Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Bars & Spirits

Mezcal, tequila's smoky cousin, is on the rise. Here's why.

Go to YouTube and type in "eat the mezcal worm." I'll wait.

There are about 2,000 results, many of them not-so-sober folks wincing as they choke down a segmented gusano rojo or a chinicuil worm. (Best video: the scene from Urban Cowboy where the creepy ex-con character Wes Hightower tips the mezcal bottle until the worm is in his mouth and then flicks it forward and crunches it between his teeth.)

Mezcal is having a moment, and the worm has been cordially uninvited.

Sales of this smoky cousin to tequila have more than doubled in the past couple years. Why?

"I think that everybody is looking for something that has more flavor than tequila," says Richard Madison, owner of Agave Mexican Restaurant and Pappy's Liquors in St. Pete Beach. "They range from mildly smoky and salty, to the more mountainous ones that are full-bodied and smoky, to the mid altitudes where they frequently have more floral notes to them. Tequila is the gateway to mezcal, which has more character and layers of flavor."

Tequila and mezcal are both made from the agave plant. In the case of mezcal, the plants' hearts, called pinas, are roasted in wood-fired pits, thus the smokiness. Those roasted pinas are crushed by a stone grinding wheel, often horse-drawn, the juice fermented and then distilled. While tequila must be made only of blue agave, there are more than 30 species of agave plant that are sanctioned in the making of mezcal. So, technically, all tequilas are mezcal but not all mezcals are tequila. Capiche?

Different species of agave are made into liquor by hundreds of small producers in the villages of Oaxaca, Mexico, and eight other states (Puebla approved just this February), many of them using different kinds of wood to fuel the fire for roasting the pinas, which further differentiates character.

"It's a terroir-driven product, for sure," Madison says.

Unlike other liquor categories that may have gotten a push by mega-brands and their marketing minions, the growth of mezcal has been organic, often driven by mixologists' burgeoning passion.

Andy Jay is the general manager and tequila maestro at Red Mesa Cantina in St. Petersburg. His enthusiasm for mezcal has blossomed into something of an obsession, the restaurant likely to hit its 100th mezcal variety in the next couple of months.

"It has become the trendy spirit with craft cocktail bartenders because of its wonderful nuances — some are peppery, some earthy," he says. "We have a line, Alipús, that has five brands, each made by a different mezcalero from a different village."

Because in Florida we are "tropical minded," Jay says tequila and mezcal work well for our climate.

"In the way that people say if you love bourbon you will graduate to Scotch, everyone says if you love tequila you will graduate to mezcal."

It wasn't always so.

Madison says mezcal's reputation historically has been gasoline station hooch in plastic bottles, an inferior product with a worm in the bottom, most of which never left Mexico. This was low-tech stuff, frequently made without electricity and in conditions that didn't always have rigorous quality control (thus the occasional moth larva, like the one that had been minding its own business in the agave pina). The worm took on mythological lore — you hallucinate! Or levitate! Or, frequently, vomitate! Worms begat scorpions, the crunching of which punctuated frat parties gone wrong.

But then premium tequila surged onto the scene about a decade ago. (Thanks, Patrón.) Wow — it wasn't just salt, then shot, then lime, then whoop. This was a sipping liquor with all the nuance of Scotch or bourbon. Tequila bars popped up and began to draw sophisticated drinking crowds. In the Tampa Bay area, beyond Red Mesa Cantina, there's Miguelito's, Besito and O Cocina in Tampa, Tequilas in Ybor City and the just-opened Suegra Tequila Cantina in Oldsmar.

The margarita is now one of the most consumed cocktails in the country, and we drink twice as much tequila as they do in Mexico. So, what's next?

What has made mezcal rise may reflect changing consumer tastes — we are looking for more depth in our cocktails, more juxtapositions of sweet and savory, with smoke a frequent tool in the mixologist's tool box. Mezcal's smoky, salty, earthy, vegetal and even meaty qualities seem well-suited to the ever-more-sophisticated artisanal cocktail world.

Prices for mezcal, according to Jay, range from about $20 for a 750-milliliter bottle right up to $200. (He describes the $200 Mezcal Clase Azul as being like "blackberries and barbecue.") Not cheap, but consider that a third of tequila purchases in the United States now are the ultra-premium category, $35 or more per bottle.

Some environmentalists worry that all this tequila and mezcal enthusiasm could impact agave availability. Many varieties take 35 years to mature, and only the center of the huge plant is used in liquor production.

Mezcal, produced only in Oaxaca, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosí, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Michoacan and Puebla in Mexico, can be oak-aged like tequila and offered as a reposado or anejo mezcal, often commanding a higher price. But most of it is "joven mezcal," which has been aged less than two months.

Regardless of its level of aging, it can be used as tequila would be in a cocktail, but also is frequently consumed neat alongside orange wedges and a mix of sea salt, chile and the ground-up remains of the moth larvae that hang around the agave plant. (See, it's the worm again, only more subtle.)

Madison says the best way to get a sense for the category is to taste several side by side, and in fact many restaurants and bars offer tasting flights. But if you want to tinker with cocktails, Jay has guidance: "Melon or cucumber work great, as does citrus, as fresh as possible. Herbs go great, as do chiles. You can take almost any tequila drink and substitute a nice clean mezcal, and you get these fruity, smoky nuances that you wouldn't get with tequila."

Worm sold separately.

Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.

     
       
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