Tequila: we are all familiar with it. From deceptively strong fishbowl margaritas on your twenty-first birthday and shots at your bachelor party to happy hour at your local taqueria and palomas on the beach in Los Cabos, tequila has been an intimate part of our drinking lives. But it turns out, there is more to Mexican alcohol than the agave spirit we have come to know, love, and sometimes regret. And among that something more is mezcal and sotol.
Unlike much of the tequila we consume in the United States, mezcal and sotol are, for the most part, still incredibly authentic. Generally speaking, they are made in limited batches by small, family-run distilleries in rural areas of Mexico using traditional methods that date back hundreds of years. In contrast to many of the largest tequila companies, which are using a mechanized process to make a homogenized product at low cost in order to cash in on the enormous global demand, the producers of mezcal and sotol are preserving a craft passed down through generations.
Botanically speaking, mezcal is most closely related to tequila because both are distilled from agave. But unlike tequila producers, who by law can only use blue agave, mezcal producers have at their disposal an array of other agave species, including many that grow wild. This flexibility leads to greater variety in mezcal flavor profiles. Another difference? Whereas tequila producers steam the cores of agave (called piñas) in stainless steel autoclaves, mezcal producers roast piñas over wood fires deep in the ground, in effect caramelizing them. This step imparts mezcal with its telltale smokiness.
While smokiness can be very prominent in mezcal, it can also be subtle, and it certainly isn’t the sole discernible flavor. Careful sipping and tasting of the spirit reveals nuance that can largely be attributed to terroir. One mezcal producer might use agave grown near the water; another might use agave harvested inland on a hill. The differences in soil composition and climate conditions of the growing region lend the plant distinct characteristics that carry through the distillation process. And if the mezcal is unaged or aged very little, the earthiness and vegetal funkiness of the particular crop used will shine through even more.
Mezcal has become increasingly common in the United States in recent years, and it has earned a certain eminence. Just this year, the founder of founder of Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal, preeminent mezcal ambassador Ron Cooper, was named Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Professional at the 2016 James Beard Foundation Awards. So if you haven’t tried mezcal and are curious, or if you had a bad experience with it in the past, just talk to your bartender. He or she will likely be happy to give you a nip or make you a drink that best leverages its fire-kissed earthiness.
It’s a common misconception that sotol is an agave distillate like tequila and mezcal. In fact, it is a product of wild desert spoon plants, which belong to a distinct family of succulents that grow in northern Mexico’s Chihuahua, Coahuila, and Durango states. Distillers either steam (like tequila) or roast (like mezcal) the plants’ piñas. And like mezcal, the terroir of the desert spoon harvested for any particular batch of sotol can have a big impact on taste and aroma. The plants’ precise microenvironment can produce some pretty wild flavors, especially when compared to tequila.
Sotol is a little harder to find on stateside cocktail menus, but it’s not impossible. At Lloyd Taco Factory, it makes an appearance in The Looking Glass–a drink that balances sotol’s vegetal notes with a light, smoky mezcal; sweet and floral St. Germaine; bitter Salers; and dry vermouth.
For the Lloyd team, which prides itself on using the best possible ingredients grown and produced under the best possible conditions, sotol and mezcal’s relative obscurity, traditional production methods, ties to Mexican heritage, and range of variants make them appealing bar program additions.