Mezcal: Tasting "ten yards of barbed wire"
Published: December 19, 2012
These days, where there's smoke there's likely … a bartender. 1919's Stephan Mendez recently offered me a sample of rye infused with smoke from a PolyScience smoke gun using wood chips. It was intense, and though I wouldn't want to sip it solo, its use in a cocktail seemed to have serious potential.
Smoke in spirits is nothing new, of course; many are the fans of the smoky-peaty single-malt Scotches from Islay — Laphroaig being the chief performer or offender, depending on your point of view. Agave aficionados have also come to expect a smoky component in some tequilas, but it's mostly associated with mezcales, where smoke is at least in part a result of underground roasting. At a recent Current-choreographed mezcal-tasting hosted by Jeret Peña at Brooklynite, the panel had expected to be running for the fire exits in order to escape the smoke bombs. Not necessarily so.
Mezcal is an ancient and often untamed spirit with ancestral links to the even more-rustic, fermented pulque. By law, it can be made from any of a number of agave subspecies and in several locations in Mexico; in practice, it's distilled principally in Oaxaca from the spiky espadín agave (blue agave is the principal tequila base), though some producers are seeking out wild agaves from Oaxaca's rugged slopes and valleys. Yes, there has traditionally been a worm in the bottle — put there, we're told, to indicate that the bottled spirit was at just the right level of alcohol to preserve it, but the critter is absent from most modern bottles. There was a worm in only one of our six. There was another creature in one of the others.
The panel consisted of myself and Scott Andrews from the Current, Jeret Peña and Rob Gourlay from Brooklynite, and Chris Ware, formerly of Bohanan's and soon to become head bartender and manager at Jesse Pérez's Arcade in the Pearl. The mezcales, all jóvenes, or un-aged, were selected by Peña and are available at Brooklynite. We began with one of two Fidencios in the lineup, the Sin Humo. All of Fidencio's espadin agaves are harvested at full moon, and most are double-distilled. Uniquely, the Sin Humo piñas (the trimmed agaves) are baked in a "radiant oven" specifically designed not to convey a smoky quality. It works. "There's a lot of flavor missing … it's sort of like a harsh pisco," commented Ware. Peña agreed, while picking up a little brioche. Andrews found Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray Tonic.
"Para todo mal, mezcal. Para todo bien, también," goes an old Mexican saying. (For everything bad, mezcal. For everything good as well.) With the second in the lineup we began to think that might be true. The Agave de Cortez Silver Mezcal struck Peña as "a sipper; there's minerality right off." "There's a light smoke on the nose but it comes across more on the palate," said Ware, comparing the Cortez to a lightly smoky Jura single malt. Yours truly found the smoke to be almost bacon-y. We might have expected another kind of protein taste in bottle number three, the Scorpion Silver Mezcal. Yes, there's a de-stingered scorpion in the bottle, but venom wasn't anybody's impression. "Cookie dough," offered Andrews. "… with a hell of a lot of spice," added Peña. "It's spicy like a rye; it will stand out in a cocktail," summarized Gourlay.