The bigger picture is that Whiskey lovers frequently love Mezcal as well because it has a similar universe of flavors. Lots of people get hung up on those old canards about cheap Tequila hangovers from college and lurid images of worms in bottles but those are really lazy stereotypes from decades past. Today Mezcal really is one of the best spirits out there that Whiskey lovers should be sipping right alongside Pappy and the rest of the crew. I bet Mssrs Van Winkle et al would be trying it if they had a
Welcome to a universe of flavor
Look, there’s no getting around the fact of smoke in Mezcal. To make Mezcal you have to roast agave and the traditional way of doing that is in a pit with burning logs so there will always be some smoke in the flavor. But it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Actually, in most cases smoke is just one among many flavors that can include wild spiciness, exquisite mineralogy, robust fruitiness, floral notes, and even an occasional funky fermented note.
I won’t push the comparison too hard but many of these same flavors are what set Whiskey lovers on fire. Think of those classic vanilla notes in many Bourbons, the robust peaty smokiness from Laphroaig. You can find very similar flavors in Mezcals, here are a few ideas:
If you like Bourbon try the classic Del Maguey Chichicapa because it has that nice fruitiness and round mouthfeel that is prominent in so many Bourbons. But instead of corn, you get the full throated roasted agave flavor and a charge of minerality.
If you like Single Malt Scotch try the Mayalen Borrego Pechuga. This is a big Mezcal that doesn’t skimp on smoke but really tempers it with two big flavors, hearty roasted agave and lamb which is added to the still. You can’t taste lamb, trust me I just did a blind tasting and would have never picked this one as containing meat, let alone lamb, but do get great intensity from it that matches aggressive smoky Scotches.
If you like Rye Whiskey try the Rey Campero Espadin. This is a classic Mezcal made from the most widely grown agave in Oaxaca which makes some people turn up their noses at it but that’s no reason to ignore it. When master distillers get their hands on this sort of fruit, great things happen and this bottle is an exceptional example with great spicy notes that should tickle the taste buds of Rye aficionados.
Barrel aging isn’t just for Whiskey, agave can do it too!
Pretty much all Whiskeys are aged (sure there are white Whiskeys out there but you have to really dig to find them) and that really sands down rough edges while also adding complexity. The fun thing is that Mezcals can offer some of the same flavors.
While Mezcal is traditionally made white and really only aged in glass some producers have been experimenting with barrel aging. Probably inspired by Tequila’s reposados and añejos, producers have long worked with a variety of barrel types, especially old Whiskey barrels that will give you even more literal Whiskey flavors in your Mezcal.
Some to try:
Ilegal have small batch aged Mezcals that are very close in flavor set to Bourbons. These are very limited runs that really pull out the mellowing factor of barrels to give you a soft Mezcal which should be sipped on its own or over an ice cube. Their reposado is tempered while their añejo is mellow gold.
Wahaka has a very lightly aged Reposado con Gusano which also contains a roasted worm known as a gusano. That worm is a tip of the hat to the old stereotype of Mezcals but this one is made with great restraint. It melds the mellowing factors of the barrel with the savory notes of the gusano to give you a fun sipper or a fantastic cocktail base.
Del Maguey has a variety of limited edition bottlings that use Van Winkle barrels to finish their Minero Mezcals. This explicit bond between Mezcal and Whiskey makes the comparison incredibly easy, you’ll taste exactly what the mezcal picks up from the whiskey barrel and tease out mezcal’s distinctive agave fruitiness.
Look out, on the horizon Pierde Almas has said that it is barrel aging right now for release in the next few years.
There are even Mexican Whiskeys if you want to flip the script entirely. But that’s another story for another day.
Outlaws anonymous: Mezcal and Whiskey share an outlaw history.