Few spirits are more shrouded in myth and mystery than mezcal. An outlaw's drink of ill repute, mezcal has further suffered a long history of lax production standards that allowed chemicals to share bottle space with pure maguey, or agave, liquor. And then there's the ubiquitous worm; introduced into bottles as a marketing gambit in the 1950s, it offers no demonstrable hallucinogenic properties, despite popular perception otherwise.
Unfortunately, mezcal's bad reputation has steered many people away from what is, in fact, a delicious drink. But recent changes in Mexican law and the emergence of a few super-premium producers should help mezcal take its rightful place in the pantheon of fine liquors. An extremely pale color, a potent smokiness and tremendous complexity distinctively characterize mezcal.
Technically speaking, the term "mezcal" covers a number of fermented and distilled maguey liquors. Under this broad canopy falls tequila, to which the Mexican government long has applied rigorous labeling standards. But only within the last decade has the government held the particular liquor named "mezcal" to similar standards.
Mezcal now must be made from 100% maguey and indicate the region of origin on the label. No bottles containing chemical admixtures may be marketed as mezcal.
The best of the new mezcals hail predominantly from the province of Oaxaca, where local varieties of maguey abound.
Upon reaching maturity, maguey hearts are set to grill or roast over hot rocks in a stone pit, and covered with a blanket of woven leaves and maguey spikes. They're dried in the sun for several days, then stone-ground to extract the mash. In a little water, the maguey's own yeasts spark fermentation, after which it is distilled and laid to rest before bottling. The grilling/roasting process gives mezcal its characteristic smokiness and makes it different and more complex than tequila.
Among the premier distributors of super-premium mezcal is Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal. The brainchild of a U.S. expatriate, Del Maguey works with artisan producers in specific pueblos throughout Oaxaca to offer separately designated bottlings. Each village is located in a different part of the state, sits at a different altitude, and uses a different variety of maguey. Like elite-level wines, each expresses the climate, soil and particularities of its place.
While these mezcals offer unparalleled quality, none is cheap - they usually start above $50. Moreover, Del Maguey has drawn legitimate criticism for converting a cultural practice - the making and consuming of mezcal in a specific place - into a gentrified commodity to be consumed elsewhere, although local producers do reap significant financial compensation.
You also can make the classic Oaxacan mixed drink, a Donají, by mixing mezcal with orange juice and grenadine in a glass rimmed with chili powder and salt.
The combination of rigid production standards, super-premium offerings and a uniquely compelling flavor is sure to bring mezcal into new prominence in the years ahead. The prompt, pleasant and potent mind-and-body intoxication it offers will only enhance its popularity. Be brave, break stereotypes and give mezcal a try.