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!

San Antonio Cocktail Conference, Day #1 #SACC2015

#SACC2015, san antonio cocktail conference 2015

If you aren’t following us on Instagram, Twitter, Vine, or Facebook, then you’ve missed some great fun!  We’ve been at the San Antonio Cocktail Conference this week and posting as we go.  To track everybody’s fun, follow their hashtag #SACC2015.

Today, we’ll attend Mezcal, and Pairing seminars (Tex vs. Mex: Texas Flavors vs. Mexican Spirits & The Relativity of Flavor Pairing), interview a few people and then support our friends doing good work at the Tequila Interchange Project by covering the fun at Lucha Limon.  If you’re in San Antonio, stop by The Esquire Tavern at 155 East Commerce Street, San Antonio, TX 78205, for ¡Lucha Limón! from 3-5pm today.

¡Lucha Limón 2015! is Texas’ first introduction to this fast-paced, lime-squeezing competition to benefit the Tequila Interchange Project. Challenge your favorite bartenders’ chops at this most essential of bar tasks! $10 gets you entered into the competition, and the opportunity to win some great prizes including rare tequila & mezcal bottlings, gift certificates, and more!

Please join David Suro, Emilio Veyra, and Miguel Partida of Siembra Metl along with Judah Kuper and Aquilino Garcia Lopez of Mezcal Vago, following their SACC seminar. Swing by and meet 3 Master Mezcaleros from 3 different states, taste their art, and learn more about their work. This is a true honor to have these 3 Maestros in San Antonio! Please join us for this unique opportunity.

Cocktails & Tequila/Mezcal tastings for great prices!

TIP is a non-profit organization and consumer advocacy group comprised of bartenders, consultants, educators, researchers, consumers and agave-spirit enthusiasts. Our organization advocates the preservation of sustainable, traditional and quality practices in the industries of agave distilled spirits. In light of current trends that are becoming mainstays in the production of agave distillates, TIP seeks to place a renewed emphasis on the importance of preserving the great heritage of agave distillation in Mexico.

Here are some photos of what you might have missed:

Scotland vs. Mexico Parte Dos #SCOTLANDVSMEXICO

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The table setting at The Last Word on Houston St., San Antonio
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David & JP wove their spirits’ stories together, describing the many similarities.

In my opinion, this was a brilliant class.  You wouldn’t expect to find much in common when comparing Scotch Whisky and Tequila, but Juan Pablo De Loera of Milagro Tequila and David Allardice of Glenfiddich found too many commonalities to dismiss.  Their weaving of information about these spirits from Mexico and Scotland as they walked us through a comparison tasting was inspired.

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The lineup: Scotland vs. Mexico

[Tweet “#ScotlandvsMexico Parte dos: Scotland For The Win! @GlenfiddichSMW  #SACC2015″]

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Our tasting table complete with the pre-tasting sweet potato empanada, the perfect palate reset before our tabletop travel.


The big surprise during this tasting was the Glenfiddich 125th Anniversary Edition.  At first whif, you might think it is a Mezcal, but this smoky, smooth, sensuous Scotch had me at “Slainte”.  If you can get your hands on some of this, buy it – and guard it closely – this is definitely a keeper!

[Tweet “Glenfiddich 125th Anniversary Edition: The Scotch for Mezcal Lovers #scotlandvsmexico #SACC2015 @GlenfiddichSMW“]


Ambhar Tequila Relaxation Lounge

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Bobby walked us through a flight of Ambhar. We were impressed with the juice as well as Bobby’s insistence that we have the proper glassware to taste it.

In the middle of a long day of drinking, one really needs a place to relax.

OK, maybe not, but we had a wonderful time talking to the folks at Ambhar Tequila and tasting their spirit in their very thoughtful “Relaxation Lounge”.

2015-01-16 15.40.14Ambhar is experiencing a bit of a rebirth since it’s purchase a little over a year ago and the team that they’ve assembled is energetic, enthusiastic, and really know they stuff!

[Tweet “Ambhar Tequila: Don’t underestimate this brand or its team! #SACC2015 @AmbharTequila“]



 Waldorf on the Prairie

2015-01-16 19.15.312015-01-16 19.21.02As soon as we walked in the door of the St. Anthony Hotel, we were greeted with a delightful surprise!  Espadin and Tobala, Gracias a Dios!  Gracias a Dios Mezcal, that is.  We had a great time talking to their team and tasting their spirits.  Look for this brand in Texas now but we expect the world will be demanding it soon!

[Tweet “Gracias a Dios Mezcal: A delightful spirit! #SACC2015 @graciasadiosmz”]

After a much needed break for some refreshing Voss water, we explored the many bars – there were too many to count – there at the St. Anthony Hotel.

[Tweet “Voss Water, an inspired choice for all the palates drinking all the booze at #SACC2015 @vosswater”]

Shaking it, Latin Style

2015-01-16 19.50.46Dulce Vida Tequila had the workingest mixologist behind their bar!  He was shaking up what looked to be some delicious palomas.  We didn’t have a chance to taste them because, as fast as he was mixing, he just couldn’t mix them fast enough for the crowd.  We shot this vine of how hard this fellow was working, so you can guess the line was pretty long for his drinks.


[Tweet “Well done, Dulce Vida Tequila! The workingest mixologist at #SACC2015 @DULCE_VIDA”]

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Topping it all off, we allowed ourselves the luxury of a J.R. Ewing Bourbon, straight up.  As die-hard Dallas fans, we couldn’t miss the opportunity.  J.R. Ewing Bourbon was everything you’d expect from the man whose name it bears – smooth, a touch of sweetness, and a little heat that makes you want to dance with the devil all night long.

[Tweet “J.R. Ewing Bourbon – everything you’d expect from old J.R. himself. #SACC2015 @jrewingbourbon”]

2015-01-16 20.25.11The band, The Nightowls from Austin, was rocking the house, so we did just that – we danced.

[Tweet “The Nightowls rocked the house at #SACC2015. Find their next gig and get there! @The_Nightowls”]

#SACC2015: A great time was had by all!


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!