Looking for a new spirit to champion? Make some noise for Mezcal, says Laura Foster
–Published in Square Meal, Spring 2013–
Lock up your drinkers, there’s a new liquor in town. London is falling prey to the wiles of mezcal, a heady drink of mythic proportions, whose charms have caused the opening of some hot bars dedicated to it.
Mexican chain Wahaca has been leading the way, as founder Thomasina Miers is a huge advocate. ‘I was in Oaxaca, a key mezcal-producing region in Mexico, the first time I tried mezcal, and I fear that I had a little too much,’ remembers Miers. ‘Although it is a mellow drink, I remember that night being fairly wild. I was really struck by how passionately the locals felt about this spirit of theirs, that they felt it was a purer, more spiritual drink than tequila.’
The worm that turned
So what is mezcal, and why the sudden interest in it? You may have heard of it as being a fearsome drink that comes with a worm in the bottle. While this is sometimes true, the brands that come with floating crawly critters are to be avoided.
The best way to picture it is as a cross between a quality tequila and a smoky Islay malt whisky. It has a lot in common with tequila: both are made in Mexico from agave plants – which look like large pineapples – but there are a couple of key differences, the biggest of which is the way they are made. Agave plants need to be cooked before they are pressed for their juice, and whilst tequila production sees the agave steamed to do this, mezcal producers usually bury the plants in earthen pits and roast them, often resulting in a distinctive smoky flavour.
The other big difference is the type of agave used to make it: just like grape varieties, the different agave strains have myriad different characteristics. One of the most common is Espadin, which has sword-like leaves, a clean, pure taste and is similar to the Azul or blue agave [the only variety allowed in tequila production]. Another that crops up often and is a personal favourite is the Tobala, which grows in the wild, looks more like a large cabbage and is vegetal, spicy and tastes as wild as it grows.
Tasting mezcal is unlike drinking any other spirit, and can leave you breathless in pleasant surprise. ‘Mezcal is sometimes smoky, sometimes minerally, sometimes fiery… it is always primal and generally more grrr than most things you may have drunk before,’ enthuses Melanie Symonds, one of the managers behind Hackney mezcal bar Quiquiriqui (that’s Spanish for cockadoodledoo).
Miers provides a bit more perspective on the matter: ‘Although Mezcal used to have the reputation as being a rough drink, made in cottage industries, the newer ones coming out of Oaxaca are spectacular with a wonderful flavour of agave and that characteristic smokiness.’
Mezcal can be enjoyed neat – sip it, never shoot – from a small rocks glass. Symonds has transplanted the drinking habits of Oaxacans straight to Hackney: ‘The best way to enjoy mezcal is at our mezcaleria, straight up with a cold beer on the side and some wedges of orange with a sprinkle of worm salt.’ Yes, you heard right – the worm may not be sold in quality bottles, but it’s ground up into a fiery salt and served on the side.
Last summer, Wahaca’s Charlotte Street branch opened a first-floor mezcaleria, or mezcal bar, and next to follow was Quiquiriqui, situated underneath a kebab shop in Hackney, that set hipsters buzzing. Since then others are getting in on the act, such as Lupita East and Mezcal Cantina, although these bars are still limited in the range that they stock.
What is clear is that London is ready turn with that worm: the mezcaleria has become the late-night den of choice.
Top of the pops
Give any of these bottles a go for an introduction to the magic of mezcal
Del Maguey Arroqueño
Ron Cooper, founder of Del Maguey, sources single village mezcals and has arguably done more for mezcal than anyone else in the UK. The arroqueño agave plant is semi-wild, and this spirit offers a more savoury flavour spectrum, with smoked chicken mixing with black tea, jasmine, sandalwood, liquorice and stewed agave.
49% abv, 70cl bottle; £83.82, Amathus
The Ilegal range is one for those who are intimidated by mezcal’s oft-high abvs: all three are made to the relatively tame 40%. The Reposado sees the liquid enjoying four months in cask, resulting in a liquid with notes of agave, elderflower and soap, plus a hint of toast and peanuts on the finish.
40% abv, 50cl bottle; £47.93, Selfridges and Master of Malt
Mezcal Marca Negra Tobala
Made with the wild agave Tobala, this spirit is a rollercoaster ride, exhilarating and strange. Lapsang souchong tea, rubber, citrus and strong green agave give way to bonfire smoke and zippy wood. Fantastic.
48% abv, 75cl bottle; £106.70, Hedonism Wines
The house pour in Hackney mezcal bar Quiquiriqui, and for good reason. Green agave and soaked bamboo notes mix with salty seawater and wood smoke. Vanilla and marshmallow come through with some terracotta. Soft and sweet, with bags of character.
45% abv, 70cl bottle; £74.14, Selfridges and Master of Malt
Where to sample the wares:
A no-holds-barred paean to mezcal, found underneath a kebab shop in Hackney. The owners believe they now have the biggest mezcal selection of any bar in Europe, and are keen to spread the gospel through tasting samples and slushy cocktails. Be warned – the only other thing they serve is Mexican beer…
184 Hackney Road, E2 7QL
The Pink Chihuahua
Situated in the basement of Mexican Soho institution El Camion, where bartending legend Dick Bradsell is often found behind the stick, the primary spirit on offer here is tequila, but a lot of love is shown to mezcal too. Tuesdays sees tastings held dedicated to both spirits.
25-27 Brewer Street, W1F 0RR
Wahaca Charlotte Street
Head upstairs to find the first bar dedicated to mezcal in the UK. This smart hangout boasts Zapotec design flourishes throughout, not to mention a neat selection of mezcal, beers and tequila. Try their twist on a Blood and Sand cocktail, utilising tequila instead of the traditional scotch whisky.
19-23 Charlotte Street, W1T 1RL
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