I’ve been doing a lot of research on mezcal lately. I’m not enrolled in any course, it’s just self-study. You can laugh, it’s ok, you wouldn’t be the only one.
I had a slow start. In Los Angeles I just ended up getting tequila drunk in Mexican dive bars downtown. I’m blaming my sister Lauren for that. Now that I’m in Mexico I’m having better luck finding mezcal and have succeeded in getting mezcal drunk. The drinking part comes pretty easily, but I still have a long way to go for the learning part. The following piece documents stage one of my research.
We’re at El Chavo, a tequila bar on Sunset Boulevard, and Lauren’s partner Jerome asks me why I’m so interested in mezcal. Mezcal fascinates me for the same reason that wine does. The different types of agave (over 150 different species are used to make mezcal in Mexico) are equivalent to the different grape varietals in wine. Each species of agave has its own character that contributes to the aroma, flavour, and feel of the mezcal. The regions of production in Mexico each have their own climate, terrain and soil types that influence the final product. There is the same tension between the industrial producers (major export tequila, tequila being mezcal made from blue agave), and the handcrafted traditional methods of production. Mezcal is tied to Mexican history and culture, both nationally and regionally. More than any other spirit, people talk about terroir in mezcal the same way that winegeeks talk about terroir in wine.
More than any other spirit, people talk about terroir in mezcal the same way that winegeeks talk about terroir in wine.
We briefly discuss the similar way that people talk about whisky, but then decide that we’re totally over it. “Drank it all the time in grad school with the girl crew while telling our deepest darkest secrets.” It’s time to move on.
“What is it about it that makes people crazy?” Jerome asks. When Lauren and Jerome got back together after a break-up there was a bottle of mezcal involved. Shortly after that incident they moved together from the east coast to Los Angeles and have lived there happily since. “I dunno,” I say, “but I think it might be important for you guys to find out.” Lauren claims that after drinking mezcal she has elaborate dreams and no hangovers. “Never thought I would find a booze that was so wonderful.” I agree.
La diferencia entre una noche de copas y una noche loca es el respeto que le tengas al mezcal. – Nacion Mezcal
According to Nacion Mezcal, the difference between a night of drinking and a wild night is the respect that you have for the spirit. They remind us that agaves take up to eighteen years for maturation, harvest and conversion into the elixir of the gods. Consumption is like kissing. It’s tempting to forget everything in the heat of the moment, but we need to respect our love and not ask all of mezcal in just one night.1)https://nacionmezcal.com.mx/2015/12/16/los-10-puntos-basicos-del-que-debes-saber-mezcal/
It’s hard to find a bar in LA that has an extensive list of mezcals. If they have one on offer it is usually an Espadín, which I learn is an agave that produces a mild version of the spirit ideal for mixing. In Los Angeles the bartenders seem more interested in mezcal as an addition to cocktails rather than mezcal in and of itself.
We read on the internet that Las Perlas, a cocktail bar downtown, does mezcal flights. When we get to the bar we find out that they no longer do tastings. That’s what we get for reading an article that was written five years ago. There are no flights, but they still have a legit cocktail list. As usual Jerome picks the best one, the Poblano Escobar. Vida Mezcal, pineapple, poblano, cumin, fresh lime juice, and agave. The smokiness of the mezcal perfectly balances the sweetness of pineapple and the savoury spice of the poblano. I have a Oaxacan Negroni, subbing mezcal for gin in honour of negroni week.
It’s near impossible to read a description of mezcal without a mention of it being smoky, and that smokiness is the first thing that stands out when you drink it. I read that the key to tasting mezcal is to go beyond using smoky as a descriptor and pay attention to the subtler flavours. However, cocktails mask the subtler flavours in the spirit and the types of mezcals used for cocktails are generally the less complicated varieties.
If you drink too much mezcal, they don’t say you are drunk; they say you are closer to god.2)http://mezcalphd.com/category/my-favorite-mezcal-sayings/
After a few rounds Lauren and I take a recommendation from the bartender for another place nearby. We enter the bar through an empty dance floor lit up like a 90s era roller skating rink. At first we are disappointed by the menu because it lacks mezcal, but then we find out that they have two for one margaritas. The walls of the back patio are decked out in multi-coloured strings of fairy lights and topped with concertina wire. Downtown skyscrapers tower above the barbed wire, surrounding the patio and reminding me that I am still in LA and not yet in Mexico. My last memory of that place is listening to heavy metal music while watching an infomercial about a knee brace on the TV screen above the bar.
One month later. I’ve finally made it to Mexico, passed my dive instructor examination (the main reason I’m here), and I’m ready for a holiday. Dive instructors live and work on the beach – your dream vacation is our daily grind. So where do we go to get away? To a city. To museums and art galleries and architecture more complicated than thatched beach umbrellas. In the Yucatán, we go to Mérida. Mérida is a city that feels lived in. Unlike the hellholes of the Mayan Riviera (ahem, Cancún), the tourists here take a back seat to the locals. Around every corner you find cafes that take over the street, bars with live music, and public plazas full of food carts and musicians. Instead of drunken tourists sporting ‘I’m in Cancun Bitch’ t-shirts; you’ll find families, couples on dates, and groups of friends out for a laugh.
Para todo mal, mezcal. Para todo bien, también. Y si no hay remedio, litro y medio. – Mexican proverb3)For all that’s good, mezcal, and all that’s bad too. If it still doesn’t help, drink a litre and a half.
I also find my first Mezcalería. La Fundación has flights on offer, but although we order a few the place is far too busy to engage the bartenders in conversation. I still feel a sense of accomplishment that I’m drunk on many different agaves this time instead of just the blue agave of tequila.
La Negrita Cantina shares owners with La Fundación, and is described by the Yucatán Times as ‘Cantina Lite.’ This is not the cantina experience that will make you feel like you’re in a Robert Rodriguez film. However, this is the cantina that you go to if you want an extensive mezcal list, endless botanas (bar snacks that appear with each round of drinks), wicked live music, and a friendly crowd of locals that you actually want to get to know. It’s got all of the classic cantina details like swing doors, a maze of indoor rooms and a beautiful garden bar. It’s the sort of place that seems ten times bigger on the inside than the outside. How do they fit it all in?
The botanas keep coming all afternoon. This isn’t just chips and guacamole. They bring us Sikil Pa’k (Mayan pumpkin seed dip), cucumbers in lime and chilli, crunchy fresh jicama, spicy beetroot marinated in lime and cilantro, chaya cornmeal cakes with mexican salsa, chorizo and potatoes, and the list goes on….
The botanas are a necessity at this point, because the mezcal keeps coming all afternoon too. This is my first opportunity to try different mezcals and actually take note of what I’m experiencing. I’m a total novice, but I’m already excited by how much variation there is in aroma and flavour between the different types of agave.
Some were very subtle, like Nuestra Soledad’s Espadín which was savoury and a bit nutty. At the other end of the spectrum, and by the same company, El Jolgorio’s Tepeztate was totally in your face intense. This one really stood out to me. Super earthy, woody, herbal, but with a bit of dark fruit sweetness; I thoroughly enjoyed it but I have a feeling I wouldn’t last long if I tried to spend all night drinking it.
Most were somewhere in the middle of the intensity spectrum. Indocumentado’s Cuixe was softer with flavours of agave syrup, and white fruit (pear, apple, jicama). Super fresh. I found Cuish’s Arroqueño to be honeyed with a bit of jalapeño spice. Zacbe’s Cinal Karwinsky was citrusy with floral and pepper notes. I would happily drink any of these again.
I’m looking forward to the opportunity to taste more mezcal and to compare my tasting notes to people with more experience than me. I still have so much to learn about this spirit. I guess I better keep drinking it.
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|3.||↑||For all that’s good, mezcal, and all that’s bad too. If it still doesn’t help, drink a litre and a half.|