The Magic of Mezcal
Mexico’s other spirit has taken the world by storm, infusing modern cocktails with its smoky character and unique flavor profiles. Learn how mixologists around the globe are finding inspiration in this new behind-the-bar staple.
For decades, tequila long held court as Mexico’s most famous export in the spirits category. Its fan base was diverse, ranging from margarita lovers to connoisseurs sipping premium Don Julio on the rocks. Then, several years ago, the rest of the world started to get its first taste of mezcal, and tequila found itself with some serious competition.
It’s easy to simply describe the mezcal as a smokier version of tequila, but the truth is, the spirit has more seniority over the two — tequila is a form of mezcal, not the other way around. Think of mezcal like the more sophisticated cousin. Both are made from agave plants, but tequila can only be made with blue agave while mezcal has no such constraint, leading to a higher diversity of flavor. Primarily distilled in Oaxaca, Mexico, mezcal — which translates to “oven-cooked agave” — is still handcrafted using methods developed two centuries ago. Mature agave plants are cut up to extract the piñas (or their hearts), which are then buried in smoky earthen fire pits and cooked. Then a horse-drawn stone wheel crushes the hearts before they are fermented in barrels, then twice distilled in clay or copper pots. During the fermentation process, fruits, herbs, and spices can be added, contributing to even more diverse flavor profiles between different bottles.
An Elixir of the Gods
Some attribute the Spanish conquistadors for introducing mezcal to Mexico though there is a more fun, mythological origin story: that an agave plant's heart was exposed, cooked, and its juices released after a strike of lightening, thus creating this "elixir of the gods." Regardless of its real origins, ever since it burst onto the scene, mezcal has been breathlessly covered in news outlets — the New Yorker ran a lengthy piece on it in 2016 and NPR did a story on the rise of mezcal benefiting Mexico's small producers — and hasn't stopped its worldly expansion.
More and more cocktail bars and their mixologists are turning to mezcal to create drinks that are incredibly inventive and full of character. "The first thing you’ll notice in any mezcal is the intense smoky flavor from the charring of the piña. Most drinkers are familiar with smoky spirits, usually scotch, but mezcal’s singular flavor profile accents that upfront smoke with sweet, floral, and sometimes fruity undertones," says Chris Shannon, mixologist at The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain, outside Tucson, Arizona. "The versatility of different mezcals make it a truly unique spirit."
How to Enjoy Mezcal
Given the location of The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain in the Sonoran Desert and its proximity to the U.S. border with Mexico (which is just 80 miles away), it makes sense for Mexican heritage to be widely represented in all aspects of the hotel, especially on the menus of its restaurants and lounges. According to Shannon, jalapeños, habaneros, tajin seasoning and limón pair well with mezcal's smokiness because their bold flavors are able to stand up to mezcal's complexity. He'll mix these ingredients with ginger beer for a twist on the Moscow mule: "perfect for the sultry summer days of southern Arizona."
Shannon's favorite way of introducing mezcal to guests is through a modified version of the classic Penicillin cocktail. Usually made with Scotch whiskey, he substitutes it for tequila, but adds half an ounce of mezcal that he'll float on top of the drink to give an initial impression of a mezcal-based concoction before diffusing into something sweeter. "I find it very approachable for guests who may be hesitant about mezcal or heavily smoky flavors," he says.
Across the world in Bahrain, says Riccardo Fabian Ciancilla, the beverage manager of The Ritz-Carlton, Bahrain has a different task of seamlessly blending Mexican and Middle Eastern flavors. "We have to be very careful with the balance of mezcal's flavor," he says. "To create recipes that evoke the essence of Bahrain, we combine it with ingredients like kenar, which closely resembles apples in taste and share, a sour ingredient commonly used for teas." However, at the hotel's Mexican restaurant Cantina Kahlo, Ciancilla does have free rein to go all out Mexico. Take the Mezcalita, for instance, which infuses elements meant to convey what a childhood in Mexico would have been like — staples like pineapple and chamoy are balanced out with hoja santa, lime, and mezcal.
"Mezcal is more spiritual than other spirits — it's representative of the culture. You can feel the history, the tradition," Ciancilla says. "Like in wine, every bottle of mezcal has a unique story."
Mix Your Own Mezcal Magic
Abeja Reina, courtesy of Chris Shannon, mixologist at The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain, outside Tucson, Arizona
· 1.5 oz reposado tequila
· 1 oz honey-ginger syrup
· 1 oz fresh-squeezed lemon juice
· 0.5 oz mezcal
*Combine the tequila, syrup, and lemon juice in a shaker. Shake gently until well mixed. Strain over fresh ice in an old-fashioned glass. Use a bar spoon to float the mezcal on top. Garnish with a strip of candied ginger.