I first published this post in 2012. At the time, mezcal was little known. And while the battle for recognition is still uphill, mezcal is far more popular today than it was back then. Since 2012, mezcal sales are up almost four times, and the vast majority of bars, restaurants and liquor stores, carry at least one brand.
I still spend a lot of time spreading the gospel of mezcal, and more times than not, the conversation begins with the comparison of mezcal to tequila. I use it as an opener at cocktail parties. I just walk up to a random person and ask them “Do you know what the difference is between tequila and mezcal?” They usually turn and walk away. OK, maybe that is not the way it goes down, but it could happen that way!
But this question usually is the starting point when people are curious about mezcal. In many ways, mezcal can best be understood by simply tasting it next to tequila. What will you find? Most notably, you will find mezcal to be smoky by comparison. Intense and smoky like a campfire to some, or subtle and gentle to others. The person who finds the smoke to be light is usually a scotch, bourbon or whiskey drinker, and is used to bold spirits. If you find mezcal to be intensely smoky, there is a good chance you are not accustomed to drinking spirits neat.
This post gives you the basics, but if you really want to understand and appreciate what separates mezcal from tequila, you need to read my book Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! (shameless self-promotion perhaps, but hey, the blog is free so this is my form of selling ad space!). The book is available on Amazon. Notice the cool cover shot to the right. Buy a copy – I promise you won’t be disappointed! Now back to our regularly scheduled program…
I believe that for most people tequila leads to mezcal (even though all tequilas are mezcals, but we will come back to that). Tequila leads to mezcal because for most of us, it started with tequila. We traveled down a path that likely started with bad tequila, bad experiences, and bad results the next morning. Then we slowly found our way back to the good 100% agave tequilas that started showing up in the 90’s. And maybe we enjoyed the extra anejos that move tequila toward cognac. And then, what? What else is out there? Ahhh mezcal….I’ve heard about that. The rise of the extra anejos coincided with the arrival of fine mezcals and then they started to appear on the shelves at your local liquor store and on the cocktails menus of your favorite gin joints. So tequila brought us to this point and now mezcal joins the discussion…. (more…)
I definitely have not posted many cocktail recipes to the blog. This is a personal failing as I have learned over the years mezcal cocktails are a fantastic way to introduce people to the wonderful world of mezcal. And as I am all about spreading the gospel and mezcal education, I should be more proactive about relaying amazing cocktails. While I’d like to think this will be a new trend, the reality is that it probably will not be! But know my heart is in the right place….
So with that, I bring you an amazing mezcal cocktail which I discovered this summer at Matsuhisa in Vail, CO. Well, it was actually on the cocktail menu made with Hendrick’s Gin. But after chatting with Andreas Harl, the Beverage Director, I ordered it with Ilegal Mezcal instead of Hendrick’s. Andreas, who I have known a number of years, is not a huge mezcal fan, but he does have a particular affection for Ilegal, and it is the only mezcal he carries. Good choice.
Andreas gave me this recipe and I’ve been making it ever since. Everyone I know who has tried it is simply floored. It is that good. I had a friend over a few weeks ago, who is quite adept on the NYC cocktail scene, and he declared it the best cocktail he’d ever had! So here it is, and Andreas informs me that his colleague Jeff Woods is the original architect of this masterpiece (albeit with gin!). Cheers, Jeff.
Start by making this puree:
60 grams cilantro (basically one bunch but you should weigh it)
25 grams peeled ginger
12 grams serrano pepper
25 ounces simple syrup (half sugar, half water)
Put this all in a blender and fire it up to puree consistency. Then strain it with a fine strainer. I know this sounds like a lot of effort, and you’re right. But this makes a lot of syrup and you can freeze it and use it for months. Once you have the puree, the cocktail is super simple.
2 oz Ilegal Joven
1 oz fresh limejuice
1 oz puree
Put it in a shaker and serve it straight up in a coupe or martini glass.
There you have it. Suck it up and take the time to make the puree. It will be the gift that keeps on giving for months as you work through 30 ounces of this special puree. And as always, drink mezcal!
If you are a long time reader of my blog, you are likely aware that I have great respect for the El Jolgorio brand, the family behind it, and how highly they value the tradition and culture of mezcal. The face of the brand is Asis Cortes, and he is well known in mezcal circles for his knowledge, passion and spiritual-like belief in the wonders of mezcal.
Over the past few years, Asis has become a good friend. But I am not writing this post in any way, shape, or form just because he is a friend, or because he asked to me to put something up – he would never do that if you know him. I am writing this because there is a super cool story behind the creation of Origin Raiz Mezcal, and I am seriously floored by how good it is!
The story starts with Bildo Saravia. He is from a Mexican farming and ranching family from Durango. In his twenties, wanderlust and love led him to Sydney. OK, it was probably just the love part – isn’t it always? Once there, and being a mezcal lover, Bildo decided to open a Mexican restaurant, Mr. Moustache. Somehow he got his hands on El Jolgorio, started carrying it at his bar, and fell deeply in love with it (see, it’s not just me). He met the Cortes family, they hit it off, and became the distributor for them in Australia. After a few years, Bildo’s personal situation changed, and he decided to move back home to the mountainous and forested state of Durango, where his family has a sizable cattle ranch.
So here is Bildo, mezcal lover extraordinaire, living in a state that is in the mezcal denomination of origin, on the family ranch, surrounded by land and a lot of agave cenizo. What would you do? What would I do? Well, I am trying to figure out how to make mezcal in Tribeca, so I know what I’d do! But what did Bildo do? He decided to pursue a career in accounting! OK, maybe not. No. Bildo, got in touch with Asis Cortes from El Jolgorio.
Bildo loved mezcal but did not know how to produce it, but he did know people who produced some of the best – the Cortes family. He proposed a partnership. I bring the land and agave and you bring the mezcal expertise. Asis was intrigued, so he, his father and Master Mezcalero Valentine, and fellow Master Mezcalero Rolando (Asis’ uncle), made the trip up to Durango (two flights and 800+ miles).
As the Cortes family surveyed the land, soil, and prolific agaves, things seemed promising. While Durango has more than a dozen agave varietals in the state, cenizo is the dominant agave, and virtually all the agave on Bildo’s family ranch is cenizo. While the Cortes family had never used cenizo to produce mezcal, they believed it could produce an excellent mezcal. The next day Bildo took them on a tour of a few other palenques in the region, and they began sampling other producers’ cenizo mezcals.
As they tasted mezcals from these other producers, the Cortes family was discouraged. They were not impressed, and in fact, far from it. These were not good mezcals. They were not industrial, and they were being made with traditional methods, but they were just not high quality mezcals. But as they began to look closer, and examine the production methodologies these producers were using, they saw techniques and distillation set-ups which seemed less than optimal. For example, they saw the hearts of the agave placed directly on the fire, stills with vapor collection systems 40 feet away from the stills, and fires that were burning too hot beneath the stills, among other things. After thinking through it all, they became convinced these cenizos, with their rich soil, could produce a great mezcal if produced in a thoughtful way. And so the partnership was on!
Team Cortes brought materials and supervised the construction of the entire palenque: the roasting pit (horno), the tahona (grinding mill), the fermentation vats and the stills. And if you are wondering how much cenizo the Sarvia family ranch has, they did a survey. They found they have about 1 million kilos of cenizo plants on the property, all wild of course. 1 million. Wow. While it takes cenizo 12-14 years to mature, they still have pretty much more agave than they can ever use. And even with all that agave, they already have a forestation plan in place. And they have also begun working with sotol, which is plentiful on the property, and they are planning to use other agaves which grow wild in Durango.
So it is a cool to see how it all came together – I hope you agree! But how does it taste? Amazing. It is not often I taste a new mezcal and say “Wow”, but I did this time. They had generously offered to send me a sample, but I heard is was available at Astor Wines in NYC so I just went and bought it. My mezcal-y instincts told me anything the Cortes family was involved with was worth my investment – about $80 in this case. It was a good decision.
Origen Mezcal is rich with tropical fruits (think bananas, mangos, oranges) and roasted agave with gentle smoke and a finish that lingers wonderfully. It also has a great mouth feel with medium viscosity. Man, I am telling you, this is really excellent.
So try to find Origen Raiz, which by the way translates to “Original Roots”. They are just rolling it out, and the only retail store I am aware of that has it is Astro Wines in NYC. But I am sure it will be more widely distributed soon enough. Go find it and always remember to DRINK MEZCAL!
I am excited to have just released the new and improved version of my book: Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! The Revised 2nd Edition. I think it is bigger, better, and more in-depth than the 1st edition. In fact, I would venture to say that it goes far deeper than any other mezcal book. It’s 272 pages versus the 1st Edition of Holy Smoke! at 204 pages! This baby is fat. There are other good books on mezcal these days, but I bet you will find Holy Smoke! to be substantially different, wholly entertaining, and uniquely insightful (plus I think a few of the others have borrowed my content without proper citation, but that is for another day).
Just because my book goes deeper, does not mean it is better. Some people may want a fast read that covers the basics. Me? You know I want to know as much as possible about mezcal, which is why I go to Oaxaca regularly, observe, listen, research, and ask a ton of questions. I always marvel at how much I don’t know! And with each new edition of Holy Smoke! I want to bring you with me – to Oaxaca, the palenques, the agave fields. I want to take you inside the minds of the mezcaleros and their nuanced production techniques, and then bring it all back to what’s in your glass. If that’s what you want, then my new book is for you.
Here is what a few people in the industry have said:
I am honored and humbled that these deeply passionate brand owners value my efforts. Bringing you the 2nd edition of Holy Smoke! has been a labor of love for me – it took me all of 2017 to bring it together. So with great pride I now release it.
The full color version is expensive and I want you to understand why. It kills me because I want it to be accessible and price competitive to other mezcal books. As I have come to learn, it is very expensive to self-publish a full color book. Why? Because self-publishing platforms (I use CreateSpace) do not do large print runs of 5,000 or 10,000 books – they print-on-demand (POD). That means the physical manifestation of the book does not exist until you order it on Amazon. And the price differential between POD and large print runs is substantial.
If I had wanted to use a publisher for Holy Smoke!, I would have had to submit many proposals across many publishing companies in the hope that they would accept me. And that is just the start of the lengthy process. So I chose to go my own route, at my own pace, and that means self-publishing. I chose CreateSpace, owned by Amazon, because after much research, they are the cheapest and also seamlessly integrated into Amazon. But the tradeoff is that the retail price, dictated by CreateSpace, is not a bargain for a full color book.
What I am doing to bring down the price? Well, there is nothing I can do for the full color version other than take a tiny royalty – $1 a book. But I have also published a black and white version of Holy Smoke!at about half the price! I thought the black and white pictures would diminish the experience for the reader, but happily I am wrong. I was thrilled (and surprised) when I received the black and white proof copy of the book. It looks great! Of course, we all may prefer color pictures, but this is as close to a zero compromise as you can get. I am psyched because I love the black and white version and I can sell it for $17! At that price, I am practically paying you to take it.
Whichever version you buy, I am confident you will love Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! The Revised 2nd Edition! The entire book has been updated with new content, new stories, new pictures, and new information. I’ve touched it all – some areas more than others. For example, I’ve really expanded information on mezcal production and distillation and examined how varying techniques are evidenced in the mezcal you are drinking. Also, I have new chapters on the the updated regulatory environment, pechugas and aged in glass mezcals, expanded insights on the types of agave from which mezcal can be made, new analysis on the sustainability and future of mezcal, a guide to traveling in Oaxaca, and much more. On the other hand, a few sections were only tweaked, like the History of Mezcal chapter – the history is the history, and I like how I wrote it the first time. Overall, there is a ton of new stuff.
Now I turn it over to you. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts – good and bad – just keep it clean! So pour yourself a nice mezcal, settle in, and enjoy it!
In the last few days I have been involved in a FB thread about Kimo Sabe mezcal. This started when the well-regarded mezcal pioneer Erick Rodriquez referenced a story on Medium about Kimo Sabe. The story has this graphic:
The story accompanying this graphic is full of interesting facts – perhaps alternative facts would be more appropriate. But first a quick history of Mezcal PhD’s knowledge of Kimo Sabe.
I bought a bottle of Kimo Sabe a few years ago when it popped up on a website where I buy a lot of mezcal. It looked legit so I took a $40 flyer and bought a bottle. I probably should have done even a tiny bit of research first because info was readily available, but I didn’t. It arrived a few days later and I enthusiastically poured a copita of what I thought was a new artisanal mezcal. It was so offensive on the first taste that I thought my palate was just being difficult. But after a few more sips, I simply realized that this mezcal is industrial and tastes every bit of it. On the way in it is acidic and chemically, and then it just disappears on the finish like water (actually water is far more enjoyable). Don’t just take my word for it. Check out what my friends at Mezcal Reviews say HERE.
So I hate to pick on a specific brand, but there are just so many things going on with Kimo Sabe that I had to comment. So back to the above graphic and the Medium story.
First, the headline: MEZCAL IS MADE IN 11 SPECIFIC REGIONS OF MEXICO. Ahhh, no it’s not. There are 9 designated regions where mezcal can be made. They have added State of Mexico and Morelos as recently approved, which is simply incorrect. They may be approved in the future but not yet. Second, let’s look at the Medium story. They say they have partnered with the state of Zacatecas to create over 1,000 new jobs, and they are helping over 2,000 independent producers. Wow. Really?
I am all for job creation in Mexico relating to mezcal, and this has factually happened already in many (maybe all) of the mezcal making regions. But your average palenque that exports a brand has maybe 10 employees. And a larger distillery might go to 20 or so. And yes, you also might want to count the farmers who grow the agave, though much agave is purchased by the palenque, not owned by the distiller. But to suggest that one brand is going to create over 1,000 new jobs seems quite audacious (the nicest word I can come up with). And what about the help Kimo Sabe is providing to over 2,000 independent producers? How is THAT possible? Please, show me the math. I am happy to be proven wrong.
If they are creating jobs and helping independent producers, I am all for it. But the extent of their claims is a bit hard to swallow (as is their mezcal so I guess there is symmetry). Still, they probably are creating some jobs, and I am not knocking that.
If you go to the Kimo Sabe website, you can watch this video which plainly shows some of the industrial methodology used to produce their mezcal. This is their choice as to how they want to produce mezcal. But what inflames the mezcal community is when an industrial brand masquerades as artisanal and uses the limited resource which is agave to mass produce their product. They don’t even tell us what agaves they use in their production. There is only so much agave to go around, and no, we don’t want it to be used for industrial purposes.
Kimo Sabe clearly spends a fortune on marketing – a bunch of brand ambassadors, sponsoring South by Southwest, and other projects – so they are apparently well-funded. Why didn’t they use some of that capital to invest in their production process and make a truly artisanal mezcal?
I am a capitalist and know that entrepreneurs make different choices. Kimo Sabe made this one. The problem in the mezcal world is the limited supply of agave and the early stages of the category where consumers are not necessarily well-informed as to what goes into a quality mezcal. So yes, consumers can be conned.