For anyone fortunate enough to have visited Mexico, the intoxicating allure of mezcal is familiar. It's not just what's in the glass; it's the stories behind the small-batch spirit that capture the imagination. Many producers are so remote they go many years without visitors and some consider the agave plant used to make mezcal part of their family.
That romance is what appealed to Sydney-based Chilean chef Liber Osorio when he first visited Mexico. "I became good friends with some of the mezcaleros [mezcal distillers] in Oaxaca and fell in love with the drink."
Australians are also cottoning on, although mezcal's cousin, tequila, is still the more popular drink.
For the uninitiated, the difference between mezcal and tequila can be confusing. In a nutshell, tequila and mezcal are both distilled from the agave plant. But mezcal can be produced from approximately 50 species of agave, while tequila can only be made from the "agave tequilana", otherwise known as blue agave. Mezcal production is also less industrialised and the spirit is therefore more expensive and harder to find.
Luke Frost, general manager of Proof Drinks which distributes Cazcabel Tequila in Australia, likens both spirits to a good scotch whisky. "The flavour profile can be very dependent on the region the agave was grown in (highland or lowland) or the agave species where mezcal is concerned," he says. "The production method also has a large influence on the flavour profile."
Smokiness is the first thing new mezcal drinkers often notice but, just like wine, the more you drink, the more nuance you begin to notice, says Osorio.
During 2021, Osorio and Mexican business partner Pablo Galindo Vargas opened artisanal mezcal bar Santa Catarina in Sydney as well as cocktail bar Casa Merida and restaurant Londres 126, named after artist Frida Kahlo's famed address in Mexico City during the 1940s.
Rare, wild agave mezcals, including the bar's own Balta made in collaboration with Oaxacan mezcalero Rodrigo Martinez, and high-quality boutique tequilas are part of the offering at Londres 126.
Frost is unsurprised by the boom here. "Mixologists have always had an admiration for agave-based spirits," he says. "But for consumers, overcoming the perception of a poor-quality product used for shots has been the biggest hurdle."
Quality is everything when you're buying. Frost says producers who cut corners often use younger agave, which doesn't have the flavour profile of fully matured plants, normally harvested after seven to eight years. Buyers can check product details for this information.
Part of mezcal's appeal is sustainability. "Mezcal represents everything behind that," Osorio says. "It's seasonal and generally made by small, family-owned businesses. Most of the time it is made with indigenous, Fairtrade, organically grown ingredients. It ticks a lot of boxes."
Jeremy Blackmore and Alex Dowd, co-owners of Sydney's micro mezcal bar Cantina OK!, are also dedicated to educating Australian drinkers about the magic of mezcal.
They make an annual pilgrimage to Mexico in search of artisanal bottles, visiting distillers in backstreets, the hills of Michoacan and along the coast of Jalisco. There, out of jerry cans and bottles, they taste rare gems and bring back small volumes to serve at Cantina OK!, which opened in February 2019.
The space, formerly a single-car garage, fits 20 people, who come for the house margarita (tequila with a dash of mezcal), flasks of micro-batch mezcal, and a mezcal-based seltzer collaboration with Grifter Brewing Co.
For their efforts, Cantina OK! was ranked number 23 in the 2021 World's 50 Best Bars awards.
Despite travel restrictions putting a pause on trips to Mexico, carefully forged relationships with producers in far-flung corners of the globe ensure Blackmore and Dowd still get their hands on the rare stuff, including a wild agave example called Belato, being poured for the first time this weekend. "The family we purchased it from are the only people that make mezcal with this variety," Blackmore says. "In all our time travelling Mexico we have never tried one. It's made at a distillery called Paradise [El Paradiso], which is pretty apt."
"Since opening in November 2020, we've definitely had more customers coming in with more questions," says Caitlin Surrey, manager of Mexican venue Tres a Cinco in Melbourne's CBD. The cocktail list includes eight margaritas, some made with mezcal, as well as agave-distilled products rarely seen in Australia such as raicilla (a spirit from the south-western part of Jalisco), sotol (produced only in Chihuahua, Coahuila and Durango) and pechuga (traditionally produced for celebratory occasions).
"We don't go too much for the mainstream," says Surrey. "A lot of the mezcals are made with old family recipes passed down from generation to generation.
"When we first opened, Mexico was hit with the start of the pandemic and a lot of their supply chains were cut off so we are still piecing our list together and are constantly collecting and finding new things. We can't wait to get back over there and do more exploring."
The Tres a Cinco team works closely with Howard Baynie from Agave Lux who imports small-batch mezcal from Mexico. Melbourne-based Baynie also runs ticketed masterclasses and an online agave school to educate people about the history and production process and ultimately erase any barriers to trying mezcal.
"Mezcal will soon be as complex and exploratory as the wine category," says Baynie. "The history, romance and stories are as exhilarating as wine but mezcal is so artisanal that we often buy it all and once it's gone, it's gone."
Even the zero-alcohol beverage industry is aboard the agave train. In November, Lyre's released its new Agave Blanco and Agave Reserva products. The team, including flavour architect David Murphy, spent nearly four years perfecting the recipe. "We don't release anything unless it tastes like the real deal," says founder Mark Livings.
It's all good news for consumers.
"We haven't been able to travel much lately so the boom of mezcal in Australia is only just starting," Osorio says.
Six ways to make friends with mezcal
Burrito Fiestero Cenizo
This beauty delivers pronounced fruity, citrus and sweet aromas and is less smoky across the palate. It's an organic, sustainably produced sipper made in Nombre de Dios, Durango. $89.99, agavelux.com.au
This brand offers three mezcals, each from different regions, made by different producers and types of agave. "It's like getting a pinot, a shiraz and a cabernet sauvignon from different parts of Australia," says mezcal guru Howard Baynie. $99, agavelux.com.au
Mezcal De Leyendas
Boasting more than 15 mezcals, this range is a great way to explore every approved mezcal region and agave variety. Work through the offering and see what you like. $129-$399, agavelux.com.au
This drink at Melbourne bar Tres A Cinco is a great entry-point to agave spirits. The mix of Peloton Mezcal, lime and agave allows the nuanced flavours of the spirit to sing. 3-5 Hosier La, Melbourne, tresacinco.com.au
Alipus San Andres
Head to Sydney's OK! Cantina to try this Oaxacan mezcal. When the bar's co-owners visited this distillery, the owner proudly showed them a photo album of giant agaves and proclaimed, "Mezcal is my family". A mix of two different varietals, the liquid has a bright berry flavour mixed with smoky and earthy notes. Council Place, Sydney, okokok.com.au
Mezcal Tommy's Margarita
Try mixing this cocktail at home. Take 50ml of your favourite mezcal, add 30ml of freshly squeezed lime juice and 15ml of agave syrup, shake with ice and pour over fresh ice in a tall glass.