In the Spirit: Mezcal Offers a New Take for Cinco de Mayo
It’s nearly Cinco de Mayo, and yes, you know you’re going to be indulging in a margarita but how about taking that up a notch and using mezcal? It’s tequila’s smoky stepsister and can add additional layers of flavor to your cóctel.
Mezcal has really started to blossom in the U.S. last 10 years, possibly due to a boom in the crafted cocktail scene and also an increased push permitting certified makers to import. Traditionally served straight up, like a cognac or a scotch, it can also add dimension to a plethora of mixed drinks, especially a margarita.
Let’s start with a few of the basics:
Mezcal has been around for hundreds of years and is at its core any distilled agave-based spirit. The name translates to "oven-cooked agave," not derived from mescaline, which is a whole different story. Mezcal is similar to tequila, which is also made from the flowering agave plant. While tequila can only be made from blue agave, mezcal can be made from several other species. The majority of mezcal that we see in the U.S. is made from the Espadín variety.
The agave plant needs to grow on average seven years or longer to mature and the only part that is used in mezcal production is the piña, or heart of the plant. These are cooked for days or even weeks using oak or mesquite in hornos, which are holes dug into the ground and lined with bricks. This adds multiple layers of flavors such as spice, salt and smoke that can be reminiscent of some scotches.
Oaxaca, Mexico is the center of production and most of the mezcals we get in the U.S. are imported from this region. A local Oaxacan saying proclaims the best situations for mezcal use: "Para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien, también," which translates, "for everything bad, mezcal, and for everything good too."
EDGE offers three of our favorite mezcal selections and recipe tips for the perfect cocktail to spice up your Cinco de Mayo celebration.
Ilegal’s origins were based on the needs of bar owner John Rexer in Antigua for his bar Café No Sé. As the first mezcal bar outside of Mexico, Rexer needed to get his supply from Mexico to Guatemala and did so with a little help from a friend’s "Uncle."
On the brand’s website, Rexer says, "...we were a bit creative in how we brought mezcal across the border."
This mezcal is un-aged with a bright citrus note under the agave scent that carries nicely into a margarita. Ilegal Brand ambassador Gilbert Marquez suggests using Combier (an orange liqueur), fresh lime juice and kosher salt for the rim. Ilegal also offers a reposado (aged four months) and añejo (aged 13 months).
Ilegal Joven, $48
Scorpion Mezcal Silver
"PS Worms are for Wimps!" is the mantra of this seriously ready for fun mezcal. Not only does it come with a decorative mini sombrero, but also a scorpion exoskeleton at the bottom of the bottle! This mezcal is double distilled which gives a savory, spicy quality along with orange zest.
Certified Mezcalier, Barbara Sweetman from Scorpion has a suggestion for the perfect margarita "I consider using fresh local ingredients in season. For instance during berry season I’ll include muddled blueberries, strawberries etc. I also like to put my own spin on the rimming salt. In the past I have used Sal de Gusano from Oaxaca (Worm salt). The agave worms are a gourmet item in Oaxaca made by roasting and grinding up the worms then mixing with chili and salt. It is delicious. Hard to find but it is very good."
Scorpion Mezcal Silver, $35
This mezcal has a great distinctive wide bottle with an etched owl on it (El Buho being Spanish for "owl."). A blanco mezcal made from Espadín agave and roasted for a week in a stone pit with local Encino oak then crushed on a stone mill by a horse as part of the production process. These small batch, artisan details flesh out a smoky, fruity and caramel palate that is great for sipping as well as in your cocktail.
John Henry from El Buho brings up some great suggestions for that perfect margarita: "With the lime juice squeeze on this year, why not add a splash of fresh ruby red grapefruit? It is how they prefer to serve it down in Mexico. And agave nectar as the sweetener is an organic must. I like a just squeeze of clementine or orange for sunny citrus. Minimalism and freshness are the keys to an alluring margarita. Tart over sweet. Spiced cilantro habanero salted rim, optional. Serve up. Super chilled. And chill out like an owl at night. Lights out."
El Buho, $32
And finally, my personal favorite margarita is served at Hell’s Kitchen NYC. Manager Michelle Ramoni gives up the recipe for the "Holy Toledo":
Shake ingredients very well with ice, and pour over ice, blend or straight up in a glass with an ancho chile/salt/sugar rim.