Thursday, October 30, 2014 · 11:10 a.m.

What’s with the worm?: Tequila vs. mezcal

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As some of you may know, I have an affinity for the tequila family. And though I generally try to gear my consumption of it toward the warmer months, I find its cousin, mezcal, to be perfect at this time of year.

Smoke on the Water. (Photo: Staff)

Now more than ever, people are asking, “What exactly is mezcal?” With its popularity on the rise in the ever-growing world of cocktails, I thought I’d share what I’ve come to know about the spirit. Like tequila, mezcal is a distillate of the agave plant. Though tequila must be made in Jalisco from 100 percent blue agave, mezcal production is widespread throughout Mexico, but the best is said to come from Oaxaca. Other than the place of production and specified agave species used to make them, the distinguishing factor between these two is the way in which the agave juice, or aguamiel, is extracted.

The process begins by stripping the agave plant down to its piña, named for the pineapple fruit that it resembles. At this point, the piña is cut into pieces and cooked in an oven to convert the starch into sugar. Although tequila is cooked in a steam oven, the piñas that produce mezcal are cooked in underground ovens fueled with wood charcoal, giving the spirit a distinct smokiness when it is done. These cooked piñas are then shredded to obtain the aguamiel.

Mezcal recipes

Razor Ramon
.75 oz mezcal
.75 oz Lillet Blanc
.75 oz Montenegro Amaro
.5 oz apricot liqueur

Stir all ingredients with ice and strain neat into a Carpano Antica rinsed cocktail glass. Flame the peel of an orange and skewer for a garnish.

Smoke on the Water
1 oz mezcal
.75 oz St. Germain
.5 oz lime juice
Mint

Shake all ingredients with ice and double strain over ice in a cocktail glass. Garnish rim with smoked paprika salt.

What you have at this point is a much more extracted version of what the Aztecs had discovered nearly 2,000 years ago when they enjoyed the juice of the agave plant after it had been left out and fermented. This “pulque” was mildly alcoholic, but after some trial and error distilling the agave juice, it seems they got it right.

After the aguamiel is left to ferment, it will be distilled in a pot still and later cut with water. Some tequilas undergo numerous distillations in order to create a cleaner product, but unfortunately, this can also lead to a bland product. Most tequilas do not undergo more than a couple distillations.

The best likening I can give you if you have never experienced mezcal is that it is to tequila what scotch is to whiskey: made of a similar distillate, but controlled steps in the process give it a distinguishing smoky character.

Razor Ramon. (Photo: Staff)

Contrary to what most people do know about mezcal, there is not always a worm in the bottom of the bottle. It can, however, be a distinguishing factor between high-end and bottom-shelf mezcals. The worm is supposed to be an indication of the proof of the liquor, not the quality. It’s understood that a spirit of a higher proof would be able to preserve the worm as a whole. My suggestion is to avoid any bottle with a worm in the bottom.

My first experience with mezcal was Sombra, made by Charles Bieler and Richard Betts. Both of the brand's founders hail from the world of wine, and the craft that goes into making this brand is a testament to that. It is robust and heavily smoked with a mesquite essence that is mildly floral. I had a chance to meet Charles Bieler a few summers ago and talk to him about some changes they made in the brand to achieve a different flavor. What is interesting is that, much like wine country, the territory of the agave fields will greatly impact the finished product. Other brands I would recommend include any of the products from Del Maguey or Los Nahuales. The Del Maguey line specifically focuses on single-village mezcals to show how different the product can taste from place to place.

Mezcal cocktails intrigue me because they can go in so many different directions. The best pairings I have found for these smoky gems are rich and bitter, acidic and floral, and savory and spicy. Try it in a Bloody Mary or Negroni if you want to stick with the classics. You can also find my recipe for the Razor Ramon and Sara Keith’s recipe for the Smoke on the Water in the sidebar.

Happy imbibing!

Laura Kelton is a recent graduate of UTC and currently runs the bar program at Easy Bistro & Bar. Feel free to reach out to her by email with any questions, comments or requests. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.

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