My dad was a whiskey drinker, and when I started to travel overseas, I learned to bring him back a bottle of the finest single malts I could find – Laphroaig, Glenlivet – anything I could grab from Duty Free that matched the requirements. We’d pull up chairs under the wisteria in the backyard and share a glass. I’d breathe it in and marvel at the richness of the flavours – peat, earth and honey – but despite my best efforts I could never summon the sophistication to make whiskey work for me.
When I left Australia to live in New York, a friend introduced me to tequila, whose flavour and brutal efficiency seemed like a marginally healthier option to the recreational chemicals on offer in the city. However, it wasn’t until I discovered mezcal that I truly appreciated how complex spirits can be.
Tequila and mezcal are both based on distillation of the hearts of the turgid-leaved agave plant. Tequila is technically a subclass of mescal, limited to the products of blue agave, while mezcal can come from one of 30 different agave species.
If you’re throwing back mezcal shots you’re missing some of the most refined flavours you can find outside of deeply aged single malt whiskeys.
Unlike the sharp and direct nature of tequila that makes it a favourite in shot-glasses, mezcal is smoky and complex thanks to the distillation process that involves roasting the hearts of the agave plant. If you’re throwing back mezcal shots you’re missing some of the most refined flavours you can find outside of deeply aged single malt whiskeys. The pungent aroma is noticeable as soon you open the bottle, and it’s enjoyable to sip and let the flavours nebulize in the mouth and roll off the edges of the palate. While mezcals can range in age much like tequila (and aged reposado tequilas tend to mimic whiskeys), the most prized mezcals are the younger, clearer varieties, known as joven.
Mezcal is also phenomenal in cocktails, and highly versatile. It’s a fine stand-in for vodka, gin, whiskey and rum, pairs well with almost anything: from ginger to citrus plus all manner of garnishes from pepper to nutmeg. My current favourite can be found at the Brasserie Witlof in Williamsburg. Called an Endless Summer, it pairs mezcal with another Mexican liquor, the highly potent sotol, alongside Ancho Reyes chilli liqueur, passionfruit, lime, oregano, topped with the foam of a very bitter beer. It’s a roller coaster of flavours with an oddly satisfying finish. – Simon Ramsey.