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Never heard of mezcal? Don’t worry! Annie Vanderboom, one of our servers extraordinaire, has made up a primer for you. And just in time, too! You won’t want to miss the next tasting dinner on April 21st.

Update: because we want as many people as possible to be able to explore the wonderful world of mezcal, we’ve decided to keep the ticket price as is–$75. So, get them while they’re hot! Dinner will be on Saturday, April 21st only, so room is limited!

Söntés is partnering with Ilegal Mezcal (pronounced ee-lay-GAHL mez-KAHL) to host a tasting dinner in April, and since I love love love not only the people behind Ilegal but the elixir they brew, Tessa’s asked me to explain a bit about what it is we’re serving. But first, I want to address a couple common myths; to know what mezcal is, it’s important to know what it isn’t.

First, that infamous worm at the bottom of the bottle? It’s a larva that grows on blighted agave plants, indicating poor quality and parasite infection. It was popularized as a marketing tool in the 1940s, and anyone who knows better steers well clear. Likewise, mezcal won’t make you see things. I’m pretty sure that this myth comes from the similarity between the words “mezcal” and “mescaline,” and may have something to do with Carlos Castaneda. Really, it’s just liquor made from the heart of the agave plant, with about the same alcohol percentage as vodka or gin, and it isn’t hallucinogenic, no matter how much you drink. Believe me, if it could do that, I would know.

But what is mezcal? Like any of the great pleasures of life, mezcal drinking is an adventure and an ongoing learning experience. Personally, I think of mezcal as tequila’s more worldly and sophisticated uncle—you know, the one who smokes cigars, recites poetry, and has a weakness for redheads. But on a more practical level, the first rule to understanding mezcal is this: all tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. That is to say, “mezcal” as a category of alcohol refers to spirits made from the heart of the agave plant, and tequila is a very specific kind of mezcal. By law, tequila can only be with the blue agave species, also known as maguey, which takes well to commercialized farming and produces fairly uniform results.

Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made with any variety or combination of Mexico’s indigenous varieties of agave. The espadín agave is the primary source for Ilegal, but there are a couple dozen types that can be used, each contributing its own unique flavors and characteristics. While maguey can be harvested year after year, espadín plants take eight to ten years to mature and die after they’re harvested. This, along with the handcrafted nature of production, accounts for both the quality and expense of artisanal mezcal like Ilegal.

Mezcal is unique not only for what it contains but how it’s made. Tequila production is typically very industrial, with factories pumping out tens of thousands of liters a day. The agave hearts are steamed in an autoclave, fermentation is done rapidly and artificially, distillation takes place in large column stills, and flavor profiles are adjusted in laboratories.

Mezcal, on the other hand, has been made artisanally by families and villages for over 500 years. The production process is slow and all natural, and takes place primarily outdoors, creating a terroir comparable to that of a fine wine. After the leaves are removed from the agave hearts, or piñas, they’re smoked underground in earthen ovens and then crushed in a circular tahona under a horse-drawn stone wheel. The resulting mash is mixed with spring water and fermented with indigenous airborne yeasts in open-topped oak tanks. It’s then distilled—Ilegal is double distilled—and aged in oak barrels.

Like tequila, mezcal is categorized according to how long it’s been aged. The clear joven (“young”) mezcal is unaged, while a reposado (“rested”) spends two to twelve months on oak. Añejo (“ancient”) is aged for at least a year. All Ilegal’s bottles are hand-numbered and lotted, indicating which production run they came from and how many bottles were made. Like better wines, the plants, weather, soil, roasting wood, and aging barrels all affect the final product, so the flavors of mezcal change from year to year.

What I really love about it is how it preserves and transports the ancient, beautiful spirit of Oaxaca (Wah-HA-kah), the southern Mexican state known for its amazing cuisine and strong indigenous culture.

Artisan mezcal, especially the aged bottles, is great for sipping. While I’ve been known to throw back a joven or two, I personally find it near sacrilege to shoot the añejo, or even add more than very simple mixers to compliment its rich, smooth smokiness. The joven, on the other hand, lends itself to innovation and experimentation in cocktails and in the kitchen. My personal favorite is the reposado, which hits a perfect middle note, making an amazing margarita on a hot afternoon or a smooth fireside digestif all by itself.

On April 20 and 21, we’ll be highlighting the strengths of all three varieties in cocktails, flights, and even as ingredients in an especially paired dinner. Even better, Ilegal Global Ambassador Stephen Myers will be joining us to further unravel mezcal’s mysteries (and maybe share some stories about how the brand got its name). Like everything mezcal, the buzz on this event is getting big already, so make your reservations soon…

See you there!


Dinner Details:

Dinner starts at 6pm. Reservations (tickets) are required for either date: April 20 or 21. Tickets are $75 each if purchased prior to April 10; $90 if purchased on April 11 or later. Ticket price includes a seven course dinner with paired drinks, but does not include tax or gratuity. Bottles of Ilegal will be available for purchase by order after the event. Call 507-292-1628 to reserve your spot!

Photos courtesy of Stephen Myers, Ilegal Mezcal

Post updated 4/6/12