Today I am celebrating my two months in Mexico with an appropriately stonking mezcal-induced hangover. Mezcal? Yes, mezcal – tequila is so passé! And I can confirm that with an average of 50% alcohol content, it really does what it says on the tin.
Despite tequila’s continued international synonymity with the Mexican fiesta, the hype within Mexico is all about mezcal right now. It’s been around for donkeys’ (more accurately, in production since the 1500s), but used to be considered a drink for the poor, working and rural classes. Only the last 15 years have seen it storm the Mexican booze market, with mezcalerías popping up here, there and everywhere. Even the British Mexican eatery chain Wahaca has opened one on Charlotte Street, Fitzrovia.
Both tequila and mezcal are made from the maguey plant native to Mexico, but tequila is only made from the blue agave, whereas mezcal can be made from a number of types of maguey. Mezcal is often referred to as tequila’s older, more mysterious forefather: all tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. Mezcal is also generally very smoky in flavour; mezcal’s agave hearts are cooked in conical pits in the ground for two to three days, whereas tequila’s are cooked in ovens above ground. Afterwards, they are both double distilled to achieve the high alcohol content. Most mezcal comes from state of Oaxaca, while tequila is almost exclusively produced in Jalisco, where the blue agave thrives.
To dispel a common myth, only mezcal has a worm in the bottle, never tequila. And not even all mezcal has a worm in, in fact it’s the most expensive brands that don’t have it. I say worm as that’s what it’s often called, but it’s actually a larva from a moth that lives on the maguey plant. There is some discrepancy as to whether the larva adds flavour to the mezcal or is simply a marketing gimmick that coincided with the spread of mezcal consumption outside of Oaxaca. Either way, the larva has only been part of mezcal’s notoriety since 1950.
In case you’d be disappointed not to get the larva in your glass (the ‘prize’ for the reveller drinking the last serving of the bottle), don’t panic, there’s plenty of worm to go around! Mezcal is traditionally served neat, accompanied by orange slices and sal de gusano, a gritty powder made of ground fried larvae, ground chilli peppers and salt. Or if it’s all a bit much, just stick with tequila, but I don’t know why it’s served with lemon and salt in the UK as it’s always with lime and salt here (like pretty much anything else you can eat or drink). In fact, despite the abundance of fruit, I haven’t seen a single lemon during my time in Mexico.
Last night I had the pleasure of visiting Mezcalería Coyoacán in Puebla. Something like a Mexican barn dance, the atmosphere was lively with Puebla’s young hipsters showcasing their latest moves, mostly taking inspiration from Cotton-Eyed Joe. Mezcal is supposed to be sipped and savoured slowly, but I find it rather like a removing a plaster, preferring to take the ‘get it over quickly’ approach. I wanted to last the evening, however, so I turned to the extensive menu of mezcal shots and cocktails. I found the Crema Innata shot (mezcal and coconut milk) and pretty much all of the cocktails (yes, we sampled most of the list) far easier on the palate. I can’t remember the name of it (reading had become un poco dificíl by this point), but the cocktail with mezcal, Jamaica (a juice made with hibiscus flower) and a lime ice cream float was a personal favourite.
Of course, in Mexico there’s no moment without food, and the smoky flavour of mezcal lends itself perfectly to the tasty marinade for the chicken wings served with our drinks. And because the larva and sal de gusano just aren’t enough to satiate the ravenous appetite for insects, mezcal is also traditionally served with chapulines, grasshoppers toasted with chilli, lime and salt (surprise, surprise!). These are especially nutritious and delicious smothered in guacamole and rolled up in tortilla.
There is a saying here: “para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también,” meaning for everything bad, mezcal, and for everything good as well. Good news for the mezcal producers of Oaxaca, and totally fitting with the Mexican philosophy of life, there’s more reason than ever to drink and to party, ¡salud, amigos!