Contrary to popular belief, mezcal has nothing to do with mescaline, and no, you don't have to eat the worm. Also, mezcal isn't a type of tequila — in fact, tequila is actually a type of mezcal.
Mezcal is a serious and carefully crafted spirit that could give even the best Scotch a run for its money — if you just give it a chance.
Though mezcal is sometimes served with sal de gusano, made by grinding salt with the dried caterpillars that eat agave, serving mezcal with a worm was first a technique used to mask the chemical taste of poorly produced mezcal. Later it became a marketing gimmick that has largely fallen out of favor. The worm, which was rumored to cause hallucinations, was really just a way to get adventure seekers to buy more mezcal. Now that mezcal is being recognized as the serious spirit it is, the worms aren't needed to push the product.
Though tequila and mezcal both are made from the agave plant, mezcal is made from the plants' hearts, known as piñas, which are roasted in wood-fired pits. This roasting is what gives mezcal its signature smoky flavor.
The roasted agave hearts are then crushed by a heavy stone wheel pulled by a horse. The resulting juice is then fermented and distilled.
The whole process is time- and labor-intensive, done without the help of electricity and produces a refined spirit. And because there are around 40 species of agave plant that can be used to make mezcal (though most is made from agave espadin), you can get some really unique bottles. In contrast, tequila can be made from only one variety, blue agave.
Much like a fine Scotch, high-quality mezcal should be enjoyed neat (maybe, sometimes, on the rocks). Sometimes it's served with a slice of orange or with a chili-salted rim, though many purists would turn up their nose at the practice. Mezcal is an incredibly complex liquor, with smokiness from the roasting, fruity and vegetal flavors from the agave plant and spicy, woodsy flavors from the aging process (reposado and añejo mezcals are aged in oak). The flavor takes some getting used to — in fact, mezcal has been compared to Islay, a peat-smoked Scotch whisky that can be a challenge for even Scotch lovers to enjoy. But once you start exploring the different styles, it's hard not to get hooked.
People have been fermenting agave to make alcoholic drinks for more than 1,000 years, but mezcal was created when Spanish invaders brought distillation technology to Mexico in the 1500s. And mezcal's production is still very traditional, looking pretty similar to how it did when it was first created. The whole process is done without electricity, and unlike tequila, mezcal hasn't attracted the attention of huge alcohol producers looking to dramatically increase output of the product. Because of this, chances are that if you're drinking authentic mezcal (make sure it's made from 100 percent agave), you're drinking a small-batch spirit with lots of character.
Raw meat and booze? Doesn't sound like a great idea, but it's actually totally safe. Pechuga mezcal is a particular kind of mezcal distilled with raw meat (chicken, turkey or rabbit). Once reserved for special occasions, these days it's hard to get a bottle stateside. If you get the chance try it, that's a special occasion in itself.
To make pechuga mezcal, raw chicken is added during the third distillation (along with other ingredients, like apples, pineapple and guava). The raw chicken is hung in the distillation tank, where it basically disintegrates, its essence joining the distilled fruit vapors and the mezcal. Luckily because of the high heat of the distillation tank and the alcohol, the chicken ends up being safely cooked, so there's no risk of salmonella. The result is a mezcal with a silky, rich mouthfeel, savory flavor and almost fruity scent.
As with tequila or other fine spirits (think brandy and Scotch), mezcal is classified by the amount of time it's been aged.
Longer-aged mezcals can be smoother and more complex, though many aficionados prefer joven or reposado mezcal, where the pure flavors of the agave are able to shine.
The next time you're at the liquor store, why not skip the tequila and pick up a bottle of mezcal? Not only will the spirits geeks working at the register be impressed, but you'll be treating yourself to one of the best spirits on the market, one that's totally deserving of your attention.
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