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By Finn-Olaf Jones | December 29, 2014 | Food & Drink
Mezcal: the poor man's tequila? No way, Jose. The smoky-cool Oaxacan spirit has deep ties to LA and is back in spectacular fashion in watering holes across the city.
“Every bar in LA is getting into the [mezcal] game. Every conversation is about it,” insists El Silencio honcho Fausto Zapata.
“Just put a few drops in your hands,” says Dustin Shaw, who is tending the long bar at Melrose’s recently opened Gracias Madre restaurant, pouring from a rare bottle of Marca Negra Tobalá mezcal with a sinister hand printed across it. “Rub them together quickly and then smell.” The vapor comes up smoky, complex, the aroma of decadesold agaves from the distant deserts, underground fires flavored by fragrant woods, family recipes that go back to the conquistadors, secret distillations. In short, the stuff smells a lot more interesting than its plain vanilla cousin, tequila. Indeed, as Shaw goes on to explain, “Mezcal is the single-malt scotch to tequila’s whiskey.”
If you haven’t noticed, this once exotic drink has been making smoky inroads into Los Angeles. While tequila has exploded into full-menu, $100/shot stratospheres, it’s but a small planet—steamed from a single sugary azul agave varietal—in the mezcal universe, which has some three dozen other agave varietals to choose from. Moreover, tequila is distilled from steamed plants, while the complex taste of mezcal comes from agaves being roasted underground with whatever other ingredients the distiller has up his sleeve.
“Fine mezcal, made naturally from 100% agave, is probably the purest, most traditional spirit available on planet earth,” writes Lance Cutler, in his colorful drinking travelogue, The Tequila Lover’s Guide to Mexico: Everything There Is to Know About Tequila . . . Including How to Get There. “Mezcal smells like history. It tastes like wonder and superstition. It finishes with ancestral connections to the past and mystical visions of the future. Love it or hate it, no one remains ambivalent after tasting it.”
There’s certainly little ambivalence about mezcal’s conquest of LA. Head into most trendy restaurants or bars and you’ll find the mezcal menu growing longer as local tastes evolve from just a couple of brands a few years ago to a whole smorgasbord of artisanal concoctions whose portentous names seem derived from magical realism novels: Minoutaurus, Delirio, Siete Misterios, Sacrificio, Ilegal, El Silencio. Just here in Gracias Madre, some five dozen different brands glitter in eccentrically shaped and labeled bottles on the back bar like Christmas tree ornaments.
The agave plants grow wild over the scorched earth near Oaxaca, Mexico.
“It’s not just high-end places like Gracias Madre, Soho House or the Hotel Bel-Air that are carrying it,” says Marcos Tello, a local liquor consultant and proprietor of Liquid Assets. “Even chain restaurants like Killer Shrimp and Frida are picking up the category.” Angelenos aren’t the only ones feeling the love. Mezcalerias—specialized tasting bars—have opened up throughout South America and Europe. Totter into the medieval streets of Paris’ Marais district and you’ll find that the Bar Mezcaleria has become a favorite watering hole for the city’s latest breed of bohemians. “In some hot spots, like South Beach Miami, mezcal is the single-biggest growth category for liquor,” says Tello.
There is a Mexican proverb that, translated, says: “For everything bad: mezcal. For everything good; the same.” However, just a decade ago, the saying might as well have been: “For every gringo; just bad mezcal.” If you used to think mezcal was some yellow stuff with a worm thrown into it, you were drinking the swill that was being brewed for tourists and sold in souvenir shops or the occasional liquor store north of the border. “A lot of us were introduced to mezcal when a college buddy proffered a bottle of urine-colored liquid and the last one to take a swig had to eat the dead worm at the bottom,” remembers one of my drinking pals. This fake tradition prompted a whole generation of Spring Breakers to wear EAT THE WORM T-shirts after sojourns in Acapulco and Puerto Vallarta.
“The worm and aging thing was pure tourist BS,” scoffs Nikki Sunseri, manager of Downtown’s Las Perlas bar, one of the pioneers in bringing artisanal mezcals to the Southland. Some of their bottles, like the rare Los Javis and Vosco, are here only because the owner knows the families that distill them. “We like whiskey here in the US and Mexicans ended up aging mezcal because they were catering to that market,” says Sunseri. “Adding the worm was a sham. Most people who love mezcal just drink it right away when it’s naturally clear. You lose the vegetative taste of agave once you age it in a barrel.”Fair enough, but for those of us raised on the yellow stuff, a reposado (aged in oak for less than a year) or añejo (for more than a year) adds an extra dimension to an already fascinatingly complex drink.
Just avoid mentioning aging and worms in the bars that dot the Spanish colonial streets of Oaxaca, mezcal’s spiritual center and widely considered the culinary capital of Mexico. They take their mezcal as seriously as holy water. “We can pretty much taste which family makes a certain batch,” says the bartender in Mezcaloteca, a small batch mezcaleria in the old city center. Some of the mezcals are so distinct that individual bottles have handwritten labels indicating date, agave varietal and mode of distillation. The bartender shakes each bottle before pouring it to showcase “las perlas,” the bubbles whose quantity indicates the mezcal’s alcohol content. Mezcal is a high art around these parts, part of a local tradition that goes back untold generations.
Carlos Morenos is part of this tradition. Right now, Morenos stands in an immaculately ironed white shirt and pants surveying agave clusters along a spleen-challenging dirt road above the dusty village of San Baltazar Guelavila, a few valleys removed from the city of Oaxaca. The agaves are sputnik-sized spiders whose spear-like leaves curve menacingly across the scorched hills, threatening to impale anyone not treading carefully. “The bees indicate the juice is sweet on this one,” says Morenos, examining a small swarm around a particularly forbidding agave. Machete is drawn, and in some two dozen samurai swings, the organic beast is de-leaved and reduced to a hydrant-sized bullet to be wrung out of the earth and rolled up to a waiting truck.
A farmer strips the leaves off the spiderlike agave plant using a machete. Once the leaves are removed the core of the plant is transported to a facility, where it is quartered and thrown into a volcanic rock-lined pit to ferment.
Morenos hands his machete over so I take a swing at a neighboring agave with spectacularly underwhelming result. After half a dozen chops I’ve managed to partially mangle a single leaf. A few splatters of raw juice land on my bare arms, raising burning red welts, and I notice a knowing smile on Moreno’s face; it takes a childhood of chopping agaves to develop immunity from the juice’s wrath.
The truckload of agaves is brought down to town where Pedro Hernandez awaits next to a hand-dug, volcanic rock-lined fire pit. Hernandez is a ninth-generation master mescalero and his waiting crew expertly quarters the agaves with axes and tosses them into the pit. A precise mix of oak, mesquite, eucalyptus and pinecones are added to the pile, and then the whole smoldering mini-volcano is buried in a mound of dirt.
Three days later, Hernandez and his crew dig up their baked treasures and place them in a cement ring where a donkey-powered millstone pounds it into a pulp, which subsequently gets poured into waiting vats where the mixture is fermented for five days before being distilled.
Hernandez is brewing this special concoction for a trio of Mexican-American mezcal aficionados based in Los Angeles, who have launched their own brand, El Silencio. “Mezcal has all the right components… that it’s love at first sight for us Angelenos,” says one of the founders, Fausto Zapata, in between a constant stream of e-mails and phone calls at his usual table in Guelaguetza, Koreatown’s shrine to Oaxacan cuisine. “It’s organic, it’s got a complexity like wine in terms of agave varietals, and there’s a Latin influence which is in the arteries of the city. Plus, there’s an oversupply of tequila. Angelenos are ready for this.”
Having been raised on mezcal, Zapata’s passion is contagious, leaping across the counter at another downtown bar to show the mixologist how to best bring out the smoky flavor in a mezcal margarita. Although the cognoscenti like their mezcal neat, it adds a refreshing complexity to tequila cocktails.
“When you see mezcal in the context of how it’s made and how it tastes compared to tequila, it’s hard to turn down,” says Zapata. “Every bar in LA is getting into the game. Every conversation is about it.”
Las Perlas’ Nikki Sunseri agrees. “There’s something about the spirit of agave and all that goes into making it that is endlessly fascinating. Californians love their wine and its complexities and I think they’re finding that mezcal is at least as intriguing.” I’ll drink to that.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JENNIFER LIVINGSTON/TRUNK ARCHIVE/PEDEN