By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
It wasn’t that long ago – about a decade or two, at most – that the mere mention of mezcal conjured up images of grungy-looking B. Traven-wannabes in seedy little cantinas in Oaxaca downing shots of agave rotgut and spring-breaker barroom daredevils testing their intestinal fortitude and sanity in sordid shacks on the squalid outskirts of the Bajías de Huatulco.
In the last 10 years, the once-grisly cactus spirit that was generally categorized as frat-party intoxicant has, with the help of a highly massive global media campaign, wormed its way into a dramatic image makeover from biker booze to urban sophisticated spirit.
In fact, in the last few years, mezcal has increasingly been positioned internationally as the new tequila – that is, a made-in-Mexico sip with a signature taste and appeal.
(Although, technically speaking, tequila itself is a type of mezcal, made exclusively from blue agave juice in a denominación de origen controlada area of the state of Guadalajara.)
But unlike tequila, mezcal can be produced in various states across the Mexican countryside, and can be derived from virtually any of the more than 200 types of maguey cactus that grow nationwide (90 percent of which are endemic to Mexico).
The main difference between tequila and mezcal is basically that tequila is produced in industrial quantities, while mezcal is usually produced in small quantities with traditional, artisanal practices that date back to pre-Columbian times.
The growing interest in and appreciation of mexcal did not begin in Mexico.
With the help of Mexican government promotions, mezcal companies first managed to break the ice and shatter the drink’s negative stereotype by wiggling their way onto the top shelves of upscale bars and restaurants in around the globe.
About 10 years ago, most tony mezcal producers felt it was easier to first establish a foothold for their beverages in the international marketplace than in Mexico.
And once mezcal gained a high-end following abroad, it was easier to convince Mexican consumers to look at the drink in a different light.
About 90 percent of mezcals currently on the market are made using espadin agave, the only commercially cultivated mezcal cactus besides blue agave,
They tend to be potent, around 40 proof and often come with off-putting worm cadavers in the bottom of its bottle.
The central southern Mexican state of Oaxaca is ground zero for quality mezcal production, where the beverage is produced by roasting the cactus juices over open wood fires, which tends to give the drink is telltale smoky taste.
That taste can be a bit overpowering initially for the unindoctrinated to sampler, and there are several less smoky varieties available today on the Mexican market.
If you prefer one of these, look for a brand that is cooked in closed steel vats.
But for those who prefer their mezcal to taste like mezcal, instead of a lame, pseudo-tequila, there were plenty of options made in Oaxaca from espadin cactus and cooked over mesquite and pine fires in giant copper vats and triple distilled to at least 37 proof.
There were also some less traditional mezcals available, such as honey-flavored, semi-medicinal-scented varieties produced in Durango and crafted exclusively from wild agaves indigenous to the northwestern Mexican state, which are surprisingly sweet with an earthy mineral tinge derived from the volcanic soil where the cactus grows.
Connoisseurs might prefer mezcal nectars blended from cultivated espadin and wild tobalá (a plant that grows primarily in the Oaxacan highlands, along the region’s steep mountainsides and rocky cliffs, considered to be the king of agaves), or an unexpected touch of arroqueño cactus that give the spirit a sassy floral and spicy undertone.
Mexcal is often consumed with orange slices to bring out the sweetness of the drink, and can be drunk with a rim of salt and ground worms.
Tequila vs, mezcal
While tequila has been touted as Mexico’s premiere distilled beverage for decades, mezcal has recently been gaining an international reputation as the new spirit of choice for maguey cactus beverage aficionados.
While tequila can only be produced from pure blue agave, primarily in the area surrounding the city of Tequila, just northwest of Guadalajara, Jalisco, and in the highland region of that western state, mezcal can come from other types of agave and can have a range of fruit and vegetal flavors, plus a distinctively smoky taste springing from a special roasting process.
Mezcal can legally be made from 28 recognized varieties of agave, including the blue agave, as long as it is grown in the proper region.
Mezcal is believed to be the oldest distilled spirit in North America.
Like tequila, mezcal is classified into three categories: silver or joven, which is freshly distilled and usually has a clear color; reposado, which has been subjected to a mild aging process for less than 12 months and has a light golden color; and añejo, which has been aged for one year or longer in oak barrels and generally has a deep amber hue.
Mezcal has a smokier taste than tequila, because it is produced in small batches, roasting the agave in an earth oven. Tequila, on the other hand, is typically made in large industrial batches and steamed, not roasted.
Most mezcals today do not have the trademark wiggly red worm at the bottom of the bottle because a couple years ago the Mexican government, in order to guarantee stricter standards for certification, banned the non-arthropod invertebrate for sanitation reasons. However, a few diehard holdout mezcal producers insist on wiggling their way around the new law by adding pre-pickled worms to their spirits.