July 2011

A Category on Fire

By: Nick Passmore
“Worms are for Wimps!” This declaration of macho bravura is the slogan adopted by a mescal producer . You see, his mezcal contains nothing as wimpy as the worm offered by some of his competitors, but yes, you guessed it, a real, dead, scorpion. Welcome to the high-testosterone world of mezcal, the new-old distilled spirit from Mexico.

“The quintessential artisanal product”: a mezcal distillery in Oaxaca.

Being more familiar with tequila, people tend to think of mezcal as a version of tequila, but the situation is really the exact opposite: tequila is a defined and regulated form of mezcal.

Mezcal refers to any distilled spirit made by any method from any one of the 28 varieties of the agave plant grown in Mexico. To be called tequila however, the spirit has to be made from only one—the blue Weber agave—and is subjected to a series of additional regulations regarding production and geographic origins.

Eben Klemm, Beverage Director of B. R. Guest Hospitality, whose restaurants include the Dos Caminos Mexican eating spots, explains, “There’s more variation in styles and flavor of mezcal than in tequila because tequila is, by legal definition, a more homogeneous product.”
And that is much of mezcal’s appeal—the wide variation in flavor from brand to brand, along with its less polished, rustic muscularity.

These days, much tequila manufacture is a large-scale, commercial operation. With its computerized control systems and shiny stainless steel tanks, these tequila distilleries resemble nothing so much as oil refineries, or at least a large Australian wine factory.


1) The maguey piñas are roasted in a rock-lined conical pit.
2) After the roasting process, the piñas rest for a week before crushing.
3) The maguey is crushed in a horse-drawn stone tahona.
4) The crushed maguey is fermented prior to distillation.
Not so with mezcal. It’s the quintessential artisanal product. “We’re talking about thatched roofed, lean-to shacks with dirt floors in many cases” claims Charles Bieler, owner and distiller of the Sombra brand.

Typically a village will harvest the indigenous agave from the surrounding hills. A fire is built in a rock-lined pit and when it is reduced to hot coals, a mat is laid over them and the heart of the agave, the piña, is thrown on top. Covered with banana leaves and dirt it’s left for to smoke two to seven days depending on the custom of village “so it takes on this wild, camp fire, caramel-y type of cook,” explains Bieler. Once the starches have been converted into sugar, the piña is pulped, fermented and then distilled.

This is the way it had been done for centuries, with barely a nod of recognition from the outside world till 1990 when Los Angeles artist Ron Cooper stumbled across it while in Oaxaca working on a project. Captivated by the product, he determined to make it more widely available.

Today his Del Maguey brand bottles ten mezcals, six from individual villages and, as he points out, “Made by farmers, not factories.”

However, here the picture darkens. The misty, romanticized image of mezcal production is not the whole story. While much is still made in this way, it is largely for local consumption. According to Cooper, “Very few mezcals that get to the U.S. are actually made by farmers. There are a lot of people who have usurped our language but [their mezcal] is made in production towns.” The economies of scale and the pressure on cost would seem to make such a move inevitable.

With its pungent smoky nose and assertive agave flavor, mezcal is more suitable for drinking straight than mixing in cocktails. As Klemm explains, “Mezcal’s smoke is a difficult ingredient to mix with.” But he adds, “To me they’re more like aperitifs; they are so aromatic, so complex that they really get the palate going the way most spirits don’t do. This is really unique. I love the excitement of it, the complexity; I love the fruit flavors in mezcal.”

Not surprisingly then he finds many of his customers gravitate to mezcal from single malt scotches.
Cooper has similar expectations of his product. He employs the motto “Sip it, don’t shoot it!” for the Del Maguey brand in an attempt to position his brand as a not just another moonshine but a spirit worthy of serious contemplation.

How long mezcal will retain this rollicking, entrepreneurial ethos as its popularity grows and commercial pressures mount is problematic. Could, in ten years, mezcal be just another tequila?

Tasting Notes

Ilegal Mezcal Joven ($55) The pungent and deeply aromatic agave qualities achieve a surprising elegance by the time you get to the long, lingering finish.

Ilegal Mezcal Añejo ($110) The same smoky assertiveness as the Ilegal Joven but here it has been mellowed by the influence of the oak. Can a mezcal be artisanal and polished at the same time? Yes it can.

Los Amantes Mezcal Joven ($50) A touch of sweetness plays off the powerful, artisanal agave qualities marked by hints of ginger, cinnamon and a definite resinous quality.

Los Amantes Mezcal Reposado ($60) Dry, understated and surprisingly delicate for such a full-flavored mezcal.

Del Maguey, San Luis del Rio ($70) One of the six individualistic single-village products from Del Maguey. This one is wonderfully smooth but still brimming with a mellow richness.

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