Billed in the London Metro as “tequila’s smokier little brother” and in the New York Times as “tequila’s brash, more rustic cousin,” mezcal has become the cool drink of choice for those in the know. When just a few years ago it was almost impossible to find this potent agave-based liquor outside of Mexico, it is now on the trendiest bar menus in London, New York and even as far afield as Wellington, New Zealand.
Liquid Hipster Gold
The spiritual home of mezcal is the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, until now better known for its food rather than its drink. Some locals are amused by the sudden popularity of the tipple that they would (and still do) buy from local producers, who decant the agave nectar into anything from plastic bottles to petrol canisters. Asking a local, what his favorite mezcal was (there are seemingly hundreds to chose from) he just laughed and said “I don’t know. When I started drinking mezcal, it was just mezcal”.
For those who would spend maybe $30 pesos (just over $2 USD) on a good size bottle of the spirit, the thought that there are now some that sell for $1,000 pesos ($75USD) or even $2,000 pesos ($150 USD) is almost absurd. Their earthy moonshine has become like gold.
Just a few years ago turning up at a party in Mexico, anywhere other than Oaxaca, with a bottle of mezcal was seen as a pretty “down-market” thing to do, but now all the hipsters in Mexico City are sipping on $100 peso shots, accompanied with oranges and worm salt (salt infused with chilli and agave worm) and stocking up on bottles in Oaxaca, when they visit the southern city. (Likewise, pulque – a viscous, milk-colored beverage brewed from fermented agave since the days of the Aztecs – is also enjoying a hipster revival in Mexico’s capital city.)
Know Your Mezcal
Mezcal, like other spirits, varies in quality and flavor depending on its age, distillation process and the type of agave used. Flavors vary from flowery and herby to earthy and smoky and there are numerous mezcalerias around Oaxaca, with experts and moreover, enthusiasts, willing to help train your palate to the subtleties of the drink.
Mezcal is widely known for being the drink that comes with a worm at the bottom of the bottle – the supposed prize for whoever takes the last swig. There are several explanations of how this practice began, one being that it proves the liquor’s strength, as a good mezcal should be at least 40 percent ABV, enough to preserve the worm. This practice, however, is less common in artisanal production nowadays, which focuses more on flavor than marketing gimmicks.
One of the most specialist mezcals is called Mezcal de Pechuga, which incorporates a chicken or turkey breast into the distillation process giving the spirit a unique flavor. The raw meat is skinned, washed (for many hours) and then hung by the ribcage over the mezcal. At the same time fruits and grains are also added to the mix. Steam cooks through the chicken and the result is a flavorsome mezcal that is often the most sought after and expensive on the menu.
The certification of mezcal in the 1990’s and the debunking of the myth that mezcal contains mescaline (a hallucinogenic drug) seem to have helped pave the way for entrepreneurs to see the potential in the drink. There have been suggestions that the popularity of mezcal is enticing migrant farmers back to Oaxaca, because there is profit to be made, especially when selling to the international market. However, it still remains to be seen if mezcal will have the stamina and longevity that tequila has enjoyed or if it will be trendy today and forgotten tomorrow.