Many in Britain will attest to the sinister power of tequila – Mexico’s mass exported spirit. Wasted young revellers chucking back shots with a suck of lime and lick of salt in a drunken stupor, is a common sight on nights out across the country.
Standing bashfully at the back of the bar, however, is tequila’s lesser known cousin, mezcal. For too long it was shunned and ignored, while gregarious tequila was adored by the crowds. Originally produced in the back streets and villages of Mexico, mezcal was barely known by Brits, but that looks to be changing.
Increasing numbers of young people are enjoying the experience of trying alcohol, rather than simply consuming it. This is a situation which will no doubt benefit mezcal. ‘There is a new trend for organic craft products,’ explains Eduardo Gomez, who has worked for over a decade in the British alcohol industry and organizes a London tequila and mezcal festival. ‘Mezcal is an artisanal product hand-made by farmers in Mexico, it fits this trend well.’
But how exactly does it differ from tequila? First, tequila is made purely from the blue agave plant, but mezcal can be made from hundreds of varieties of agave. The most important difference is the production: tequila on our shelves is generally mass-produced, bland and low quality. Mezcal is still an old-fashioned industry, the alcohol made on farms mostly located in the Oaxaca region.
The long cooking process – including at least seven years of agave growth – infuses each mezcal mix with unique and distinct elements. The pina, or centre, is removed from each plant and thrown into large stone pits, where it is heated for several days. Crushed by a stone wheel, traditionally horse drawn, the remaining pulp is sloshed into large vats and double distilled.
I headed to Hackney, in East London, to try it out. Under a kebab shop I entered 184 Hackney Road, a bar specializing in mezcal. Bar manager Tom Bray served me two samples in traditional round clay vessels, accompanied by orange slices drizzled with chilli worm salt (yes, it’s made of salt, chillies and ground worm). Some in Oaxaca will drink it with garlic and herbs, traditionally for medical reasons, sipping slowly throughout the day. This anti-shot approach is vital. ‘Never shoot it,’ warns the owner, Melanie Symonds. ‘You want the flavour to linger like a journey.’ Eduardo agrees, ‘Taking time to drink mezcal shows respect for the time and effort it has taken to make.’
Use the first sip as a primer, then try and taste the multitude of flavours. Even the rocks and wood used in the making process add subtle nuances. And the drink definitely packs a punch – mezcal should realistically be at least 45% ABV.
So is this the next big thing in the trendy bars of London? ‘It will definitely grow,’ believes Melanie. ‘I don’t think mezcal will be forgotten after the current trend, but due to hand crafted production methods there is a finite amount. Because of this limited supply it’s never going to be in the top five volume spirits in this country.’
Big companies will doubtless try to muscle in on the action and lower standards, so always check on the label that it is 100% agave and hand crafted. In my opinion, it is one of the greatest spirits I have come across. It has all the complexity of the best whiskey and the versatility of gin, with a euphoric effect on the brain and an intriguing backstory, mezcal might be worth some of your attention.
Where to Find Mezcal in London:
The Charlotte Street branch of the Mexican food chain houses an upstairs bar which serves an extensive range of mezcals and sipping tequilas, starting at just under £4.
Found in Dalston, this Mexican restaurant prides itself on its authenticity. While enjoying the meal you can sip on one of their many mezcals.
La Bodega Negra
On Old Compton Street, this hip Soho restaurant specialises in Mexican street food. As a result, it and stocks over fifty mezcals and tequilas, served by the glass, carafe or bottle.
184 Hackney Road
A bar catering to the mezcal market, you find it under a kebab shop on Hackney Road. The dozens of bottles are well known by the staff, so any beginners should head here as their first port of call.
A little more upmarket than similar joints, Mestizo is a restaurant on Hampstead Road. They have a tasting menu for £26, as well as a number of mezcal and tequila cocktails.