Proposed by: Jonathan
Reviewed by: David
It has been my observation, and I am sure I have written it before, that people come up with some interesting things to use in the making of alcoholic beverages. Surely the agave plant is one of those. Agave is a succulent, don’t call it a cactus, that grows primarily in Mexico and has a number of uses. Among those uses are a variety of spirits that range from the fresh, quick pulque made from the sap to this week’s spirit, mezcal, which is made from the roasted heart (pina) of the plant. In between those lies tequila which is arguably the most common and popular of the agave liquors.
I have heard it said that all mezcal is a tequila, or all tequila is a mezcal but that makes little sense to me. Tequilas are made from a variety of agave plants, but primarily blue agave. The distillation of the spirit is centered around the town of Tequila, does not involve roasting the pina, and can include some aging. Mezcal on the other hand is made from Agave Americana, must come from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, and gets its characteristic taste from roasting the heart of the plant (after a great deal of work to make sure it is full of sugar/sap meant for the flower) in ground ovens. That roasting gives it the distinctive smoky flavor that is both a benefit and curse.
My sons were home this week and I let one of them do the shopping for the mezcal. There is not a great deal of selection, especially compared to tequilas, which says something about popularity and taste. A number of sources describe the smoky and complex character of mezcal to that of a fine scotch. With that in mind, we tried the pina liquor simply poured over ice as a test. Either it, or we failed. The complexity came across more like a fuel than a fine spirit, strong and distinctive but tasting of solvents with no sweetness.
That left my proposed drink a challenge to see if there was a way to mix that distinctive taste and find something that meshed. The proposal was for a drink called the Old Oaxacan which is as follows:
2 ounces mezcal
1 ounce simple syrup
.75 ounce lime juice
4-5 shakes angostura bitters
8 mint leaves
2 ounces champagne
Mix all ingredients, except the champagne, in shaker with ice. Shake and strain into a coupe, add the champagne and garnish with mint. I used a chocolate mint because it made sense to me when I considered the desert south of Mexico.
The end result was oddly harmonious and so much better than the spirit by itself or even in a simple mix with citrus and sweetener. It may be the champagne talking, but I finally understood the odd complexity of the roasted agave, and perhaps the idea to use it to make hooch in the first place.
When Jonathan and I were young, we launched model rockets, and, oddly, this drink made me remember those launches, not just the smoke but also the thrill of watching them streak into the sky nearly before you noticed.
If you read carefully, that’s the sum of my review. Mezcal seems an entirely different beast from tequila in its charcoaled taste, and, for reasons I can’t quite explain, this drink seemed particularly potent and particularly sudden in attack. It may be the champagne, which every celebrant knows goes to your head, but it could be that the other ingredients—angostura, lime, and a little simple syrup—hardly slow the drink down.
My daughter, the most instinctually culinary in our family, suggested I boil a lime peel with the sugar and water, but the smokiness of the mezcal subdued any subtlety that step may have imparted. The lime juice seemed muted too, and the angostura, though it gave the drink color, added a bitterness well in the background. My liquor purveyor described mezcal as the Islay of tequilas, and that description fits but there’s something western in it, more mesquite than oak.
Not that I’m complaining, mind you. The Old Oaxacan is interesting, a perfect accompaniment to guacamole and chips, a suitably more serious substitute to that sweet margarita you’ve gotten used to. One caution: if you’re expecting the familiar tequila-laced confection, overcome that anticipation. You’ll find something quite different here, an in-your-face confrontation with fire and sugar that speaks more to char than caramel.
David’s take: I loved it, though I suspect it’s not for everyone.
Jonathan’s take: A good tequila would still be my preference, but this didn’t kill my curiosity about the subset that is mezcal.
Next Week (proposed by David):
We’ve celebrated the Derby. We’ve celebrated the Preakness. So far, California Chrome has responded. With the Belmont next week, we can’t pass up a Belmont Breeze. Though part of me bristles at a drink so obviously and cravenly promotional, the ingredients and combination sound wonderful. And if it will help the horse, well, that’s a bonus.