As a native New Englander there’s no time of year that I enjoy more than autumn and, hands down, the best part of the season is Halloween. No question about it. When you’re young, you get to dress up like a monster and get free candy for it. How amazing is that? Then, when you’re an adult, you get to use it as an excuse to go out drinking at inappropriate times–got work on Friday morning? Who cares!–and dress as ridiculously as you can financially and imaginatively afford. That being said, I’ve always had a fascination with the Day of the Dead too. Maybe it’s because my mother was a Spanish teacher for over twenty-five years, and each year she would set up her little sugar skulls and Catrinas around Halloween. I’ve always been intrigued by the holiday and wished that more people celebrated it. So this week we’re doing a tribute to seasonal cocktails and Dia de Muertos. And to me that means we’re doing mezcal (whoops!).
If you’ve never had it, mezcal is a little spirit that comes from the Oaxaca region of Mexico. Similar to tequila, it’s distilled from agave (albeit a different species, but that’s a bit too wonky for now), the primary difference is that the hearts of the agave plants are roasted for three days in ovens dug into the ground, which imparts this beautiful, earthy, smoky flavor. The simplest way to describe mezcal is that it is to tequila the way Islay whiskies are to Speysiders. Another important thing to keep in mind is that most mezcals, even the commercially available ones, are produced in rural areas in very small batches by families who have been doing this for generations.
As a cocktail ingredient, I rarely see a drink that makes it shine. Most bars only stock one mezcal, Del Maguey Vida, because it’s affordable enough to mix with (at around $35 retail) and Del Maguey is really, really good brand. Though it’s a great product, most mezcal drinks follow the same pattern: lime juice and and something spicy–habanero infused, chipotle salt-rimmed, hellfire-spritzed, etc. It’s good, it makes sense, mezcal was first called fire water (agua ardiente), I get it. But it gets old. Mezcal can be a great addition to an already complex drink (mezcal negroni, anyone?) and it’s got a lot of little flavors hiding in all that smoke, so it still works in minimalist, spirit-forward drinks too. I love Del Maguey Vida for this. It has beautiful, creamy, butterscotch notes that come out with a little bit of lemon juice and simple syrup.
I was lucky enough to get walked through the entire range of Del Maguey’s mezcals by Owen Thompson, who is easily the most passionate mezcal advocate I know. He explained that Del Maguey mezcals represent many different styles native to the Oaxacan region; something totally new to me, I thought mezcal came in one style: smoky. Each of the Del Magueys have a smoke component to them, but every offering after the intro level Vida has a gin-like complexity. The San Luis Del Rio and Chichicapa have a bright, refreshing citrus flavor, and the Santo Domingo Albarradas has a very strong, woody, mineral/pine note with a very toned down smokiness.
What about a mezcal cocktail? See Rob Tinney over at Eat the Rich. I love his Hallowed Apple, a mix of mezcal, lime juice, apple shrub, and spicy bitters. What makes this drink different from what I was explaining earlier: it’s all about the shrub. There’s enough to make your mouth instantly start salivating like crazy which greatly enhances your sense of taste (true story!). Those faint of heart (and palate) fear not, there’s just enough, not too much, so you never get that “why did I just shell out all this money for boozy vinegar?” feeling. And that’s not even the best part. It comes in pitchers, which is a really, really smart (I’d love to pour pitchers during a high volume dinner service) and exactly what I need on the Day of the Dead (which is a great way to describe how I felt the morning after Halloween).