Tequilas smoky sibling, mezcal has developed a cult following across Australia’s bar scene of late; we’ve even got dedicated mezcaliers to help us navigate the magical world of mezcal.
Whisk(e)y was all the rage in 2014; gin was the spirit of choice in 2015 and many have said that 2016 belongs to rum. But what about tequila? Or its more potent, smoky sibling mezcal?
The spirit itself is made from the maguey plant (a form of agave) native to Mexico. Typically consumed neat, mezcal also lends itself well to inventive cocktails and Mexican dishes.
While it’s not yet a common inclusion on cocktail menus around the country, Nick Peters, co-owner and restaurant manager of Melbourne Mexican eating house Mamasita, believes that mezcal has a lot to offer. So much in fact that he has dedicated mezcaliers (mezcal sommeliers) on shift during every service to guide diners through the venue’s 150-strong mezcal list.
To be able to call yourself a mezcalier, you need to be certified, but what’s involved?
“You need to head to Oaxaca (Mexico) and drinks lots of mezcal,” says Peters. “The course that I attended in Oaxaca is certified by the Consejo Nacional De Normalizacin Y Certificacin De Competencias Laborales (National Council for Standardisation and Certification of Occupational Competencies), and certificates were issued by the Asociacin Pro Cultura de Mezcal (Association for Culture of Mezcal).
“The course itself is conducted in four sections, covering everything from the history and anthropology of mezcal to agave varieties, the broader mezcal category including tequila/raicilla/sotol/bacanora. It covers planting and production; tastings and cooking with mescal; harvesting plants; crushing agaves and making mezcal in Oaxaca. It also includes visiting palenques and agave plantations. There are some sections that run in the US, although the majority of the courses take place in Oaxaca. I’ve just been approved to conduct sections one to three of the certified program here in Australia, which is amazing.”
Mamasita's co-owner Nick Peters
Appreciation through education
Since completing the course in October 2014, Peters has turned Mamasita into an institution of mezcal appreciation. Peters says that this focus has given the restaurant a unique point of difference, helping it to attract both new customers and good staff.
“By having trained Mezcaliers on site during every service, we’re providing an opportunity for our staff to learn more, giving them an extra reason to come to work,” says Peters. “They then pass on their newfound knowledge to customers, and as a result, we’ve seen definite growth in our beverage sales.
“We now have half a dozen keen and well-trained Mamasita mezcaliers, with one working every night of the week. I’m a firm believer that the more training you provide and the more opportunities you make available, the better the staff will be and the more they’ll want to keep working with you.”
In addition to the Mezcalier guided flights and food matching service at Mamasita, the love for mezcal also extends to the menu with a number of mezcal-centric dishes including the ceviche a la Veracruzana which features snapper, mezcal, lime, tomato, chilli, onion and capers.
Peters admits that it was initially quite challenging to build up a collection of the spirit. However a wider appreciation for the spirit started to develop a few years ago and has seen a number of mezcal brands introduced by local distributors.
“It’s much better now than it was when we opened early 2010, that’s for sure, and it’s getting better all the time. That being said, we still rely on friends and family to get us some of our favourites,” says Peters.
“Mezcal as a category has so much to offer: the history, the processes, the people… it’s mind boggling. There’s something for everybody.”
Mamasita's lemon chipotle mezcal cocktail
Mezcal and tequila: what’s the difference?
All tequilas are mezcals, but not all mezcals are tequilas. Tequila can only be made from agave tequilana (blue agave) whereas mezcal is generally produced from up to 40 different varieties of maguey.
In tequila production, the pias are cooked under high pressure for 24–48 hours resulting in a clean, crisp flavour. For Mezcal, pias are roasted, often in pit ovens, for three to five days, which gives mezcal its intense, smoky flavour.
Tequilas generally sit between 38–40 percent ABV.
Mezcals tend to have a higher alcohol by volume content than tequilas – generally around 45–55 percent ABV.
Similar to Champagne in France, tequila may only be produced in the state of Jalisco and limited regions in the US, including Guanajuato, Michoacn, Nayarit and Tamaulipas.
Mezcal’s Denomination of Origin states are Guerrero, Oaxaca, Durango, San Luis Potos, Guanajuato, Tamaulipas, Zacatecas and most recently Michoacn. Approximately 80 per cent of all mezcal is made in the state of Oaxaca.
Tequila produces around 300 million litres annually.
Certified mezcal production is around 1.5–2 million litres per year, although total production is believed to be around 4–5 million litres.