Whether or not it’s your go-to spirit, chances are you’ve heard about mezcal in the last several years. In fact, according to data from the Mexican government, so many of us were learning about mezcal for the first time between 2007 and 2011 that sales of the beverage grew by nearly 48 percent in that period — a true feat if you understand just how polarizing mezcal’s backbone flavor is to so many palates.
That iconic smokiness isn’t the only thing that you’ll find in a bottle of mezcal, though. It can be bitter or even cheesy; some mezcals carry subtle notes of cinnamon or vanilla, while others can lean more sour. A spirit distilled from the agave plant, mezcal can be produced from any agave species, leading to this wide array of flavors.
(On the other hand, tequila, a spirit often incorrectly thought of as the original Mexican spirit and mezcal as the offshoot, should be distilled from blue agave and blue agave only. It used to be the case that tequila legally needed to be from blue agave, but in more recent years, tequila’s denominations of origin, or DO — i.e. the group that basically outlines the territories within which a given product must be made and how — has ruled that only 51 percent needs to be from blue agave and the other 49 can be from, well, basically anything.)
Ivy Mix, the Brooklyn-based bartender and owner of Leyenda, follows the history of mezcal and tequila in her new book, Spirits of Latin America. The book is broken intro three groupings all related to suga: agave, sugarcane, and grape. It starts naturally with agave for the author, who considers mezcal and tequila as the best starting place for experiencing the spirits of Latin America. “In flavor and feeling, no other spirit is quite like them,” she says.
For those looking to familiarize themselves or fall back in love with mezcal, Mix shares her three favorite mezcals and one bacanora, a different kind of agave-distilled beverage, as part of Eater at Home series: Real Minero Barril mezcal ($143), Rancho Tepua blanco bacanora ($59.50), Mezonte Japo Raicilla ($170), and Rey Campero Tepextate ($120), a favorite for Mix which she considers a fantastic intro to the spirit. It reminds her of a smoky church filled with flowers. And for those who already have a bottle of Del Maguey on hand, Mix also offers up a recipe for her cabezo cocktail below.
1 ounce Jameson Black Barrel Irish Whiskey
¾ ounce Del Maguey Vida Mezcal
¾ ounce Lillet Rose Aperitif
¾ ounce Martini & Rossi Bianco Vermouth
1 teaspoon St. Germain Elderflower Liqueur
3 dashes Bittermans Hellfire Habanero Shrub
3 dashes Bittermans Mole Bitters
Lemon twist for garnish
Step 1: Add all the ingredients, except the lemon twist, to a mixing glass with ice and stir.
Step 2: Strain into a Nick and Nora glass.
Step 3: Express the oils of the lemon twist over the glass and then float the twist in the drink. Enjoy!