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Mezcal service is the latest great import from south of the border

The latest trend in mezcal is an elevated service style

Mezcal service at Little Coyote.
Little Coyote / Little Coyote

Mezcal is making waves north of the border and showing few signs of slowing down. Part of the movement involves not only exposure to new producers and styles within the mezcal world, but new ways of presenting the stuff too.

Enter mezcal service, the approach by Oaxaca-inspired Tennessee restaurant Little Coyote. The eatery did not invent the service — instead, they’re borrowing from an age-old traditional Mexican method of putting the spirit on a pedestal and serving it with all the related accouterments. Think of it in the same vein as a wine tasting, where the liquid is treated to complementary nibbles, presented somewhat elegantly and in a way that really slows down and embraces the details of the specific agave spirits being poured.

The birth of mezcal service

Mpho Mojapelo/Unsplash

Garth Poe is the beverage director at the buzzy Chattanooga restaurant. He says the genesis of the story involves time spent in Mexico. “The idea of mezcal service originated from some pictures sent to me by Erik and Amanda Niel last summer while they were on vacation in Mexico. Immediately, I knew we wanted to do something similar at Little Coyote,” he says.

For the record, he’s referencing a couple of key coworkers (Erik is the two-time James Beard Award-nominated chef at Little Coyote). The impetus? Raising the bar for mezcal respect. Poe adds that the agave spirit has its share of misconceptions and stigmas. “I hate hearing the generalization that mezcal is just tequila that’s been smoked,” Poe says. “Mezcal is so much more than the signature smokey reputation that precedes it. It is a fluid expression of both time and place, crafted by centuries of technique passed down from generation to generation.”

Embedded in the service are ways of making mezcal all the more approachable, allowing patrons to learn more about it. “The acceptance of mezcal in Chattanooga is still in its infancy,” Poe admits. “I think having a mezcal service makes it much more approachable than diving off into a mezcal flight. The citrus pairings offer fun flavor combinations for both mezcal lovers and newcomers alike.”

The art of appreciation

Agave plant

“The farther down the mezcal rabbit hole we go, the more I compare the vast expressive range of mezcal to the world of wine,” says Poe. “The varietals, the age of the plants, the places they grow, the vision of the person making them — these are all integral parts of both mezcal and viticulture, and I find the endless possibilities of both fascinating!”

Remember that, unlike tequila, mezcal can be made from scores of different agave species. That allows for flavors and styles all over the board, from delicate and floral to big and bold. The stills used to make mezcal may differ in terms of material and shape, and the overall process can be tweaked from region to region and village to village. That means there’s a lot to take in, a lot to enjoy and understand further, and, in turn, a lot to appreciate. Just start with the right bottles that will light your interest aflame, as Poe suggests.

“Seek out small producers with low-intervention production models,” Poe says. Method Ancestral is something that I look for when searching for new spirits.”

How to create your mezcal service

DIY mezcal service.

Little Coyote has already created remarkable dishes that take certain mezcals to new heights. “We paired a cool wild Cenizo mezcal beside a chashu glazed pork ribs and smoked snapper collars,” Poe says. “The subtle sweetness from the ribs was awesome against the smoke from the mezcal and the smoked meat. The mezcal’s fruity,, almost acidic side was a great compliment to the rich umami of the snapper collars.”

But things don’t have to be so complex. The right condiments and snack foods can even do the trick regarding enhancing mezcal. “Invest in quality salt and a good tajin recipe,” Poe says. “Beyond that, don’t be afraid to try different fruit pairings besides mezcal. You might be surprised at what fresh strawberry can bring out of a beautiful strength mezcal.”

More tips? Get the right serving equipment, like copitas or the earthen, bowl-like cups that have been used in Mexico for generations. Also, get yourself a good charcuterie board or serving board of some kind, preferably with a section or two for various ingredients. Most importantly, be adventurous and really take in the singularity of what you’re drinking. Read into the details of production to give you better flavor context and enjoy with friends — that way, you can compare notes, find a new favorite producer, and share a practically ancestral ritual.

We know, there’s a lot to talk about in the land of agave spirits. Read more via our best mezcal drinks feature and our favorite sipping mezcal. We can also set you up with other players in the field, like agave spirit bacanora. And if it’s time to celebrate, here are some great gifts for agave spirit enthusiasts. Salud!

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Mark Stock
Mark Stock is a writer from Portland, Oregon. He fell into wine during the Recession and has been fixated on the stuff since…
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