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Mezcal on the Cusp

Posted on  | July 21, 2015   Bookmark and Share
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The wild agave spirit is starting to become the bartender’s best friend.

When Del Maguey topped a list of international bartenders’ favorite brands in a survey conducted by UKtrade publication Drinks International, even mezcal fans were stunned. How did such a small brand from a tiny, often disregarded category catch the world’s fancy?

Mezcal in general is on an upsurge. Despite its reputation as an extreme spirit in many ways, it dovetails with a number of drink trends. It is often a rural product, primarily produced in small batches at farm-based palenques. It is distilled in copper or sometimes clay or wood stills, made from various agave varieties that are often harvested, roasted, crushed and cooked using antique methods. And, a key for bartenders: Its often intense, potent, smoky, deeply layered character is capable of standing out in drinks made with five and six ingredients.

All that suddenly puts mezcal in the sweet spot of spirits, says spirits educator Steve Olson, who has trained thousands of bartenders and informally represents Del Maguey and acts as a mezcal advocate: “Obviously we’ve come from mezcal being a product that very few people drank or even understood, even a cult thing, until it has now grown up and become its own category in the U.S. It’s exciting to see.”


Discovery Transplanted

While industrial mezcals exist, it’s the artisanal brands that capture passionate affection from bartenders. Ivy Mix discovered her passions for both bar culture and mezcal as a college student traveling in Guatemala. Now the owner of the Brooklyn bar Leyenda, her fondness of mezcal remains clear as it anchors three of the 16 listed drinks, and more than 20 brands are shelved behind the bar.

Drinks like Tia Mia (mezcal, Jamaican rum, orgeat, orange curaçao and lime)  test the limits of what consumers have come to expect from the rustic spirit. “The range of flavors and different intensities of mezcals make it very attractive as a mixing spirit,” says Mix. “Different producers are getting the flavor nuances of different agaves, making mezcal a great backbone for a cocktail.”

Houston’s The Pastry War—called a “mezcaleria” by co-owner Bobby Heugel of The Anvil fame—features more than 20 mezcals from nine different suppliers, each listed with notes for region, agave varietal and distiller.

Bars like these are considered the driving force behind a recent boomlet in mezcal: approximately 50,000 cases were sold in 2014, up by nearly 5%, according to Technomic Inc.’s recently published SpiritsTAB. While some retailers, like Old Town Tequila in San Diego, one of the country’s best-known brick and mortar and online agave sellers, have ramped up what they carry—Old Town stocks about 150, says owner Zack Romaya—most agave observers credit the growth to the small, growing group of avid aficionados and the turn by bartenders to the robust flavors.

“Our menu is structured by agave varietal as our approach is to provide people with some understanding, a wine perspective, even,” says Heugel.

It’s an approach also taken by John Henry, partner in El Buho Mezcal, now sold in about 20  states. “Mezcal will never be like tequila, and it’s hard to see a 50 state brand, but getting people interested in who is actually making it, where they live and how they produce these spirits in a craft fashion, makes mezcal more like wine, or craft spirits.” He pitches El Buho as an agave spirit for whiskey lovers, a commonality based on the smoke-bomb reputation of mezcal which some producers have mitigated.


On-Premise Progress

Many bars are finding new ways to use mezcal. Take St. Louis’s Público; most of the cocktail menu features updated takes on classic Latin-American cocktails, but the Clavo Oxidado puts a spin on the Rusty Nail, chef/owner Mike Randolph late father’s favorite drink. Beverage director Jeffrey Moll explains, “Both Scotch and mezcal have similar flavor profiles and share the common characteristic of smokiness.”

La Contenta in NYC is a microcosmic example of what’s going on: Alex Valencia, head bartender, says he orders about 10 cases of mezcal per week to keep up with demand, about twice his tequila volume. Mezcal has become the default base spirit for drinks like the Mezcalita, the house Margarita variant, and he stocks 35 different mezcals, including as many varietals as he can. His dream is mezcal-based as well: to make his Oaxaca Express cocktail (jalapeño-infused mezcal, orange Curaçao, lime, basil and cucumber) a classic.

Heugel says at his Anvil Bar & Refuge, one of the most popular house cocktails is The Brave (Del Maguey Chichicapa Mezcal, Tapatio Tequila, Averna Amaro, orange liqueur and Angostura bitters, served in a wine glass at room temperature). “It’s the only drink we’ve never taken off the menu, and the mezcal cuts right through the flavors of the amaro and orange and makes a great intro to the category.”


Keeping An Edge

Among producers, Judah Kuper has been bringing a variety of mezcals made by his father-in-law and one other small producer for two years, and at 20 states, the Vago brand has about reached its production limit, though he has been on the hunt for other local farmers who can contribute.

Kuper, a former ski and surf bum, says mezcals like Vago have found a market with wine and Scotch drinkers, especially chefs and foodies. “We joke about it, but great chefs and bartenders are drinking our stuff after their shifts and that’s accounting for a lot of our sales.” 

Retailer Romaya mentions  mezcal brands like Illegal, Alipus, Fidencio and Scorpion as better-known, and his site ranks Wahaka and Del Maguey as among the most popular of all his spirits.

The different varietals—Tobala, Espadin, Madre Cuishe, others—are starting to penetrate industry consciousness, as well as consumers looking for something new. “People are starting to understand that mezcal is smoky and tequila not—that’s awesome. But beyond that, they are only starting to find out what other flavors are in mezcal that vary from tequila,” says Heugel. El Buho’s Henry thinks tequila producers have taken notice, as some major brands have returned to using stone tahonas to grind their agaves and including the agave fibers, called bagasse, in their fermentations.

Mezcal brands that have been sold in the U.S.for a long time, like Monte Alban and Gusano Rojo haven’t been getting the attention the way newer iterations, like Montelobos, have. Brand creator Ivan Saldaña and U.S.brand ambassador Camille Austin say that mezcal still requires education and explanation at all levels of the supply chain to get both the trade and customers engaged. “The cornerstone of letting people know what Montelobos is, is educating first about the category and then secondary is discussing what makes Montelobos unique,” they agree.

Like many mezcal fans, Heugel is concerned about the fragile ecosystem that produces the agaves essential to quality mezcal, and worries that trying to emulate their neighbors in Jalisco, where tequila has grown to phenomenal volumes, would ruin mezcal’s hard-won mystique and essential spirit.

So, too, believes Alex Valencia at La Contenta: “There are so many now. Some are very good, but some seems like the owners want the category to become the next tequila, focusing on marketing and promotion. I’m a little worried to see if mezcal becomes like that.”  n


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