Agave 2.0Goodbye, shooters. Hello, sippers. A new generation is turning its attention to artisan tequila and mezcal, attracted by their provenance, variety and – importantly – grown-up flavours.
Back in the day, tequila was thought of as just an ingredient in Margaritas, served with lukewarm nachos. Fortunately, today tequila and mezcal are the main event. The two spirits are still smashing it in cocktails, but they also conceal some secret weapons. The first is their cool factor. The second is their vast flavour profile, which rivals that of whisky now that producers are dabbling in cask finishes. And finally, there’s the food…
…Although some spirits may pair with haggis, caviar or cucumber sandwiches, nothing compares to cochinita pibil, tacos al pastor, or the tangy sauces of Veracruz laced with capers, olives and jalapeños. For these dishes, the answer is mezcal, which is made from a succulent called agave that grows all over Mexico. The plants take seven to 15 years to mature, which puts into perspective the three years that Scotch needs to be aged before release. The heart, or piña, of the plant is then stripped of its leaves and roasted in a pit. The process gives mezcal its famed smokiness, earthiness and depth. While mezcal is made all over Mexico, the best examples come from the area surrounding Oaxaca. There are many varieties of agave used to make it, each displaying varietal character much like grapes in winemaking. There’s a dizzying array to choose from.
OUR MEZCAL PICKS
Corte Vetusto’s Mesquite Smoked Mezcal will appeal to Islay whisky fans; and for gourmets there’s Los Danzantes, created for one of Mexico’s finest restaurants. Those who like unusual ingredients can explore Bruxo No.2, which has a roasted agave heart steeped in it; Gem & Bolt, infused with an ancient Aztec stimulant; or the coffee-fortified Dangerous Don. And then there’s Del Maguey – very much the bartender’s choice, and the brand that ignited the recent mezcal boom.
Mezcal’s better-known sibling is tequila; strictly, tequila is a type of mezcal, but it must be made using blue agave grown in limited regions in and around the state of Jalisco. For tequila, the piñas are roasted in brick ovens, tempering the smokiness and allowing the tropical fruit and fresh herb flavours to come to the fore. Tequila is abuzz with innovation.
OUR TEQUILA PICKS
Brands including Patrón and Código 1530 age their spirits in wine casks from Bordeaux’s First Growths and California’s leading Cabernet Sauvignon producers, while Fortaleza has bottled a blanco at still strength to give you the undiluted real deal, with notes of buttery kale, green olive and black pepper. Gran Patrón Piedra Extra Añejo sings of Cognac, Sauternes, rum and Scotch; and then there’s the artisan beauty of Clase Azul and Doña Celia’s bottles.
A Oaxacan proverb says, “Tequila is to wake the living; mezcal is to wake the dead.” In other words – however you drink it – no one should be sleeping while spirits of this calibre are being poured.