Mezcal is gaining in popularity these days in the United States, but it’s still relatively small compared to other spirits consumed here. So what is mezcal exactly? It’s an agave spirit that is often smoky and actually predates tequila — which, by the way, is itself a type of mezcal. It can only be made in nine Mexican states, with the majority being produced in Oaxaca. While tequila can only be made from blue agave, mezcal can be made from various types, which gives each a different flavor and character. The “smoky” flavor comes from cooking the agave in pits in the earth, but according to Bricia Lopez, cultural consultant for Mama Rabbit at Park MGM in Las Vegas, it’s more of a roasted flavor than straight-up smoke. “The Mexican indigenous pit roasting technique can be experienced today in Oaxaca with goat or beef barbacoa and in Yucatán with a cochinita pibil,” she says. “It is that same technique that flavors the mezcal industry today.”
Lopez, who is originally from Oaxaca, is an expert on mezcal and was named Los Angeles’ official Mezcalera in 2013 by the mayor. “Mezcal is a drink of the people,” she says. “It is a spirit of the indigenous culture of Mexico and at the heart of what it means to have pride in being a farmer in Oaxaca and the rest of Mexico.” We asked her for some recommendations of mezcal to try for someone who has never had it before, and here is what she came up with.
El Silencio Ensamble is a blend, with the most prominent agave used being Espadin. “[It has] a hint of sweetness coming from some sort of variation of the Karwinski maguey (agave) family,” says Lopez. “This allows the consumer to ease into the taste of the roasted espadín, which is the most popular maguey used in today’s mezcal production.” According to the brand, Tobasiche and Mexicano are the other types of wild agave used in this blend.
Yola is a female-owned company founded by businesswoman Yola Jimenez (La Clandestina Mezcaleria), CEO Gina Correll Aglietti, and musician Lykke Li. Jimenez’s grandfather purchased a farm in the early ’70s, and the mezcal is still produced there today using agave they plant themselves. Look for a bright and clean flavor with pronounced smoke and mineral flavors.
This is another blend, made up of 80% Espadín and 20% semi-wild Bicuishe. Mezcal Alipus works with six different distilleries all located a few hours from Oaxaca City. The mezcal from San Andres is known for having “unusually well-defined flavors and aromas,” according to the brand.
Los Amantes has a crisp, clean, fresh flavor profile, says Lopez. There are several different expressions available, including a reposado and añejo that are aged in French oak barrels. The mezcal is triple distilled and made from 100% agave Espadin.
Lopez thinks La Leyenda is a good introductory mezcal because the flavor of the agave really shines through, without “lingering over-roasted flavors” that might put off newcomers to the category. Durango comes from the state of the same name, one of the mezcal-producing regions in the country. The flavors are said to include notes of buttered popcorn, coriander, and stone fruit.
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