Regardless of political persuasion, it seems appropriate that America’s presidential hysteria will reach a peak during Halloween; and it’s possibly foreboding for Mexicans that they will be celebrating Day of the Dead the day after. If Donald Trump goes on to become president on November 8, then two things will be required by many; a drink and a nod of sympathy to his Latin American neighbours.
You can conveniently do both with a measure of Mexican spirit mezcal, and the Day of the Dead makes for the perfect opportunity to give it a try. For the un-initiated the festival is a celebration of the dead, and sees children dress up as corpses and families drink by gravesides. It’s quite the party. Malcolm Lowry sums it up nicely in his novel Under The Volcano:
The Consul now observed on his extreme right some unusual animals resembling geese, but large as camels, and skinless men, without heads, upon stilts, whose animated entrails jerked along the ground… his room shaking with daemonic orchestras, the snatches of fearful tumultuous sleep, interrupted by voices which were really dogs barking… The wailing, the terrible music, the dark spinets: he returned to the bar.
Lovely stuff. It should be noted, Lowry’s protagonist was gunning endless bottles of mezcal during his final, violent hours alive, even so he picked an apt sidekick for the ride since, like the festival, and indeed the American presidential campaign, mezcal is vivid and wild.
Mezcal operates as an umbrella term for agave distillates, so tequila is a mezcal in the same way Cognac is a brandy. The 16th century Spanish brought distilling techniques to Mexico and used the agave to create ‘mezcal wine’, but as the Tequila valley and Jalisco regions started to perfect blue agave cultivation, tequila took centre stage.
In recent years the wider mezcal category has started to earn recognition and while tequila production is confined to use of blue agave, mezcal is derived from many different agave species. It has an Appellation of Origin like tequila and production is restricted to seven states but there is a definite heartland is Oaxaca where they favour Espadin agave.
Despite a bit of commercial interest, the mezcal distilleries are often modest in comparison to the juggernauts of tequila, but this is part of the charm, with rural settings and independent producers employing traditional methods including using stone lined pits to bake their agaves. The resulting spirit is often ragged and raw, smoky and full of bucolic character, very different to a refined and sweet tequila.
The challenge when approaching mezcal is in finding a product that retains this artisan charm but with it a quality and consistency in flavour, one tip then is to opt for 100% agave spirit and check for a village of provenance clearly stated on the bottle.
Mezcal doesn’t come cheap, but if we you fancy giving it a shot (or three), here are a few worth trying…
Among the most consistent is Del Maguey, represented by the prodigal son of Mezcal, Ron Copper who has helped resuscitate the category. One of the largest brands in the Mezcal world, Cooper insists on preserving painstakingly artisan and small batch processes with a ‘single village’ approach, protecting each producers’ techniques to retain individual character across his range. Amathus stock many of these mezcals.
Consider Los Danzantes Reposado, priced £63.70, if you’re trying to find something a bit sweeter, an easier introduction the spirit. Meanwhile if you’d like to go young and challenging, then try Alipus San Andres Mezcal, which will set you back £51.05.
For something eyebrow raising then Pechuga mezcal (£175) is a traditional Mexican festival favourite with spices, nuts and fruits added to the distilling process. And occasionally, a raw, skinless piece of chicken breast. Yep, clucking amazing. The pechuga process sees a carcass of meat suspended in the bell of the still and, as the percolating distillation rises, steam cooks the chicken, its fat absorbing the some of the smoky mezcal compounds.
Tricky to put your finger one what it exactly tastes like but, reassuringly, it’s far more complex than chicken. Other deli counter contributions to stills include an expensive piece of ham in Del Maguey’s Iberico, costing £185, and Pierde Almas Pechuga, at £161, uses turkey and a base of both Espadin and Agave Mexicano. Each sip of the latter induces a fiery furnace around the gob and although it is tempered with sweet fruits, this is lively stuff that could raise the dead – or, at the very least, put Donald Trump on his backside.
Ben McFarland and Tom Sandham are drinks writers and comedians The Thinking Drinkers. They will be performing their drinking show at the Museum of Comedy in London from Nov 23 – Dec 23. Details at www.thinkingdrinkers.com