Eight premium mezcals usher in a new era for agave
Not so long ago, exposure to mezcal was limited to just a few less-than-premium selections. Thanks to some enterprising importers, however, in the last five years quality mezcal has become much more available, with connoisseurs starting to appreciate it as tequila's earthier, rougher-hewn cousin.
Crafted similarly to tequila, mezcal takes an extra step in which the piña of the agave plant is pit-roasted, imparting a smoky flavour not dissimilar to that found in peaty Scotches. Like Scotch, mezcal rewards experimentation.
Exploration yields a heady universe of subtle varieties based on agave varietal, process, distiller, and age. Here are some of our current favourites.
Del Maguey Ibérico
Del Maguey founder Ron Cooper teamed up with famed chef José Andrés to create Ibérico, $US200 (about $A270), a one-of-a-kind mezcal distilled with ham culled from free-range, acorn-fed, black-footed Spanish pigs.
It's a unique take on traditional Pechuga mezcal, which is redistilled with fruits, nuts, and a whole chicken breast. Yes, it sounds strange, but it tastes fantastic. Those pigs somehow produce a mezcal rife with beguiling scents (wet hay, carnation) and flavours (sea-salted caramel, jasmine tea). The lip-smacking finish is long and briny. (delmaguey.com)
Gracias a Dios Tepextate
The double-distilled Gracias a Dios Tepextate, $US75 (about $A100), is made with wild agave in Santiago Matatlán, Oaxaca, the nexus of mezcal production in Mexico. Fourth-generation mezcalero Oscar Hernández Santiago is a proponent of mezcal that boasts a strong, aromatic, and balanced flavour.
For all its complexity, what stands out most about Tepextate is its drinkability. This is a remarkably smooth and relaxing spirit that blends a pleasant earthiness with some serious citrus tang. (domaineselect.com)
Scorpion Mezcal Añejo 5 Year
Mezcal has traditionally been made in some of the poorest parts of Mexico and, as the locals say, juice in the barrel equals money in the barrel. For that reason, aged mezcal had rarely been made until recently when the category erupted.
Scorpion is one of the first añejo mezcals introduced to the U.S. market, and it is unquestionably one of the best. Big and bursting with roasted agave intensity off the bat, the Mezcal Añejo 5 Year, $US170 (about $A230) evolves to reveal a host of other notes including savory roasted meat, pineapple, charred wood, and honey. The French crystal decanter makes this bottle a collector's item. (scorpionmezcal.com)
Mezcal Los Javis Cerrudo
Given that cerrudo agave is a rare varietal that can take up to 25 years to fully mature, a mezcal such as the Mezcal Los Javis Cerrudo, $US170 (about $A230), is truly singular.
Production follows a traditional path — from stone oven roasting and tahona stone milling to naturally being fermented in wooden vats and distilled in small copper pots. On the palate, it tastes sweet and smoky, with notes of green pepper, toasted nuts, and sea salt. The finish is zesty with citrus. (facebook.com)
Koch el Mezcal Jabali
This powerful elixir is created from wild-grown jabali agave from Sola de Vega, Oaxaca. The plant can take decades to mature, making this mezcal a rare treat. Maestro mezcalero Albert Vásquez roasts the precious piñas over red oak with a little mesquite.
It's then hand-muddled, fermented with wild yeast, and distilled in clay pots. The finished product is smoky, savoury, and sweet. Consuming it is nothing short of hedonism. Koch el Mezcal Jabali, $US225 (about $A305), is one of the most complex mezcals being distilled today. (mezcalkoch.com)
Riazuleño Contemporaneo Mezcal Joven
A family-owned brand that has just recently found its way to liquor shelves in the U.S., Riazuleño Contemporaneo is made in the traditional manner using a combination of tobala and espadin agave varietals cooked three days in pits fired by volcanic rocks.
The distiller's Mezcal Joven, $US60 (about $A80) is a well-balanced, smooth, and earthy mezcal, with light floral hints, lemon zest, and a bit of burnt wood. (terlatowines.com)
Santo Diablo Mezcal Joven
This newcomer to the market makes for an ideal house mescal. Santo Diablo Mezcal Joven, $US45 (about $A60) is especially drinkable — not too aggressive, but certainly no pushover either — and takes beautifully to cocktails.
Its aromas of freshly mowed grass and jasmine are refreshingly enticing. On the palate grapefruit rind and banana present front and centre, with a sweet and easy finish. (santodiablo.com)
The Lucas family has been making mezcal in Oaxaca for three generations. Unlike most producers in the region, they eschew wood-fuelled pits for a steam cooking process, so there is only a scant trace of smokiness.
The bright, sweet espadin agave flavour shines through. Viejo Indecente ,$US45 (about $A60) is an ideal starter mezcal for tequila drinkers looking to expand their spiritual horizons. (viejoindecente.com)