With Cinco de Mayo imminent, our thoughts and dreams turn to all things Mexican-ish. I say -ish because, like St. Patrick's day, Cinco de Mayo (which technically marks the anniversary of the Battle of Puebla and the Mexican army's short-lived victory over much larger French forces) has largely been appropriated and subsumed by popular American culture. Tacos and margaritas on the fifth of May are no more Mexican than green beer in the middle of March is Irish. But if you're looking to put a shot of authenticity into your celebrations this Saturday, you should really consider making it mezcal day.
As Micheal Dietsch eloquently explained here on SE: Drinks, mezcal is related to tequila in that they're both distilled agave juice, but mezcal really lets the wild earthiness of the agave shine. Since they're not required to use exclusively blue agave, mezcal distillers have the latitude to experiment with different species and flavors.
These 4 awesome unaged bottlings are a great way to explore mezcal this Cinco de Mayo (or any time your inner mariachi starts to stir.)
Fidencio Mezcal Sin Humo
Grown out of a family business, Fidencio Mezcal is crafted by Enrique Jiminez, a fourth-generation mezcalero in Oaxaca. Their distillery takes the time-worn lessons of tradition but gives them a modern twist, especially with the use of a radiant heat oven to cook the agave. This special cooking method does all of the work of roasting the agave heart to free up fermentable sugars without the smoke, allowing for a purer expression of the agave itself.
The result is a wonderfully clean mezcal experience. Poured neat, it smells like green olives, pine, sour beer, and a little turpentine (in a pleasing way, like when you want to take a sniff to make sure it's still potent). On sipping, the agave flavors is gentle and earthy, with a salty smooth finish—no bite, but rather a gentle caress.
Overall, there's a pleasantly surprising mildness to the experience, and the lack of smoke is very distinctive. It allows the agave character to take center stage, which is a delicious departure from the bold smoke of many mezcals. (If you're looking for a smoke bomb you should look elsewhere.)
Mezcales de Leyenda
On the opposite end of the spectrum of modernity, Mezcales de Leyenda is a cooperative joining small producers from across Mexico to produce a range of mezcals—from a variety of different wild agaves—that are representative of the distilling heritage of their region. These mezcals offer a wonderful opportunity to sample a breadth of regional mezcals, and the fact that they are all certified organic is the icing on the agave. Each bottling is represented by an animal in a nod to ancient Nahua mythology.
Leyenda Durango Mezcal
Hailing from the mountainous state of Durango, this mezcal is made from agave duranguensis by Alejandro Gasmir. Named for the murciélago (bat), it certainly flies well by night.
The scent is at once smoky and sweet with an earthy depth—barbecue sauce meets new car leather. The flavor follows through, with hints of dry spice rub, orange peel, and a vegetal agave bite not dissimilar to raw radish. The finish lingers, but the smoke drifts away and leaves you with a distinct and welcome sweetness. It's not a dessert drink, but might be the closest thing that true mezcal has to offer.
Leyenda Guerrero Mezcal
Guerrero, another state of peaks and canyons dominated by the Sierra Madre, is the birthplace for the nauyaca (snake) mezcal, made from Agave Cupreata by Jose Cienfuegos.
The aroma is hot and strong, with mole spices, cocoa nibs, and dusty cowboy leather. On sipping, there's fresh biting agave and dried chiles. It's relatively light in body, which helps to keep the flavors moving, and it finishes strong and smoky. This mezcal is a smoke-head's dream, but it retains an interesting chocolate and chile complexity, and an identity all its own.
Leyenda Oaxaca Mezcal
The capital of mezcal production, Oaxaca is the home for our final mezcal, the tiacuache (possum) made from Agave Angustifolia by Jose Martinez.
The scent is shockingly briny—green olives ring out loud and clear. There's also a bit of desert straw, but no smoke. The palate brings biting citrus, pickled cactus, and a juicy hint of agave, and it finishes airy and light. It's a bolder, less refined cousin of the Fidencio, and practically screams to be made into a good mezcaltini.
Tell us: are you a fan of mezcal? Which bottles really get your agave going?
Samples provided for review consideration.
About the author: Andrew Strenio is a lover of all things potable. Since sneaking his grandmother's bourbon balls, he's moved on to touring distillers and sipping snifters. He works by day making documentary television and films for an independent production company in Brooklyn.