The agave plant is the heart and soul of not only tequila, but also the more diverse mezcal, which is increasing in popularity faster than any other distilled alcoholic beverage in America, according to data from International Wine and Spirits Research.
In fact, mezcal grew 379.1 percent on alcoholic beverage menus over the past four years, according to Datassential’s MenuTrends database, but it is still on fewer than 1 percent of menus, compared with tequila which is on 48.3 percent of menus and grew 24.2 percent over the same four-year period.
One reason mezcal has gained favor is because of its artisanal nature, being created mostly by small producers. There are a growing number of craft tequila distillers, too, but that market segment is led mostly by very large companies.
“There is a great story with many of these artisan mezcals,” says Courtnay Greenleaf, beverage director of the 12-unit Rosa Mexicano. “Younger people really appreciate the story, and the fun and delicious tastes the mezcals and craft tequilas have.”
Technically, tequila is a type of mezcal—a term derived from a Mexican regional language meaning agave stew or oven-cooked agave, depending on the translation. While mezcal can be made from the hearts of many types of agave (most commonly espadin), tequila uses those of just blue agave.
“One analogy we give when talking to guests is that mezcal is like the everlasting oak tree and tequila is just one big branch,” says Jordan Joseph, beverage director of Raleigh, North Carolina’s Centro and Gallo Pelón Mezcaleria. Others talk of mezcal in terms of wine with many varietals, with tequila being just one.
There are also big differences in the way the two spirits are made. Among them is that agave for mezcal is usually cooked in a covered earth or stone pit, giving it a smoky, more roasted taste, compared with tequila that is slow cooked by steam heat in an oven.
“A lot of people will say mezcal is the smoky or earthy brother versus a cleaner taste for tequila,” says Lanie Bayless Sullivan, spirits director for Chicago’s Frontera hospitality group. “But that only encompasses the surface. Mezcal has a really great depth and diversity of flavor, so you can find a lot in that category to please a lot of people.”
According to Mexican designation of origin laws, tequila can be produced only in the state of Jalisco and in certain areas of four other states. Mezcal is limited to regions of nine states including Oaxaca, where most mezcal comes from.
Certainly, the climate and earth in which various types of agave grow provide a certain terroir for a mezcal, and the varieties of wood or agave stalks employed in roasting has an impact on the flavor. Terroir also can play a part in some tequilas. If the agave is grown in the lowlands, it will have an earthier taste, and, if grown in the highlands, it will have a fruitier, sweeter taste.
And while traditional mezcal is not aged—other than the time it takes for the agave to mature—aging makes a big difference in tequila. Blanco tequila is bottled immediately or within two months after distillation, while reposado is aged up to a year in oak barrels that mellow the spirit. Añejo is aged one to three years in small oak barrels.
Behind the bar
Newer and craft tequilas gaining fans include Tequila Ocho, Tequila Fortaleza, and Casa Noble, beverage experts say.
There’s also been a boom in mezcal bars like Gallo Pelón Mezcaleria, which features nearly 70 different mezcals and has four mezcal flights of increasing complexities to educate guests. Frontera’s Bar Sótano is a mezcal speakeasy, and sister restaurant Leña Brava has perhaps the most mezcal varieties in Chicago with 165, several of which are offered in a trio of agave flights.
Included in its range of creative mezcal cocktails, Bar Sótano features a Tacos al Pastor cocktail for $13 that has Montelobos espadin mezcal—infused with homemade chorizo via fat washing—along with roasted pineapple, lime, and cilantro.
The paloma, a traditional tequila-based and grapefruit-flavored cocktail, has shown strong growth, up 112.3 percent over the past four years, according to Datassential. The $13 version at Rosa Mexicano features El Jimador blanco tequila, ruby red grapefruit, Combier Pamplemousse liqueur, Jarritos grapefruit soda, and grapefruit bitters.
Bartenders are also combining the two spirits in mixtures like Centro’s $12 spicy and smoky Margarita Del Gallo that has jalapeno-infused tequila, joven mezcal, citrus, and agave.
Likewise, Rosa Mexicano’s $16 Dos Agaves Barrel-Aged Cocktail mixes Corralejo blanco tequila, Fidencio Clásico mezcal, and Cointreau, as well as a house-blend orange bitters and grapefruit bitters.