Digesting a Trend: Mezcal

This July, Cayman is getting its very own agaveria – a bar entirely dedicated to agave-based Mexican spirits. The new-and-improved Agave Grill will be the only one of its kind in the Caribbean. It’s time to become acquainted with Mexico’s favorite tipple…

What is it? Mezcal is a clear alcoholic spirit distilled from Mexican agave – a spiky desert plant which, contrary to popular belief, is not a cactus, but instead related to a lily.

Hang on, that sounds like tequila… Think of tequila as mezcal’s bigger, louder, less discerning cousin. Technically tequila is a type of mezcal, made from Blue Agave specifically and often in an industrialized process that sees it mixed in with other alcohols and coloring. Mezcal’s production method is altogether more rustic – call it artisanal, if you’re not sick of the adjective. Originating from Oaxaca, mezcal can be produced in seven Mexican states and from about 25 different types of agave: In fact, a single mezcal may contain a blend of agaves, just as a fine wine blends grape varieties.

Ah, so it’s not the stuff of dive bar slammers and spring break? Um, no. “Sip it, don’t shoot it”, the American artist Ron Cooper once said of mezcal. This is traditionally hand-crafted, small-batch stuff – hence why the best sipping mezcals cost US$75 or more. Most agaves are grown in the wild and can take up to 35 years to mature. The labor-intensive process sees mature agave hearts roasted in brick-lined fire pits (known as palenques or hornos), cooking from anywhere between three days and two weeks. They’re then crushed by a large stone wheel pulled by a horse or donkey, producing fermentable juice, which is paired with wild yeast, before being distilled in clay or copper stills. For this reason, it’s bang on trend for the growing interest in Slow Food, farmers’ markets and craft drinks.

Haven’t seen it in my local… Outside Central America or the mid-West, it’s true that mezcal hasn’t been on many people’s radars. But that’s all changing now. Global sales have doubled in the past four years, hitting US$110 million in 2016. What’s more, drinks mega-brand Diageo secured the rights to distribute mezcal brand Union – it must think this spirit has legs.

But it’s still rocket fuel, right? Regulations allow the proof to fall between 72 and 110, but you may hear hard-liners declare that anything lower than 90 isn’t “real” mezcal.

Do I run the risk of swallowing a worm? If we’re being pernickety, you should know it’s not a worm, it’s a larva. And it isn’t very traditional: In 1950 a clever marketer started adding larvae to bottles, realizing they could help mask the chemical taste of a poorly made product. All sorts of silly myths about them being hallucinogenic sprang up (they’re not). Anyway, you won’t find creepy crawlies inside the premium craft mezcals on the market today. Those who want to be super authentic will pair their glass of mezcal with grilled meat, cheese or an orange slice and chapulines (roasted crickets)!

What does it taste of? Strong, earthy, complex and raw are the sorts of words typically attached to mezcal. The unique smoky taste is thanks to roasting those agave hearts underground. Specific expressions vary from bottle to bottle, though, shaped by the terrain each was made in – think of how Scotch swings from peaty to fruity to treacly across regions – as well as the type of agaves used. It comes in three different ages, Joven (young), Reposado (rested) and Anejo (old). The best thing is to sample various styles to discover your perfect balance of smoke, mineral, fruit and earth, i.e. the four key elements of mezcal.

Okay, I’ll give it a try. What’s the best way drink it? Sample some cocktails before shelling out on a bottle. Thanks to mezcal’s variety of styles and flavors, it can be used as a substitute for lots of different spirits – for example, a mineral-heavy mezcal in place of gin for a Negroni. Of course, mezcal is right at home in a margarita, bringing a delightful smoky element. It can also be enjoyed neat – go for the best quality bot tling you can afford and sip slowly like a single-malt Scotch. Stigibeu! (That’s the Zapotec word for “cheers” FYI).

Three mezcal cocktails to try in Cayman

Edoardo’s ‘Mezcaloni’
mezcal joven, Campari, sweet vermouth

Coccoloba’s ‘Sea Smoke’
vida mezcal, cinzano bianco, pear, vanilla, lime, sea salt

Anchor & Den’s ‘Hasta La Vista’
del maguey la vida mezcal, lemongrass & jalapeno syrup, fresh lime juice, cucumber

Three mezcals to buy

Esplendor Mezcal Reposado, Jacques Scott
A good entry-level range that’s ideal for mixing cocktails.

Los Amantes Anejo, Jacques Scott
One of the most awarded mezcals on the market, this is a stunning sipping mezcal with notes of tobacco, honey, roasted corn, cinnamon and pepper. Aged for two years.

Ilegal Anejo, The Tasting Room
Aged for 13 months in a blend of American and French oak, expect maple, clove and bitter orange aromas. Dark chocolate and sweet agave on the palate. One to be sipped and savored.