Sunday, October 7, 2012

Mezcal, a new way to get seriously geeky.

 We're all familiar with Tequila, some of us are so familiar that we swear it off forever. In a retail environment it is often the most maligned spirit by my customers due to a single night of unadulterated agave driven madness.

Get over it. Drinking too much happens, don't write off an entire tradition of distilling because of one night with Jose Cuervo and a double shot glass.

The title of this post is about mezcal, but the first thing mentioned is tequila. Why? All tequila is mezcal but not all mezcal is tequila, I would even draw a Venn diagram if I could figure out how to use Microsoft Paint. Tequila  is made with a specific variety of agave, agave tequilana, and produced within legally defined geographical limits in the Mexican state of Jalisco. The agave hearts after harvest are baked in large kilns to convert the starches to sugars that can be converted into alcohol.

Mezcal is the umbrella term for spirits made with agave that do not fall into the Tequila appellation of origin, and many of the ones I've tasted recently that are available at reasonable prices come from Oaxaca. Aside from regional differences, artisanal mezcals are made from different varietals of agave and buried in pit ovens or earthen mounds with stunningly hot rocks. This roasting takes place for days (3 seems to be a popular number) and turned into an alcoholic beverage to be distilled. The difference between the kiln roasting and the pit roasting is immediately obvious, even to those completely unfamiliar with tequila or mezcal.

The mezcals are smokey, oily in texture, totally bizarre, and very cool. On their own they are tremendously intense and idiosyncratic while in mixed drinks they produce extra dimensions of flavor that push boundaries and intrigue the drinker. The diversity of cocktail recipes are easy enough to find.

The real geek potential is in the minutiae of mezcal; just like hop or malt choice in beer, regional production of single malt scotches, and production methods or mesoclimates of wine, mezcal differences are easy to bond over and find perceived superiority.

Get serious beer geeks together, they may bond over styles of beer, or more interestingly, they argue about them. Do IPA's express terroir in hops or is one hop better than another? Do the Belgians, dare I say maybe the Germans make the best beer? Or are they left behind in this new world of American craft brew creativity? Is there anything more complex than a well aged aged sour beer?

Get wine fans together, they will throw down over regional superiority, Chablis v. Carneros, Napa v. Bordeaux, Australia v. North Rhone. New oak or old oak? Indigenous or commercial yeast strains? Technology, tradition, scholastic training, or hereditary knowledge,  et cetera, et cetera, et cetera...

When you see that these mezcals are coming from different altitudes, single villages, and different agave varietals you may let the geeking begin. The mezcals pictured above are courtesy of a group called Los Danzantes who have the goal of preserving local characters in food and spirits.

The line I tasted recently was their Alipus label: San Andres, San Baltazar, and San Juan. They were all tasted neat at room temperature without dilution, so obviously there's a lot more room to experiment with. Each of these distillates come from different elevations, they are made with espadin agave, and each one is from a different locations.

The San Andres was spicy, lightest of the three, and had underlying citrus flavors that kept it very well balanced. San Baltazar was viscous, powerful, smokey, and intense. And the San Juan struck me as slightly sweet, delicate, and with hints of woody herbs.

All different, and certainly all capable of inspiring discussion and experimentation. Let the geeking begin!

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