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Forget the worm – the growing popularity of Mexican spirit mezcal is all about quality and flavour, writes Laura Foster.
Like a cross between Tequila and a smoky malt whisky, mezcal is a heady drink of mythic proportions. As London falls prey to its charms, a number of bars dedicated to the fiery spirit are springing up in the capital.
Mexican chain Wahaca leads the way, with founder Thomasina Miers a huge advocate. ‘I was in Oaxaca – a key mezcal-producing region in Mexico – the first time I tried it, and I fear I had a little too much,’ remembers Miers. ‘I was really struck by how passionately the locals felt about this spirit of theirs; that they felt mezcal was a purer, more spiritual drink than Tequila.’
So what is mezcal? You may know it as a fearsome drink that comes with a worm in the bottle. While this is sometimes true, the brands that come with floating critters are to be avoided.
The best way to think of it is as a cross between a quality Tequila and a smoky Islay malt whisky. It has a lot in common with Tequila: both are made in Mexico from the agave plant, but there are a couple of key differences. Agave plants need to be cooked before they are pressed for their juice, and while they are steamed in Tequila production, mezcal producers usually bury the plants in earthen pits and roast them, which often results in a distinctive smoky flavour.
The other big difference is the type of agave used. One of the most common is espadín, which has sword-like leaves, a clean, pure taste and is similar to azul or blue agave (the only variety allowed in Tequila production). Another is tobalá, which grows in the wild, looks like a large cabbage and is vegetal and spicy.
Tasting mezcal is unlike drinking any other spirit. ‘Mezcal is sometimes smoky, sometimes minerally, sometimes fiery… it is always primal and generally more grrr than most things you may have drunk,’ enthuses Melanie Symonds, a manager at Hackney mezcal bar Qui Qui Ri Qui (that’s Spanish for 'cock-a-doodle-doo').
Miers provides a little more perspective: ‘Although mezcal used to have the reputation of being a rough drink, made in cottage industries, the newer ones coming out of Oaxaca are spectacular, with a wonderful flavour of agave and that characteristic smokiness.’ Mezcal can be enjoyed neat – sip it, never shoot – from a small rocks glass.
Last summer, Wahaca’s Charlotte Street branch opened a mezcalería, or mezcal bar, and next to follow was Qui Qui Ri Qui (pictured, above left and top right), in Hackney. Others getting in on the act include Lupita East and Mezcal Cantina, although these two are more limited in the range they stock.
What is clear is that London is ready to turn with that worm: the mezcalería has become the late-night den of choice.
A no-holds-barred paean to mezcal. The owners believe they have the biggest mezcal selection of any bar in Europe, and are keen to spread the gospel through tasting samples and slushy cocktails. Be warned – the only other thing they serve is Mexican beer.
In the basement of Soho institution El Camion, where bartending legend Dick Bradsell is often found behind the stick. The primary spirit on offer is Tequila, but a lot of love is shown to mezcal, too. Tuesdays sees tastings dedicated to both spirits.
Head upstairs to find the UK’s first bar dedicated to mezcal. This smart hangout boasts Zapotec design flourishes throughout, plus a neat selection of mezcal, beers and Tequila. Try its twist on a blood and sand cocktail, using mezcal instead of Scotch whisky.
This feature was published in the spring 2013 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.