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!
Wow. Whoa. Holy shit. This week saw HUGE news in the mezcal world. Del Maguey Mezcal was acquired (a majority stake) by spirits industry giant Pernod Ricard. It is shocking, exciting, and troublesome to many as well. I’ll take the first two and pass on the third – not troubling to me at all.
First, a little background. Del Maguey, and it’s artist founder Ron Cooper, is the pioneering brand which brought the first premium mezcal to the U.S. in the mid-to-late 1990’s. Prior to the beginning of Ron’s evangelical campaign, mezcal was thought of as this worm-infused, gag-inducing swill only a frat boy could love. Del Maguey was largely alone in this pursuit for as long as ten years. It was not until the late 2000’s when other premium brands like Ilegal, Los Nahuales, Fidencio, and Pierde Almas, among others, began to show up in the U.S.
While certainly those brands, and a few others, have helped drive mezcal to where it is today, Del Maguey clearly got it started, and they are the number one selling mezcal in the U.S as a result. They have an army of industry supporters who prosthelytize the wonders of mezcal and Del Maguey, which has been awesome for the mezcal category. Their leadership, passion, and education-driven approach to mezcal has helped bring it to the forefront of the artisanal world of spirits. Sometimes I find the brand approaches mezcal with a bit too much reverence, but I cannot argue with the results. I too hold mezcal in high regard, but this is still booze after all! If we’re on a mission from god, let’s make it the Blues Brothers version. Mezcal is fun and sexy, cool and exotic, and an amazing tradition-laden spirit, so I don’t get too carried away.
And Del Maguey is REALLY good mezcal, especially their Vinos de Mezcal series and Single Village line-up. Their cocktail-oriented Vida is likely the main driver of their revenue, and no, it is not as good as their single village line-up, but it is also costs $35-$40 a bottle and works well in cocktails.
So that all said, it is a shock to see them sell the brand. The word from Ron is nothing will change in the way they operate the business, and they will continue to support and work with their palenqueros as they always have. And I have no doubt it is true because I know he and his team care so much about mezcal and what it represents. They would not do a deal with someone who did not subscribe to their world view, which is why this is not troubling to me in the least. Plus, I am a capitalist so more power to them. Del Maguey will now have more money and resources, and they will continue to produce their mezcal in an honest, sustainable way. For another take on this move, my friends at Mezcalistas posted THIS.
While Del Maguey is the first brand to be sold to one of the large spirit companies, there has been other action in the category. Bacardi bought a minority stake in Ilegal in February and Diageo has a distribution deal (and likely some equity stake or options) with Mezcal Union. Cuervo also has their own brand Creyente in the U.S. market, which they claim is made in an artisanal way, though I cannot say it tastes like an artisanal mezcal (I am stretching to find the nicest words I can). Nevertheless, the large spirit companies are approaching mezcal in the right way for the most part. They seem to recognize this is an artisanal product which cannot be industrialized.
I have a lot more to say on this subject and what it means for the future of mezcal. So this post is just a preview as spurred on by this huge industry news. You may not care about what else I am thinking, or you may be interested to know that I have already written a chapter on this very subject for my new book, the Revised Second Edition of Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal!
Yes, I am revising the self-proclaimed best selling mezcal book of all time, Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal! Is it really the best selling mezcal book of all time? Well, I am not really sure but it’s possible. And there really are not many books on mezcal so it can’t be that far off. I hope to have this ready to bring to market sometime this Fall.
So that’s it for now. Big news for the mezcal category and its continued growth. Thanks for reading and as always, drink mezcal!
Oh man, just back from Oaxaca over MLK weekend and I am brimming with excitement and enthusiasm for what I learned, experienced and drank! I tried rare mezcals, traveled to palenques that I had never been to, ate more chapolines (grasshoppers), tried cicada salt (like sal de gusano but made with cicadas instead), and learned more nuances about the world of mezcal. One of the great pleasures of my favorite beverage is that there is always more to be discovered, and this trip, like the many before it, delivered yet again.
We had a great time, but were basically drinking mezcal (hey, this is important research I am doing!) from about 11am onward each day until the wee hours of of the morning. Sound like fun? You bet it was! (Shout out to my crew of Mike, Chris, Mario and Chris who were there in lock step with me).
I’ve been thinking about this and there is so much to share with my mezcal people (that’s you) that I barely know where to begin. So I decided to do a few posts instead of one looonnnnngggggg one. So this one is about our trip to the palenque of Eric Hernandez where Ilegal Mezcal is made, which was beautiful, educational, and first class in every way.
We arrived in Oaxaca on Thursday night, dropped our bags and headed out to In Situ to meet John Rexer, founder of Ilegal Mezcal, for our briefing on the next day’s activities. It went something like this: “You guys ready? You have shoes? Have you read Holy Smoke! It’s Mezcal!? OK you are good to go.” He may have left out the Holy Smoke part. In fact, maybe I made the whole thing up. Who can remember? We were drinking mezcal!
John is a passionate brand owner who fell in love with mezcal – the product and the tradition – while living in Mexico in the early 2000s. Later after he started a mezcal bar in Guatemala, he realized he could not find any mezcal locally. So he and his conspirators started smuggling it across the border to stock his bar. At first it was a few bottles, but it soon turned into a full fledged Pirates of the Caribbean operation. John has many funny stories about these early years of Ilegal, and they get better the more he drinks (John, have another!).
As for In Situ, if you have not been or have not heard, it is the best mezcaleria in the world with over 150 different bottles, each carefully curated by the owners, Ulises and Sandra. Unfortunately, they were out of town for the weekend and the barman discharged us way too early into the Oaxaca night. He was closing up, and we had only bought a bottle each and were preparing to do more tasting and more damage. But he unceremoniously kicked us out – Ulises would have had the good sense to keep us drinking and keep us buying (plus I think he may actually like us). So till next time In Situ…
The Ilegal Palenque
Ilegal is one of my favorite brands. I love their products – a beautiful espadin joven with light smoke and hints of lemon peel, a butterscotchy reposado, and a transcendent anejo. Some mezcal purists mistakenly look past Ilegal due to their aged mezcals – man is that a mistake. I have long argued that aged mezcals expand the market and bring in people that otherwise may not be initially enamored with a powerful joven. And Ilegal’s reposado and anejo are amazing spirits by any measure. By the way, Ilegal also has the best edgy guerrilla marketing and are not afraid to take a stand! They amuse me.
So after a night at In Situ, the next day we met the van promptly an hour after the appointed time for our trip out to Eric Hernandez’s palenque. Eric, who produces Ilegal, is a fourth generation mezcalero who is also an engineer – an important fact which comes into play here. Eric also holds the distinction of being the first certified producer: he has NOM number 1 (“O01X” on the back of your Ilegal bottle).
Having been to many palenques in the past, I know Ilegal to be one of the most respected and innovative distilleries in Oaxaca. Now this is “mezcal innovative”, not “tequila innovative”. There are no hydraulic lifts, large machines, column stills, hardhats, guys named Joey, conveyor belts, or people with hair nets and rubber booties. There is an earthen roasting pit, a tahona, an angry horse, wooden fermentation tanks, three copper stills, fruit trees, humming birds, a shrine, and an atmosphere ripe with smoke and roasted agave. This is mezcal baby.
His palenque is mid-size (think basketball court compared to some that are more like a squash court), very well kept and clean, and has a few extravagances like a small bottling room that can fill four bottles at a time.
Eric is deeply committed to the traditional production process of mezcal, but he has made a few engineering tweaks to the artisanal process. He also has pictures around the palenque of his grandfather in the 1930s serving mezcal from wooden barrels, which is interesting because some claim there is no tradition of aging mezcal, only tequila. Were those barrels simply for storage? Were they for purposeful aging? I don’t know but they are there.
He gave us a tour of the property starting with the earthen pit. It was fully loaded and had been baking for 3 days already. You reach down and feel the dirt mound and it is warm (so cool for a mezcal nerd!). Eric’s pit is the first example of where some of his engineering has been applied. He has built a pit that has a sub chamber below the main pit – he lights the fire there. This has the effect of creating less direct heat on the pinas and leads to a less smoky mezcal, which in my view is a signature of Eric’s mezcals. The indirect fire also allows for a permanent rock structure on which to pile the pinas. In most mezcal pits, the rocks have to be replaced every few firings because they simply start cracking, breaking and disintegrating as they are sitting right on the flames. In this pit, the rocks last a really long time which saves labor and river rocks. The design of the oven, which produces a more radiant heat, allows him to use less wood, a good thing in my view given the substantial deforestation in Oaxaca.
Another example of Eric applying his engineering skills to the production process is how he has made small adjustments to his copper stills. Pictured below is one of the stills he uses for the second distillation. Over time as a still ages, tiny flecks of metal will make their way into the distillation – it frequently evidences itself as sediment in a bottle of mezcal. As you may be able to see in this picture, there are 2 clamps attached to the vapor tube of the still which brings a small electrical charge to the vapors and extracts any potential metal flakes. Who thinks of this stuff? I don’t know if he developed this concept himself or read it in a book, but either way, it’s pretty cool.
After our palenque tour, it was time to do some eating and drinking! While lunch was scheduled for 1:00pm it was now about 4:00pm and we were starving (as a general rule of Oaxaca palenques, you can add 3 hours to any time estimates). But it was all worth the wait. Eric laid out a spread of beef, pork, chorizo, avocados, onions, salsa, and much more, which was all to be wrapped up in delicious homemade tortillas. But wait, that’s not all…
Eric also put out the Ilegal line plus a line of silvestre mezcals that he sells locally under a separate label. Plus he had a bartender whipping up some yummy cocktails! We felt special. We felt pampered.
So we ate and drank and listened to some music too. John had brought a few musicians along, who kept it lively and added to the positive vibe all around.
I found that all of Eric’s mezcals have a beautiful consistency. As his signature is one of light smoke, the flavor of the individual agaves shines through brilliantly. His espadin is light and fresh with citrus and roasted agave. The wild tepeztate under his local line is perfectly herbal and not overpowering. He had an ensemble made with seven agaves that had great balance that I couldn’t stop drinking. And the list goes on. All fantastic and oh so drinkable.
All in all, what a memorable day. John and Eric were generous hosts with great hospitality, great food, and amazing mezcals. I look forward to my next visit!
Next Post Coming Soon: My visit to the Real Minero palenque. Super cool!
Do you have loved ones who are mezcal-crazed? Or maybe you are the mezcal-crazed one (we are therefore destined to be friends) and you want to introduce and share your passion with the up-and-comers or uneducated? Well, there is no better way to celebrate the holidays than to give or receive some cool mezcal swag!
So I have scoured the mezcal universe to find a few tidings of agave joy that may make this holiday season a mezcal-y one to remember! Without further ado, here are a few ideas:
Why not start with something a little self-serving…my book! Yes, this is the book I wrote, published in the summer of 2014. While I would give it glowing reviews, don’t listen to me. Check out the reviews on Amazon – 18 reviews and all 5 stars! Exciting stuff for me. The book takes you through the history of mezcal, the ancient production process still utilized today, the types of agave used to make mezcal, the range of taste profiles driven by the agave varietals, a walk-through of all the brands found in the U.S., a crazy good cocktail section and much more! So if you are looking for a modestly priced (about $30 on Amazon) mezcal gift, this is a good place to start.
These are traditional small clay cups for drinking mezcal. The wide rim and shallow depth allow the aromas of a mezcal to flow freely and not concentrate the alcohol on the nose as many narrow mouthed glasses do. Previously, these things have been impossible to find in the U.S. But finally, Del Maguey started importing and selling them through Cocktail Kingdom, and you can now buy them. You can get 12 of them for $17.95! Bargain.
My friends at Mezcalistas have a fantastic blog. As I tell them, they frequently make me jealous with their brilliant prose and in-depth analysis of the mezcal world. Plus, they are really nice people that you would be happy to drink mezcal with anytime! So in addition to fine writing, they also sell some cool, funky, mezcal-y T-shirts thru Etsy for $20. A modest investment for sure and a great gift! Here is a shot of one of the three prints.
In Italian, malfatti means “mis-shapen”. In this case, they are wonderfully imperfect. They are elegant, impossibly light, and calling them gorgeous is an understatement. They are “malfatti” because they are individually hand-blown and each one is slightly different from the next. I have bought too many to count over the years as gifts for Christmas, birthdays, weddings, and for simply no reason at all. At $28 a glass, they are a special gift for someone and worth every penny. They are about 3 inches high and probably hold about 5 ounces of liquid. So they are perfect for a nice 2oz pour of your favorite mezcal. And the mouth of the glass is wide enough that the alcohol does not overpower you on the nose. They are quite strong too as they are made from borosilicate glass which you can read about HERE. All this is done by the amazing people at Ten Willow Studio.
As many of you know, a traditional way to drink mezcal is with orange slices and sal de gusano, or “worm salt”. You dip a slice of orange into the sal de gusano in between sips of mezcal to cleanse the palate. It is delicious, refreshing, and spicy all at the same time. The salt is made from salt, chili spices and crushed agave larvae. I know it sounds bad, but trust me, it’s great! It basically tastes like spicy salt. Until recently, it was difficult to come by in the U.S., but now you can buy it HERE from Gran Mitla for about $14. I am not sure I should be promoting the folks at Gran Mitla since in the past they promised to send me samples, which they never did! But I am all about good karma, and hey, there are worse things than not receiving salt in the mail!
Mezcal Premium Sampler – Package 1
It is incredibly difficult to pick just 3 bottles from all of the great brands and varietals that are available. But I know people are looking for some guidance, so much so that I did a whole post on this subject which you can view HERE. But if you are looking to buy a few bottles as an awesome gift, and don’t want to break the bank, here are 3 premium mezcals that are quite different from each other, yet are all made from agave espadin, and are great for sipping or cocktails. We have Wahaka Espadin ($34), Ilegal Joven ($47) and Marca Negra Espadin ($52). As I said, it is virtually impossible to choose just 3, but all 3 are well worth their weight in mezcal. All 3 are available from DrinkUpNY. Total damage for all is $133. In choosing these I also tried to stay with one website to limit shipping costs for you – so that was another constraint in picking these bottles.
Mezcal Premium Sampler – Package 2
OK, prices are not that much higher here but I am bringing in different offerings. Again, very difficult choices here but I tried to stay in the mid-range of price (less than $75 a bottle) while still choosing amazing mezcals. We have Mezcal Vago Ensemble de Barro ($70), El Silencio Joven ($50), and Ocho Cientos Sotol ($43). The Vago and Silencio are yummy ensembles and the Ocho is a great sotol which tastes very much like a great mezcal. Total damage here is $163 and they can be purchased at K&L Wines.
Mezcal Premium Sampler – Package 3
Let’s get crazy. Let’s get nuts. Here are a few super-premium bottles. While they have the prices to show it, they also have the quality as well. In fact, they are all unbelievable! We have Del Maguey Arroqueno ($100), which won my arroqueno throw down, El Jolgorio Mexicano ($120), and the amazing Pierde Almas Conejo ($190). The stunning total cost here is $410 and they are all available at Hi-Time Wine Cellars.
These 3 sample packs are tricky because there are many excellent mezcals as I said. You can feel free to mix and match of course but each is available at the websites mentioned. You have to select them individually at these websites since they have not figured out how cool it would be to have the “Mezcal PhD Premium Package” as an offering. As the shipping costs can get high, it is always better to buy multiple bottles at the same time.
This is a special bottling by Ilegal – only 180 bottles – that they created for Esquire magazine. It is a blend of 80% mezcal anejo that’s been aged in American oak for one year and 20% mezcal anejo aged in French oak for two years. I had the pleasure of trying this amazing anejo a few weeks ago and it was off the charts, as it should be for $140 – worth every penny. I have already bought several for Christmas gifts (and a few for myself perhaps…). Get it while you can.
Here is another cool idea. Get your special person a subscription to the Mezcal’s Club, which sends out quarterly care packs of lovely mezcals, all of which they say you cannot buy in the U.S. While their low price point for a regular membership clocks in at a hefty $395, you are getting 3 carefully selected bottles and you don’t have to go to Mexico to get them! According to the folks at Mezcal Club, the mezcal value is around $200 and the shipping is around $150. Their current membership drive expires December 1, but if you miss this slot, they will be reoffering new memberships this summer – so you can always give the gift of a forward membership if you miss this one.
This is another uber idea for that very special person on your list – an exclusive mezcal tour in Oaxaca. The man behind these tours is Clayton Szczech, an American living in Mexico who is as thoughtful and passionate about mezcal as it gets. The tour includes unique and private palenque (distillery) tours, tastings, and amazing food among other things. Think of this as a complete mezcal immersion! Clayton has been organizing these tours for years, and having met him on several occassions, I have no doubt that this is a first class operation and an amazing experiece. You can read more about it on his site but the spring 2015 dates are March 16-19 and April 26-29. Pricing is on his website but it is around $1,000 a person. I am sure it is worth every penny, and I wish I could join you!
Other Ideas? Let Me Know?
These are just a handful of ideas. I would love it if I knew of other special things that other brands are doing for the holidays – special products, special bottlings, or whatever! Send me an email at email@example.com and I will add it to this post. Or if you are simply a mezcal aficionado and have other ideas that fit in, send it my way! In the meantime, have a great holiday season and drink mezcal!
There is a debate going around in the mezcal community (yes, there is a community for pretty much everything – are you a member of the A-Rod’s Homeopathic Treatments Club?) about what the definition is of Traditional Mezcal. I think I know where this started, and I am certain it will not end here, but I wanted to throw my hat in the ring on this debate.
For the most part, I think this whole debate is a problem of nomenclature. The nomenclature part is simple: as soon as you say one thing is “traditional”, that means everything else is not. The problem is that many news outlets, websites, and blogs picked up a recent piece of literature on traditional mezcal, and they are publishing it as gospel. I think there is more to the story. Let’s see if we can sort it out. (more…)
There was a night a few years ago when I decided to have my own very private mezcal tasting. I had collected a few very nice bottles at that point and wanted to try them side by side to compare, contrast, and enjoy. But by myself? Sure. Why not? Just me and my booze. But my wife was worried about me, my parents called, neighbors knocked, the dog barked (imagine my shock since I don’t have one). They thought I was going over the edge (the edge of glory perhaps!). But it was alright. I had a great time and learned a few things along the way.
While the headline is Mezcal Summer Cocktails, in truth, I have never met a cocktail that I loved in the summer, that I did not love in the winter (or the fall or spring). If it is good, it is good, and I am happy to drink it year-round. So here are two recent favorites that I have been introduced to that are likely to blow your socks off!
Larkspur Mezcal Margarita
This recipe, as the name suggests, comes from the Larkspur restaurant in Vail, CO. They were making this (and continue to offer tequila or mezcal) with tequila, and I suggested to them that making this with a mezcal would probably be sublime. So they did, and it is! But credit to them for the very original cocktail recipe, and besides, I pretty much think any cocktail tastes better with mezcal! Here it is: (more…)
Well son, the 400 Rabbits are a bunch of cute, fuzzy, cuddly little bunny rabbits that are always getting crazy drunk on mezcal and tequila! Now that’s a great bedtime story, isn’t it?
Really. Here is the myth of the 400 rabbits. In Aztec mythology, first there was Mayahuel, the goddess of the agave plant and of fertility (if you are going to be a goddess, those are two great things to rule!). As you can see from the photo, she was quite a looker in her day. Mayahuel got hammered one night and hooked up with Patecatl, who is also a pulque god. (more…)