Mezcal? You Mean the Stuff with the Worm?

When I discovered mezcal almost a year ago, it was a revelation. I liked good tequila, and I’d known for a good while that tequila could be so much more than the stuff you drank with lime and salt (or with sour mix). So when I first tasted a great mezcal, I was excited: it had all the sour, pungent, earthiness of tequila, but with a smoky quality that was vaguely reminiscent of an Islay scotch.

Mezcal is like tequila, only it’s made with a different variety of agave, and the plant is smoked instead of cooked or steamed before fermentation and distilling. The distilling is done in old copper or ceramic pot stills instead of the modern column stills typically used for tequila. One might think of mezcal’s relationship to tequila as single malt scotch is to a blended whiskey. It’s less commercial, made in smaller quantities, and it’s not for everyone.

I’ve grown accustomed to finding almost whatever I want in New York bars and liquor stores (although I’m having some trouble locating Reserva del Señor tequila here), and when I read about all the amazing cocktail and spirits innovations going on in places like San Francisco, New Orleans, Chicago, Portland, Houston, and Washington, D.C., I assume that its universal. Alas, it’s not. I had a hell of time finding mezcal in Minnesota and New Mexico.

Minneapolis, Minnesota, like much of the country, is still enjoying the renaissance of top-shelf tequila, but hasn’t found any interest from distributors in fine mezcals. At least one Twin Cities bar (Barrio, with a location each in Minneapolis and St. Paul) serves Ilegal mezcal, but that will set you back at least $14 for a small pour. Where are the more modestly priced Sombra and Del Maguey mezcals? Meanwhile, back at my neighborhood liquor store in Brooklyn, two or three brands of mezcals, in at least two varieties per brand and prices ranging from $35 to over $100, are always in stock.

Is Minneapolis as so far outside of large-scale liquor trends? I mean, Haus Alpenz, the exotic liquor importer that helped re-introduce America to spirits like Crème de Violette and Batavia Arrack, is based there. But while St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram and a decent range of aquavits may show up in every Twin Cities liquor store, there are some notable gaps. Laird’s Applejack turns up in some stores, but not in the vastly superior bonded straight apple brandy version. You can find Jim Beam, Old Overholt, and Michter’s rye, but not my favorite, the delicious and reasonably priced Rittenhouse bonded rye.

Most disappointing, you can’t find good mezcal. Sure, the garbage with the worm in the bottle from Monte Alban and other brands is in every liquor store. But no one really likes that stuff. One liquor store manager told me he rarely sells it, and then only to frat boy types out to punish themselves. When I asked this manager if they ever stocked anything better, he said he’d never heard of anything better, and was stunned when I named three brands off the top of my head. In all, I visited six liquor stores over the course of a week in the Twin Cities, and called a dozen more. Two finally said they thought they could order just one brand for me (again, the expensive Ilegal) by the time I was leaving.

I thought I’d have better luck in my next stop, New Mexico, but I didn’t. The famous Coyote Café in Santa Fe listed a mezcal/tequila margarita (using Del Maguey) on their Cantina menu, but when I asked for it, the waiter told me they were out of mezcal. At Maria’s, a New Mexican restaurant and bar in Santa Fe that boasts 185 different tequilas (including at least two mezcals!), I tried asking for a margarita with mezcal in it, but then panicked when the waiter looked confused. Would he bring me something with the dreaded Monte Alban in it? He kept making trips back to the bartender, to clarify things, which in my hungry and mezcal-deprived state only made me more nervous. I gave up and ordered a standard margarita (which was disappointing; Maria’s uses lemon juice, not lime. I didn’t realize how much I preferred the taste of lime in my margaritas.).

There are options for those in mezcal-less parts of the country. Brooklyn-based Drink Up NY ships all over, and they have two excellent mezcals for under $35: Del Maguey Vida for $34 and Sombra on sale for $33 (off of $42). If you like fine tequila, mezcal is the next step. If you like smoky single-malt scotches, you’ll love a good single-village mezcal. If you’re a fan of both tequila and scotch, mezcal will change your life.

Drink it neat or add a half ounce to your tequila in a margarita. Or try this recipe from Jim Meehan of PDT (via the Sombra website):

The Pearl of Puebla

2oz Sombra mezcal
3/4oz Lime juice
3/4oz Yellow Chartreuse
1 bar spoon of Ricard Pastis
1 bar spoon of agave syrup
4 sprigs of fresh oregano

Add the oregano to a mixing glass and muddle. Add everything else and ice. Shake and fine strain into a chilled coupe. No garnish.

Read my previous mezcal post here.

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