City Palate
City Palate - The Flavour of Calgary's Food Scene since 1993

The Entertaining Issue - November December 2017

Mezcal, the Big Smoke

by Meghan Jessiman


If tequila had an edgy, sophisticated, slightly misunderstood older cousin, her name would be Mezcal. Long overshadowed by the hard-partying and ubiqui- tous tequila, mezcal is a wallflower in comparison, keeping out of the spotlight and only catching the attention of those willing to work a little harder to peel back her layers and appreciate her unique personality. She's complicated.

Recent appearances on many of our city's top cocktail menus along with growing global awareness of this more than 500-year-old Mexican import suggest that mezcal is experiencing her coming of age. She's making a play for the mixology spotlight in a big way and bartenders and bar-sitters alike couldn't be happier about it.

Distilled from the heart of the agave plant, like tequila, mezcal has been made in remote mountain villages in Mexico for centuries. While tequila is solely made from farmed blue agave, mezcal can be made with any of more than two dozen varieties found in the wild. The seriously smoky elixir that results from the traditional underground roasting process was long regarded by outsiders as a form of moonshine. In recent years, however, awareness of the seriously artisanal distillation process, and the fact that many of the agave varieties harvested for mezcal can take 10 to 25 years to reach maturity, have led to a cult following of sorts.

Even though he works in an establishment fundamentally driven by tequila, Añejo's bar manager, Dave Boudreault, admits that nine times out of 10 he reaches for mezcal when pouring himself a drink. He believes its transition into the mainstream is in part due to tequila's strong hold on the North American liquor market.

"Tequila's popularity has allowed other agavebased spirits to share in the spotlight," he says, "and mezcal is far more interesting and accessible than Sotol, Pulque and Raicilla."

Model Milk's Madeleine MacDonald agrees, but also feels Calgary's bartenders and fine spirit purveyors have played an integral role in mezcal's growing popularity. "Bartenders are breaking down the stereotypes of what mescal used to be. Every day we educate at least one person on spirits and break down the barriers and misconceptions that have stopped people from trying it before," she says. "Mezcal is a diverse, interesting ingredient and as more people try it, we see a greater demand for it."

Though Model Milk doesn't currently have any mezcal-based cocktails on its list, it does stock Pelotón de la Muerte and Fidencio Mezcal Pechuga, and MacDonald says her staff reaches for mezcal frequently when creating freestyle cocktails for guests.

One of Calgary's most notable mezcal enthusiasts is Sam Casuga, bar manager at Native Tongues Taqueria. Her cleverly named creation, The Mezcalgarita, is a unique mezcal-infused take on a margarita. Pulling flavours from the mezcal itself, using Pelotón de la Muerte, Casuga created a basil and cinnamon salt rim that highlights the citrus, richness and smoke of the drink perfectly. It's rapidly become the restaurant's most popular drink offering and is certainly one of the best and brightest cocktails in the whole city.

Casuga says she uses mezcal more than any other spirit behind the bar. This makes sense, considering Native Tongues' collection of this sometimes tricky-to-acquire liquor is at 25 varieties and counting.

"Beyond the Mezcalgarita, there are a few other cocktails on the list that include mezcal," she ex-plains. "But our guests love ordering mezcal-based cocktails that I, or my team, can create customized to their likings or what they have ordered to eat."

You wouldn't think that such a complex spirit would pair all that well with food, but you would be wrong.

"Mezcal pairs very well with cheese, and we like to recommend it to anyone who orders our Fundido Flameado," says Añejo's Boudreault. "Adding it to pickling liquid for pickled vegetables, like asparagus or green beans, adds an interest-ing dimension of flavour."

Añejo's chef, Matt Davidson, enjoys pairing mezcal with hearty meats and fruit salsas while Model Milk's MacDonald likes to use it to cut through dishes with a serious spicy kick.

"The smoke and chile combination is fantastic," she says. It may be a bit much for mild-mannered Canadians, but in Oaxaca, Mexico, mezcal is often drunk as a breakfast aperitif. The cultural inclination toward taking siestas suddenly makes a lot of sense.

Despite the agave plant connection, the similarity between tequila and mezcal pretty much stops there. If you haven't yet experienced mezcal, know that it's an extremely diverse spirit and all its characteristics – including its signature smoke – vary from brand to brand and batch to batch. It can be spicier, more savoury, more vegetal and more herbaceous than tequila, so substituting mezcal in a tequila cocktail can be a precarious prospect. In some drinks, it will work measure for measure. But more often than not, less mezcal is more.

Start by substituting half the tequila in a recipe for mezcal and take it from there. Most importantly, respect the spirit. Just as you wouldn't make a whiskey sour with 25-year-old McCallum's, the rarest mezcals are best enjoyed neat.

When it comes to the ideal way to experience mezcal, it's always wise to take a page from an expert. "I drink it neat and with a side of sliced oranges sprinkled with sal de gusano (agave worm salt)," Casuga says of her prefered treat-ment. "Straight, in a cocktail, with friends or solo, the best way to enjoy mezcal is frequently!"

We'll drink to that.

Read the entire article and recipes in City Palate