Mezcal 101

What you need to know about the smokey “new” spirit on the block.

Mezcal is having a moment, and for good reason. Typically smokey and full of nuanced flavor, the Mexican spirit has a long history and is still made with traditional production processes. So how exactly does it differ from tequila, and what should you serve it with at a party? We asked Misty Kalkofen of Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal to share her expert advice on the hot topic. These five main points cover the basics before you taste your way to your favorite flavor.

No one really knows when Mezcal was first made. “We do know that the agave plant has been central to the people of Meso America for thousands of years. We know that the Aztecs drank a fermented agave beverage, but it may date to even earlier. Many believe that the Spanish brought distillation to Mexico, however many distillers in Mexico are using styles of stills that originated in Japan and the Philippines. So the possibility exists that distillation was happening in Mexico before the Spanish arrival. We just need the archeological proof.”

Making mezcal is truly an art form. “The basic process begins by roasting agave hearts in an underground oven for up to 30 days, then crushing the hearts with a horse-drawn stone mill or by hand with heavy wooden bats. Once crushed, the agave fibers and juices are placed into wooden fermentation tanks with a small amount of the local water. Once fermentation is completed, the fibers and juices are distilled twice in small stills. Although all producers use a similar process, each family follows their own style and tradition, making each mezcal truly distinct.”

There are a few major differences between tequila and mezcal.
1. Like champagne or cognac, tequila and mezcal are each associated with a denomination of origin. The DO delineates where these products can be made.
2. Tequila can be made from only one type of agave, Tequilana Weber Azul. Mezcal, however, can be made from approximately thirty different types of agave, which results in a much larger variety of textures and flavors.
3. Broadly, mezcal is made in a much more traditional manner than tequila, which has become more industrialized over time.”

Set aside a night for tasting research. “I always encourage novice mezcal drinkers to find the best agave-focused bar or restaurant program in their city and order a flight. The flavors of Mezcal can range from dark and earthy flavors that are reminiscent of a single malt scotch or bright, citrusy, herbal and floral like a well-made gin.”

The perfect pairing to serve with mezcal? Chocolate and coffee. “The old saying of ‘what grows together, goes together,’ and Oaxaca is definitely known for chocolate and coffee. If you are considering trying your hand at a cocktail, consider the fruits and spices that would be prevalent in a Oaxacan market such as pineapples, prickly pear, guava, passionfruit, mango, papaya, coconut and all types of chiles.”

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