***image3***Maybe, at the height of summer, when heat radiates off the earth and the sun bakes down on skin cells like a welding torch on a Barbie doll, it can be OK to drink white wines, rosés and wheat beers. Maybe. But if you're any kind of a self-respecting lush, you'll seize upon the weeks that follow Labor Day to turn up the dial on the quality of your liquor intake.
As the sun sinks low and leaves begin to smolder into deeper tones, a smoky beverage with some bite is more appropriate than a smooth, highly processed spirit. But Scotch is too predictable, bourbon is too expensive and grappa is just plain mean. What to do? Dig into the world of agave, kick past the thin veneer of tequila and get cozy with the rich flavors of contemporary mezcal.***image1*** You may remember mezcal, as far too many people do, as something vaguely painful and very stinky that comes with a dead worm at the bottom of the bottle. It turns out that was just a marketing ploy, albeit a successful one, aimed at American frat boys and pre-Viagra Japanese businessmen looking for a mystical hop up.
But artisanal mezcal, hand-crafted in small batches and only recently more widely available in the United States, has come a long way. If, for example, you had been lucky enough to be at the prestigious James Beard House in New York this past Aug. 22, you might have experienced Denver chefs Chris Douglas and Sean Yontz pairing mezcal with contemporary cuisine. A husky, river water-infused mezcal alongside a 24-hour roasted suckling pig tamale, smothered in mole. A mezcal with a tinge of sweetness and a deep, clay finish-from being distilled in clay pots called ollas de barro-put the final touch on a chorizo-wrapped scallop with blood orange habanero sauce. Mezcal: It's not just for getting drunk and getting into fistfights anymore.
The elixirs on offer at the James Beard meal were all from Del Maguey, a New Mexico-based importing business founded on a passion for the spirit rather than lust for money. It is operated by Taos artist Ron Cooper. Del Maguey, in a play on Scotch, calls its products "single village mezcal." Cooper travels to the mountainous, agave-rich state of Oaxaca in Mexico each year and negotiates with small producers in several villages to find out how many bottles they can commit to export. It might be 800, it might be 3,000. Each bottle is hand marked to indicate its place in the run.
***image2***A tequila is a mezcal, but a mezcal is not necessarily a tequila. Tequila is made from the blue agave around Jalisco, Mexico and its distillation has become a largely industrialized process, with the agave hearts central to the production often being "cooked" in stainless steel containers. Tequila's smoothness, rather than its natural flavor, is accentuated. Mezcal, by contrast, may be made from any number of different agave varietals that impart different flavors and characteristics. An artisanal mezcal begins with the agave hearts, or piñas, being burned in a wood fire in a conical stone pit. Later, the roasted, smoke-infused piñas are mashed on a millstone that is often drawn by burro. The mash is combined with water and left to ferment in a distilling vessel, which might be clay or wood. Mezcal, in Mexico, is held to a much higher standard of purity than tequila, as far as what goes into the fermentation vat. Many small producers are totally organic, although pursuing a certification can be a lengthy and difficult process. Del Maguey claims to be the first and only mezcal or tequila in the world with organic certification from the Organic Crop Improvement Association.
Mezcal continues to be a largely misunderstood spirit. When Carlos Camarena, master distiller for El Tesoro tequila, recently introduced a limited edition tequila at The Ore House and at the Coyote Café, he fed the myth that mezcal-and anything coming from an agave-has a relationship to the drug mescaline. This is why, he explained, "when you drink whiskey or vodka you can become very sad and maybe end the evening all alone and crying, but when you drink tequila, you just want to have fun!" Mescaline is an alkaloid that is found in the peyote cactus, but agave is not a cactus at all.
Better than paying attention to stories about hallucinogenic worms and mescaline-infused good times, is listening to a passionate devotee like Del Maguey's Cooper. He recently explained to Mezcal TV (www.mezcal.tv) the seven factors he believes influence the taste of a quality mezcal: the agave itself, the soil it grows in, the altitude at which it's fermented, the type of wood the piñas are cooked with, the quality and kind of water which is added to the mash, the time over which it is allowed to ferment and, finally, the distinct hand of the maker.
Mezcal is a complex, sometimes confrontational, sometimes seductive, liquor that defies the uniform, mass-produced politeness that so many spirits strive for in pursuit of customers. It is an altogether less predictable, earthy choreography of flavors and experience that, if Cooper's favorite mezcal toast is any indication, defies description: ¡saca palabras!