Drinkers all across the country are finally figuring out what discerning bartenders in New York, LA and Chicago have known for years. No longer just tequila's smoky cousin, mescal (or mezcal) has recently started popping up in award-winning cocktails, gaining new fans among drinkers who have come to appreciate its earthy nuances.
What it is (and isn't!)
Both tequila and mescal are distilled from the agave plant (also called maguey in certain parts of Mexico). One significant difference between the two is that whereas tequila can legally be made from one species of agave, mescal producers have historically experimented with a wider selection of plants.
Traditional mescal production involves harvesting the hearts of the agave plant — known as a piña for its resemblance to a pineapple — and smoking them in underground pits. The hearts are then unearthed and mashed, usually on a stone pulled by a donkey, and distilled into clear liquor.
Unlike other liquors, un-aged mescal (mescal joven or mescal blanco) is favored by connoisseurs as a purer representation of the spirit. Aged mescal does exist, however, and is sold in reposado (aged up to one year) and añejo (aged more than one year) varieties, much like tequila.
Hold the worm, please
The sheer variety of mescal has led to a serious cult of appreciation stateside. Rather than simply pound back a shot, take the time to experience the nuances of its many different varieties, from the widely available espadin, made from the species of agave of the same name, to the elusive wild tobala varieties, produced in limited quantities once a year.