Mezcal: The Mother of All Tequilas

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Mezcal is popping up on more menus around town every day. If you haven't tried it yet, you're missing out. Listed on bar menus alongside scotch, sipping tequilas, and aged rum, mezcal has finally outgrown its reputation as the stuff with the worm in the bottle. The mezcal imported to the U.S. today is an artisanal product that has depth, character, and flavor that will make you say "Tequila who?"

All agave-based spirits are called mezcal, but only mezcal made in and around the town of Tequila, in Mexico's Jalisco region, is called tequila. Since 1994, mezcal must be produced in and around the city of Oaxaca to be labeled and sold as "Mezcal." Both products are made from agave--also called maguey--though from different species. Most quality tequilas are made from blue agave, while most mezcal is made from espadín agave. What sets mezcal apart from tequila is how it's made.

Hearts of the agave plant--called piñas--are liberated from their spiky leaves. For tequila, the piñas are steamed. To make mezcal, the piñas are roasted for about three days in firepits. This gives mezcal a distinctive earthiness and smoky flavor not found in other spirits, regardless of how long they were aged or what they cost.

In the last 10 years or so, more mezcal has been available in the marketplace, thanks to Ron Cooper of Del Maguey. He's an artist from New Mexico who fell in love with mezcal during his travels to Mexico. Del Maguey produces small-batch mezcals from single-village distilleries. Many still use horses to power the mills that grind the roasted piñas before fermentation. The most widely available Del Maguey mezcal is Santo Domingo Albarradas. It isn't as smoky as some other mezcals, but has nice spicy notes. Del Maguey also exports a mezcal called 100% Tobala, made from the tobala agave, a wild species that gives the mezcal a unique fruitiness, almost like melon or tropical fruits.

Another unique mezcal widely available in Washington is Sombra. It has the distinctive smoky flavor mezcal is known for, but with a clean finish. Mezcal is stocked in limited quantities and varieties in state liquor stores. The best way to get to know mezcal is to visit one of the bars or restaurants committed to introducing customers to this unique spirit. Liberty and Zig Zag stock several rare mezcals. Mexican restaurants like Barrio, La Carta de Oaxaca, Milagros Cantina, and others list several mezcals on their menus. Mezcal is not typically mixed into cocktails, but served neat for sipping.

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