Mezcal – Why is my cocktail so smoky?

An Introduction to Mezcal

As bartenders, we overhear a lot of customer chatter from across the bar. This is how I know that there are a lot of misunderstandings about mezcal. We’re not talking about nitpicky, rule-based misunderstandings, like saying Jack Daniels is a bourbon (it’s not), we’re talking about fundamental mis-understandings about what mezcal is.

What mezcal is NOT:

- Low class tequila
- Made from cacti
- Related to psychedelic mescaline
- Any bottle with a worm in it
- A liquor that will kill you or blind you

So, what is mezcal?

Mezcal is a spirit made in Mexico, from any of the more than 30 different types of agave. The vast majority of mezcals are made from a quick-growing, high-yield version called Espadin (Es-pa-DEEN). Mezcal can be made in one of 8 different states of Mexico, but the heart is undoubtedly the southern, mountainous state of Oaxaca (Wa-ha-ka).

Tequila, on the other hand, is a mezcal, just a specific type (like how all bees are insects but not all insects are bees). Tequila must be produced in one of 5 designated states, with the vast majority coming from the western state of Jalisco, home of the town Tequila. Additionally, tequila must be made from a specific type of agave, blue weber.

How mezcal is cooked

Tequila producers (the good ones, anyway) steam their agaves in brick ovens for 24-48 hours, while mezcal producers dig a pit, and smoke their agaves over underground coals for up to 10 days. This is why most mezcals will have a smoky, sometimes rubbery, or meaty character, in intensities ranging from “oh, that’s interesting” to “OHMYGOD.”

How mezcal is distilled

Almost all spirits in the world are distilled to a high proof, and then watered down before bottling, which makes it smoother and milder. The higher the spirit is distilled, the more flavor is removed.

Mezcal has one of the lowest distillation proofs of any spirit in the world, traditionally between 45% and 52%, and is bottled however it comes out without adding water. Because of this, mezcal is an incredibly -- startlingly -- full-bodied and character-driven spirit. In other words, literally no effort at all has been made on the part of the distiller to make the product “mild.” They want as much flavor as can fit in the bottle.

What are other sprits distilled to?

- Bourbon ~70%
- Rum ~90%
- Vodka ~97%
- Tequila ~55%

What Does This All Mean For Taste?

Mezcal is an artisanal and dynamic product, that depending on how and from what it is made, can be earthy, smoky, fruity, creamy, or any combination thereof. It is monstrously flavorful, which is simultaneously a barrier to entry for the uninitiated, and the favorite trait of aficionados. Put simply: if it’s your first time drinking mezcal, it will be unusual and a little challenging. But like most acquired tastes, it’s worth it. Mixed in cocktails is the best way to acquire it, of course, which leads us to this month’s box: if this short little explanation is a 101 course in what mezcal is, think of this month’s cocktails as a 101 course in how it can taste.

We hope you enjoy this month’s cocktails in good health and bear in mind, as you mix them, the old saying from Oaxaca, “Por todo mal, mezcal, y por todo bien también” -- “For everything wrong, mezcal, and for everything right, mezcal as well.”