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A Sommelier's Guide to Mezcal

Plus, what to eat with it

Master Sommelier Geoff Kruth is a big fan of Oaxaca. He calls the Mexican state, which is the country's largest producer of mezcal, the “next big foodie destination in North America.” A couple of weeks back, Kruth—who is the president of the Guild of Sommeliers, the star of the documentaries Somm and Into The Bottle, and the host  of the show Uncorkedon Esquire TV—headed down to Oaxaca to research a story and shoot a short documentary about mezcal production, from growing to harvesting to bottling. (Both will appear on the predominantly trade-facing hub Guild Somm.)

Here are some of his insights into the local industry as well as his suggestions about where to eat in Oaxaca and how to best enjoy mezcal with your next plate of tacos—whether you’re eating them in San Francisco or Singapore.

Defining Mezcal

“There’s a difference between mezcal and Mezcal: ‘mezcal’ is a general term for an agave-based spirits produced in Mexico. ‘Mezcal’, with a capital ‘m’, belongs to an appellation—a protected Denomination of Origin, if you will—so it has to come from one of the eight states allowed to produce it, and it has to be made with 100 percent agave,” Geoff explains. So while any agave-based spirit, like tequila, is a type of mezcal, it’s not Mezcal.

While mezcal can be made from any of 50 different types of agave, roughly 90 percent of the spirit is made from the espadín variety because it’s easy to farm and grows quickly. “Espadín can be harvested at six, seven, eight years old, whereas some of the wild varieties may take 20 years or more to mature,” Geoff says. 

Because these wild agave  take so long to grow, and you need many of them to produce the spirit, single varietal mezcal is pretty expensive. In Oaxaca you can expect to pay around $75 for top-quality wild mezcal. (That same bottle will set you back about $150 in the US.)

This means that in Oaxaca mezcal is generally reserved for special occasions. If you have the luck to be invited to a wedding, birthday, or other celebration in a Oaxacan village, chances are you’ll be offered a small cup made from a gourd and filled with mezcal from a family-run still. (Most mezcal producers are small-scale makers who distill the stuff for their own enjoyment and don't bother to get the testing and certification that would allow them to label their bottles and export them.)

What To Drink

If you’re in Oaxaca, Geoff recommends picking up Real Minero “Tripón” (a brand he knows well after spending a lot of time with the producer), Koch “Tepextate”, or Rey Campero “Jabalí”. Overseas, he suggest looking for Mezcal Vago or Del Maguey; the second is a brand run by an American entrepreneur who buys mezcal from local producers and identifies its village of origin on the labels. 

How to Enjoy It

Geoff recommends drinking mezcal young, as locals do. While some producers are starting to make oak-aged, or "añejo" mezcals, that trend is driven by the popularity of aged tequilas and is meant to attract buyers in the U.S..

And when you've picked your spirit, it’s better to drink it from a small spirits glass instead of a large cup because some varieties have a pretty high measurement of alcohol by volume.

What to Eat with Mezcal

Because mezcal is a clear spirit, it tends to go well with a wide range of dishes. “You can drink mezcal with anything," says Geoff. "But if you want to try it with Oaxacan specialties, mole is a very important part of the cuisine, as is the local flatbread, tlayuda, which is like a tortilla with cheese and meat on it." 

In Oaxaca mezcal is often served with an orange slice, dipped in sal de gusano—a smoky, gritty condiment made from sea salt mixed with ground, toasted worms and chile costeño— that is eaten as a type of chaser. Crunchy fried chapulines (crickets) are another local drinking snack.

“In general, mezcal is a fun thing to drink with any regional Mexican cuisine. Most mezcal is made in Oaxaca, but it's also great with other regional specialties, such as pisole (a hearty stew of white corn kernels and pork) from Michoacán,” Geoff says. "Local people don’t think much about what foods are best paired with mezcal, but if you want to figure out what pairings you like best, I’d say experiment and have fun.” 

Where to Eat and Drink in Oaxaca 

“Oaxaca is not a place with a strong restaurant culture," says Geoff. "The food culture there is about family—you know, old ladies cooking in their home kitchens. People rarely go to restaurants. If you want the best food, you really have to eat with a family.”

But if you don’t have a swathe of invitations from local friends keen to cook for you (like Geoff does), try hitting up Mercado 20 De Noviembre—a sprawling market named for the date of the 1920s revolution that overthrew dictator José de la Cruz Porfirio Díaz Mori. The place is more commonly known as “mercado de la comida” because of its excellent food stalls.

“This is the place to get tlayudas or mole," says Geoff. "Enchiladas with mole, mole with chicken, mole with beef, mole with rabbit…. There are dozens and dozens of different types of mole sauces with different meats, all served with rice and beans.” 

Most local restaurants cater to tourists and offer a Westernized version of the food. "It's still good, but not the real thing,” explains Geoff. He recommends Casa Oaxaca, one of the only high-end eateries in town, which is in a boutique hotel in a gorgeous blue colonial era villa. He also likes  Zadunga, a  contemporary restaurant on the pretty walking street Garcia Vigil, which is known for its mezcal cocktails and dishes like mole negro and saucey, meaty tamales steamed in banana leaves.

Lastly, (and perhaps most importantly), if you really want to try a nice variety of mezcals, Geoff suggests the bar In Situ. " They do a lot of really good mezcal by the glass,” he says. 

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