Mezcal makes inroads in the US

Mezcal is known to many in the US as the smoky cousin of tequila, and the storied spirit is gaining a following among US consumers. Once the victim of a bad reputation caused by cheaply made versions that proliferated in the 1950s, mezcal is shaking off associations with harsh flavors and gimmicky bottles with a worm at the bottom. Made from agave, the same plant from which tequila is produced, mezcal is still produced by hand by families in the remote villages of Oaxaca, Mexico.

Magic in a bottle

While there are some producers that have taken a more industrialized approach to mezcal, small producers or mezcaleros use agave harvested by hand and roasted in the ground to create mezcals that are classified as artisanal or ancestral.

Miguel Lancha, who runs the cocktail program for Jose Andres’ ThinkFoodGroup, described mezcal as “earth, converted to a distilled magic.”

Lancha joined founder of Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal, Ron Cooper in a discussion and tasting hosted earlier this month in Washington, D.C., by Smithsonian Associates.

Describing the characteristic smoky flavor that mezcal gets from fire-roasting, which sets it apart from tequila’s cleaner flavor profile, Cooper said, “It’s like, for tequila you’re starting with a boiled onion, and for mezcal you’re starting with a roasted, caramelized onion."

Chefs pave the way for mezcal’s US popularity

When Cooper first started selling mezcal in the US, the market for it was very small. The average consumer’s knowledge of Mexican spirits started and ended with tequila, and most bartenders and restaurant managers weren’t willing to take a gamble on the smoky spirit.

Chefs, however, recognized mezcal’s complex flavor and played a big part in bringing it to prominence in the US.

“The people I started with are chefs. Because chefs have got great palates,” Cooper said. “You don’t have to tell a chef if something is good, they taste it or smell it and they know. So Mark Miller at Coyote Cafe was waiting for me in 1995 to bring in this mezcal. Rick Bayless in Chicago was waiting. Jose Andres knew immediately.”

Andres’ Washington, D.C., restaurant Oyamel offers almost 150 different mezcals -- a testament to how interest in the spirit has skyrocketed. For US consumers, the artisanal and ancestral varieties check several of the boxes they want in their foods and beverages -- small-batch, organic and authentic.

The rise in mezcal demand and production is also helping bring talented distillers back to Mexico as people who emigrated to the US return home to work at family distilleries.

“Del Maguey has brought back several sons...they are now master distillers working with their fathers,” Cooper said.

Rising interest in mezcal is also driving tourism to Mexico. Alvin Starkman gives guided tours to ”people making a pilgrimage to come to Oaxaca to learn about their new favorite drink, even though the history of mezcal goes back 450 years, if not to pre-Hispanic times,” he recently told NPR.

Respect for authenticity, with room for innovation

With its long history and strong ties to Mexico’s remote villages, small-batch mezcal is primarily produced using traditional methods, without added flavoring. Mezcal is typically bottled unaged or “blanco”, but the mezcaleros at Del Maguey “reserve the right to experiment,” Cooper said.

For example, Del Maguey broke with tradition by aging a batch in a cognac barrel, which was recently opened for a Bastille Day celebration.

One of the brand’s most successful bottlings was actually the product of such experimentation. Inspired by the tradition of hanging a chicken breast inside the still to create a variety of mezcal known as “pechuga,” an executive from ThinkFoodGroup suggested trying the method with Ibérico ham. The resulting spirit has a unique, complex flavor and won the title of Best New Product at Tales of the Cocktail’s 2014 Spirited Awards.

When it comes to cocktails, Cooper and Lancha believe that they shouldn’t be used as a vehicle to hide mezcal’s smoky flavor, but rather to highlight it.

Lancha said the mezcals that are often pitched to bars as “good for cocktails,” are of lesser quality, but, “we always want a spirit to be as good as possible.” Just as a perfect fruit or vegetable needs no cooking or seasoning but can still become part of a transcendent dish, so too can great mezcal be the backbone of an excellent cocktail.

“I’m not in favor of diluting mezcal in a cocktail to get people to consume it...but I love great cocktails,” said Cooper, who said one of his favorites is a mezcal Negroni made with mezcal in place of gin.

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