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Mezcal: Tasting "ten yards of barbed wire"

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On a recent trip to San Miguel de Allende, I stopped into El Tinieblo, a tequila bar near the central square. They made me a good mezcal-based Paloma with grapefruit soda. The same mezcal, the El Tinieblo Joven (produced in Tamaulipas, it was the only bottle from outside the Oaxaca region) failed to impress anyone much, however — despite being made from three "wild" agaves and being double-distilled after cooking over mesquite. "You could sell this to somebody who doesn't know mezcal. It's beautiful for getting into it," thought Gourlay. But comments such as "metal, not mineral," "rubbery finish," and "faint smoke hiding behind a methyl alcohol smell" wouldn't convince too many first-timers.

The Fidencio Clásico redeemed the label in the panel's eyes and palates; it inspired the most discussion of any in the lineup with commentary such as "buttery, toasty … never anything like that before" (Peña), "brown sugar!" (Gourlay), "definitely a sipper; it rolls extremely well from side to side and front to back [of the mouth]"( Ware). Cocktail suggestions ran the gamut from lemon to cream and coffee, after which the last contender, Del Maguey's Vida, the entry-level offering from the acclaimed single-village series that arguably started the whole mezcal craze, fell flat.

"It works in cocktails," offered Gourlay in its defense, and in fact that is what the producer intended. But Andrews found the difference in mouth feel between this and the Fidencio to be revealing, and nobody seemed to get the predicted fruitiness, leaving us with two consensus winners out of the six: the Agave de Cortez Silver (also investigate their reposado, añejo, and extra añejo mezcales) and the Fidencio Clásico. And though the Fidencio Joven and the Del Maguey Vida were the least favorite, none approached the roughness suggested by Malcolm Lowry in Under the Volcano, who characterized the drink as "ten yards of barbed wire fence" — all the while consuming gallons of it.

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