salt, chilis and roasted gusano worm. Which is a lovely rich and deep thing. Definitely do it.
What Does It Taste Like. Mezcals tend to be smokier than tequilas. They are typically from smaller distilleries, and made using old-school methods. While the agave pinas are roasted in huge ovens for tequila, for mezcal the agave is cooked buried under earthen mounds over pits of hot rocks — giving the mezcals their distinctive smokiness. Like wine, Mezcals have a strong sense of terroir or place — each village or region has different nuances in distillation practices, water, and the actual plants. Some brands we tasted through: ManoNegra, Bruxo, Espiritu Lauro and Zacbe.
What the Joven? Like tequila, mezcals are identified by how long they have been aged. Joven mezcals are young, and clear like a silver or blanco tequila. Reposados are aged for two months, and Añejos age for a year or longer.
How To Drink It: Drink fine mezcals as you would a good peaty scotch. Straight, on the rocks or in a nuanced cocktail. Just don't shoot it — it's too good.