A Flight of Mezcal at Barrio

No salt and lime for mezcal.
"Para todo mal, mezcal," goes the saying in Oaxaca, in the south of Mexico. It translates: "for everything bad, mezcal."

And the second part of the adage? "Y para todo bien tambien."

"And for everything good, too."

Tequila bars are springing up all over the city, serving up the fiery blue agave liquor in shots costing anywhere from $8 to $80. Unfortunately mezcal, tequila's predecessor, gets very little play at bars that aren't so specialized.

Aztecs called the spiny agave dotting the Mexican landscape "mexcalmetl." The plant, now known as maguey, is the source of mezcal. (Tequila is made from blue agave, a subspieces of the maguey.)

Mezcal distillers have used the same process on maguey for the last 200 years. They harvest the pineapple-appearing heart of the maguey, cook it in a giant pit for three days, then mash it up, usually with a giant stone. The mash is mixed with water and left to ferment in a clay or copper pot from which the liquid is distilled.

The spirit is also famous for being sold with worms in the bottom of bottles, a practice now banned--much to the consternation of Oxacan distillers.

According to the all-knowing New York Times Mezcal is gaining a following there. But here it's still hard to find (though thanks to Edgar Martinez, it's a little easier).

Wanting to try it out, we bellied up to the bar at Barrio on Capitol Hill where the drink menu (pdf) boasts a mezcal flight for $19.

As if to underscore how rarely anyone orders it, despite being on the low-priced end of Barrio's agave-based offerings, the bartender had to pull out a menu just to see what comes in the flight. But he figured it out and presented three tumblers, each containing a splash of El Zacatecano Mezcal ranging from clear to golden brown. Like tequila, mezcal is traditional served in three forms: blanco, reposado, and anejo.

The blanco is unaged and tastes like it. The clear liquid is perfectly drinkable, but for a liquor nicknamed "fire water" it's pretty uninteresting. The reposado and anejo are where mezcal really shines. Thanks to the cooking and aging process, it's smokier than its tequila cousin, bringing to mind a high-end scotch.

Barrio serves it up with two shot glasses filled with sangrita, a kind of spicy, sweet, tomato puree juice. "It brings out the flavor," the bartender explains. Really mezcal's flavor stands alone, but the sangrita paired nicely with the salsa sampler we snacked on.

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