Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke: As the Worm Turns

Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke

Weekly insight into the world of drinks with Paul Clarke from the Cocktail Chronicles and Imbibe magazine.


Photograph from Eleonor on Flickr

I never really bought into mezcal's whole hallucinogenic-insect thing, not even when I was a gullible undergrad, but the close urban-legend association between mezcal and creepy crawlies was enough to keep me away from the spirit for most of my adult years. Not that I was missing out on anything - until relatively recently, most commercial mezcal sold in the U.S. was of shoddy quality, and mezcal was a novelty booze that was better known for having a dare-worthy worm or scorpion in the bottle than for any gustatory excellence.

But as Dan Saltzstein writes in today's New York Times, mezcal is on the ascendance. Artisan-crafted mezcals such as those from Ilegal, Del Maguey, Sombra and Los Danzantes are appearing in a growing number of bars, and adventurous bartenders and drinkers are increasingly embracing this distinctive agave spirit.

Tequila sales skyrocketed earlier this decade as liquor companies began producing and distributing greater quantities of premium tequila, but mezcal is typically a small-batch spirit with a great diversity of flavor based largely on the village where it was produced. While tequila and mezcal are both made from the core of the agave plant (tequila is made using only blue agave), they are produced using different techniques, which gives mezcal a robust, rustic and sometimes challenging flavor. "Tequila makers cook the piñas in ovens, sometimes in tequila factories," Saltzstein writes. "But mezcaleros roast the piñas in earthen mounds over pits of hot rocks. [...] It's this underground roasting that gives mezcal its intense and distinctive smokiness -- one of the qualities that draws its most passionate fans."

These fans include bartenders such as Phil Ward, head bartender at Death & Co. in New York, who is now opening a new tequila and mezcal-oriented bar called Mayahuel; and Jim Meehan from PDT, also in New York. I've seen mezcal used with increasing frequency at bars on the West Coast in drinks such as the Venial Sin from Teardrop Lounge in Portland, which combines the smoky spirit with blanco tequila, yellow Chartreuse, elderflower liqueur and a thai-chili tincture.

Quality mezcal can still be hard to find, and like well-made tequila, the good stuff comes with a hefty price tag; but once you've developed a taste for the intense smokiness of mezcal, you're hooked. Have you tried any of the artisan-grade mezcal, or have you seen it used to good effect at your favorite watering holes? I'm curious to see where it's turning up.