Mexican Flavors / A tequila and mezcal primer
It’s time to appreciate the subtleties of these spirits
Salt on the hand, a wedge of lime ready to go. The worm at the bottom of the bottle. A wicked hangover the next day. Few spirits have so many strong stereotypes associated with them as tequila. But, as is so often the case, these conventional images only tell a small part of the story and, sometimes, even the wrong story. Tequila and its cousin mezcal are rich, complex spirits that deserve a better rap than they have traditionally been given.
Thankfully, Buffalo seems to be embracing these spirits as the influence of craft cocktail bars and authentic Mexican restaurants pervades the community. “I think it’s still in its infancy in Western New York,” says Jason Wood, brand ambassador for Tequila Fortaleza and former bar manager of Vera Pizzeria. “But people are definitely a lot more accepting of it.”
Where tequila and mezcal come from
While tequila may be more familiar to US palates, it’s actually a subset of the mezcal family (you may also see it spelled “mescal”). Both are spirits derived from the agave plant and distilled in Mexico. Mezcal can be made from a number of agave species. Espadin (Agave angustifolia) is the most popular by far, but dozens of other varieties are regularly used to make the spirit. Tequila, on the other hand, must be made from blue agave (Agave tequilana). In mezcal production, the agave is always baked in the ground first, imparting the trademark earthy, often smoky, quality. For tequila, blue agave can be cooked in a brick oven or stainless steel tank.
Mexican regulations dictate that tequila needs to be made from at least fifty-one percent blue agave to use that name. The good stuff is 100 percent, however, and that’s what you should be looking for on the label to get the best product. There are no rules for what can make up that extra forty-nine percent in mixto tequila, as it’s called, but oftentimes it’s sugarcane, flavorings, or colorings. Tequila and mezcal are distilled at far lower alcohol levels than most spirits, meaning they’re watered down less for bottling. Much like wine, the way agave spirits taste is greatly influenced by the plant’s terroir, or the environment in which its grown. These subtleties are what make the spirit special, and shouldn’t be hidden under other flavors.
Part of what makes both tequila and mezcal so unique is the amount of time required for production and the craftsmanship that goes into making the spirits. “What makes it special to me is the process,” says Wood. “The agave takes about seven to ten years to really mature, before you can harvest it, before you can make tequila out of it.” Compare that timeline to the wheat or corn used to distill a neutral grain spirit, which only takes a season.
Tequila is classified by how long it’s been aged in wood barrels. Unlike some spirits, such as bourbon, there are no rules regarding what sort of barrels have to be used for aging, so different distillers will adjust the flavor of their product by experimenting with different barrels. Here’s what the age statements mean.
Gold (Oro or Joven)
either a blend of unaged and aged tequila, or a mixto
aged at least two months, up to a year
aged at least one year, usually about eighteen months.
Ultra-aged (Extra Añejo)
aged at least three years
Lloyd’s mezcal mission
Many of Buffalo’s cocktail bars feature mezcal, but Lloyd Taco Factory was the first to make the spirit the heart of its bar program. “Yes, we love agave, and all things agave, and our previous love was tequila, but when we discovered the world of mezcal, things really changed,” affirms Pete Cimino, a Lloyd cofounder. “There are few things you can still call artisan, where the hand of the maker is such an important component in the end results. Mezcal is comfortably in that category. It works really well with our food.”
Lloyd bar director Yuri Polyachenko describes how the program has grown since the restaurant’s first location on Hertel Avenue opened in December 2015. “We wanted to be bringing in products we truly believed in, that we were proud to carry. At the time, we were really limited to twenty or thirty bottles we could feel good about. There are now more than 100 great quality options that we can get our hands on.”
Lloyd offers mezcal flights at its bars, and that’s how Cimino recommends newcomers start to explore the spirit. “Flights are definitely the way to go if you’re willing to sit down for a minute and have that experience. Cost is something that can be a factor, and you don’t need to start off with a baller bottle,” he says. “Starting with an Espadin, and maybe trying a few that have been grown in different regions.” Polyachenko adds, “The initial sip is going to be intense, and can be aggressive if you’ve never had it before. Taking a quick sip coats your mouth and lets it get used to the flavoring, and then you can take a longer sip and really indulge. We emphasize you do not shoot this spirit because it is a privilege to drink it. Don’t speed through it.”
The margarita is a classic tequila-based cocktail, and works just as well with mezcal. There are as many margarita recipes out there as there are bartenders. Here are two–one with tequila, one with mezcal–to get you started, but play around to find the flavor you like best! Just remember, great spirits and fresh lime juice will always make a big difference in your cocktails.
For some delicious margarita recipes from Lloyd, click here.