Mezcal: agave with edge

Tequila has bounced back from the brink but lost much of its old punk energy, says Joel Harrison. Instead, the more adventurous agave drinkers should look to mezcal for a bit of edge

Words by Joel Harrison

agave pinas outside tequila distillery

With most cultural chattels there tends to be a point where pastiche kicks in; a moment when the original is much-copied, over-produced and watered-down, diluted for mass consumption. This transformation from a highly sought-after artefact to a caricature of itself, a ‘spitting image’ cartoon, once lauded, now laughed at, is almost inevitable for any cultural icon or product.

Take The Damned, whose 1976 single ‘New Rose’ was the first-ever release by a British punk rock group. Highly regarded on release (and celebrated still to this day), it marks the very genesis of one of the most influential cultural and political movements of the 20th century.

Fast forward to 1982 and Raymond ‘Captain Sensible’ Burns, founding member of The Damned, was no longer tearing down the establishment. Instead, he was appearing in his signature red beret on Top of the Pops, performing his no.1 hit single ‘Happy Talk’, a cover of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show tune.

To some degree, Burns’ journey mirrors that of Tequila. Despite the best efforts of mainstream Tequila brands such as Jose Cuervo to keep quality at least somewhere on the right side of ‘good’, during the later half of the 20th century this Mexican drink slumped from being a 100% Blue Weber agave distillate, rarely seen outside of its native home, to a red-hat-wearing hangover-in-bottle.

tobala agave plant in mexico

The culprit, cheap ‘mixto’ Tequila, a version diluted with non-agave spirit, gave true Tequila, and its parent, mezcal, a bad name. In the 1970s and ‘80s, few wanted to drink Tequila, and no one wanted to drink mezcal.

However, towards the end of the 1990s, a small revolution was growing in the fields of Mexico. Tequila, so long tagged with a terrible rep, was changing. Brands such as Patron weren’t just making good 100% Blue Weber agave Tequila, they were making excellent Tequila, and educating drinkers about why and where quality agave spirit comes from.

The opening of the door to tasty Tequila led to drinkers wanting to explore the category more. Today, Tequila’s rise seems unstoppable. Not just as the ultimate celebrity drink, but one that boasts an incredible canon of serves, such as the obvious ‘Margarita’, and the lesser-spotted but growing-in-fame ‘Paloma’. Tequila has awakened a new generation of drinkers to the world of agave-based spirits.

mezcal margarita cocktail

The rocketing demand for Tequila, where the base product of the Blue Weber agave needs to be around five to seven years old, has put serious stress on the local environment, and stocks of the plant. Mezcal, relying on plants from three to 30 years old, can look further afield for its agave, feeling less pressure to be consistent, and therefore embodying a more craft approach.

Where Tequila is littered with celebrity brands, from Kendall Jenner’s ‘818’, to the Rock’s ‘Teremana’ and, of course, George Clooney’s ‘Casamigos’, mezcal is a little more reserved. Sure there are celeb-backed bottles such as the Breaking Bad actors’, Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston, ‘Dos Hombres’, and basketball superstar Lebron James’ ‘Lobos 1707’, but on the whole, this scene is largely left to the makers themselves.

If you’re looking to explore mezcal, I think a great place to start is with a cocktail. When you’re next whipping up a Margarita, use half the amount of Tequila you’d normally put in, and swap it for a mezcal such as the game-changing ‘Vida’ from Del Maguey. You’ll find this spirit adds a delicate smoke to the drink, elevating it to a sort of mythical status; how very Oaxacan.

There is a whole world of earthy, smoky, elemental flavours to discover, and a genuine reflection of terroir comes into play

Once you have a taste for mezcal, exploring different agave styles is an utter pleasure. From the most commonly used Espadín with its sweet, earthy notes, to rare, wild varieties such as Salmiana (fresh grapefruit and liquorice) and Tobalá (leather and smoke), there is a whole world of earthy, smoky, elemental flavours to discover, and a genuine reflection of terroir comes into play.

To find great single variety mezcal, look no further than The Lost Explorer, whose range includes Espadín, Salmiana and Tobalá. Also, try Mezcal Amores Espadín edition, which is silky soft with a hint of orange blossom.

Where Tequila has been on a ride from pure punk to mainstream pop obliteration (thankfully now back on track albeit in a more middle-of-the-road capacity), mezcal is a drink that has not forgotten its punk rock roots. If you haven’t already tried some leading artisanal mezcal producers, you should give it a go. You might just find your new favourite spirit, and be one step ahead of the crowd.

What Joel has been drinking

  • It is Blood Orange season and what better way to celebrate than with a Blood Orange Daiquiri? I’m a massive Daiquiri fan and for this version all you need to do is freshly squeeze some blood oranges, and grab some rum. Mix 1 part blood orange juice, 0.5 part lime juice with 1 part Havana Club 3 year-old, and 1 part Wray & Nephew Overproof rum. Add in a dash of sugar syrup and shake with ice. Strain into a coupe and enjoy.
  • English whisky has been on my radar this month, and I’ve been enjoying new releases from The Lakes (their Whiskymaker’s Reserve No.6 is an unctuous and spicy number) and The Cotswolds (their Harvest Series Golden Wold single malt is beautifully mellow). But the real star from this burgeoning category has to be Derbyshire’s Wire Works and their latest limited edition Double Oak Port release, which is fruity, smoky and silky all at once.
  • If you’re looking for an interesting Scotch whisky to pick up this month, try the new Macbeth collection from indie bottler Livingstone. The labels are illustrated by living legend Quentin Blake, and depict characters from ‘the Scottish play’. All limited edition, the first ‘act’ of nine players is out now and ranges in price from under £100 to £10,000 depending on the release.
Joel Harrison
By Joel Harrison

Joel Harrison is an award-winning spirits writer, and a contributing editor at Club Oenologique.