New York City has long been a place to set the trends for the industry at large, be it printing, building, fashion, food or fun. In booze terms it still places itself at the pinnacle of cocktail style and that enduring hipster catch-cry, authenticity. The city has a pull on many around this world, its shining towers and grimy streets, the ultimate testing ground for talent and resolve.
While one could argue that the city does not possess the best examples of taste and discernment on show globally, it does without a doubt contain the largest number of individuals willing to part with hard earned dollars to show what taste and discernment they do, indeed, possess.
The latest trend to be called out in a voice so large is the ancient spirit, Mezcal.
Naren Young, Australia’s most successful cocktail scribe and Bar Awards lifetime achiever wrote in January professing his love for the Mexican spirit and talked about how it has been taken to heart by the best and brightest behind the sticks of Manhattan’s best boozers. I’d encourage you to give it a read.
My Antipodean alumni might find themselves a little shocked at this epistle, as the selections in this country do not yet match the levels Young mentions in New York, or the many more to be found in San Fran and the other cities with a much closer proximity to provenance (and potentially a much more likely claim on setting the global trend for the spirit.)
Essentially, Mezcal is indie scotch.
Made for centuries by the various civilizations that have risen and fell on the isthmuth of the Americas, mezcal has its base, like tequila, in pulque. This milky looking liquid is literally the fermented sap of the maguey. To avoid confusion in a very confusing subject area, maguey is used to collectively name the various subspecies of agave used to produce mezcal, where agave is generally used to denote the blue agave which is legally required to produce mezcal’s more famous brother, tequila. Aren’t you glad we cleared that up?
Where the success of marketing tequila has pushed much production into industrial facilities that can slake the thirst of people eating Mexican food around the world, mezcal remains an artisanal endeavour, practiced by small group, usually in individual villages, primarily in the state of Oaxaca.
Maguey are harvested, either from the wild or from small cultivars. The outer leaves are cut down and the pinas are roasted in a ground oven, similar to the Polynesian Umu and Maori Hangi. This increases the smoky flavour and intensifies the earthiness of the spirit itself. The hearts are then mashed under an ancient volcanic stone and left, fibers and juices together to ferment in the open air. Both are then transfered to the still, either copper, introduced by the Spanish in their conquest, or the much older clay stills, thought by some to have been gifted by pre-Colombian Chinese traders.
Much of the modern renaissance for mescal comes down to one man, a New Yorker, Ron Cooper (which adds to the authenticity of the NYC claim)
In the 1990’s Ron visited Oaxaca and was astonished to find fine spirits being aggregated in larger towns, mixed together with the production of many villages in the area and sold cheaply in gallon jugs. He roamed the hills and offered to pay a premium for single village production and started bottling them for sale. Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal epitomises they indie-ness of the category. One of the products, Pechuga, is made with a chicken carcass in the still, which once cooked, decides when the distillation is complete. Tobala village leaves the pina in the earth ovens for an entire month. I have a bottle of the Chichicapa, which I guard jealously.
The worms too, while not the doorway to a pyschoactive world, do impart a mellowness of flavour to the drink and in aged mezcal expressions, a small handful of worms can be added to the barrel. Gusano de Oro and Gusano Rojo, the white or red catepillars (they’re actually not worms at all) that live either in the leaves or pina can also be ground up with chilies & salt to provide an enlivening addition to your mezcal ritual.
I know, I know, this all sounds great. But I am a blogger, obsessed by the effort that goes into the production of great spirits and the stories that surround them. Why should you even begin to give a fuck?
It comes down to two reasons really.
First, the indie nature. No two villages or brands taste the same, there are similarities but each producer has his own way, his own style and his own still. It is a spirit that offers you a connection to a founder, a family tradition and a long history, unsullied by a large and consuming conglomerate (for now at least)
Second, the ingredients. The Maguey captures the flavour of its surrounding. French wine snobs pontificate about the terrior, the taste of place that comes through the wines. With mescal, this unfolds a thousand times. The ten years it can take for a plant to mature exposes it to drought, hardship, bounty and love. The spirit is sometimes called gotas de tiempo or ‘drops of time’
As you savour the spirit, you can feel the time that went into it.
Australians can start to get excited at the upcoming visit of Steve from Ilegal Mezcal to all states in the lucky country, starting in March with Sydney.