Mezcal - the next big thing?

A tasting of Del Maguey single village mezcals boosted my respect and enthusiasm for this spirit. Mezcal production has not been industrialized as tequila has; the labor-intensive process has been much the same for 400 years. And mezcals now have their own standards for geographic origin and labeling. The worm-floating plonk that made you sick in college? Fuggedaboudit.

While tequila is associated with Jalisco, fine mezcal hails from Oaxacan villages in the south. Agave hearts are roasted over hot earth-covered stones, crushed by horse-powered stone wheels, naturally fermented in wood, and double-distilled in copper or clay stills. Del Maguey mezcals are bottled undiluted – analogous to cask-strength bourbons – and range from 92 to 98 proof.

The six bottles we sampled varied considerably in flavor, smokiness and smoothness, depending on the village’s elevation, the roasting process (some makers add earth from a prior roasting, others add palm leaves or the like), and the still material.

My favorite, the Chichicapa, is as bold and smoky as an Islay malt. Others were creamier, smoother and/or sweeter. The Tobala is made from wild agave, and has an appealingly earthy taste. Pechuga is the most intricate: double-distilled mezcal goes into a clay still with wild plums, apples and other fruits, and a skinless bone-in chicken breast is suspended above (to balance the fruit and gather impurities during the third distillation, we were told). The incredibly smooth result reminded me of an eau de vie.

These are all limited production. Retail prices range from $70 to $200 - not cheap, but not bad for a spirit as complex and fascinating as high-end cognac.


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