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Price is an issue, but with mezcal, the economy of scale that governs tequila is absent. Tiny lots of an essentially handmade spirit are costly.

The world of mezcal evolves and grows

Jan 31, 2020 5:50 AM

jLOOKING back at the last time the spirits panel tasted mezcal, I was shocked to realise that almost a decade had passed. The flavours and the sense of discovery we experienced still seemed so fresh.

Yet so much has changed since that tasting in 2010. Back then, mezcal was described as "the next big thing". It finally arrived, and with such an impact that the trend authorities over at New York magazine recently deemed it passé, at least as a cocktail ingredient.

From the consumer's view, the world of mezcal in 2020 is radically different from that of 10 years ago. Del Maguey, which 25 years ago pioneered the discovery and marketing in the United States of small-production, geographically specific bottles, is still going strong, though its visionary founder, Ron Cooper, sold a controlling interest in the brand to the beverage giant Pernod Ricard in 2017.

Rather than packaging his discoveries as a luxury brand or with celebrity tie-ins in the fashion of tequila, mezcal's agave cousin, Mr Cooper emphasised the cultural significance of mezcal, highlighting its ability - through traditional, laborious methods of production - to transmit the character of a place and a people.

But where 10 years ago, Del Maguey alone seemed to be shining a light on the enormous potential and complexity of mezcal, now more than a few entrepreneurs, no doubt inspired by Mr Cooper's example, have entered the artisanal mezcal business.

While "artisanal" has become a marketing buzzword, it seems to mean something more with mezcal. Entrepreneurs with dollar signs in their eyes have got into the act, no surprise, but the best and most interesting bottles are still the most rustic and distinctive, rather than the most polished.

In my own experience, the best mezcal I've ever had was a treat in a restaurant where I happened to know the chef. Her Oaxacan sous-chef had brought back a couple of bottles made by his uncle. No brand, no labels, just handmade for home consumption, and absolutely wonderful.

Nowadays, dozens of small-production bottles are available, each highlighting the styles of small mezcaleros, or mezcal makers, local production techniques and the various sorts of agaves that are permitted to be used in mezcal production.

Unlike tequila, which can be produced only from the blue agave in the state of Jalisco and a few surrounding areas, mezcal can legally be made in 10 Mexican states with any sort of agave.

Practically speaking, though, most mezcal comes from Oaxaca, and most of the time it's made from the espadín agave. Yet it's not rare to find mezcals made of other sorts of agaves with names like barril, jabalí, cuishe, tepeztate and tobalá.

While some bigger mezcal brands exist, most are still small-scale, with tiny outputs. Tequila production is largely industrialised, at least for the brands available in the United States, but mezcal is still the equivalent of homespun.

To get a sense of the evolved world of mezcal today, the spirits panel recently tasted 20 bottles. For the tasting, Florence Fabricant of The New York Times and I were joined by two drinks writers and historians, David Wondrich and Robert Simonson.

Mezcal, like tequila, often comes with an age statement: joven, or young; reposado, which is aged in oak for up to a year, and añejo, which is aged one to three years. I love the purity of agave spirits undistorted by oak, so for this tasting we stuck to joven.

As usual, we bought all the bottles retail, and we capped the selections at US$100 a bottle, which ruled out quite a few. Price is an issue, but with mezcal, the economy of scale that governs tequila is absent. Tiny lots of an essentially handmade spirit are costly.

Even without the most expensive choices, we all marvelled at the high level of quality in the tasting. We were floored by the wide variety of flavours, complex and strange in the best possible way.

In the past I had come to think of smokiness as the defining feature of mezcal. In this tasting, smokiness, which comes from roasting the agaves in rock-lined pits before fermentation, was just one of many components.

We found aromas and flavours of herbs, vegetables, jalapeños, flowers and a lot more, often in combinations that seemed to vary widely from bottle to bottle. "It's quite a chameleon of a spirit," Mr Simonson said.

What accounts for such variety? Partly, it's a reflection of the diversity of raw materials. Agaves take a long time to grow, and can vary in age. Some are harvested after five years, others after many more.

It's also a function of production techniques - copper pot stills are most common, for example, but some mezcaleros still use clay stills.

Local traditions differ as well. Sometimes mezcals are redistilled with grains or nuts to add flavour. One famous and expensive style, mezcal de pechuga, is produced by suspending a raw chicken breast inside the still, which is said to add richness and complexity to the spirit. The variables seem endless.

It's often said by mezcal enthusiasts that the spirit needs to be at least 45 per cent alcohol to show its true character. Perhaps that's true. Seven bottles in our tasting had alcohol levels under 45 per cent, and only two of those made our top 10.

Our top bottle was the Rezpiral Abel Martínez Series Four, named after the mezcalero who produced it. It was briny, deep and complex with a pronounced saline quality.

No. 2 was the subtle, complex, lightly smoky Agave de Cortés Espadín, the sort of spirit in which you seem to taste something different with every sip. By contrast, the No. 3 Sombra, one of the few brands that was also in our 2010 tasting, was rich, deep and assertive, though not as complex. At US$35, it was also our best value.

I recognise that many of these mezcals may be difficult to find. They are almost all small-production, "the ultimate craft spirits", Mr Wondrich said. Scaling up mezcal as if it were tequila would diminish it.

The good news is that even if you cannot find the precise bottles that we tasted, many of these brands offer a variety of different bottlings, made by other mezcaleros in different villages using their own techniques and sometimes other sorts of agaves.

They are all worth trying. No doubt, you will find favourites that we did not taste. With mezcal circa 2020, discovery is part of the thrill. NYTIMES