Last October, I made a pact with two of my friends that we would take a trip to Mexico to explore the world of mezcal. (Of course this was made after a few flights of the very traditional, very Mexican spirit.) I’m proud to say we realized our drunken plans last month: I spent two very exciting weeks in Mexico City and Oaxaca. Needless to say, we drank a lot of mezcal.
To many, mezcal is some weird, smoky, worm-containing cousin of tequila. But in fact, tequila is a specific type of mezcal. There are many different types of maguey (or agave) that grow all over Mexico. A specific one is grown in Jalisco and turned into tequila. The other 25 or so varieties of maguey are also fermented and distilled, but called ‘mezcal’. Because Mexico contains many different climates, regions, and varieties of maguey, mezcals greatly vary in nose, body, and taste. From dive bars to high-end restaurants, mezcal is always sipped at room temperature and accompanied by slices of orange, dusted with a powder of chile and roasted larva (it’s delicious).
However, the best part of our trip was visiting mescal distilleries (palenques) an hour outside Oaxaca City. It felt like Sonoma or Napa—off-the-road palenques freckle the major roads. You drive up, explore the fabrica, and sample at the tasting room. We saw horses pulling huge stones to crush the magueys, the earthen ovens where the hearts (piñas) are roasted, the huge barrels where the maguey ferments (naturally—they don’t add any yeast), and the copper pots where the wine of maguey (pulque) is distilled into mezcal.
The best part was going to a remote pueblo where the citizens don’t speak Spanish, but instead still speak the indigenous language. We met a woman who is called “the mother of mezcal”. Common in Oaxaca City, restaurants buy mezcal from distilleries and bottle it as their own brand. Quite a few high-end restaurants source mezcal from this particular woman. She and her four lovely daughters toured us around her facility and fed us tortillas made with agave syrup. After tasting a few of “the mother’s” mezcals, we quickly realized why she earned such a title. Each was incredible—some rich and smokey, some smooth and light. I admit we bought quite a lot from her to bring back, but most was gone by the time we returned to the US.
Mezcal is quickly gaining popularity here in the United States. Quite a few new palenques are appearing in Mexico, and these fabricas are much like those of tequila. They’re ignoring their domestic audience and have plans to solely sell to the US. (It’s amazing how many very familiar brands of tequila we didn’t see in Mexic; mezcal may have the same fate.) However, mezcal is still a Mexican spirit. We enjoyed mezcal is all forms—sipping it on its own, enjoying delicious and well-balanced mezcal cocktails, and even pounding some mezcal frappes on a very hot afternoon (alright, maybe a few hot afternoons).
Here at Bi-Rite, we carry two types of mezcal. Del Maguey is a company that imports mostly single-origin mezcals from pueblos in Mexico. We stock their Chichicapa ($72.99/750ml), from a pueblo two hours south of Oaxaca City. It’s light and has a nice minty smokiness on the nose with a long finish. We also carry the “Vida” ($39.99/750ml). This blend is a little heavier, with notes of sandalwood, citrus, and smoke. Matthew Fleeger, husband of our very own Marika from the deli, is an incredible bartender. He has concocted a perfect summer cocktail with mezcal. The drink also serves as a great introduction for those who have yet to try Mexico’s finest spirit.
The Mexican Shandy
1 ½ oz. Del Maguey Vida
1oz. freshly squeezed lime juice
¼ oz. agave nectar
Blue Star beer
Pinch of salt
Rosemary (for garnish)
Combine ingredients over ice, shake, and strain into a 12 oz. Collins glass. Top the glass with Blue Star and stir. Garnish with rosemary.