The first time I tried a mezcal, there was a worm in the bottle.
Well, not exactly a worm - more like the larvae of moth, which apparently some producers of mezcal use to add flavours to the spirit or as a marketing gimmick.
As it turns out, that was not exactly the best type of mezcal to start with.
“If you see a worm in a mezcal, don’t buy it, because most likely, it’s not going to be a good product,” says bartender Jay Khan, founder of Hong Kong’s COA bar, which specialises in agave spirits.
“That was a marketing gimmick that started in the 1950s, where one guy decided to launch his own brand and put a worm in the mezcal. But it became so big in the US, and people started to play a game where if you were the last one to drink from the bottle, you had to eat the worm as well! There are exceptions – one or two brands that have the worm inside and taste great, but most of them usually taste horrible!”
Fortunately, I managed to move on to better mezcals after that initial one. A tasting of a brand called Alipus, which featured mezcals made from a variety of agave, opened my eyes to this little-known but growing spirit category.
According to Khan, an avid agave spirit enthusiast who was in town recently for a guest shift at Bangsar bar Three X Co, mezcal is currently the fastest growing category of spirit in the entire world.
“It’s still just a tiny, tiny, tiny percentage in to the entire world of spirit production, but the category is growing really quickly as more and more bartenders and consumers are starting to learn more about it,” he said.
To learn more about the spirit, I headed to Joloko, where co-founder Rick Joore was more than happy to give me a crash course on mezcal and taste some of his wares. At the time of writing, the bar is the only mezcal bar in Kuala Lumpur, with about 25-30 bottles of different mezcals, of which only less than 10 are easily available in Malaysia.
“The reason we wanted to do mezcal is because it’s a very under-appreciated product, especially in this part of the world,” said Joore.
But first of all, what exactly is mezcal?
The name mezcal is derived from the Nahuatl words mexcalli metl and ixcalli, which means “oven-cooked agave”. It can only be produced in Mexico, and is made from the agave plant. Yes, just like tequila, but the main difference is, tequila can only be made from one single type of agave – blue agave – whereas mezcal can be made from any other agave. (You could say that technically, tequila is a mezcal as well.)
Like tequila, the rules for mezcal production are quite strict. The laws (known as Norma), stipulate that mezcal can be made from five species of agave – the most commonly used is Espadin, while others include tobalá, tobaziche, tepeztate and arroqueño.
The laws also allows for mezcal made with agave with the required amount of sugar content that grow within the nine regions of production within Mexico, namely Oaxaca (which makes the most mezcal), Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Puebla and Michoacan.
According to Joore, mezcal is one of the few categories where the production is fully open and transparent about the process.
“Yes, the rules are pretty tight, but simply because they’re so proud of what they do. They have nothing to hide!” he said.
A look at the label of the mezcal reveals a ton of information about the spirit, from usual alcohol base volume (usually 40-55% ABV) to the names of the agaves used to make the spirit, the region it comes from, and even how it was distilled, in a clay (which produces earthier tasting mezcals) or copper pot. Other bits of information include the altitude, the type of soil, and how the agave is cooked.
“Usually the agave is cooked in an underground pit that uses agave leaves to start the fire, and sometimes different woods as well. Sometimes the label even specify what type of wood is used for burning, because that will affect the flavour as well!”
To go through all the different varieties of mezcal and the processes, terroir and so on would take a much longer article. For instance, there is a sub-category of mezcal where raw meat such as chicken, rabbit, boar, and even iguana is infused into the mezcal through distillation (I tried the wild boar one and it tasted distinctly… meaty).
With so many details and complex rules to it, it’s no wonder mezcal is starting to become more popular amongst spirit connoisseurs. According to Khan, making mezcal is just so labour intensive, that it definitely needs much more respect.
“Sipping mezcal and tequila ... they’re no different than enjoying a whiskey or cognac. It just has to be enjoyed the right way,” says Khan.
Khan also reckons that mezcal is an acquired taste for many people. “I would always explain mezcal as if somebody is trying to have raw food for the first time. Like, my first sashimi experience was not nice, but the more I tried it, the more I liked it. And mezcal is just like that. You won’t like it the first time, but the more you try it, the more you’ll enjoy it, and crave it more and more.”
“So it’s not something you will like the first time, unless you have a really mature palate, and you like trying all these obscure and weird stuff. But once you get used to that alcohol strength, that smoky flavour and that intensity, then you will really love it.”
For first timer, Khan suggests trying something that’s 42 43% ABV, because the smoke levels are more gentle, more softer, or make a highball out of it.
“You can try mezcal and soda, it’s actually quite refreshing. Mezcal and tonic is actually a big thing now, so if you like gin and tonic, you can try that. Or, you could just swap the mezcal with any other spirits or any other cocktail,” he said.
Joore has a similar, but somewhat unconventional way of explaining mezcal to his first-timers.
“I always tell them that mezcal is sort of like the the single malt of tequila. So then you get through to them, even though it’s not completely true ... it’s actually completely opposite!” he said with a laugh. “But the reason I say that is just to get people to form an expectation of what it should be. If tequila and single malt whisky had a baby, it would taste like mezcal!”