How to pair mezcal with your meal

Mezcal is known for its smokiness – but according to the experts putting it on the map in London, there’s so much depth of flavour to the spirit that it makes an excellent match with a meal. Louella Berryman asks for their tips on pairing mezcal with food

Words by Louella Berryman

mezcal food pairing kol
At KOL's Mezcalaria, an Espadín mezcal negroni pairs with a Kentish Oaxaca cheese quesadilla with summer truffle

While mezcal might not be your current go-to with a meal, the drink’s food-pairing potential is rapidly gaining ground in London. Traditionally enjoyed neat, alongside orange slices and sal de gusano (a finely ground powder of chilli, sea salt, and dried agave worm), or even with chapulines (toasted, seasoned grasshoppers) in its native Mexico, the spirit is now becoming the main event on drinks lists at some of London’s best restaurants. The recently Michelin-Starred KOL in Marylebone offers mezcal pairings alongside its menu, listed in the same way as you’d expect to find wine.

London’s bars are also embracing the power of food pairings with the agave-based drink; at the likes of Hacha – a set of twin bars in Brixton and Dalston – you’ll find snacks paired with flights of mezcal so that drinkers can learn more about how food and mezcal match up.

hacha mezcal food pairings
Agave flights at Brixton and Dalston's Hacha bars are paired with a flavour-enhancing snack that brings out the unique flavour of the spirit

This experimentation is of course in part due to a surge in interest in the spirit in the UK, with better products hitting the market all the time. ‘Agave is snowballing – I don’t think we’re even near peak agave popularity,’ says Matt Varona, beverage manager at MJMK Hospitality, which includes KOL in its fleet of restaurants. He also suggests that London is in the midst of a ‘Mexican moment’, further spurring on exploration of the country’s food and drink side-by-side.

The drink’s reflection of terroir offers up plenty of interesting pairing opportunities

Pairing mezcal (or spirits in general) with food can be quite tricky, though. ‘I think you’ve got to be a lot more careful with your pairings when it comes to spirits, and particularly mezcal,’ says Michael Di Palma, operations director at London’s Temper restaurants, which have made a name pairing mezcal with smoky meat dishes cooked over flames. ‘Wine is much lower in alcohol with loads of fruit and acidity, but with mezcal there’s higher alcohol content, and that burn.’

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However, there are similarities between mezcal and wine that help to explain why food pairings with the spirit can be so successful – in particular, there’s the drink’s reflection of terroir that offers up plenty of interesting pairing opportunities. ‘If you think about the regions of Mexico where mezcal is produced, some are arid, some are on the coastline, and some are very tropical,’ says Deano Moncrieffe, co-founder of London’s Hacha bars. ‘Of all the spirit categories, it’s where terroir really influences the end product.’

Just as with grape varieties, you’ll also want to consider the type of agave plant the mezcal is made from when thinking of food. Di Palma says the agave is what makes each mezcal its own, and what lends the drink a ‘secondary fruit vibe, or something herbaceous or savoury.’ For example, the most common type of mezcal, Espadín, is made with Agave Angustifolia, a variety that’s herby and light with similar tasting notes to Tequila. However, Tobalá mezcal made from the Agave Potatorum species is much less common, with a longer maturity time before harvest, giving it a distinctive fruity flavour.

agave terroir
Where the agave plant of each mezcal is grown has an impact on its flavour, and therefore the food pairing options, much like in food and wine pairing

Mezcal is unique in its smoky flavour, though, a key characteristic that defines the drink for many, imparted from the cooking of the plant prior to fermentation. That’s not to say the smoke is one-note; each bottle has its unique chariness, says Moncrieffe. ‘Some have cigar smoke, some have a sweet smoke, and some have a heavier woody smoke.’ It’s important to match the level of smokiness in the dish you’re pairing it with, and according to Moncrieffe, this quality should also be at the forefront when deciding where in your meal the mezcal should appear. ‘I would suggest that for smokier mezcals it would be towards the end – you wouldn’t want to start off your flavour journey with something really smoky that will taint it.’

mezcal food pairing kol
A match for smokier mezcals at the end of your meal might come in a similar form to KOL's churros with chocolate and mezcal mousse, ancho chilli and pork crackling

With so much complexity to the drink, and a range of flavours from bottle to bottle, there’s a whole world of food pairing possibilities – but we’re sharing some beginner tips from the experts below. As for that burn? Sipping mezcal slowly should help counteract that. Adriana Cavita, the Mexico-born chef-owner of London’s highly anticipated restaurant Cavita has some advice: ‘We have a saying in Mexico – “treat women and mezcal with kisses” – which means you need to sip and appreciate it.’

Pairing mezcal with food: where to begin

  • Espadín  – The most common kind of mezcal with herbal, citrusy notes and a lighter smokiness that works well with vegetables or a fish or seafood starter. Moncrieffe recommends The Lost Explorer Espadín with ceviche or fish: ‘It’s got notes of red apple that works incredibly well.’ Meanwhile, Cavita suggests pairing Bruxo X, a mezcal made from Espadín and Barril agave plants, with seafood: ‘It’s got a little minerality that goes well with seafood like oysters.’
  • Tepeztate – A mezcal with a rich, earthy aroma and tropical notes that can result in an unusual ‘cheesy’ flavour that Cavita says pairs well with most cheeses, even blue cheese.
  • Tobaziche – A herbaceous, savoury mezcal with greener notes, pairing well with stronger fish flavours. ‘Green or grassy mezcals pair well with tuna or salmon,’ says Cavita.
  • Tobalá  – A rarer variety of mezcal known as ‘the king of agaves’ with spicier notes and a sweeter, more intense smoke that pairs perfectly with red meats, spicy tomato sauce or chocolate. ‘The vanilla notes in mezcal can pair well with chocolate mousse or coffee,’ says Cavita. ‘It’s got more cigar smoke [than other varieties] and hints of cocoa. So for me, that will come alive with a red meat or even a dark chocolate dessert,’ says Moncrieffe.
  • Cupreata – Grown in the Guerrero state (bordering Oaxaca), this mezcal has both tropical and earthy notes that pair well with sweet vegetables like squash and the smoky heat of chillies, with Varona citing a sweet dish on the menu at KOL as the perfect match: a squash-flavoured Nieve (a traditional Mexican water-based sorbet traditionally made with fruits) with Chiltepin chilli oil.