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The beginner's guide to mezcal

Smoky and punchy, this small-batch Mexican spirit is catching on in a big way across the globe.

Some 26 of Mexico’s 32 states produce spirits from agave. Mezcal is one of them and comes from the Nahuatl mexcalli word, meaning 'oven-cooked agave'.

Photograph by GETTY Images
Published 30 Dec 2021, 06:08 GMT

What is it?

Mezcal technically refers to any spirit made from agave — meaning all tequilas are mezcal, but not all mezcals are tequila. However, over time the name has come to refer more specifically to a distinct spirit that differs from tequila in certain key aspects. For example, while most tequila is produced industrially, mezcal is a fundamentally artisanal affair, made in small batches according to traditional methods. The surge in the spirit’s popularity has led to concerns that producers may struggle to meet the rising global demand.

How is it made?

The production of mezcal isn’t nearly as strictly regulated as it is for tequila — a reflection, perhaps, of the drink’s roots as a working-class moonshine. To get Appellation of Origin status, it must be produced in Mexico from any of around 40 types of agave (unlike tequila, which is made exclusively from blue agave), and flavourings can be freely used.

To make it, the piñas, or hearts, of the agave are cooked in pits in the ground for around three days. These are then crushed into a mash (often using a stone wheel turned by horse) that’s left to ferment, with the resulting liquid then distilled in clay pots. Mezcal that’s intended to be drunk immediately (‘joven’) is bottled at this stage, with the rest left to age in barrels, sometimes for up to 12 years.

How should I drink it?

The best way to acquire the taste is in cocktails, swapping the tequila in a margarita or the gin in a negroni for an entry-level bottle of El Recuerdo de Oaxaca Mezcal. Once you’ve become used to it, sip on an affordable aged mezcal such as Zignum Reposado, which eschews the ubiquitous smoke for something smoother and more approachable. Then, when you’re ready to invest, Corte Vetusto Tobalá is a remarkably smooth joven made from prized tobala agave, with complex herbal and honied notes. 

If you’re keen to learn more about mezcals, Sin Gusano is a pop-up bar in the UK that offers tastings and events that promote awareness of the drink, including its heritage and traditions. You can also join their Agave subscription club to gain exclusive discounts, stories from the makers and updates on their sustainable programme.

Photograph by Sin Gusano

Three places to drink mezcal

1. Sin Gusano, UK
This pop-up bar roams the country offering tastings and events that promote awareness of mezcal, including its heritage and traditions.

2. La Clandestina, Mexico City 
With more than 20 different varieties and knowledgable bar staff, this cosy bar with candlelit tables is the perfect place to develop a passion for mezcal.

3. Espita, Washington DC
Offering a changing selection of over 100 iconic and rare mezcals, this Mexican restaurant prizes the artisanal nature of the spirit above all else.

Cocktail recipe: fire and brimstone

2 slices red jalapeño, deseeded and chopped
45ml mezcal
15ml triple sec
20ml lemon juice, plus lemon zest, to garnish
7.5ml agave syrup
2 dashes of orange bitters

Muddle the jalapeño in a shaker. Add the remaining ingredients, shake with ice and fine-strain into an ice-filled rocks glass. Garnish with a lemon zest twist.

Published in Issue 14 (winter 2021) of National Geographic Traveller Food (UK)

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