Smoky Mezcal

Hot Time in Mexico City

TequilaHave you noticed ther’e been quite a buzz about a smoky liquor made from agave called Mezcal? It seems to become the darling child of the liquored up set.

I thought it was time I brought you a cocktail using this spirit. But what exactly is mezcal. It’s made with agave. So is it tequila? Well no and yes… So how do you decide and what exactly is the difference? Mezcal Tequila? Tequila Mezcal? Well let’s mix a cocktail and figure it out.

The drink for today’s lesson is called Hot Time in Mexico City. It’s a cocktail of my own invention. I’ve been sort of obsessed with Mexico City, though I’ve never been. Mexico City is foodie destination. Innovative chefs are making their mark with dishes that are both creative and distinctly Mexican. This Mezcal or Tequila jalapeño cocktail is both cool and hot. It reflects the spirit of that fashionable city very well. Or so I believe.

I know you know Tequila. I got to know Tequila a little too well one evening in Ensenada, Mexico about 1985. I swore it off after that. Sure I’d drink the occasional Margarita to be sociable. But even the smell of very good tequila gave me the shivers. You may also know that I recently finished writing a book called Savory Cocktails. You can’t write a book about savory cocktails and just sort of skip over the whole subject of tequila. You just can’t. So like an athlete I went on tequila training and am happy to report that my aversion to the spirit is long gone.

I have Mezcal to thank for that. Which brings me to the whole Tequila Mezcal, Mezcal Tequila, Tequila Mezcal question.

Tequila has a very particular taste that is very strongly mineral. Mezcal has that same minerality but it also has a rustic, smoky quality. Either would work in the cocktail I present today. But I prefer Mezcal for its long, smoky finish. Like Tequila, Mezcal is a 100% agave spirit that’s gathering quite a bit of notice among the culinary set. One reason is because there’s a lot of terroir in good Mezcal.

Terroir, despite its earthy implications, has become one of those words that can make me cringe. But I’ll have you know I’m officially on the Mezcal bandwagon. For good reason, too. Mezcal can be gorgeously complex and endlessly intriguing. Still, many folks are bewildered by this spirit despite its having been dubbed “The Next Big Thing in Booze”. Part of the confusion stems from the fact that not all Mezcal is Tequila– though all Tequila can be classified as Mezcal. Tequila is a form of Mezcal that by law can be produced only in designated areas of western Mexico.

So then what is Mezcal? And how is it different from Tequila? Despite it’s new found fame, in the broadest sense Mezcal is the pre-cursor to Tequila. It’s more rustic parent. Much the same as Rye is to Bourbon.

These days Tequila is mostly produced in large factories. There has been an homogenization of its flavor profile, meaning the quirks have been worked out in its production. Not that this is a necessarily a bad thing, there’s something to be said of a well-made, smoothly elegant Tequila.

But Mezcal is still mostly made by hand, by a far more humble process. So like good wine, the characteristics of its maker are more readily noticed. But unlike many wines, good Mezcal does not always rely on aging for it’s character. There are no hints of spice or vanilla that come from oak barrels. Instead a young (jovan) Mezcal gains its smoky backbone when the agave is roasted in palenques, or rock-lined pits prior to distilling.

Though not typical, some Mezcals are aged and become known as reposado. But I chose to use a young (jovan) blanco variety to show the raw essence of Mezcal. Mezcal Tequila? Tequila Mezcal? Have I helped any? GREG

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