Generally speaking, we Americans love our liquor mixed with something—juice, tonic, soda. Give us a strong spirit, and we’ll immediately cook up new ways to mask its taste. Maybe it’s a holdover from Prohibition, when covering up the foul flavors of bathtub hooch was a necessity. Or maybe it’s ingrained in the multicultural strains of our cultural DNA. But no matter how you cut it, we’re a nation of tall drink imbibers.
This can become abundantly clear after a tasting trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, the birthplace of everyone’s new favorite agave spirit, mezcal. To merit the name, mezcal must be at least 90 proof and is often distilled even stronger than that. The famously smoky spirit seems like a prime candidate for an alcohol-softening dash of juice or soda if ever there was one. And while mezcal is taking over cocktail lists in American bars, south of the border, you’ll find it served exactly one way: neat.
That might sound a bit severe, especially during Oaxaca’s sweltering afternoons, but while tequila is produced from a single agave, mezcal can be distilled from upwards of 30 different plants, ranging from the tall, spiky madrecuixe to the short, squat tobalá. Because these plants vary in sugar content, the spirits they produce range widely in flavor, from the brightly mineral to the delicately floral and the deeply earthy. To cover up these subtleties with other ingredients, no matter how delicious or complementary, is to miss mezcal’s point.
So neat it is. But whatever you do, “don’t shoot it,” says Marco Ochoa, the owner of Mezcaloteca, one of Oaxaca City’s most revered mezcal bars. Instead, he recommends breathing in the aroma, just as you would with a glass of wine, before taking a small sip and swishing the liquid around in your mouth. This opens up your palate and allows your taste buds to adjust to the burn of the alcohol. With your next sip, you should be able to taste the brilliant spectrum of flavors washing over your tongue—fruit, spice, smoke, wood and earth. Welcome to the magic of mezcal.
In Mexico, it’s customary to be served a little botana, or snack, when you order mezcal: slices of oranges, jicama and carrot, often dusted with sal de gusano (a mix of rock salt, ground chiles and roasted ground worms). It’s a nice gesture and very tasty, but in the end, think of it as just another mixer. “If you want to truly experience mezcal’s beautiful flavors, then don’t mask them with a bunch of citrus and salt,” says Jesus “Chucho” Ortiz Cruz, the owner of Archivo Maguey, a hot new mezcal bar in Oaxaca City.
Our advice? Save the munchies for when you’re throwing back a tall beer at a divey cantina. Heck, they might even have Red Bull.