Explore Mezcal, Tequila’s Complex Cousin

As the magnet in the margarita, or the popular shot served with salt and lime, tequila seems to get all the credit.

But there’s another Mexican liquor that deserves a closer look.

Some think it’s smoky, while others describe it as earthy, but mezcal is one liquor to consider for your spirits collection.

“To pigeonhole mezcal into one category is kind of difficult,” said Travis Owens, owner and beverage manager of Curio, a Columbus cocktail bar.

“Some will be a little sweeter, and some will be a little smokier. It can be smoky, creamy and viscous.”

Like tequila, mezcal is derived from harvesting the core of mature agave plants, but tequila is more specific than mezcal. Tequila is a type of mezcal that can only be made from blue agave.

Mezcal, meanwhile, can be made from any agave, said Austin Gatto, general manager at Zócalo Mexican Grill and Tequileria in downtown Cleveland.

“Mezcal tastes a little peaty-er than the agave flavor of a tequila,” Gatto said. Tequila is a little fruitier and lighter.

This more robust flavor stems from the way that mezcal is produced. Tequila is typically made by steaming agave and then distilling in copper pots. Mezcal is cooked inside earth pits lined with lava rocks, wood and charcoal before it is distilled in a clay pot. It typically takes longer to produce mezcal.

“The first thing everyone notices about mezcal is the smoke,” said Alex Burch, bar manager at Cosecha Cocina, a modern Mexican restaurant in Columbus. “But once you push through the smoke, you can find a wide variety of flavors ranging from chocolate to banana and ash. Tasting bottles alongside each other, even from the same producers, will open a wide variety of flavor profiles.”

Mezcal can also be produced in several different areas in Mexico, while tequila is produced in a just a handful of Mexican regions including Jalisco – the location of the town known as Tequila.

Gatto said the demand for mezcal has been steadily growing the past few years as people become more aware of the beverage. Zócolo currently offers nine different Mezcal varieties from four different brands and plans to expand these offerings

“Interest is certainly growing,” Burch said. “In central Ohio, mezcal can be kind of a scary word. For years, it has been viewed as tequila’s dirtier cousin. But as people get more curious and try different expressions of it, they start to see it as an amazing spirit.”

Cosecha offers a mezcal service, which Burch considers the best way to experience mezcal. This service includes one-ounce pours in copitas (small clay pots) accompanied with an orange slice dusted with Sal de Gusano. Sal de Gusano is a traditional Oaxacan spice often known as “worm salt” made from sea salt, toasted and ground agave worms and chili spices.

Owens said he thinks mezcal can stand on its own to be savored straight or on the rocks, or it can elevate a distinctive cocktail. Guests at Curio can experience the Oaxacan Chihuahua – a complex cocktail created by melding mezcal macerated in corn husks with tequila steeped in buttery popcorn. A hint of French Quinquina (aromatized wine) is added, and the result is finished with mole and pecan bitters.

“It’s a very rich, even chocolatey, brooding cocktail,” he said.

Regardless of how you choose to experience mezcal, Burch suggests you follow one rule: “Don’t shoot it. Take your time and enjoy it.”

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