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Mezcal is the broad name for distilled alcoholic beverages made from the juice of the agave plant. There are many species of agave plants that grow throughout Mexico, all with their own flavour profiles. Furthermore, each species will take on the terroir of where they are grown, again impacting the flavour. The most famous of Mexico’s agave distillates is tequila.
For a mezcal to be called tequila it must be made in one of the 5 designated states of Mexico which are Jalisco, Michoacan, Guanajuato, Nayarit and Tamaulipas. Also, tequila can only be made from one species of agave, the Blue agave. Mezcal on the other hand can be made from any of the agave species, resulting in an array of flavours. Mezcal’s Apellation of Origin is also wider than tequila’s including Oaxaca, Durango, Guanajuato, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas and Michoacan. Mezcales made outside of these areas are labeled ‘agave distilled spirits’.
Agaves are not cacti, but in fact belong to the lily family. They are grown in fields or in the wilds and are looked after by farmers called ‘jimadors’. On average, they take 7-12 years to mature to sufficient ripeness for harvest, but some species are known to take up to 35 years! When it is time, the agave is cut at the base of the root, killing it and the ‘pencas’ (long spines) are shaved off with a long handled sharp hoe called a ‘coa’. What is left is the heart of the agave which now looks like a big pineapple so they call it a ‘piña’. The piñas are then chopped into quarters and taken off to the ovens to be cooked or roasted. A big difference between mezcal and tequila is how the piñas are cooked. For tequila they are generally baked in brick ovens and for mezcal they are generally cooked with fire in an underground stone lined pit lending a deep smoky flavour. Once cooked, the sweet juice or aguamiel is extracted from the piñas, the juice it is fermented naturally or a propriety yeast is added, it is then distilled to obtain a strong clear alcoholic beverage that can be drunk straight away as blanco, or rested in oak barrels from 2 months to a year as reposado, or rested up to 3 years for añejo or longer for extra añejo.
The tequilas we have chosen are all 100% Blue agave, a few of them are recommended for mixing but in general they are meant to be sipped neat at room temperature. The glass you use is important, 60 % of taste is in the smelling! So, use a glass that will allow for the most surface area of the liquid and that will capture the aromas, we like to use a sherry or small wine glass, because it is what we have at hand, it is well suited for blancos and reposados but a brandy snifter is also great especially for añejos and extra añejos.
Pour a measure in your chosen glass, swirl the liquid to release volatile oils and note the colour and texture of the spirit. Tilt the glass on its side to increase the surface area allowing the liquid to almost come to the rim, sniff close to the lower rim, take little sniffs, you can also sniff the middle space of the glass for different notes, but don’t smell the upper reaches of the glass as this is when the alcohol vapours will be.
To taste the tequila, take a sip and while it is in your mouth, inhale through your nose, swallow and exhale hard over your tongue to excite your taste buds. The first sip you might notice lip or tongue buzz or burn, but the second sip your mouth will be more accustomed. Notice all the nuances of your chosen brand.
Tasting mezcal is a little different because it is strong and complex! Traditionally mezcal is drunk out of copitas (little clay dishes) or jicaras (half a hollowed out dried gourd). The wide rim and shallow depth allow the aromas to be released but don’t retain the alcohol fumes that can over whelm you. Any glass that is more open at the top is a good choice, like a small wine glass, or you could choose a large sake cup! To identify the complex aromas, you can put a few drops of mezcal on your palms and rub them together or fan them to dry, now smell your hands, you should be able to pick out the individual components.