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Danny McDermott’s Mezcal Sazerac at Acacia

Today is Cinco De Mayo, but instead of knocking back Tequila shots in the name of a holiday that is hardly celebrated in Mexico, why not celebrate with a Mexican art form, one centuries old and steeped in the lore and culture of its indigenous people.
I’m talking about mezcal!
Yes, here in the U.S. the spirit initially became famous for “the worm” (they are actually larvae) which was a telltale sign of a cheap product, not to mention a raging hangover. Forget the worm, today there are hundreds of mid-range to premium mezcals on the quickly growing market.
Mezcal is the smooth and smokey great-grandfather of tequila, made for centuries by the Zapotec and Miztec people using the sacred agave plant. Tequila is made specifically from the blue agave plant, but mezcal can be produced with many different varieties of agave. 
The agave plants (maguey) are grown in villages at different elevations giving each its own terrior (or shall we say tierra!). Mexican law protects the name mezcal from being applied to products made from anything except approved agave plants, much like wines in Europe have a geographical indication or appellation d’origine.

The similarities with wine are obvious but after researching mezcal’s history and production it seems it has much in common with another spirit rooted in rural communities with a rich history and culture, moonshine.

Del Maguey, is one importer of artisan mezcal. Founded by mezcal guru and obsessive, Ron Cooper, Del Maguey has Fair Trade agreements with 8 villages in the southern state of Oaxaca, where the most distinctive mezcal is found. All are still using traditional production methods. In these rural villages dotting the mountains and valleys, some without main roads or even telephone access, palenqueros farm the agave plants and mezcaleros or mezcal makers have passed down the rustic art of mezcal distillation for generations. 

Del Maguey family of mezcals (from mezcal.com)

Del Maguey family of mezcal from mezcal.com

Recipes are closely guarded and start with wild agave, sometimes with the addition of fruits, nuts, and grains either infused or added during distillation. Some recipes involve the ancient practice of ‘meat distillation’ where a skinless chicken breast is hung inside the top of the still for the vapors to pass through to balance out flavor with a savory element. These are called pechuga (Spanish for breast) and can fetch $200 a bottle. The spirit can be made from one type of agave, for instance a 100% Espadin agave or from blends of agave.
Most of Mezcal’s production is still very small scale due to the slow and primitive methods employed in the villages.

The agave plant itself is slow, producing fruit only after six to eight years, before dying. The fruit of the plant, the piña, is cooked for 2 or 3 days over wood fire, caramelizing sugars and creating that distinctive smoke, in pits lined with stone. They are then ground, usually by stone, mixed with water and left to naturally ferment before being distilled in copper or clay and then aged. Aging varies depending on the type of mezcal:

  • Joven (young, unaged)
  • Reposado (aged in oak 12 months) 
  • Añejo (aged 12-36 months) 
  • Extra añejo (aged beyond 36 months)
Danny McDermott, bar manager at Acacia is a big mezcal fan and carries Del Maguey and Los Amantes brands currently.
“Mezcal is the last truly artisan spirit” McDermott says. “Here in Richmond, occasionally people in the know will sometimes order it neat, but I use it as a mixer often, because I love it.”

McDermott uses Del Maguey’s entry level Vida for mixed cocktails (editor’s note: I love it straight! So silky!) as the pricier and complex mezcals they produce are better enjoyed like a fine bourbon, sipped and savored. In Mexico people sip it at room temperature with a sweet orange slice or more reverently, out of clay bowls.

So later tonight when you mosey up to the bar order a mezcal, look your companion in the eye, and say Stigibeau!  (pronounced stee-gee-bay-oo) a Native Zapotec word toasting to the health of each other, the earth and Mexico. But please sip, don’t shoot.

Mezcal Sazerac Variation (thanks to Danny McDermott)

2. oz Del Maguey Vida mezcal
.5 oz gomme syrup*
green chartreuse
Bittermen’s Xocolatl mole bitters

Rinse a rocks glass with green Chartreuse, fill with ice and set aside. In a mixing glass or tin, add the gomme syrup and mezcal. Fill about 3/4 full with ice and stir until well chilled. Dump the ice from the rocks glass, and strain the mixture therein. Garnish with orange twist and 5 drops Bittermen’s xocolatl mole bitters.

*gomme syrup is a rich simple syrup thickened with gomme arabic; in a pinch, a rich simple could be used (2:1 sugar:water)
2 oz. food grade gomme arabic
2 oz. water
8 oz. sugar
4 oz. water

Combine gomme arabic and water (a lot of stirring is required), and let sit for 24 hours (at room temperature). Combine sugar and water over heat, until combined. Add gomme syrup base (from step 1) and stir to combine. Skim off foam.