Exploring Mezcal: So Much More Than Smoke

Every alcohol enthusiast goes through stages of maturation. First, you reach for something sickly sweet that masks any and all indication that you’re actually consuming booze. Once you’ve had enough hangovers to ward off anything labeled “flavored” (never utter the words ‘“UV Blue” near me), next comes the era of the Big Six: vodka, whiskey, brandy, gin, rum and tequila. Many people might rest comfortably in this phase, but for those who wish to expand their palettes, they push through to explore more complex distillates. One such spirit, offering both sophisticated flavor and diverse application, is Mezcal. 

Mezcal is far from the new kid on the block, but it’s only recently been gaining appreciation from the masses. This year, agave spirit sales surpassed that of U.S.-made whiskeys and are expected to overtake vodka by 2023, according to research by the International Wines and Spirits Record. Despite its growing consumer base, the spirit still struggles to shake its reputation as an “overwhelming, smoky tequila.” Luckily, local libations experts are working to change that. 

Tracey Gomez

Director of the United States Bartenders’ Guild (USBG) Utah Chapter Tracey Gomez first tasted Mezcal at a pollinator awareness event in Seattle—it was love at first sip. “I thought ‘what am I tasting? This is crazy!’” Her taste buds alight, she followed the flavor down to Oaxaca to meet local producers and see first-hand how Mezcal is made. Generations of Mezcaleros have passed down techniques steeped in tradition, and only ten states in Mexico comprise the entirety of spirit production. On their palenques, earthen ovens fill the air with roasted aromas, mules pull stone wheels crushing agave and open-air fermentation tanks utilize the climate’s wild yeast in the air. Each aspect anchors Mezcal to place, it’s as much a terroir elixir as wine. 

Gomez marvels at Mezcal’s ability to reflect its origins “To this day when I taste Mezcal, it transports me to those days in Oaxaca.” Her passion for the spirit goes beyond sipping, she also views Mezcal in a sociological way and encourages others to do the same. “As you drink it [Mezcal], pick out flavors like minerality and salinity. What can you deduce from those aromas about where it might come from?” she says. “Then, go further and learn about the people who made it, consider the impacts of your purchase.” 

Mezcal’s intrinsic connection to its producers gives consumers a peek into its ancestry, and it also makes tasting the spirit a lot more interesting. Mezcaleros make use of what’s regionally available, so even Mezcals made with the same agave variation might taste vastly different. Chocolate, mangos, hibiscus, apple, pork and lobster can be added to the still, imparting a breadth of complex flavors. Gomez’s personal favorite is a Turkey Pechuga, which she serves during holiday gatherings.

As even Gomez will say, the more you learn about Mezcal, the more you realize you don’t know. But for those starting out, she advises this: “in the spirit of Mexico, don’t get too nerdy about it.” Enjoy Mezcal neat with a cerveza on the side, sip past the smoke and sink into the flavors of Mexico.

Mezcal Vocabulary

Palenque: A Mezcal distillery

Mezcalero: A person who distills Mezcal

Copita: A cup used to serve and drink mezcal made from red clay 

Espadin: The most commonly grown agave species, accounting for nearly 90% of all mezcals 

Pechuga: A kind of mezcal infused with turkey or chicken breast during the distillation process 

Discover more unique spirits made right here in the Beehive State.

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Avrey Evans
Avrey Evanshttps://www.saltlakemagazine.com/
Avrey Evans is the Digital and the Nightlife Editor of Salt Lake Magazine. She has been writing for city publications for six years and enjoys covering the faces and places of our salty city, especially when a boozy libation is concerned.

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