The Rise of Mezcal
Mezcal is as laden with folkloric tales as today’s cocktail landscape is with drinks infused with the smoky spirit. To say that this 500-year-old beverage is the “drink du jour” would be accurate — if du jour meant “open-ended period of time that seemingly has no end.” The preponderance of modern mezcalerias popping up all over the country, together with mezcal’s prominence on even the most generic bar menu, speak to its growing popularity — in many places, surpassing even its agave-based cousin, tequila. But to fully realize mezcal’s potent pleasure, it’s important to know where to get it, who’s pouring it and how much they actually know about what’s going in your glass.
First, let’s dispel a few myths:
- Yes, there are worms in the bottom of some mezcal bottles, although if you see one, you’re likely partaking of a lower-end option.
- No, mezcal is not a synonym for tequila. While the two are related, they are not interchangeable.
- You may associate tequila with shooters, but mezcal is meant to be savored.
- Overconsumption of any type of alcohol is bound to come with some kind of consequence. But would mezcal elicit a hangover in the same way tequila might? When Megan Barnes, of the Washington, D.C., hotspot Espita Mezcaleria, was profiled by Thrillist as one of the area’s best bartenders last year, she famously answered in the negative.
There is a hangover theory out there focused on tequila’s monosaccharides, which have to be broken down by the liver, versus mezcal’s polysaccharides, which don’t. But the fact that mezcal is fashioned from 100% distilled agave, while tequila can legally be sold in the United States with only 51% agave and 49% various additives, may have more to do with how you feel while drinking it, and the following day. Either way, Barnes is smitten.
“Mezcal is here to stay,” she tells Global Luxury. As bar manager of Espita, Barnes can be found crafting cocktails and earning accolades simultaneously. She has been profiled and quoted in everything from The New York Times to the Washington Post to Liquor.com; the headline for that piece: “Want to Become a Mezcal Master? Go Work Here.”
Indeed, Espita provides as great an opportunity for drinkers to enjoy a choice cocktail (and diners to relish a broad menu of Southern Mexican dishes) as it does for Barnes and General Manager Josh Phillips to continue to explore the depths of mezcal. Phillips is one of only a few certified Master Mezcaliers in the world, and he and Barnes share a passion for authenticity, sustainability and heritage distillation practices.
Between pours and trips to Mexico on behalf of the Tequila Interchange Project, Barnes talked to us about why mezcal is trending and even shared a recipe for her favorite drink.
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury To what would you attribute the growing popularity of Mezcal in big cities across the country?
Megan Barnes I think that in our day and age, people are more health-conscious and focused on local, sustainable products. While mezcal isn’t a local product for most of us, it is a spirit that is natural and for which practices that are over 500 years old are used to make it.
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury What is it about the taste that people are drawn to?
Megan Barnes People love its bold flavors, variances in flavor from bottle to bottle and how great it makes you feel.
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury For the mezcal novice, how would you describe it (especially for someone who might not understand the difference between mezcal and tequila)?
Megan Barnes The definition of mezcal is any Mexican distilled spirit made from the maguey, or agave. So tequila is a mezcal — not the other way around. Tequila can only be made from Tequiliana Weber — or Blue Agave in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Agaves are typically cooked in an above-ground oven or autoclave, mechanically shredded, fermented, and distilled in either a copper or continuous still.
Mezcal isn’t limited to any specific agave but can only legally be made in the nine states within the Mezcal Denomination of Origin. Agaves are typically cooked in an underground pit for up to a week, then crushed by hand or stone, open-air fermented with wild yeasts and then distilled in a Filipino still, clay still or copper still.
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury What is it like to head the bar program for one of the world’s few certified Master Mezcaliers?
Megan Barnes It’s fun. Having a shared birthday, we actually have quite a lot in common. When tasting mezcal, we typically enjoy the same things. He’s very knowledgeable about the entire mezcal process, but nothing beats going down to Mexico and seeing it firsthand. That’s where the real education lies. We’ve been able to get down to Mexico quite a bit since we’ve opened, and it’s only made my affinity for the spirit stronger.
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury As a follow-up to the previous question, why is it important to have that level of authenticity in the restaurant, especially as more and more restaurants and bars themed around mezcal pop up?
Megan Barnes It’s important to know your stuff about mezcal and the politics surrounding it. Now that mezcal has become this popular thing to drink, larger corporations are hoping to cash in on it, which could not only devastate the agave and the animals who help pollinate the agaves, but Mexico as a whole, too.
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury Do you have a favorite mezcal drink, and why?
Megan Barnes Josh (my Master Mezcalier) and I both love the Oaxacan Sour. It’s my take on a Trinidad Sour. We love Angostura bitters, and it plays so well with the smokiness of the mezcal.
Coldwell Banker Global Luxury Would you be willing to share the recipe?
1.5 oz. Espadin Mezcal
0.75 oz. lemon juice
0.5 oz. Angostura bitters
0.5 oz. pineapple/canela syrup*
*Fresh pineapple juice cooked down with sugar, steeped with canela sticks.