What is Mezcal?
This old-school cousin of tequila has character“If you love tequila, you love mezcal,” says Alejandro Champion, one of the founders of Mezcal Union, a Mexico City-based producer of the spirit. More and more bartenders are also falling in love with mezcal and its smoky flavor, which adds a layer of complexity to cocktails.
Made from the agave plant, mezcal is more than a spirit; it’s also spiritual to the indigenous people of Mexico, where it originates. “The highest priests would drink it; it was very sacred juice,” says Champion.
When talking about the agave plant, Champion draws a comparison to grapes and winemaking. There are hundreds of varieties of grapes capable of producing all kinds of wine. Similarly, there are 200 different kinds of agave; blue agave is used solely for tequila, the most popular spirit from Mexico.
“Tequila is a more modern product,” he explains. Mezcal is old school. The hearts of the agave plants, or piñas, are harvested and buried in a cone-shaped natural oven.
Layered with dirt, oak and stones, the piñas are roasted underground for three to five days before being uncovered and distilled.
Oaxaca is the capital of mezcal and where Champion and two friends began their small company 11 years ago. Now a top producer, it’s also transforming the local economy one family at a time. With a background in the spirits industry, Champion believed “something was missing. None of the products really had to do with Mexico’s culture, and the revenue was not about making a difference.”
It takes an agave plant anywhere from seven to 14 years to reach maturity. “The plant is like part of the family,” says Champion. Mezcal Union forms small cooperatives, through which they plant agave and then buy it back from the family whose land it grows on.
Using the same recipe and traditional production methods, 20 small distilleries make small batches of mezcal that are later blended. This artisanal approach provides jobs, as well as a quality product. Champion says, “It’s great quality and there is soul behind it. That is what brings the magic to the product.”
Durango is a Mexican state known more for scorpions and Westerns than mezcal, according to Nelson Nieves. It’s also where the Southwest Florida resident makes Bosscal Mezcal with his brother Verne.
A self-proclaimed tequila aficionado with a background in banking and real estate, Nieves says, “I wanted to do something that would still be around if the economy took a downturn again.” In 2014 he threw himself headfirst into the world of mezcal and the state of Durango, with fascinating tales of searching for wild agave by horseback, interacting with the locals, and navigating the complicated, international business end.
Nieves also makes a savory scorpion salt, containing real dried, crushed scorpions. It’s used to rim Bosscal-based cocktails found in Southwest Florida bars such as Ember, Nice Guys, Gather, Burn by Rocky Patel, LYNQ and City Tavern. His passion for the spirit has elevated Nieves to the role of U.S. Ambassador for the Consejo Regulador del Mezcal, a governing body overseeing mezcal regulations.
Like Champion, Nieves is committed to supporting locals and giving back. “We sign a contract with the people who own the land and help replant the agave we harvest.” He also built a distillery in Durango with plans to add infrastructure that encourages mezcal tourism and provides jobs.
Champion says, “People are becoming more conscious of what they consume and what they support. Our mezcal fits that stream of consciousness.”
Mezcal is good for both mixing and sipping. “I usually sip it because that’s the best way to appreciate it and enjoy it,” says Champion. He advises pairing mezcal with chocolate, cheese or fruit.
The spirit adds a smoky twist to margaritas and hot toddies. “Mix it with hot apple cider and honey, add a cinnamon stick for flavor and aroma, and it’s good for the flu,” he adds.
Nieves says, “It’s a clean drink, gluten free, good for keto diets, and we are also organic. I like to make a skinny margarita with lime, soda water and some Grand Marnier.” He also suggests adding it to classic cocktails such as an old fashioned, negroni and even piña colada.
Bosscal also offers Damiana, named after a yellow wildflower that is said to have aphrodisiac properties. “In Durango, says Nieves, “both men and women take a shot of it every day to maintain their vitality.” So, he added the botanical in a second distillation, producing a clean, floral mezcal that’s lighter on smoke. When you purchase mezcal, look for joven (Spanish for young), which is a baseline, like blanco tequila. Bosscal Joven is light and smooth, a little sweet on the finish. Mezcal Union Joven is also smooth and balanced, a bit earthy and herbal with hints of citrus. Also in the Mezcal Union lineup is El Viejo, a slightly different blend of agave. It’s a bit more vibrant and complex, with cinnamon, pepper and a touch of tropical fruit.
While the spirit is trending, tequila sales outpace those of mezcal by leaps and bounds, which will likely continue if brands like Mezcal Union and Bosscal Mezcal stay true to their mission of providing artisanal, traditional products while improving the circumstances of the locals who produce it.
“There’s no better way to taste Mexico than through agave plants,” says Champion. “In mezcal we have years of rain, moonlight and sun energy. There is mysticism to it. It’s a beautiful spirit.”
Gina Birch is a regular contributor, a lover of good food and drink, and a well-known media personality in Southwest Florida.
Mezcal Union Mule Recipe
1½ ounces Mezcal Union Joven
½ ounce lime juice
Garnish: sliced cucumber, ginger and chili powder
In a shaker, combine mezcal and lime juice. Add ice and shake until cold. Strain into a glass, add ice, top with ginger beer. Garnish with the sliced cucumber, ginger and a sprinkle of chili powder