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Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire

Production of tequila’s rough-and-tumble cousin heats up

Author LAYLA SCHLACK

IN MEXICO, the official party line is “For everything bad, mezcal — and for everything good, too,” but when it comes to Oaxaca’s revived mezcal production, it’s almost all good.

Though the smoky spirit has been around for centuries, bar luminaries like Jim Meehan of New York’s award-winning cocktail den PDT have started crafting menus around it in only the past few years. In 2009, 50,000 people turned up to the annual Festival of Mezcal in Oaxaca. And just last year country singer Toby Keith released his own line of Oaxacan mezcal called Wild Shot. It’s safe to say the spirit has arrived.

This surge of interest in mezcal didn’t come from out of nowhere, however. It wasn’t until 1995 that regulations to define mezcal (80 percent agave spirit, as opposed to just 49 percent for tequila) were put into place by the Mexican government. Over the next decade, as labeling conventions were established and boutique distilleries earned licenses, North Americans began to learn more about the spicy south-of-the-border spirit, and a movement was born.

Aficionados will tell you that the only mezcal worth drinking is the small-batch stuff, which is produced almost exclusively by independent agave plantations/distilleries called palenqueros that slow-roast the agave hearts in underground ovens, which gives the spirit its peppery flavor. Most towns in Oaxaca have several family producers, such as Del Maguey, Los Amantes and Ilegal, and they’re happy to share.

The traditional way to drink mezcal is to place a mix of salt, chili powder and fried moth larvae on your tongue and then sip a shot. The strong kick will help you forget everything bad — though, if you’re not careful, some of the good, too.

One Response to “Where There’s Smoke, There’s Fire”

  1. Pedro Says:
    January 2nd, 2012 at 11:12 am

    Nice piece. I bought a bottle of mezcal for a new years party I attended. When I brought it in, almost everyone thought it was a cheap spirit, but after a brief explanation, they all tried it with a different attitude. The mezcal was all gone before the New Year.
    In NYC is becoming more popular, the one I bought is called Mezcales de Leyenda, which is very popular in Mexico City and I found it in a spirits store that exposed a huge mezcal selection.

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