Posted on | October 6, 2011
Written by | Kristen Wolfe Bieler
Toby Keith took his first sip of mezcal many moons ago, when he was on the road with his first band in Brownsville, Texas on the border with Mexico. “One of the first things we did when we got down there was eat the local Mexican food and drink the ‘Mexican moonshine’ they were making right across the border,” recalls the Oklahoma native. “It was so smooth and had none of the bite or pungent flavors many people associate with tequila.”
Fast forward several decades: While Keith’s career has exploded (he was recently ranked by Forbes as the top earning country performer), the mezcal category in the U.S. remains infinitesimal, lurking in tequila’s shadow.
That could soon be changing, thanks to Toby Keith’s Wild Shot, a new artisanal mezcal made in the traditional way right down to the worm in the bottle. “I have spent a lot of time in Mexico over the years and learned that while all tequila is mezcal, not all mezcal is tequila. Mezcal is what the locals drink, it’s made with the wild agave—for me, it’s the authentic thing,” Keith describes. So when he made the decision to create his own spirit, mezcal was the only choice.
Keith knew the learning curve would be big. While there has been a growing interest in premium mezcal amongst mixologists, the category is still largely unknown in the U.S. “We knew we would have to educate people about what it is, we knew it had to be premium, and we knew it had to have the worm,” recalls Keith.
‘It’s All About The Worm’
Wild Shot is made with 100% green agave which is found in the wild, as opposed to the Blue Weber agave used to make tequila. The agave hearts are cooked over wood logs, as opposed to the baking technique employed in tequila production, which imparts a rich, smoky taste. Because of this, mezcal has tons more flavor than tequila, Keith believes, and is designed for sipping: “You don’t see many people sitting around sipping tequila, but that is the best way to drink this stuff. You don’t have to follow it with salt and lime, and you don’t have to mix it in a Margarita. I put it in the freezer and drink it cold straight up—it takes on a thicker, syrupy texture which is delicious.”
Instead of putting people off, the worm has become a big selling point for Wild Shot. “We’ve been educating people that the worm is unique to mezcal—and it is there to be eaten. Folklore says when eaten, the worm acts as an aphrodisiac.” That isn’t the only legend: Many believe 16th century warriors drank mezcal when they defeated their enemies.
Spreading the Word
When asked who Wild Shot’s target consumer is, Keith replies frankly: “Anyone who will drink the stuff.” It turns out that there are, in fact, a lot of people who want to drink it. Since its March release, Wild Shot has quickly established itself as the number-one premium mezcal in the U.S. market. (It’s been a big hit in Keith’s chain of restaurants, Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill, too).
As for that learning curve, Keith is finding it fairly easy to overcome. “When people think they are drinking tequila, they are surprised when they taste Wild Shot because it is so different. But when you describe it as merely a clear spirit and people approach it with an open mind, they love it. I’ve had many tell me it tastes like single malt Scotch.” Which is how it should be consumed, he insists: “Mezcal is the new kid on the block, so it doesn’t get the opportunity to be poured straight. I wouldn’t recommend shaking and straining it with ice—it really dilutes the flavor.”