It’s one of Mexico’s oldest spirits, but has always played second fiddle to the more ubiquitous tequila. But now the tide could be turning for mezcal. It might just be getting – whisper it – trendy.
The smoky spirit has been quietly gaining fans among foodies worldwide, as appetites for authentic Mexican food and drink have grown.
Both tequila and mezcal are made from agave cacti, also known as magueys. But the specifications for each are quite different.
Where tequila must contain a majority (at least 51%) of steamed blue agave, mezcal is a bit more freewheeling. The spirit can be made from any variety of cactus – and it is roasted, rather than steamed.
“It is the roasting that gives mezcal its smokiness,” said Elisandro Gonzalez-Molina, a co-founder of mezcal producers Mezcal Tosba. “And each type of agave will give you a different flavor.”
The enterprising Mr Gonzalez-Molina responded to the rise in demand for the more traditional drink. And while tequila still makes up the bulk of his business, he is doing a decent trade in mezcal.
He produces his Mezcal Tosba with his cousin and business partner. It’s made in small batches in the Sierra Norte, about 90 miles north east of Oaxaca City. They employ the same production methods as their ancestors did around 500 years ago. Namely, using natural fermentation and a gigantic tractor-pulled stone called a tahona to crush the agave.
Summing up the appeal of mezcal to the more discerning consumer, Gonzales-Molina explains, “Tequila has been made in large productions, and it is very industrial. Mezcal is artisanal.”
Inevitably, some tequila producers have responded to this clamour for authenticity and are reverting to more traditional production methods themselves. Patron, one of the biggest, is increasing its use of the tahona for its Patron Roca brand, which sells for $70 to $90 per bottle.
But with mezcal priced at between $30 and $75 a bottle (depending on age, blend and brand), tequila may yet have a fight on its hands.