How often can a working man sip a $200 single-village small batch mezcal? And when could one sample a half dozen exquisite small batch mezcals? This was one of the pleasures I was looking forward to at last night’s Ultimate Cocktails, Spirits & Wine Blast at the Marriott in Midtown. The Del Maguey table served nearly the full range of the brand’s mezcals, in little terracotta bowls.
I’d tried Del Maguey’s Vida Mezcal ($35 a bottle) before; it’s the blended, entry level version of the company’s single village mezcals. It’s delicious, comparable to a nice smokey scotch. I’d recognized the label on the bottle at a bar in Brooklyn after reading Eric Asimov’s New York Times mezcal article, in which he and a panel of experts sample 20 of them. Of the top ten chosen by the panel, Del Maguey mezcals placed first, second, and fifth.
But before we get further into Del Maguey’s offerings, how is mezcal different from tequila? Simply put, it’s like tequila in that it uses agave as its base, but unlike tequila, the type of agave varies. Mezcal comes from a different part of Mexico than tequila, and is typically distilled only once, which results in a less smooth but more complex flavor. I’d liken it to the difference between a smooth bourbon and a smokey scotch, but as the Brandy Library’s spirit sommelier Joel Cuéllar, one of Asimov’s judges, described it, “Mezcal is to tequila as rye is to bourbon,” a more subtle distinction (from a more learned palate).
Del Maguey started in 1995 when an artist from New Mexico, Ron Cooper, began bottling some of the mezcals he found in remote Oaxaca villages. According to Cooper, none of these small-batch mezcals had been bottled before. (Interestingly, the Del Maguey labels are the work of a different gringo artist, Ken Price.) A good mezcal doesn’t need lime and salt, says Cooper, nor do most traditional mezcals come with worms in the bottles.
The first of Del Maguey’s mezcals we tried at the Ultimate Cocktail & Spirits Blast was Santo Domingo Albarradas, a subtle and smooth smokey mezcal (my favorite of the lot) made from agave (maguey) grown at an elevation of 8,500 feet. The company says the taste is spicy with hints of pear. I remember a mineral quality to it that was very refreshing, with hints of smoke. I was struck by how good it was, and my first thought was, oh god, I bet I can’t afford it. (It’s about $70; it could be worse.)
The second was Minero (also about $70), from an elevation of 6,500 feet and distilled in clay with bamboo tubing. The difference between this and the Santo Domingo was staggering. It was almost salty, with a rounded, pungent base. The makers point to notes of fig and vanilla.
Next was the Pechuga. This was really different. By now, I’m dazzled by the opportunity to taste them all side by side. The 98 proof Pechuga was the most expensive of the group at about $200 a bottle. It’s technically Minero that’s actually distilled again with a carefully washed skinless chicken breast hanging in the pot, along with assorted fruits, almonds and rice. Cooper explains, “The reason for the breast they say, is so the mezcal is not dominated by the fruit.” Of course. The taste is…remarkable.
The fourth mezcal we sampled was Tobala ($125 a bottle), which tasted like paint thinner to me. The producers talk about sweet, fruity mango and cinnamon. I don’t get it. It’s so completely petroleum, that it almost made me think it shouldn’t be safe to drink.
By this time, I was overwhelmed by the mezcals. My lips and tongue were pleasantly numb, and I was having trouble hearing the Del Maguey rep speak over the crowd and the occasional sounds of breaking glass in the Marriott’s sixth floor ballroom. We tried three more: the Chichicapa ($70), the Vida Mezcal that I’d tried before, and the 80 proof Crema de Mezcal ($40), a sweet concoction of mezcal with agave syrup. This last one was good, and had the sweetness of a strong liqueur like Cointreau. The company recommends mixing it with lime juice for a sweetener-free margarita—a great idea.
Until Del Maguey, I hadn’t tried a mezcal for more than ten years, and I’d never had a great one. My friend Robert lamented the fact that the Ultimate Cocktails & Spirits Blast didn’t have the great Ilegal Mezcal brand present, and that the other mezcal brand there, Sombra ($45 a bottle), appeared outnumbered by the seven De Maguey mezcals. I regret a didn’t try it myself, and in my defense I can only say that seven mezcals (understand, these were tiny sample sips—I wasn’t shitfaced, just weary of palate) was about all I had in me for one night.