What is Mezcal?
Mezcal: that clear, bitter, smoky spirit you tried once with a worm in the bottle – or potentially have never heard of at all. While most of us have had plenty of exposure to Tequila, an agave spirit (blue agave, specifically) commonly paired with lime, salt, and questionable decisions, many on this side of the Atlantic have had little access to the other agave spirits that exist in Mexico. The umbrella term for these spirits, mezcal, encompasses a rich history and tradition of farming in Mexico that predates the Spanish invasion of the Americas. As a huge fan of mezcal myself, I believe it is vastly underrated and underrepresented in Europe.
On that note: compared to the access I had as a born and raised Californian, quality mezcal has been one of the toughest products to get my hands on in the UK. I think it’s a dang shame that more people haven’t experienced this excellent spirit, and I’m thrilled that we’ll be able to get our hands on some at Forest Wines.
How is Mezcal made?
As the mezcaleros of villages all over Mexico have been turning agave into mezcal for centuries, it’s no wonder that it’s their national spirit. For those out of the loop, agave is a plant indigenous to the hot, arid regions of the Americas, with more than 250 recognised species. There are a couple dozen varieties of agave that can be cooked and distilled into a spirit. The difference between traditional mezcals and the more recently commercialised Tequila is that mezcal is cooked in pre-Hispanic earthen ovens underground, rather than in industrial pressurised ovens. This gives it a distinctive smoky quality, and brings out the specific flavours of the plant itself. The reason these are so unique is the agave can take anywhere from 5 to 30 years to be mature enough to harvest. In this way, the agave plants are like grapevines in the winemaking process: the soil, region, climate, fermentation vessel, etc. all play a huge part in how the plant will eventually taste.
This also is why mezcal tends to be more expensive than a lot of other spirits. Considering the long, time-consuming nature of the process to make mezcal, it makes sense comparing it to a wine from very old grapes, or a well-aged Scotch. Not to mention the added import cost. Many years of caring for a plant is labour intensive and means not much can be grown at a time, especially when using the traditional methods that Neta utilise, but these methods are exactly why their products are such excellent value for money.
Neta, the mezcal brand we’re bringing into our range, makes bottles not listed as mezcal at all, but ‘spirits distilled from agave’. For all intents and purposes, they make mezcal – they even have the lab tests for each batch they make to back up their quality. They only opted out of certification from the mezcal DO (denomination of origin), because of the added cost it would bring for each producer they work with. These mezcaleros are all locals of Miahuatlán, a town in central Oaxaca, which is the region where 90% of all mezcal is made. Neta has developed relationships with the farming families of this rural town, and given the mezcaleros in their co-op control over how much they want to produce each year, as well as over what methods they use.
Keeping the decisions in the hands of the farmers means that they’re able to maintain the traditional farming systems they’ve learned over generations, which supports the biodiversity of the region. They plant agave along with corn, beans, and squash in order to keep the soil rich with minerals and not put stress on the local ecosystem. It also means that we get to try some extremely well-made mezcals that would otherwise likely never have left Oaxaca, let alone Mexico or the Americas. Each product is reflective of the land on which it was grown, and mezcaleros shift their farming and fermentation methods based on the conditions of each batch’s growth period, making each batch completely unique.
How do you serve Mezcal?
Ideally, neat. Like a good Scotch, the flavours are best appreciated on their own. Sip a pour slowly, and add an ice cube if you find it too strong.
The one exception may be espadin, the most widely produced agave in Mexico. It grows and reproduces quickly, so it can be harvested more often than other varieties. This also makes it usually the lightest and mildest of the mezcal options available, and therefore perfect for mixing into a cocktail.
Some of my favourite cocktails to make with mezcal are usually made with tequila. So if you have a favourite tequila cocktail of your own, I highly recommend switching things up by using mezcal instead for a smoky alternative.
Some of my go-to's are a mezcal Margarita or mezcal Paloma, but you can even use mezcal in a Negroni or other ‘sipper’ cocktails. Recipe for my favourite Paloma below:
1 shot of mezcal
1 can of grapefruit soda
Squeeze of fresh lime
Build & serve in a large tumbler or highball over ice
This is a classic beverage, usually with tequila, often made in fancy cocktail bars with fresh grapefruit juice, soda water and simple syrup. However! On the streets of Mexico, it’s typically made with grapefruit soda, so skip the work and just grab a tin instead.