The smoky, sexy and sophisticated tequila alternative is finally getting its moment
By Andy Vasoyan
For those above a certain age, the word “tequila” can provoke a powerful emotional response. Some react with strong negatives born from unpleasant memories, others a manic grin and a willingness to call in sick the next day. Like the blue agave it’s fermented from, tequila is a spiky, hardy thing, and unrepentantly so.
But is that what tequila has to be?
Increasingly, tequila is shedding its rough roots and buttoning up. Costly, ultra-high-end tequilas have made stellar increases in sales; actor George Clooney sold Casamigos, the tequila brand he co-founded, for a billion dollars last year.
The growing demand for a more premium agave spirit has made some producers look back to Mexico, the birthplace of tequila, for other options. Enter: mezcal.
Mezcal, like tequila, is created from the agave plant. Tequila, however, can only be produced in limited areas of Mexico, and is strictly a product of blue agave (agave tequilana). Mezcal, on the other hand, can be distilled using a number of agave varietals. All tequila is a kind of mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila.
Because many of the agave plants used for mezcal are wild and can’t readily be cultivated en masse, the price of the spirit becomes steeper to compensate, and batches of mezcal are often limited runs. Many brands are family-run and operated in the same way they have been for generations; the concept of cultivation on an industrial scale just doesn’t apply.
Fortunately for interested parties, there are viable commercial options for those who want to sample the world of mezcal. At SOL Cocina at Runway in Playa Vista, Beverage Director Colin Pflugradt has been making a concerted effort to ease in customers.
“It’s a high-proof spirit, so a cocktail or at the very least on ice is the way to start,” Pflugradt says. “Some people will just put the cheapest mezcal into a regular old margarita; it’ll just overpower those components, it needs a bolder fruit to hold up to the bold spirit.”
His recommendation? A mezcal margarita: guava, passion fruit puree, a touch of agave nectar, shaken and strained over ice, with a chili powder rim.
That drink was on offer at Mezcal LUV, a tasting event in February held in conjunction with National Margarita Day. The restaurant teamed up with Oaxacan-owned mezcal brand El Jolgorio to feature three very distinct types of mezcal offered neat for sipping and tasting, as well as Pflugradt’s margaritas and hors d’oeuvres.
The margaritas went quickly; the cocktail was balanced while still being odd enough to be interesting, with the smoky flavor of the espadin mezcal adding a welcome element of richness and complexity.
Espadin is a type of agave that can reliably be cultivated, which is why it’s more commonly used in mixological concoctions or for unusual distilling techniques, like in El Jolgorio’s Pechuga.
Pechuga translates to “breast” in Spanish, and the mezcal itself undergoes a multi-phase distillation with fruits, nuts and a raw chicken or turkey breast cooking in the alcoholic vapors.
Another standout was the smoky and spicy tobala mezcal, made from a plant that can take between 10 and 15 years to mature at high altitudes in the wild, and when all’s said and done, will only have grown to the size of a head of cabbage.
Perhaps because of its rare pedigree, the tobala mezcal seemed to be a crowd favorite. Madrecuixe agave can grow up to 300 pounds in just under 10 years, but the mezcal of the same name didn’t seem to have nearly as much weight with the tasting crowd. It bodes well for the future of mezcal that size doesn’t seem to matter.
For those interested in trying these unique spirits, bottles can cost upward of $125. As the premium tequila market blooms, mezcal is looking to carve out a space next to its upstart descendant. And with its unmistakable flavor, palates nationwide may soon embrace the complex, rewarding tequila alternative.