This weekend, drinkers will have a choice. Not just whether or not to wear a sombrero to the bar, but also what to drink there. If you are still scarred by lingering flashbulb memories of a night fueled by too much tequila, maybe it is time for a new spirit of choice. Allow us to introduce you to mezcal - tequila’s smoky cousin. For a long time, mezcal was an umbrella term used in the tequila industry to describe all agave-based spirits distilled in Mexico. No longer, thanks to recent government regulations put into action a recently as 2010, Mexican spirits are classified by origin into distinct categories.
We sat down with Red Door’s head bartender Jay Schroeder to translate the legal mumbo-jumbo into bar-speak. “Now there is a legal definition that says tequila is tequila and mezcal is mezcal,” Schroeder said. Although not limited to these regions, typically mezcal is made in Oaxaca, sotol comes from Chihuahua and Jalisco produces tequila. Mezcal must me made from 100 percent agave, bottled in Mexico and labeled with joven (young), reposado (aged less than one year) or anejo (aged longer than one year). The same aging system is used for tequila.
The main tasting note of mezcal is smoke. It has less of a kick than tequila because of an earthy almost mineral-like quality. Schroeder said, even though they are both in the agave family, making cocktails with mezcal is very different than making cocktails with tequila. “It’s not due to the smoke element, that’s one part of it. But because of the rustic way that mezcal is made, cut and distilled, you are dealing with a richer, more oily, flavorful, fatty spirit,” he said. “You are almost introducing a texture element when you play with mezcal.”
Mezcal, like tequila, works well with citrus. But because of the bold flavor, it needs equally powerful flavors to compete. It can be used in shaken cocktails with lemon, lime or grapefruit or in stirred cocktails with Italian amaro and baking spices. We found ten bartenders to show us their favorite applications of the smoky spirit.