agave field

Agave at high elevation. (Photo courtesy of Sombra Mezcal)

I came up in the days of very limited options for exploratory drinkers of Mexican spirits. For tequila, we had the ubiquitous Cuervo Gold (and “gold,” of course, isn’t really even a classification of tequila… it’s been colored). For mezcal, if you could find it, we had Gusano Rojo (with the fabled “worm” in the bottle that may have started as a tradition, or a quality assurance error, but ultimately, is just a marketing gimmick). Sotol? We’d never heard of it. More on that another day.

The drinking of this stuff was pretty much reserved for when you wanted to start a fistfight with another biker gang or when you were sort of planning on yakking on your friend’s Nikes by the end of the night.

All that’s changed of course: The tequila category has been elevated in every respect, providing a wide range of delicious options, and there’s been stunning growth in artisanal mezcal production. The basic recipe for these is simple and similar: Harvest agave plants, rich in starch and sugar; trim them down to their hearts; cook the hearts; mash them and let them ferment in water; distill the mixture; barrel-age it (or not); and you are off to the proverbial races.

TEQUILA

Tequileros boast that their favored brew is made from the blue agave plant—more specifically, agave tequileana, the blue Weber agave strain. To properly carry the name, they must be made in and around the state of Jalisco in west central Mexico. These traditional restrictions ensure predictable quality and flavor profiles for tequilas and lock in a geographic terroir to protect the product. Tequila is bottled clear and unbarreled (blanco or plata), lightly barrel-aged (reposado, or rested), or barrel-aged for more than a year (anejo).

A fine exemplar of the breed is Casa Mexico’s Añejo, which is roller-mill crushed, slow-baked in clay ovens, naturally fermented and double distilled in stainless steel pots, and then given at least a year in American White Oak barrels. Meanwhile, the folks at Cuervo make up for the rougher Gold of my youth with an excellent Reserva de la Familia expression aged in American or French oak for a minimum of three years.

While overall connoisseurship of tequila has led to more and more superb blanco varieties (a drive the history books will likely attribute largely to Patron, which blazed the trail), many prefer a bit of barreling time for their tequila, which allows for some settling and smoothing off of flavors as well as the addition of some pleasing woody notes and color. Carefully aged anejos, and so-called extra-anejos, can take on the complexity of single malt whiskies.

How I Drink It

For my money, a solid reposado, like the Clooney-approved Casamigos offerings, is the perfect double-agent for a home bar. The welcome crisp, botanical funkiness hasn’t been aged out, and the mild barrel rest yields smoothness and complex flavor notes. Those notes break through even in a margarita, and as a sipped shot, well, madre de dios!

By the way: The old-school salt/shot/lime approach is a hold-over from the days of harsher, less sophisticated tequila making. Savor the flavor, and if you feel you need a cleanser/softener between rounds, make it a sangrita. A sangrita is a shot glass with a palate-blasting mixture of grenadine, tomato juice, hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, lime juice, and, in some places, even more ingredients (or less: traditionalists might oppose tomato juice in favor of brighter fruit flavors). In any case, here’s a recipe from Chicago’s Adobo Grill.

MEZCAL

The rubric that all tequilas are mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequilas, is essentially true. Mezcal’s home is the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, and traditionally the spirit is produced there and in the surrounding areas, but there is less of a formal terroir. Like tequila, the agave plant is the spirit origin for the liquor, but mezcal can be made from a variety of strains. The Oaxacan espadin agave is a popular source, but nearly any variety can work, including tepeztate and tobala. Some mezcals even blend multiple agave strains, notably Sombra Mezcal’s Ensamble expression.

Barreling practices are the same as for tequila: in the case of mezcal, joven for the unbarreled version, and reposado and anejo versions, as well. But unlike tequila, most agree that the flavors of a good mezcal are best experienced fresh in the joven form. Typically, mezcal has a spicier, smokier tongue than tequila. As with heavily-peated scotch, some may find the smokiness a bit too heavy. The widely-available Ilegal mezcal cuts an authentic middle path and is a great product to start with. Even in the unbarreled version, hints of floral essence, fruit, and vanilla are evident. All underscored by the strong, flowing botanical greenery of the source agave.

How I Drink It

A sipped shot is the way to go with mezcal, but I’ve found a finger of it in a rocks glass with ONE SMALL ice cube can release additional aromas and flavors. Like I said, it’s not a finicky beverage: You can use mezcal in all the cocktails where you’d find tequila, but the simpler, the better. Your margarita will take on a different character for sure, but just on-the-rocks with a splash of grapefruit juice is my preferred misuse.