Mezcal might be a bit of a mystery to Aussie drinkers. It is often compared to tequila, but we don’t do shots of it at 21st birthday parties, nor do we know a catchy 1950s banger with its name. Mezcal is having a moment in Sydney right now, with dedicated space in the spirits menu and as a welcome addition to our Negronis.
However, there are some things you should know before diving head first into its cool, smoky waters.
To demystify this spirit, I enlisted the help of two experts: Phillip Bayly, the former owner of Sydney’s first tequila bar (the now-closed Café Pacifico) and founder of Agave Love This Town, an organisation dedicated to the promotion and protection of agave-based spirits in Australia, and Max Dennis, the acting General Manager of one of our favourite Mexican restaurants and bars (and one with a seriously extensive tequila and mezcal menu), Mejico.
So let’s start this crash course.
What is mezcal?
Mezcal is a Mexican spirit made from the agave plant. You may recognise it through its smoky flavour (but the experts will agree it’s far more diverse).
It’s important to note that mezcal is a region-specific beverage (think champagne from Champagne) and, according to regulations, can only be produced in a denomination of origin areas.
What is the difference between tequila and mezcal?
Mezcal and tequila are both made from agave in Mexico, so you can understand why they’re considered spirit siblings. One major difference, however, is that tequila is made from only one species of agave while mezcal can be made from roughly 30 species.
“Tequila must be produced using Blue Weber agave, must be double-distilled and be produced in one of five states in Mexico,” Dennis confirms.
“While Mezcal still has restrictions, it can be produced in a much larger area of the country, with a vast array of different types of agave.”
Another important distinction between the two is that the tequila we know is more likely to be produced industrially, while mezcal is typically made in artisanal distilleries in remote locations.
“As an example, in 2016 the tequila industry produced 273 million litres from about 165 distilleries, the mezcal industry only produced 2.73 million litres but from literally hundreds of tiny producers,” says Dennis.
Why isn’t mezcal mainstream?
Bayly and Dennis agreed that the relative anonymity of mezcal in Australia is largely due to it being a small-batch beverage. It is made by boutique brands who don’t have the budgets for exporting or marketing.
“Mezcal is one of the most expensive spirits to produce in the world and it is only recently that we [in Australia] have had quality mezcal available in bottle shops, and that still remains very limited with only a few in each capital city,” Bayly says.
“Mezcal, until recently, was limited to small brand owners with limited marketing budgets, but now companies such as Pernod Ricard, Diageo, Cuervo and Campari have bought up brands, so we are likely to see more mainstream promotion.”
How do I pick a quality mezcal?
As mentioned, good mezcal is expensive. Be prepared to pay over AUD $100 for a good bottle.
Another tip is to look at the alcohol by volume (ABV) content. The rule of thumb is to only look at mezcal with at least 45 percent ABV. Experts will also look at the producer, region, agave species and batch size for more information, but this will likely mean nothing if you’re an amateur.
Like all drinks, finding a mezcal to your liking is a tasting game. If you chat to a bartender, you should be able to find a mezcal that matches a spirit you usually drink.
How should you drink mezcal?
Firstly, DO NOT drink mezcal as a shot! If you’re drinking it straight—as most enthusiasts do—it is sipped like a whisky.
You might also enjoy a mezcal-based cocktail. If it’s not on the cocktail list, you might consider substituting a spirit in a classic cocktail for mezcal, like a mezcal Negroni or margarita.
Having said that, a quality mezcal, particular artisanal and ancestral (made in traditional clay pots or stills) varieties should be enjoyed straight in a veladora glass.
“In principle, it is best enjoyed in a glass that is short and open to let the spirit breathe,” he said. “It is best to avoid a tapered glass such as a wine, champagne flute or similar due to the high concentration of alcohol in the glass.”
What food should you enjoy it with?
“Mezcal will pair well with a variety of food depending on what Mezcal you have,” Dennis explains.
“Cheese is a good one, along with seafood and lighter, white meats such as chicken and pork. One of our halloumi dishes at Mejico is glazed with Mezcal and we also often use it in desserts to add character and depth.”
�� RIDICULOUS �� BREAK EVEN BOTTLE. @delmagueymezcal IBERICO. Made using the legendary acorn fed ham, expect jasmine, dark fig and slate like minerality. And don’t expect to pay $8 for it anywhere, ever again. Get down before it runs out TONIGHT ONLY #agave #agavelove #sunday #sundayfunday #sydney #mexico #mezcal
Where in Sydney should I go to drink mezcal (and mezcal cocktails)?
Cantina OK!, CBD
Chula, Potts Point
Tio’s Cerveceria, Surry Hills
Maybe Frank, Surry Hills
Maybe Sammy, The Rocks
Barrio Cellar, CBD
Bopp and Tone, CBD
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Image credit: Getty.