Where There’s Smoke: Mezcal’s Complicated Popularity

jack howland bartender at old bus tavern

I’ve always liked mezcal. And I say “mezcal” as if it is one thing, because to me, it has ever only been one thing: the smoke and heat rubbing against honey, lemon, or sherry in the kind of semisweet and weighty cocktails that I like. 

Mezcal always meant warmth and spice, qualities I like for the same reason I grate ginger into my hot toddies year-round. But when the new year came and found me on a barstool in front of a mezcal that had been fermented in a tree stump and tasted like a fresh, wet forest floor, truth struck: the reign of terroir is far from over.

Like tequila, mezcal is made from agave. Tequila is actually a type of mezcal—which referred to any agave distillate before “mezcal” earned a geographic indication—but if it’s made in one of five Mexican states (usually Jalisco) using only blue agave, we call it tequila. Mezcal, on the other hand, can be made from 40 types of agave in any of eight states, although the vast majority comes from Oaxaca. Of the agave types, only one plump and fast-maturing variety called espadin is generally cultivated, while the rest is foraged from craggy desert microclimates at different altitudes, which, in the hands of different mezcaleros cooking over different woods and distilling according to personal tradition, affords endless variation in the bottle.

It’s hard not to be concerned for the sudden rise of a spirit made from the crushed 20-year-old hearts of a wild, spiny succulent. The more we like it, the faster it disappears from the countryside. It’s the same boom-and-bust cycle that built a graveyard where bluefin tuna roll around on beds of quinoa, dreaming about better regulations. But I am not a subsistence farmer for whom a bar trend also means better market access and more money for tuition or medical care. As for the land, some companies like Wahaka and Pierde Almas are making prescient moves to reforest the land, and I can only hope more producers will be compelled to do the same as the countryside grows barren.

quiquiriqui mezcal at old bus tavern in San Francisco

But still, how did mezcal become popular enough to double the sales of some mezcal makers every year for the last three years? I’d wager the power of the artisanal appeal; agave is stripped of its needled leaves by hand and hauled to a large underground pit to cook for a few days over a smoky wood fire and stones. The hearts, or piñas, are crushed by hand, or more often by a mule or tractor that pulls a millstone. The cooked juice ferments with wild yeast, then distills through a primitive clay or steel still over a few burning logs. Happily, the process is hard enough to thoroughly industrialize that it stays largely in the hands of mezcaleros working in small villages. Scan the line of green bottles behind your neighborhood bar and you’ll see the names: San Andrés, Santo Domingo Albarradas or Santiago Matatlán. Mezcal is a spirit with solid traceability, which, in San Francisco, may as well be catnip.

For a better understanding of it all, I sought an education with Susan Coss, the co-founder of seasoned mezcal blog and educational project Mezcalistas. I asked Susan to help me identify the hallmark flavors of espadin. Of the espadins she lined up, an Alipús bottle made in San Andrés was fiery but sweet, a Fidencio bottle from Santiago Matatlán was saltier, and Quiquiriqui, a newer brand from San Juan del Rio paddled flat heat on the tongue like a habanero. I learned that there is no such thing as “liking espadin,” because no espadin mezcal is the same as another. There is no such thing as liking any variety of agave in the same way there is no such thing as preferring bread “made from flour and water.” Depending on the baker, that could be anything.

Gladly, there are plenty of places around town to design your own education. At Mission newcomer and brewpub Old Bus Tavern, the bar wall is half whiskey, half agave. For a low-budget cruise through classic mezcals, try the fruity San Andrés or the grassy Santa Ana del Rio from Alipús. For a head trip, try the Mezcal Amarás Cupreata, a cool, green, lightly medicinal mezcal, or my favorite, La Venenosa Raicilla, the fated tree-stump dram. For more mileage, ask for a 1-ounce pour at half the price.

To round out your experience with regional food, head to Nopalito and taste through an expansive line of Del Maguey mezcal, including the smooth, saline Madrecuixe made from a wild variety of the same name. If you have it in you, try the Mezcal Vago Elote made with toasted corn.

For the deepest dive, head to a mezcal master class at the city’s shrine to mezcal, La Urbana. Every month, a representative from a different mezcal maker guides a crowd of 30 or so through a casual, densely educational and dangerously generous tasting. The bar downstairs is a good spot to taste things like traditional pechugas—fermented in the same room as chicken carcasses tied up with fruits and spices—and compare ways that weird alchemy shapes up in the bottle.

Your next step would be mezcal blends, labeled “ensamble en barro.” They’re typically well-balanced, and your conscientious purchase supports diversified harvesting over monocropping. After enough dips in the fire, head to ABV, Mosto or Lolo for some of the best mezcal cocktails. For the optimal experience, though, get yourself to Oaxaca and look for old water and Pepsi bottles filled with clear booze. From what I hear, it beats anything on this side of the border.

Where There’s Smoke: Mezcal’s Complicated Popularity was published in the Spring 2016 issue. © 2016 Edible San Francisco. Photos © 2016 Angela DeCenzo.