Mezcal is a mysterious spirit that has been gaining a lot of followers in recent months in the culinary world. There is a lot of information and disinformation out there. So let’s start with a little education. Tequila is mezcal, but mezcal is not always tequila. Tequila can only be made from blue agave in 5 Mexican regions, most notably Jalisco. You can find silver, aged and barrel aged tequilas on the market. Most presentations oscillate between 36 – 40% ABV. It is very hard to find artisanal tequila since it has become such an industrialized product.
Mezcal differs in that it can be produced from more than 40 varieties of agave in 11 Mexican regions. Oaxaca is one of the most popular areas to produce this spirit, due to the variety of agave plants found there. There is some discussion about the fairness of limiting the designated mezcal origin to 11 districts, as it is made artisanally in 24. Most experts agree that the best mezcales are always silver and un-aged. Aging processes hinder the essence of the agave plant and therefore deduct character from the finished mezcal product.
There are a few indicators to look for to find the best mezcal available in your market:
- Steer clear of the worm. It is a marketing ploy, nothing more, nothing less.
- Proper mezcal must be at least 45% ABV. Anything lower is most likely a commercial production.
- Shake the bottle vigorously. If you get a froth of bubbles, it is a good quality product.
- When you take it home, perform the perfume test (more on this later).
Now back to the class. Our host, Juan Pablo Ines, was impressive in many ways. Young and charismatic, but also incredibly knowledgeable. Mezcal runs in his veins, a longtime family tradition. He explained that many things can be obtained from the agave plant: ropes, baskets, textiles, cooking supplies and of course, alcohol. Indigenous people who work with the agave plants in Mexico try to maximize the plants usage, because they respect it. “To fully understand the ingredient, it is important to smell it. To see it in action”. Our meal was a beautiful journey through the diversity of the agave plant and mezcal.
The first course was a colorful soup based on pulque. Pulque is obtained from fermenting the sap from the heart of the agave plant. It is a low proof alcoholic beverage rich in lactobacilli and vitamins. It is incredibly unorthodox to cook with pulque. The soup combined cilantro, sweet corn kernels and cubed mozzarella (Chef Ines would have generally used a Mexican queso) smothered in a pulque infused tomato chili broth.
Our second course was a Mixiote. A bundle of rabbit meat, mushrooms and adobo sauce, wrapped in outer layers of agave leaves. Though it sacrifices tradition, most mixiotes nowadays are wrapped with parchment paper in an effort to conserve the agave plant. Our final treat was a lovely truffle made with cacao from Chontalpa and a Veracruz coffee bean at its center. Our dishes were paired with artisanal mezcales from Casa de Lula. The savory dishes were served with an agave azul mezcal, however dessert was paired expertly with an orange infused mezcal.
I thought that the most interesting part of the class was when Chef Ines explained how to properly taste a mezcal. The process is a sensory saturation and it makes all the difference. First you conduct the perfume test. You take a drop on you fingertip and rub it on the inside of your wrist until it is dry to the touch. You then close your eyes and slowly and deeply inhale the scent it produces. Artisanal mezcales should give off aromas of honeys, soil and a slight smokiness.
It should be noted that mezcal is an intense sipping spirit. You must let your brain adjust to the knowledge of what you will be drinking. Chef Ines said you must kiss mezcal to drink it properly. The first sip, which is the most important, is just that, a cross between a kiss and a sip. First you take a small taste and roll it over your tastebuds, ensuring to cover the area between your tongue and teeth. Proceed to swallow. This first taste explodes over your palate but in a sense primes it for the rest of your drinking period.
Once the initial shock has passed, all consequent sips will play out the smoky tones or fruity nuances of the mezcal. Some people in the audience had trouble believing that the mezcal would become mellow, after sampling the first sip, which can be rather aggressive, but Chef Ines’ words held true. The Mezcales de Lula unfolded beautifully with each sip. I can safely say that I am now a fan of Mezcal and would love to look into the culinary exploration of this ingredient in my own kitchen in the future.