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Up in smoke

Mezcal offers an artisanal buzz, ‘but not in a hipster way’

Amelia’s Smashed Beet Margarita

Greg Bollinger

All tequila is mezcal, but not all mezcal is tequila. That’s the easiest way to remember that tequila is a subclass of mezcal, the family of Mexican spirits made from distilled agave. While tequila has long dominated the American market, mezcal’s recent growth here is exponential.

“It’s the fastest-growing spirit category in the country,” Jared Reeder, bar manager at Amelia’s, said. “I think it’s because people can relate to something that is not mass produced, and mezcal production is traditionally a small operation.”

In fact, most mezcal is produced by small farming operations close to a water source. They are sustainable by necessity, as Reeder points out, because a crop of agave takes a minimum of seven years to mature for harvest. Some mezcal batches are made from agave that takes more than twenty years to mature. No one is in mezcal to get rich, which means it doesn’t attract large-scale farming operations.

“Mezcal is artisanal, but not in a hipster way,” Reeder said. “It’s genuinely handcrafted.”

But no one cares about handcrafted booze if it doesn’t taste good, so much of the market surge is being generated because drinkers who care about quality, craftsmanship, and complexity are falling in love with mezcal.

Tony Collins, a representative for Republican National Distributing Company, said terroir is one reason serious drinkers love the product. Terroir is typically associated with wine, and it refers to what local soil and climate impart to grapes in terms of flavors and character. The same grape varietal grown a few hundred yards apart can have dramatically different characteristics. According to Reeder, mezcal is the same way, because there are approximately thirty different varietals of agave.

“It really is like wine grapes,” he said. “With the different varietals and the different soils and climates in the nine different Mexican states in which it’s legal to produce mezcal, the variations in flavors and styles are pretty obvious.”

The most noticeable aroma and flavor component of mezcal is the smokiness. With very rare exceptions, mezcal is going to smell smoky to a degree ranging somewhere between “fire in the distance” and “your house is burning down.” The hearts of the harvested agave, called piñas, are roasted in wood-burning ovens underground, lending a deep smoke flavor to the finished product. Scotch drinkers, as a rule, take an instant liking to some mezcal styles because of the similarity to the whiskey’s peated quality.

Depending on the level of smoke, mezcal can overwhelm a drink, but in the hands of a good bartender, nearly any classic cocktail can be made with mezcal as a substitute. Reeder makes one such cocktail at Amelia’s, Poblano Negroni, a variation on the classic Negroni. The Campari is still in the drink, but he adds an ounce of Del Maguey Vida mezcal, plus a half ounce of a distillate of poblano peppers called Ancho Reyes Verde.

Amelia’s also makes a Smashed Beet Margarita, with two ounces of beet-infused Illegal Joven mezcal in place of tequila. The drink should pair well with the roasted beet salad, as Reeder uses the same beets for the infusing process, allowing at least 48 hours of contact to impart rich, earthy flavors to the mezcal.

The margarita is an easy choice for a variation, because, according to Reeder, any cocktail with tequila can take mezcal, and the result will just be a ramping-up of flavor and intensity. Because tequila is only made from blue agave, and because it has become a mass-production business, many products are now overly homogenous, so that most flavor variation comes from the barrel aging, not the process. Think of tequila as Sauvignon Blanc and mezcal as every other style of wine available; it’s hyperbole, but it’s close to true.

Valkyrie has three mezcal cocktails on their list, including the Hypnotoad, made with Sombra mezcal, IPA syrup, lime, Cointreau and cayenne. It’s a smoky, spicy, earthy, fruity cocktail with layers of complexity and texture.

To really appreciate mezcal, though, it should be consumed neat. Reeder said it will open up as it sits in the glass so that the final drink will be remarkably different than the first sip—but, unlike bourbon, it’s not meant to be mixed with water. “Room temp, no ice,” Reeder said.

Amelia’s has the best stock of high quality mezcal in Tulsa, but you can find excellent products at El Guapo’s, Hodges Bend, and Valkyrie as well. Look for Del Maguey, especially the single village selections, mezcal Vago, Sombra, and El Buho. For beginners, the mezcal Vago Elote—like the corn—has minimal smoke and a touch of sweetness.

Amelia’s Smashed Beet Margarita

  • .75oz honey syrup (5:1 ratio honey to water)
  • Amelia’s uses McGhee’s Honey Farms Pure Raw Honey from Dill City, Okla.
  • 1oz fresh lime juice
  • 2oz Illegal Joven mezcal infused with beets. Amelia’s uses the same roasted beets in their smashed beet salad. The mezcal is rested on the beets for at least 48 hours.
  • 2 dashes Regan’s Orange Bitters

Combine all ingredients in a shaker tin, add ice, shake hard and strain into a salt-rimmed double old fashioned glass filled with ice.