If you are like me, your first experience with mezcal likely came from a miniature bottle of Monte Alban or Dos Cosanos in the 1980s, complete with a worm in the bottom. If that’s true, that experience is probably why that was the last time you imbibed mezcal.
It’s time for a return visit.
Mezcal has done a lot of growing up in the last few decades, thanks in part to the more artisanal approach of distillers, called palenqueros. Though premium mezcals have been around for centuries, they were mostly produced by family farmers in Mexico for themselves. Nobody really marketed or sold quality mezcal until American artist Ron Cooper established Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal in 1995. Only a decade or so later did other companies follow suit and start producing quality mezcal, including Creyente, El Silencio and Ilegal. Now, it is all the rage among craft bartenders. In fact, bars devoted to only serving the spirit are being established across the country.
Tequila is actually a mezcal, though one that is required to use only blue agave per Mexican regulation. Mezcal on the other hand, can be produced by dozens of varieties of agave (or maguey), some of which can take up to 35 years to mature. Others are smaller plants which may only yield a few bottles. By comparison, the flavor of mezcal is much more earthy and smoky compared to tequila. It’s strong at first, but the more you sip and savor those intricate flavors, the more approachable it becomes.
Ideally, mezcal is made for sipping. Cooper actually prefers small, shallow clay pots called copitas. I suggest getting to know mezcal this way first before using it as a cocktail ingredient. I’m still experimenting myself, but came across this delicious little number created by Chicago bar Scofflaw.
Kevin Hopper sips mezcal on occasion, and sometimes even shares with his guests at Capitol Bar (6100 State St., thecapbar.com).
1 1/2 ounces premium tequila such as Maestro Dobel
1/2 ounce Mezcal (Creyente is a nice one)
1/2 ounce simple syrup
2 dashes Peychauds bitters
Flamed lemon peel
Combine all ingredients into a mixing glass. Add ice and stir for 30 seconds. Strain into a cocktail glass and squeeze the oil from a lemon peel into the while holding up a match directly above the glass. Drop the peel in the glass and enjoy.