Mezcal: Good Drink, Bad Rap

Originally Published May 3, 2003


Mezcal is finally being treated like the class act it is, and it’s making its way north of the border.
By Barbara Hansen, Times Staff Writer

Mezcal_1, mezcal, gracias a dios, del magueyOaxaca, Mexico — MEZCAL has a terrible image. It’s fiery stuff, real rotgut, with a worm floating in the bottom of the bottle — at least, that’s what most people think. Because mezcal sounds like mescaline, the psychedelic drug, it’s surely hallucinogenic. Furthermore, it comes from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, where counterculture folk go to munch on magic mushrooms.

This, of course, is calumny. Like tequila, mezcal is a liquor distilled from the heart of the agave plant. Rather than rotgut, the best mezcals can rival a fine single malt Scotch or top-drawer Cognac. They’re purer than tequila because they’re made with 100% agave — tequila can be legally diluted up to 49% with other types of alcohol.

Often, there isn’t even a worm.

Americans don’t know mezcal because most of them have never tasted it. Distribution is limited even in Mexico. For a good selection, you have to go to Oaxaca. And to get the purest artisanal mezcals, you have to bounce over rough, unpaved roads to villages where people talk in Zapotec, not Spanish.

This is going to change, and soon. A few artisanal mezcals have begun appearing on the shelves of good liquor stores, including Wally’s in West Los Angeles and Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa. Twenty Oaxacan producers have recently banded together to promote their brands, and their mezcals may be in Los Angeles as early as June, according to Porfirio R. Chagoya Mendez, director general of the group and the producer of two brands, Donaji and Tehuana.

Advising the group is a savvy American businessman, Douglas French, who has lived in Oaxaca for 15 years. A mezcal producer himself, French has begun shipping his brands — Scorpion (formerly El Senor) and Caballeros — to the United States. “We’ll ride in on the coattails of tequila,” he says.

mezcal_harticle, mezcal, gracias a dios, del magueyCompared with tequila, mezcal has an added smokiness and, often, a more pronounced agave flavor. The best mezcal should be sipped straight, like Cognac. In Oaxaca, lesser mezcal is used to make the Coctel Donaji — a refreshing mix of citrus juices with a smoky edge.

The main difference between tequila and mezcal is the method of production.

Mezcal dates back almost 500 years to the arrival of the Spaniards, who brought the art of distillation to Mexico. Tequila came later. Originally it was called “mezcal produced in the town of Tequila,” which is far north of Oaxaca, in the state of Jalisco.

Today, tequila is made in factories, in high volume, and known around the world.

But mezcal is still hand-crafted and rustic. Like tequila, it starts with the hearts of the agave plant, known as pinas because they look like enormous green and white pineapples. For mezcal, the pinas are roasted in a pit dug in the ground. A wood fire heats a layer of rocks, and the pinas go on top, protected from direct contact with the rocks by a layer of agave fiber. Covered with more fiber, and then woven mats or canvas and earth, the piñas roast for several days and are then crushed, fermented in wood tanks and distilled, usually in a copper still

This process imparts a distinctive smoky flavor. To smooth the taste, some mezcal producers use triple distillation rather than double distillation, which is the norm.

“The taste is clean — it has less bouquet, less flavor of smoke, for people who don’t know mezcal,” says Eric Adalid Hernandez Cortes of Mezcal MisticO, a small family-owned distillery near the city of Tlacolula, which is a center of mezcal production.

Some of the more modern Oaxacan mezcal distilleries, called palenques, employ charcoal filtration. Wood aging also sweetens and smooths the beverage. Joya gran reserva, from Ausencio Leon Ruiz y Sus Sucesores, spends 10 years in oak. Embajador produces a reserva aged in oak for seven years. French’s añejos (aged mezcals) sit three years in American oak. To mellow the flavor, he combines pit-roasted agave with piñas cooked in a steam room.

mezcal, gracias a dios, del magueyWhile the best tequilas are produced only from agave azul, mezcal draws on five main varieties, with others allowed as long as they don’t predominate. The most important variety is agave espadin. Another is tobala, a rare wild agave that grows in the mountains.

Don Amado, a brand developed by Jake Lustig of Northern California, contains one-third tobala, which is more pungent than espadin. This mezcal is produced at Real de Minas, a palenque at Santa Catarina Minas, near Ocotlan. The distilling takes place in clay pots, a technique that has almost vanished. German Bonifacio Arellanes Robles roasts the agave over wood transported by burro from distant mountains, a six-hour round trip. It takes one month to complete one batch, he says.

Some palenques crush agave by hand, some by machine, but horsepower is most common. At El Rey Zapoteco in Santiago Matatlan, tourists watch a horse pull an enormous stone wheel around a stone circle spread with roasted agave. A machine can shred agave in a few minutes. It takes the horse four to five hours.

Matatlan, located on the highway from Oaxaca city to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, takes pride in being the world capital of mezcal. A copper still is mounted over the highway at the entrance to the town, and tasting rooms line either side. Stands of spiky agave plants appear along the road. It’s common these days to see truckloads of Oaxacan agave pinas headed for the state of Jalisco, where agave is in short supply.

The sun-baked town of San Baltazar Guelavila, reached by a dirt road that branches off the highway after Matatlan, is so quiet that burros and goats wander freely over the road to a water trough in the center of town. Rustic palenques here sell their mezcals in bulk. Visitors taste them from gourd bowls, or from the caps of their containers. Empty houses abound in this town, built by emigrants now working in the United States.

Isaac Jimenez, 84, a founder of the mezcal industry in Matatlan, looks back decades, to when agave was crushed by hand, and mezcal produced drop by drop. He too laments the exodus of young workers as well as the local preference for cheaper alcoholic drinks. Jimenez, whose brands are Don Isaac and El Maestro, says tourists are the most important market now.

Bars in Oaxaca tempt tourists with two-for-one mezcal specials. One bar, La Cucaracha, offers a menu de degustacion that includes 1-ounce shots of five types of mezcal for slightly less than $10.

Last July, the handsome Plaza del Mezcal opened in a 200-year-old building in the center of Oaxaca city. The equipment used to make mezcal is on display. Visitors can taste a variety of brands and buy not just mezcal but also chocolates flavored with the liquor and sal de gusano, a blend of salt, dried red chiles and agave worms that, along with lime wedges, traditionally accompanies shots of mezcal.

mezcal, mezcal, gracias a dios, del magueyThe plaza was founded by the Sociedad de Productores Agave del Sur, an ambitious new cooperative that is turning into a major producer. Formed by 303 villagers from towns in the vicinity of San Luis Amatlan, the cooperative is expected to have 3.5 million liters of mezcal on hand by year’s end. Its aggressive promotional plans include shipping premixed mezcal cocktails to Malaysia. These were developed by Barbara Joy Logan, a Canadian who coordinates international sales.

The cooperative’s brands, Don Luis and Armados, are organically produced and fermented naturally, without charcoal filtration. Logan is designing labels made of recycled bagazo, the residue of processed agave, for a 4-year-old reserva that is still in barrels.

The labels for Matateco mezcal were designed by Francisco Toledo, the artist who last fall spearheaded a protest against the opening of a McDonald’s on Oaxaca’s town square.

These are pure mezcals. Many companies also produce cremas, which are liqueur-like flavored mezcals. The first of these, El Mayordomo’s orange-flavored crema, was introduced in 1950. Another type of mezcal is called pechuga (breast), because it was traditionally flavored with a turkey or chicken breast suspended in the still. A few producers still do this, but most pechugas today are flavored with fresh and dried fruits.

Adding worms started as a gimmick more than 50 years ago; then Oaxacans learned to like the subtle flavor they imparted. Douglas French places a scorpion in his Scorpion mezcal. “Worms are for wimps,” he says with a laugh.

Adulteration by adding other types of alcohol does occur. Some suspect the culprits are the middlemen who collect bulk mezcals for the bottling plants or the bottling plants themselves, eager for higher profits.

“There are no chemical analyses that can tell this,” says French. “The only way to tell is on the tongue.” Diluted or poorly made mezcal is fiery. But a good mezcal goes down smoothly, without burning.

Oaxacans demand pure mezcal for an additional reason. “If you drink pure agave, you will never suffer from a cruda,” or hangover, says Roman Garcia Robles, founder and president of the Agave del Sur cooperative. “It doesn’t matter how much you drink. You will still feel fine the next day.”


It drinks easy, but it’s not cheap

Good mezcal is not cheap. Caballeros and Scorpion mezcals cost $65 at shops in the Los Angeles area. Del Maguey single village mezcals, developed by Ron Cooper, an artist based in Ranchos de Taos, N.M., range up to $200. Don Amado anejo is a relative bargain at less than $50.

You’re most likely to find mezcal in wine and spirits stores with a large and varied stock, as well as some Latino markets. These include:

* Duke of Bourbon, 20908 Roscoe Blvd., Canoga Park, (818) 341-1234. Monte Alban, Del Maguey.

* El Toro Liquor, 1412 W. First St., Santa Ana, (714) 667-6801. Gusano Rojo, Tonayan, Magueyada.

* Grand Central Liquor, Grand Central Market, 317 S. Broadway, Los Angeles, (213) 628-1040. Gusano Rojo.

* Hi-Time Wine Cellars, 250 Ogle St., Costa Mesa, (949) 650-8463. Caballeros, Del Maguey, Don Amado, Del Maestro, El Senor, Monte Alban.

* Red Carpet Wine, 400 E. Glenoaks Blvd., Glendale, (818) 247-5544. Monte Alban. The shop will order other brands on request.

* Flask Liquor Store, 12194 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 761-5373. Monte Alban, Gusano Rojo, Del Maguey, La Fogata, Mezcal del Maestro.

Wally’s, 2107 Westwood Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 475-0606. Don Amado, Del Maguey, Scorpion, Caballeros, Gusano Rojo, Monte Alban, Del Maestro.


Coctel Donaji

Total time: 10 minutes

Servings: 2

1 large lime, cut in half

1 tablespoon sal de gusano (or 1 tablespoon coarse salt mixed with 1/8 teaspoon red chile powder)

3/4 cup orange juice

3 ounces mezcal

2 teaspoons grenadine, or more to taste

2 small orange wedges

1. Use tall flutes, or broad-bowled, stemmed cocktail glasses or a margarita glass. Moisten the edge of 2 cocktail glasses with a lime half, then dip each glass in the chile salt to thinly coat the rims. Add 2 or 3 ice cubes to each glass, if desired.

2. Squeeze the juice from the lime halves. Mix about 1 tablespoon lime juice with the orange juice and mezcal. Divide between the 2 glasses. Float a little grenadine on top, place an orange wedge on each rim and serve.

Each serving: 160 calories; 5 mg. sodium; 0 cholesterol; 0 fat; 0 saturated fat; 15 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0 fiber.


Learn all about tequila from field to glass and then get paid to share your love of agave spirits with others! Buy Them Both Now!

The Food & Wine Magazine Tasting by Ron Cooper

Originally Posted March 2, 2001


By Ron Cooper
Special to

ron cooper, del magueyAspen Colorado, June 9-11. The high mountain weather was great. This truly amazing annual event sponsored by Food & Wine Magazine is achieved with the help of hundreds of well-organized, enthusiastic volunteers from Colorado and all over the US.

There were several thousand great Wines, Sherry’s, Ports, Champagnes and Microbrews; delicious Meats, Cheeses, Breads, Coffees, Desserts; beautiful functional Tools & Equipment. Three days was insufficient to try them all under two gigantic luminous tents on the grass at Wagner Park.

The over 300 exhibitors from more than a dozen countries were joined by fifty writers, chefs, sommeliers, restauranteurs and food experts that presented an average of 10 simultaneous cooking demonstrations, educational seminars and round table discussions on food and wine graciously hosted in restaurant, hotel and public spaces throughout the town continually from 8 am to 5 pm.

Presenting Speakers:
marioMario Batali, Sissy Biggers, Bartholomew Broadbent, Derek B. Bromley, Rory Callahan, Loret Carbone, Robert Del Grande, Peter Elliot, Todd English, Bobby Flay, Claudia Flemming, Evan Goldstein, Stephen Hanson, Ursula Hermacinski, Judith Hill, Marty Horn, Andrea Immer, Steven Jenkins, Thomas Keller, Michael Klauber, Emeril Lagasse, Paul Lightfoot, Zarela Martinez, Dennis Max, Elin McCoy, Danny Meyer, Mary Ewing Mulligan, Steve Olson, Crolyn O’Neil, Claudine Pépin, Jacques Pépin, Dan Phillips, Steven Raichlen, Aaron Sanchez, David Scholefield, Stephen Scoble, Robert Simpson, Larry Stone, Mark Tarbell, Madeline Triffon, Barbara Tropp, John Frederick
Walker, Patricia Wells, Josh Wesson,

A small sampling of events:
A Taste of Texas; Australian All-Stars; Best Microbrews; Champagne Primer; Chinese – Hot and Spicy; Cult and Boutique Vintage Ports; Italy’s Rustic Reds; Que Syrah, Syrah; Mexican-Quick and Easy; Noteworthy New Zealand Wines; Portuguese Gems; Spanish Sherry’s & Tapas; The Cheese Course; The World of Pinot Noir; Ultimate Chocolate Tarts; Wines for Spicy Foods; Wines in Cyberspace; South Africa’s New Stars; Meritage: The Ultimate Blends.

And then there was Mezcal/Tequila…a first for this event. Under the entry tent was a line up of Grand Marnier, Tequila Herradura, Jimmy’s- An American Restaurant and Bar, DEL MAGUEY, Single village Mezcal and Freshies, producer of the best 100% natural drink mixes.

Peter Bock and Johnny of Libations were pouring snifters of Grand Marnier, Juan Pablo Castro, Dave Grapshi and Kevin Richards of Herradura were pouring sips and mixing margaritas, Jimmy Yeager and his totally knowledgeable bar men mixed, poured and served, accompanied by palate cleansing fresh Ahi Tuna/mango Ceveche. DEL MAGUEY was pouring “Copitas” of all five mezcals, Collin Wells and his great Freshies crew were mixing up great cocktails using their NATURAL mixes and served at least 400 Bloody Magueys (Marys) using Santo Domingo Albarradas -unbelievable taste surprise. In total the entire team served several thousand Smokin’ Margaritas over the three days under the big tent and at Jimmy’s HOT Salsa party Saturday night.

del maguey, ron cooper, mezcal

Meanwhile…on Saturday afternoon Steven Olson, President of Libations wowed overflow audiences in Jimmy’s main dining room with two back-to-back Mezcal seminars covering the history, categories and the “how” to taste subtleties of Mezcal and Tequila. Before entering the seminar everyone was served a short Smokin’ Margarita by Jimmy’s staff and volunteers. Behind the speaker’s podium, a special Zapotec weaving; “Corazon de Maguey” or heart of the Agave collected in Oaxaca by Yeager. Each group of about 120 people was treated to Olson’s inimitable rapid-fire style of humorous wit and information. So much info so little time. The tasting began with “Miel de Maguey” the sweet honey expressed from the roast maguey heart that is the raw material of all mezcals before fermentation; followed by Tequila Blanco, El Tesoro de Don Felipe (the baseline silver by which all other tequilas can be measured); Del Maguey, Single Village Mezcal, Santo Domingo Albarradas (winner of the 1999 World Spirits Championships-served in small clay cups); Sotol Reposado-Hacienda de Chihuahua (an excellent newly emerging northern mezcal made from an agave that grows wild in the Chihuahua desert); Tequila Reposado, Herradura (the delicious classic) and ending with Tequila Añejo: Paradiso, El Tesoro de Don Felipe (Oak aged in collaboration with Alain Royer, de Fussigny-France’s great Cognac maker).

Saturday evening the Hotel Jerome hosted a special dinner-buffet featuring Wine & Spirits annual Best Ten New Chefs who each presented at unique stations their special dish made for the dinner. Chef Joseph Reede of Joseph’s Table in Taos, New Mexico (U.S. home of Del Maguey) was among the
ten. The other nine:

Andrew Carellini, Café Boulud, New York City
Ted Cizma, Grace, Chicago
Andrea Curto, Wish, Miami
Loren Falsone, Empire, Providence
Tim Goodell, Aubergine, Newport Beach, CA
Michael Leviton, Lumiére, West Newton, MA
Amanda Lydon, Truc, Boston
Eric Moshier, Empire, Providence
Takashi Yagashi, Tribute, Farmington Hills, MI

New Mexico based Ron Cooper keeps himself busy producing award winning Mezcal at Del Maguey in Oaxaca, Mexico. You can find more information on these fine mezcals at



Learn all about tequila from field to glass and then get paid to share your love of agave spirits with others! Buy Them Both Now!