During a recent dinner at new downtown Mexican restaurant Chile-Tepin (see p. 26), a wine-expert buddy and I were discussing mezcal. Specifically, we were discussing the lack of it in Utah. Whereas the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control lists 128 tequila selections on their website (ABC.Utah.gov), there are exactly four mezcals listed, one of which has been discontinued.
Perhaps that's because nobody at the DABC really knows anything about mezcal. They're too busy selling Fireball Cinnamon Whisky and Jagermeister. I was told by an insider that one DABC taster said mezcal "tastes like Band-Aids." So it seems that some people—including those who decide what Utahns get to drink—just don't like it. Does that mean that none of us should be able to buy it?
Mezcal is easily misunderstood. First, there's the bit about the worm. Some varieties contain a worm at the bottom of the bottle, or affixed in a small pouch to the bottle's neck. But that is the outgrowth of a Mexican marketing strategy, not tradition. Second, mezcal—which some folks seem to mistake for mescaline—does not have any hallucinatory or psychotropic properties as many of you might have been told. Sorry. It can mess you up, however.
Like tequila, mezcal is made from a form of agave cactus, the maguey plant. The name originates from the Nahuatl term for "oven-cooked agave." Its alcohol content is like tequila's—about 40 percent (80 proof). What makes mezcal distinctly different from tequila is its rich, smoky flavor, which is attributed to the way mezcal is made: roasting the heart (piña) of the maguey over hot rocks in stone-lined pits. During the baking process, the sugars begin to caramelize, which lends a sweet flavor that helps to balance out the smokiness.
Having previously only tasted the ubiquitous, but inferior, Monte Albán mezcal—the one that's been discontinued in our state—I was shocked when an anthropologist friend of mine brought me to a mezcalería in Oaxaca years ago. I was shocked because there were so many different mezcals to try, and so many good ones. As mentioned, I'd only previously tasted bad mezcal.
At its best, it can be sipped like cognac or brandy from a snifter. Seriously. When buying it, look for bottles labeled as 100 percent agave. Lesser quality mezcal, called mixto, only has to contain 80 percent. And, although it's not the most versatile "mixer" on the bar rack, I've had some excellent cocktails made with it, particularly at HSL, where master mixologist Scott Gardner (now at his own Water Witch bar) crafted amazing mezcal drinks.
Although there are only three available in the Beehive, they are good ones. These are ones you want to sip and savor, not pound down as shots. In order of price, they are: Wahaka Mezcal Joven Espadín ($31.99), Mina Real Mezcal Reposado ($39.99) and Los Amantes Mezcal Añejo ($79.95).
Wahaka has a distinctly surreal bottle label, and is unaged (jóven). It tastes somewhat similar to a tequila blanco, but has fruity flavors followed by black pepper and smoke. It's a very smooth-drinking mezcal, and one I'd prefer for mixing. You can give it a try at places like Pallet, Copper Onion, HSL, Bar X, Under Current and The Ruin.
The Mina Real sold here is reposado (aged 2-11 months) and exhibits subtle floral qualities. It's less smoky than many mezcals, hence lighter on the palate—a very nice sipper.
Los Amantes is an añejo (aged) variety that is kept in French and American oak for two years. It's big-bodied, with woody scents combined with vanilla and caramel. Sip it with a cigar in hand.