by Lisa Mesbur
If your personal experience with Mexican spirits only extends to out-of-focus 2am tequila shots, allow us to introduce you to tequila’s ancestral big sister, mezcal. The agave heart (piña)-based liquor currently produced in five regions of Mexico, has been in production for centuries and possesses a characteristic smoky flavour profile brought out by underground roasting in pit ovens. (Tequila is actually a form of mezcal made solely from blue agave, while traditional mezcal is made from several blended agave varietals.)
To get the lowdown on all things mezcal, we spoke to veritable font of mezcal-related knowledge, the affable Owen Walker of Toronto’s El Rey Bar. Walker’s enthusiasm is contagious, and he generously shared some tips for getting to know this fascinating – and incredibly drinkable – spirit.
WHAT TO BUY
In Ontario, the LCBO’s mezcal selection is still relatively small but Walker has a few solid recommendations, should you venture into buy-your-own territory:
Distilled in copper pots and blending agave from a range of palenque (farm) sources, their products are consistently high quality, says Walker. “This is a great workhorse and entry level mezcal. I would recommend it before any other espadin on the LCBO website. It’s the winner.”
“Ron Cooper, the proprietor of Del Maguey, he’s kind of the dude that made mezcal in North America possible. Del Maguey is probably the most internationally well-respected producer of mezcal out there,” Walker notes. “This particular product is made with a clay pot still, which is a very rudimentary form of distillation that predates Cortez’s arrival in the Americas. It results in a very interesting flavour profile.”
Bosscal is probably the lone mezcal available consistently at the LCBO made with a different agave varietal type, as well as the lone product produced outside of Oaxaca, says Walker. “It’s from Durango, which has different distilling practices, resulting in a slightly different flavour profile.”
WHERE TO GET IT
Of course, you could always forego the LCBO and head straight to the source. “The best way to enjoy mezcal is going to be in Mexico,” Walker says. “What we see here or even in the States is nowhere near what you can access there, as it’s a huge component of the culture.” Second best option: beeline it to El Rey in Kensington Market, where Walker and company can set you up with an impressive range of mezcals accompanied by a well-paired bar snack.
HOW TO DRINK IT
Sip, don’t shoot. And forget the lemon and salt lick — good mezcal is meant to be savoured slowly, ideally served neat and solo or alongside a beer or michelada (Walker’s preference). “We usually serve our mezcals with a little bit of cucumber and chili salt; in Oaxaca they often serve it with a little slice of orange and some chili salt,” says Walker. “They’re both classics.”