Mezcal is not only the name of tequila’s smokier, more rustic cousin, but it’s also rightly applied to the spectrum of agave-based spirits produced across Mexico, of which tequila is the most famous example. Mezcal is tequila’s smokier, more rustic cousin that is flourishing in the U.S. If you compared it to whiskey, it would be the scotch of the category- a high-quality, often overlooked specialty spirit with special distinguishing flavor.
With far fewer mezcals than tequilas available in the US, and as our experience with mezcal is narrow, we looked up our friend Courtenay Greenleaf, the Tequila Librarian for La Biblioteca at Zengo NYC. The first thing Greenleaf said was that she finds her title of Tequila Librarian “limiting. There’s so much else — mezcal, sotol, pechuga,” she says, naming several agave-based spirits.
“Mezcal can be made in seven states from 23 types of agave,” says Greenleaf, “but most [mezcal] made from the Espedin variety in Oaxaca.” Even so, she says that, “because each village has their own traditions and style, mezcals have many different personalities.”
Producers across Mexico have even taken to bottling “Single Village” offerings to showcase stylistic and traditional differences from region to region. The smokiness of mezcal comes from the traditional underground roasting of the piñas (the heart of the agave crushed for its juice). While this stronger flavor can be a barrier for some people, it hasn’t hindered a flourishing trade in the U.S.
Courtenay Greenleaf’s Flight of Mezcal
Fidencio Sin Humo – A Sweeter, Citrus-y Starter Mezcal
The Fidencio Sin Humo, a blanco whose name means “without smoke” is made with piñas cooked in ovens rather than a pit to keep the smoke off of them and to allow, Greenleaf says, “the purest taste of the agave to show through.” This is non-traditional, but she mentions that, “the distillery’s young owners also harvest biodynamically and ferment their aguamiel, their honey water [the juice from the crushed piñas], without the piña pieces.” All of this gives the mezcal a “citrus nose and palate with some quince nuances, and makes it a little sweeter than tequila.”
Fidencio Clásico – Balanced Smokiness
Next she suggests the Classico from the same distillery, which is made from pit-roasted piñas. “Because these two are made the same except for the treatment of the agave,” she says, “tasting these two together shows what is possible from the Espedin agave in new and old treatments.” She goes on to say that “the flavors in the glass are more pronounced on the Classico, but the smoke is integrated, and it’s a wonderfully layered.”
Ilegal Añejo – Richer, Sipping Mezcal
Next she takes us to an añejo from Ilegal that’s aged 13 months in a couple of types of barrels. “There hasn’t been much of a tradition of wood-aging for mezcal,” says Greenleaf, “but the wood here creates layers of toffee, tobacco and leather, making it a perfect winter sipping mezcal.”
Greenleaf also noted distillery Mezcales de Leyenda, which, she says, “is making mezcals that taste like an agave rye whiskey.”
There is so much more to drink and learn. If you want to continue on this journey, and find yourself in NYC, go see Courtenay at La Biblioteca, inside Zengo NYC at 40th and 3rd.