Be warned. This is a dangerous book. If you read it you’re going to want to go out and buy as much mezcal as you can find. The author is so knowledgeable and passionate about this Mexican spirit that you get carried along by his enthusiasm and want to try a sip of every mezcal he mentions.
The only mezcal I’ve tried neat is Mezcal Amores. Otherwise I’ve had it in one or two cocktails, most memorably at The Last Drop, one of the best bars in Arizona. Bartender Travis Nass described his El Ultimo cocktail as ‘the desert in a glass’, thanks to the Mexican sotol spirit that gives it a unique taste, although he pointed out that sotol isn’t a mezcal, but a slightly different Mexican spirit.
And thanks to The Mezcal Experience, I now know that mezcal is any spirit made from an agave plant. Tequila is made from the blue agave in a particular part of Mexico, so it is a type of mezcal, but sotol is made from the desert spoon plant, which is related to the lily and is not an agave. Moreover, there are 19 varieties of desert spoon, and 16 of them can be used to produce sotol.
Other mezcals are made from other agave plants, such as the americana or the espadin. There’s a helpful section on the different types of agave, followed by a Mezcal Map, showing what grows where.
Each agave brings a different taste to the mezcal that’s made from it, and the flavour can be different from region to region, and is also influenced by the distiller. It can also change from year to year, and the author makes a convincing case for saying that mezcal is one of the few spirits which can be described as having a terroir, and which for subtlety of flavour can be compared to wine.
So, who is the author? Tom Bullock is a British DJ and music producer, who first tried mezcal while touring in Mexico in 2006. It was love at first sip. He became the first distributor in the UK and Europe dedicated to mezcal, and after a spell living in New York he now lives in Mexico. That’s how much he fell in love with this fascinating spirit.
If you want to taste real mezcal, you’re going to have to go to Mexico too. Exported mezcals are mostly reduced in strength to 40% ABV because that’s what the export market expects of a spirit. Mezcals are traditionally made at a strength of at least 46%, and many are 50% and over. Also, a lot of export mezcals are blended and made in industrial quantities, so if you want the equivalent of a genuinely artisanal ‘single malt’, go to Mexico.
Before buying your mezcal, read the author’s section on ‘What’s on the label?’ It will help you know whether you’re buying the real thing or not.
While the book is full of reference material and covers anything you could possibly want to know about mezcal, it’s far from being one of those dry academic books about spirits. It’s dynamic, it’s lively, it’s part-travelogue, and it’s beautifully written. Take this description of Mexico, for example:
“Mexico is anything but uniform. In fact, you might even say that there are many Mexicos. It is a mosaic of cultures and climates, created over long periods of time by the geographically dissected surface of its landscape. While one valley experiences deluge, its neighbours go dry. Cold pine mountain tops form barriers for tropical jungles. Deserts surround the oases. This creates a place of flair and colour, attitude and style. Like mezcal, it is not narrow. It is not predictable.”
Don’t you just want to jump on a plane and head for the nearest mezcal bar? If you can’t do that, read the book’s section on the best mezcal bars around the world. They range from Bali to Bournemouth via Paris, Copenhagen, Washington DC, Berlin, Darlington and several in London.
Other useful sections include Tasting Notes, where the author writes about many of the main mezcals on the market, and a few dozen recipes for mezcal cocktails. I especially love the sound of the Mezcal Diablo, created by the staff at La Clandestina in Mexico City. For this you take the top off a large hot red chilli and fill the pepper with Enmascarado 54 mezcal. The longer you take to drink it, the hotter but more delicious it gets. And the more you get into this book, the more mezcal grows on you. It’s a terrific read.
To learn more about mezcal the author recommends a couple of websites in particular: www.mezcalistas.com and www.mezcalphd.com.