On the Trail

Mezcal City

Olivia Ragni

I recently returned from a trip to Mexico City, where I discovered a city full of mezcal lovers with mezcal lists at every restaurant and mezcal bars all over their trendy neighborhoods. As I drank my way (and body weight) through these experiences, I couldn’t help but think that this is the future of Los Angeles. All over our urban city, you'll find mezcal replacing tequila behind the bar and ever-expanding lists for those who want to experiment. Even in retail stores you will find the number of mezcals now available increasing day by day. Angelenos are embracing mezcal in a major way, so could LA be witnessing a mezcal revolution? Every day customers ask me about the Oaxacan spirit with a curiosity about its new popularity and how it compares to the beverage that has long overshadowed it: tequila.  

The simple answer is that tequila is a type of agave spirit that must be made from blue agave and in the Mexican state of Jalisco, while mezcal can be made from over 250 different types of agave usually within the state of Oaxaca. But the answer is much more complicated than that. In the past, mezcal has suffered from a poor reputation due to the lack of regulation of the term ‘mezcal.’  Saying mezcal was like saying vodka—you could make it anywhere, from anything.  People of the baby-boomer generation have memories of poorly made mezcal—often with worms in the bottle—causing epic hangovers. With that being said, I did drink one mezcal with the worm in it (and I was the lucky one apparently) and one with a scorpion; both not bad. Regardless, it was the lack of regulation of the term that destroyed its reputation internationally, not the worm. While mezcal was suffering from poorly produced mezcals in other regions of Mexico, tequila was enjoying a luxury reputation from having an ultra smooth, and cleanly-distilled product; the exact opposite of bad mezcal. This led to a generation of tequila drinkers and simultaneously the disintegration of mezcal's following.  Mezcal, however, has begin to cultivate a new reputation by creating tight regulations with the consejo regulador de mezcal. With hip millennials looking for the next cool thing, and currently outdrinking the baby boomer and gen X generations, mezcal has its chance at revival. Mezcal has no unfortunate connotation with millennials like me—we had never heard of it until now. Thus, it is easier to introduce and indoctrinate us to an entirely new experience.  

As a generation, we millennials tend to be against the idea of large production operations. But mezcal is still made very traditionally, while there are only a handful of distilleries making tequila with such care. We're also in search of new and interesting experiences. Tequila can only be made from one type of agave: blue agave. On the other hand, mezcal can be made from hundreds of different types of agave such as cultivated agave varieties like espadin, or from wild agave varietals like tobala. Depending on the type of agave, or the area the agave is grown, it will affect the overall taste and character of the mezcal. It’s a bit like wine in this respect, where you have to take into consideration terroir and different grape varieties or in this case agave varietals. In just this, we can already see the intricacies that make mezcal special, and each bottle unique. There's a romanticism there that speaks to me. 

The traditional process of making mezcal is also charming. At the tiny, rustic distilleries called palenques, the piñas from the agave are chopped up—via machete of course, not shredding machines—and thrown into a stone lined pit, a top coals and covered with spent agave fibers to roast and breakdown sugars. Then either a donkey, horse, or sometimes an oxe attached to a tahona (a large stone) is used to crush the agave in order to obtain the juice which is then put through copper or clay pot stills. Typically, these are small, family-owned operations making mezcal the way they have been taught to make mezcal for years—romantic and rustic stories. No wonder everyone is interested in mezcal right now! Try going to a mezcal bar in Mexico and not falling in love with it! Two friends of mine that joined me in Mexico City entered as mezcal haters and left as passionate aficionados. The key? Tajin and naranja. I’ve always loved mezcal, but I had never had it served like this in the US. Orange slices with tajin, a mexican seasoning made with chili peppers, lime, salt and typically grasshoppers or worms. Mezcal with tajin and orange slices is the best kept secret this side of the border. At mezcalerias all over Mexico City this is exactly how mezcal is served (see the initial photo).  This combination can convert anyone apprehensive of mezcal into a mezcal lover. So next time you reach for a bottle of tequila, maybe consider its cooler, hipper, more authentic cousin.

-Olivia Ragni