Hurra! It’s Mezcal Week! And, have we got a treat for you! This year Mezcal week runs from the 8th to the 15th of September so we get to celebrate tequila's older brother in all its glory. Until relatively recently, it was tricky to find mezcal in the UK. Even now, it’s not a spirit you’ll always find on the back bar...although Mexican restaurants usually have a good stock and specialist bars have started to feature it as the drink gains popularity.
Mezcal vs. Tequila
So, what’s the difference between mezcal and tequila? Well, they are both made from the agave plant, known as a monocot, or grass. However, tequila has certain specifications to the classification, such as only the blue agave plant, or Agave Tequilana, can be used.
There are also some locational stipulations with most tequila being produced in the Mexican state of Jalisco, although there are some other states where it can be made. Mezcal on the other hand can be made from any agave plant.
There are over 200 types of agave plant, and around 30-50 of them are used to make mezcal, although the most common is Agave Augustifolia, otherwise known as espadin, and this is used in around 90% of mezcal production. There are still some locational stipulations, with 85% of mezcal being made in Oaxaca, and the rest in a handful of other states. And importantly, most if not all mezcals are made in the traditional fashion, with techniques being passed down through the generations of the mezcalero-families.
The 'Elixir of the Gods'
The agave plant was considered sacred in Mexico prior to the Spanish Conquest and often used in important religious rituals. The plant was steeped in mythology and played an important part in the economy. It also has a wonderful ‘origin story’, and tales are told of a lightning bolt that struck a plant, cooking and opening it to release its juice. For that reason, agave juice is called the “elixir of the gods.” The juice was fermented into a liquor known as aguardiente, or blazing water. The Spanish (arguably) brought the distilling technique with them and during the 16th century produced mezcal by distilling pulped, fermented agave.
The Art of the Craft
Most mezcal is produced in this traditional fashion and the result is a wonderful smokey flavour, although you may occasionally find one that has earthy, floral and fruity notes depending on what agave was used and the cooking process. The piñas are left steaming in a covered pit for 3-5 days.
Once the cooking process is complete they are cut up, milled into a pulp, or ‘bagazo’ then mashed, most often in wooden vats left open to allow natural yeasts to begin fermentation.
Once ready for distillation, the mixture is distilled twice. The first distillation produces a 20%-30% spirit, the second a full distillation of heads ‘puntas’, hearts ‘cuerpo’ and tails ‘cola’. One of the really fascinating parts of the process is that the distiller doesn’t use any devices to measure the spirit. Alcoholic graduation is determined by tests such as watching how bubbles are forming. Another method is to rub some on the hands to determine the smell and feeling of evaporation. It really is quite the craft.
Examples of Traditional Mezcals
Once cooked they are ground down on an Egyptian stone mill, mashed and distilled. Mezcal Amores are also conscious of sustainability, planting 10 agave plants for every one they harvest and donating 10% of profits to aid local communities and protect Mexican flora and fauna
How to Consume Mezcal: Expert Tips
And how do you go about drinking mezcal? Cocktails are becoming increasingly popular. Yes, a 'Mezcal Old Fashioned' is a thing. But, you can just keep it simple with salt and fruit.
A good quality mezcal should be sipped, not shot as us Brits often do with tequila (for shame).
Most mezcal buffs will say it’s best drunk out of a jicara (a shallow half-moon dish, normally made of wood or clay). And don’t forget your worm salt!
What is Worm Salt
Don’t be scared, people! Worms are perfectly edible and give a fantastic flavour to the salt, as well as a nice hit of protein and true taste of Mexican cuisine.
Worms commonly found in the agave plant are dried, ground up and added to sea salt, creating a seasoning that is mildly spicy, smokey and savoury. Sprinkle some worm salt on a piece of fruit like orange or lime to taste between sips, clearing the palate.
Insects play an important part in the Mexican diet and the grasshopper salt, in particular, was inspired by the memories of nostalgic Mexican cuisine, back to when the founders’ grandparents ran to catch grasshoppers whilst playing in cornfields.
The salts are really versatile. You can use them for all sorts of things. Rim coatings for cocktails, like margaritas, are standard, but they also add great flavours to cooking, from something simple like jazzing up your chips, or adding to fruits, salads or in signature Mexican dishes. And the exotic nature of the flavour can give fabulous depths to sauces and marinades.
“But I thought you had a treat for me?” I hear you cry! And we do! Especially for Mezcal Week, we are launching: Your Mezcal Box. In it you get:
- Mezcal Verde (700ml) - Authentic flavours of Oaxaca. Superb neat or in cocktails.
- Gran Mitla Sal De Gusano (50g) - Salt your shot glasses or orange slice for a more traditional approach.
- Dashfire Mole Bitters (50ml) - Add spicy, savoury and bitter notes of chocolate. Use in cooking for greater depth of flavour.
- Vaso Veladora mezcal glasses (set of 2) - Traditional Oaxacan drinking glasses.
- A FREE wooden Jicara to sip in original Mexican style.
It’s a complete set up to get you started in the world of mezcal. And, with bitters included it’s a versatile piece of kit indeed. Not only can you use the salts in your cooking, but you can combine them with the bitters to enhance your recipes even further. The bitter chocolate notes meld with the mild spice and smokiness of the worms to give wonderful depth in flavour to your food. That’s a lot to play with, and it all comes at the reduced price of £54.99. So what are you waiting for? Salud!