Cocktails and Spirits with Paul Clarke: Mezcal's Steady Rise


[Flickr: wayneandwax]

As if any further proof was needed that mezcal is the white-hot spirit of the moment, this week the New York Times featured one of Eric Asimov's tasting panels, which explored the variety of characters and flavors this long-ignored Mexican spirit has to offer.

Following another story in the New York Times last year, I wrote about mezcal as this close relative of tequila was well into its sudden ascent. Since that story appeared, a number of new brands have entered the U.S. market, and artisan preparations of this spirit—once déclassé and was synonymous with scorpions in the bottle and over-amplified hangovers—have become heavily in-demand in upscale bars across the country.

But as more people seek out this distinctive spirit, many will have to recalibrate their idea of what makes a liquor great.

Asimov writes:

By tradition the standard [for greatness] is set by whiskeys and brandies, which are celebrated for their refinement, mellow complexity and delicacy.

But mezcal, even more so than its sibling tequila, takes greatness out of the library and into raw nature, where jagged, elemental yet ethereal aromas and flavors offer different sorts of thrills from the quieter pleasures of a fine single malt, yet without losing subtlety or complexity.

The Times tasting panel worked through 20 varieties of mezcal, and, as befits a spirit in which some of the most appealing characteristics are found in its rusticity, almost all of the mezcals that took the panel's top marks were unaged, their elaborate, vegetal smokiness unmitigated by the softening effects of an oak barrel. Not surprisingly, three mezcals from Del Maguey (formed by artist Ron Cooper, who perhaps more than anyone else deserves recognition as the evangelist of artisan mezcal) wound up on the top-ten list (including the top two spots); other brands selected by the panel included a reposado from Los Amantes (the only aged mezcal on the list, and one of my personal favorites), along with relative newcomers such as the earthy, peppery Ilegal joven mezcal, and the intensely vegetal Sombra mezcal.

As Asimov notes, mezcal's limited production and higher prices (most of Del Maguey's mezcals fetch more than $70 a bottle)—not to mention the spirit's assertive character, which fits into the category of "acquired tastes"—will likely keep this rugged spirit from becoming a widespread, mainstream phenomenon. But for a drinking public that's increasingly turning to big flavors and small-scale spirits that are richly evocative of their origins, mezcal will likely be the drink in demand for some time to come.

These are a few of the brands the Times panel noted as worthwhile. Are you a fan of mezcal? What brands and varieties would you recommend?