Booze 101: All about mezcal

For bartenders, mixologists, cocktail lovers and collectors, mezcal has rapidly become the obsession above all other liquors. The smoky, agave-based spirit is adored for its unique profile, and finds its way into many cocktails on the local scene. So what is mezcal? And how is it related to tequila?

Here’s the basic lowdown.

The basics

  • Mezcal is any type of agave-based spirit produced in Mexico. So technically, tequila is a form of mezcal.
  • By law, mezcal must be between 80-100% agave. The designations blanco, reposado, and anejo are similar to those found with tequila.
  • Mezcal can be made anywhere in Mexico, but only eight states are certified producers with the designation A.O. (Appellation of Origin). The top producer of mezcal is Oaxaca.
  • A popular Oaxacan saying goes, "Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien, también,” which translates to "For every ill, mezcal, and for every good as well."
  • In Mexico, the tradition is drinking mezcal straight. The cocktail craze with mezcal is an American invention.

Mezcal vs. tequila. What’s the difference?

  • Mezcal can be produced from a variety of different agaves, over 30 at last count, but tequila can only be made from Blue Weber agave.
  • Tequila is typically produced by baking the piñas of the agave plant in autoclaves or stone ovens, whereas Mezcal is produced by slow roasting the piñas in pits lined with volcanic rock and covered with earth, lending it the characteristic smoky aroma and flavor. The underground cooking process generally takes three days, then the piñas are mashed and left to ferment with water in large barrels or vats.

Where to try Mezcal

Madison on Park: Three different mezcal flights are offered, all served with orange slices and agave worm salt in traditional copitas. The Village Flight, $18, features Nuestra Soledad, Del Maguey, and Mezcales de Leyenda. The Aged Flight, $23, includes Derrumbes, Yuu Baal and Delirio. The Agave Flight, $38, is the star bunch, featuring Bozal, Del Maguey and the ultra-rare Los Javis.

4622 Park Blvd., University Heights, 619.269.6566, madisononpark.com

Kettner Exchange: Beverage Director Steven Tuttle proudly hosts over 30 mezcals for discerning customers. He encourage drinkers to sip it straight or in cocktails, He states, “I love to use mezcal to balance out other spirits, or vice versa. Using sweeter agave spirits or even cachacas balance really nicely with a good smokey, earthy mezcal.”

2001 Kettner Blvd., Little Italy, 619.255.2001, kettnerexchange.com

Puesto: Along with 28 mezcal offerings and multiple flights, this Mexican hotspot offers the El Mezcalito cocktail with Vida Mezcal, guanabana (a fruit also known as soursop), housemade tamarindo soda, lime leaf and a charred orange garnish.

La Jolla: 1026 Wall St., 858.454.1260; downtown: 789 W. Harbor Dr., 619.233.8880, eatpuesto.com

Campfire: A cocktail agent in disguise, the Native Tongue is a clever look-alike of the bloody Mary combines mezcal, tequila, chili guajillo honey, lime, chocolate chili bitters and salt.

2725 State St., Carlsbad, 760.637.5121, thisiscampfire.com

Sycamore Den: The brainchild of bartender Taejon Myers, The Baewatch cocktail is a twist on the popular Paloma, crafted with mezcal, Aperol, fresh grapefruit juice, fresh lime juice, salt and pink peppercorn-cucumber cordial.

3391 Adams Ave., Normal Heights, 619.563.9019, sycamoreden.com

The Pony Room: Relax at the Rancho Valencia with two spirit-forward cocktails, including the Ancho Panza with mezcal, ancho chile liqueur, sweet vermouth, cynar and campari, and La Piñata with charred pineapple mezcal, serrano tequila, lime, cilantro, salt, pepper and agave.

5921 Valencia Cir., Rancho Santa Fe, 858.756.1123, ranchovalencia.com

Bankers Hill Bar + Restaurant: Beer fans can take it slow and low with easy drinking cocktail Low-Key Kickback, which is made with mezcal, lime, honey, grapefruit and radler beer.

2202 Fourth Ave., Bankers Hill, 619.231.0222, bankershillsd.com

Intrigued and looking for a field trip? Try the International Mezcal Festival, sponsored by the state of Oaxaca, and held every year in the capital, Oaxaca de Juárez. Visitors can try the range of mezcals made not only in Oaxaca, but other producing states like Guanajuato, Zacatecas, and Guerrero.

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