The agave spirit sister to tequila, mezcal brings a taste of Mexico that's too good for shots.
If you haven't been formally introduced to mezcal, chances are you soon will be. In cocktail bars, the agave spirit is supplanting the gin in Negronis to add smoky intrigue, bringing backbone to Sours and Old Fashioneds, and ousting its relative tequila from Mules and margaritas.
It's fuelling a Mexican wave of taquerias and mezcalerias: in Melbourne, Casa NOM and Taquito have recently joined established mez-tinations such as Mamasita, Hotel Jesus, Bodega Underground, Los Hermanos and Mesa Verde.
Agave craft spirits retailer Jorge Cervantes has such confidence in mezcal's magnetism, he's opening a Melbourne bricks-and-mortar outpost of his online Agaveria store. Mezcal will dominate its shelves.
Sip a few neat, and you'll see why. Besides the enticing smoke, mezcal roams a universe of flavours, from tropical fruit to spicy aromatics, flowers, cheese and chocolate. Says Cantina OK! bar manager Alex "Happy" Gilmour: "Mezcal is about the most interesting thing on the planet. The flavour molecules are so complex, with intensity and flavour that's unparalleled."
Why? It's all about provenance, and a centuries-old production process that's remained steadfastly impervious to modernisation. No other spirit, including tequila, boasts such impeccable artisan credentials.
It starts with the agave, a plant that can take up to 25 years to mature. Tequila comes from just one variety (blue) but mezcal is made by hundreds of village producers, harvesting from more than 30 types across nine Mexican regions.
Mezcaleros then bake their agave in wood-fired earthen pits, grind them on a millstone powered by horse, bull or donkey, before distilling the mash in clay, copper, or maybe even a hollowed-out tree trunk. For special batches, that vessel might also contain fruit or meat – an Iberico ham, perhaps, or a Creole turkey.
The result: genuinely limited-edition liquids that speak eloquently of their origins. Mezcal is a real-deal craft spirit, and possibly the last of its kind. And in a world where "craft" is often a concept created by marketers in a beverage giant's boardroom, this commands respect.
Three to try
1. Mezcal Nuestra Soledad La Compania Ejutla, 750ml, $90.99
A great start to your mezcal journey, this light-bodied and fruity expression with floral and green pepper notes and subtle minerality is from a range of six single-village mezcals showing the diverse variations of one agave type. "The range highlights the influence of terroir," says Jorge Cervantes.
2. Mezcal El Jolgorio Barril, 750ml, $181.99
El Jolgorio translates to "there's a party in my town", and your palate's invited. A complex balance of sweetness, smoke and citrus, earthy minerality and hints of cumin, caraway and bergamot courtesy of 100 per cent wild-harvest Agave barril.
3. Black Snake ASp Joven, 500ml, $85
The Beale family produces this smoky-sweet, delicate spirit by hand and sustainably, with wild Agave americana near Narrabri, NSW. Although geography forbids the name, ASp delivers decidedly mezcal flavour and complexity.