Mezcal being prepared using the artisanal methods, burning agave in a fire pit (Picture Vetusto distillery)
Mezcal is the hottest spirit on the rise in the UK’s cocktail bars – with bartenders bringing ever more creative concoctions and slick new brands hitting the market all the time.
So just why has this smokey, complex, Mexican spirit taken off at such a pace?
It’s all down to the abundance of flavours it offers, says Manuel Lema, bar manager of Cavita in London.
‘It’s like a fine wine, with thousands of different flavour varieties. It’s also good quality – unlike tequila, where you can find all too many cheap or industrially produced varieties,’ he adds.
London Cocktail Week founders Hannah Sharman-Cox and Siobhan Payne put the growing popularity of mezcal down to drinkers becoming more adventurous -including during lockdown – meaning they are ready to explore this more ‘challenging’ drink.
Agave production at Ojo de Dios mezcal distillery (Picture Ojo de Dios)
‘We’re seeing a real progression in terms of the consumer palate and this has been good news for the mezcal industry,’ they say.
‘There is no question that mezcal is a challenging liquid, however people are becoming increasingly used to strong flavours – and it’s down the rise in consumption of short, powerful drinks like negronis and Old Fashioneds over the last 10 years.
‘The jump from a Margarita to a Mezcalita is quite a step flavour-wise, but the progression from a Negroni to a Mezcal Negroni isn’t quite as dramatic because you’re dealing with such a powerful taste to begin with.
‘Lockdown had a part to play – more people were experimenting at home and developing their palates into enjoying stronger flavours and are now looking to explore further.
Mezcal is the spirit of the moment – so what is it and where can you drink it? (Picture: Codigo 1530)
Mezcal specifically has been in a perfect place to benefit from this development, with the exponential growth of the tequila market in recent years as well as an increase in popularity of peated whiskies making mezcal a natural next step for adventurous drinkers to explore.
Hannah and Siobhan also note the number of brilliant products that have come on to the market recently – making the category more accessible and appealing to those looking to try something new.
So, what is Mezcal?
Some brilliant new products have come on the market (Picture: Codigo 1530)
It is often described as ‘a smokey tequila’ – but actually, mezcal is so much more than that.
For starters, mezcal isn’t a type of tequila – tequila is a type of mezcal.
Yep, that’s the first of many facts to drink in.
It’s the oldest spirit in the world, dating back over 500 years.
The word mezcal literally translates from the indigenous Mexican Nahuatl word ‘Metl’ meaning agave and’ ixcalli’ meaning cooked.
It has been used in indigenous events in Mexico for centuries – births, weddings funerals and spiritual rituals have all been accompanied by Mezcal, and they still are. Of course, it’s also enjoyed in homes, bars and restaurants thought the country too, where they sip it neat.
Dos Hombres agave plantation (Picture: Dos Hombres)
So – tequila is actually a type of mezcal (similar to how scotch and bourbon and varieties of whiskey).
Mezcal is classified as ‘a type of any agave spirit’ while tequila has to be made from blue weber agave (agave tequilana). Tequila must be made in a certain geographic region of Mexico to be a true tequila (Jalisco, some parts of Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit and Tamaulipas), whereas Mezcal can come from a broader geographical region.
The options of agave plants that can be used for mezcal are much more numerous – there are over 30 agave species in Mexico and all can be made into mezcal.
Agave growing in the Mexican countryside (Picture: Ojo de Dios)
The most common variety, used to make up to 90% of all mezcal, is the fast-growing espadin, which reaches maturity in just 7 years, in comparison to others that take much longer to be ready for cultivation. Others include tepeztate, tobaziche, tobala and arroqueno, as well as the blue agave used for tequila.
The other difference is that mezcal must be 100% agave, whereas tequila only needs to be 50% agave – the rest can be made up with cheaper spirits.
This means the flavour profiles of mezcal are much more varied and mostly have a rich smokiness alongside floral, fruity and earthy tones.
Mezcal is made from roasting the hearts ‘piñas’ of the agave plants in underground pits for 3-5 days, giving it its smoky flavours. It’s then crushed to release the liquid and then fermented before distilling.
Types of Mezcal
Ojo de Dios uses traditional artisan methods to produce their mezcal (Picture: Ojo de Dios)
Artisanal mezcal (most popular) – Artisanal mezcal uses pit ovens, some of which are lined with volcanic rocks or above ground masonry ovens. The majority use the pit oven, where the fire is lit at the bottom of the pit before a layer of small stones is added. The piñas, the hearts of the agave plant, are cut evenly and placed in the oven when the rocks are hot enough. The smokiness of mezcal comes from slow roasting these piñas.
Ancestral mezcal – The cooking must be done using underground pit ovens. Like with artisanal mezcal, first there is a bonfire and once the fire dies down, stones and, if preferred, wet agave fibres are added. Next, go in the agave hearts and the pit is covered properly.
Using agave husks to build a fire at the Vetusto distillery (Picture: Vetusto)
Once the agave is cooked, it must be crushed either using the Tahona method or with mallets (by hand), with the latter regarded by many as the ultimate hand-crafted approach. The fermentation happens naturally in wooden vats, although stone, clay or animal skin can also be used. The maestro mezcalero will be able to tell when the fermentation is finished by simply using his senses to analyse the process. To make ancestral mezcal, the distillation must include the fibre of the agave, not just the juice. The distillation can only be done in traditional wood-fired clay pot stills. The clay contributes to a more earthy spirit and adds minerality.
Mezcal saw US consumption jump 53% in 2021, compared to 27% for tequila (IWSR). It’s smoky and mysterious, similar to the likes of very peaty whisky but more accessible.
Celebrities love it – George Clooney launched his Casa Amigos Mezcal back in 2018 while Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston launched Dos Hombres in 2019.
How to drink it
They say you should ‘kiss’ Mezcal – that’s to sip it neat at room temperature, to appreciate the different flavours and aromas. It is often served with a slice of orange dipped in salt or Tajín (spicy Mexican seasoning made of chilli, lime and salt).
It’s delicious in a wide range of cocktails including a Paloma – mezcal with pink grapefruit, lime and agave syrup over ice – or more classic cocktails that call for scotch and whisky like an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan.
Dario Arienzo of The Savoy’s American Bar says:
‘Mezcal is a great ingredient on its own to be served over ice with an orange wedge dipped in chilli salt. It has a lot of depth and gravitas to it, almost similar to a smoky whiskey.
‘In cocktails it is really easy and versatile to use, especially in classic cocktails replacing the traditional base ingredient with it or using it as a modifier to add different notes to it.
‘What people don’t realise is that there are so many different types of mezcal, some really light and fruity and some really strong, smokey and punchy.
‘There is a great drink, a new classic, called “Naked and Famous” which was created in the award winning bar Attaboy in NYC which we love to make.
NAKED AND FAMOUS
20ml mezcal of your choice
20ml Yellow Chartreuse
20ml fresh lime juice
Shake together with ice and served in a coupe straight up.
The colour is beautiful, it’s bright and fresh with a nice kick from the mezcal. You can even add in a pinch of chilli flakes for a little spice.
A nice British twist on the Pimms cup is nice using mezcal is also a good drink for something long and refreshing.
PIMMS WITH A MEZCAL TWIST
20ml mezcal of your choice
Top with ginger beer
Build in a tall glass with lots of ice.
Garnish using lots of summer fruits and mint sprigs.
‘If you want to create something of your own but not sure where to start a good way of thinking is “What grows together, goes together” so just think of the flavours of Mexico and try it out, for example limes, spices, oranges, hibiscus and more.’
TIPS FOR MAKING MEZCAL COCKTAILS
The twist on a Margarita, the Mezcalita, is a great introduction to mezcal as it’s a familiar flavour profile that lets the smokiness of the mezcal shine through without being overpowering.
Mezcal goes really well with fresh fruit like pineapple, watermelon, melon and pear.
A great drink is a twist on a Daiquiri, just choose your favourite fruit, add sugar syrup and citrus and you have a super-delicious and easy cocktail to make at home.
Like with American Whiskey, the ‘Boilermaker’ serve of a shot and a beer is excellent with mezcal. It’s how many Mexicans like to enjoy it, a straight serve with a cold beer chaser (by Manuel Lema, barman of Cavita, London)
Brands to try:
Dos Hombres Espadin £59.45
Dos Hombres Espadin, £59.45
A unique blend of the finest Espadin agave, hand-selected from the hillsides of a small village in Oaxaca. Dos Hombres presents an appealing fragrance and a rich taste that engages the palate, ensuring the distinctive smoothness of our brand.
Buy at spiritkiosk.com
Código 1530 Artesenal Espadin/Tobala £58.66
This award-winning tequila brand is releasing both an ancestral and an artesanal mezcal. Codigo use truly authentic methods to make the mezcal – agave is mashed by hand using a wooden stick, fermentation is wild (using the naturally occurring yeasts) and distillation happens in copper stills with tahona wheels pulled by donkey. Due to the use of agaves from different terroirs and ageing in Sauvignon Blanc barrels, the resulting mezcal is rich in floral notes, with the addition of citrus, dark cherry with delicate smoke.
Buy it at MexGrocer.co.uk.
Corte Vetusto Tobala £96
A complex Joven that’s incredibly smooth from using a conical earthen oven with mesquite wood to cook the Tobalá agave. A volcanic stone ensures the product is milled before it ferments naturally. The result is crisp and bright with dried herbs, honey and earthy notes.
Buy from masterofmalt.com
Illegal Añejo Mezcal £86.95
Aged for 13 months in a blend of American and French oak barrels with flavours including maple, clove, and bitter orange aromas, and dark chocolate and sweet agave on the palate.
Buy it from masterofmalt.com
Ojo de Dios Café £39.99
The world’s first coffee Mezcal, crafted from 35% Ojo de Dios Mezcal that’s blended with natural Arabica coffee beans, giving rich, dark chocolate notes sprinkled with cinnamon, introducing hints of liquorice, butterscotch and coffee of course. Makes a game-changing Mezcal Espresso Martini.
Buy it from drinksupermarket.com
SMOKED ESPRESSO MARTINI RECIPE
The mezcal espresso martini has a rich, smoky flavour – Henson’s cocktail bar in London’s Soho has just added this to their menu, using Ojo de Dios’s cafe mezcal, if you’d like to try one mixed by a professional
50ml Ojo de Dios Café mezcal
15ml Frangelico hazelnut liqueur
25ml Fresh espresso coffee
Shaken on ice and strained into a chilled martini glass