OAXACA – In the rooftop bar of one of Mexico’s most famous restaurants, well-heeled Mexicans and foreign tourists sip mezcal margaritas from tall glasses rimmed with ground gusano (worm) and salt, and garnished with a thick slice of fresh tropical fruit.
The chic minimalist décor of Casa Oaxaca in the southwestern city of the same name stands in stark contrast to the traditional distilleries, or palenques, where most of the country’s mezcal is still made. The posh interior is a sign of how far this traditional Mexican spirit has come. Mezcal, though distilled from the same type of plant as tequila, has long been the poor cousin of the beverage most people around the world identify as the Mexican national tipple. But after hundreds of years in semi-oblivion, mezcal is finally coming of age and enjoying a resurgence among trendy urbanites in Mexico and beyond.
More and more bars specializing in mezcal, known as mezcalerias, are opening up in cosmopolitan cities in Mexico, the United States and Europe as people develop a taste for the potent drink. Once considered a poor man’s quaff made by small-batch producers in backward villages, the spirit has become sought-after among a generation of drinkers keen on rustic, natural and handcrafted products. “Mezcal had a very bad reputation; it was considered a cheap drink and a poor quality drink,” said Leon Lory, the 34-year-old manager of Los Amantes, a hip mezcaleria in Oaxaca. “Nowadays, it is taking the place it deserves among the most recognized spirits in the world.”
As with most fashion trends, it is hard to pinpoint the exact date when mezcal started to be considered cool. Mexicans have been drinking mezcal for hundreds of years, but it is only in the last decade that the drink has become trendy among young city dwellers. “Mezcal makes you happy; it doesn’t take you down,” said Spanish tourist Raquel Rubio Ruiz, 31, as she sipped from a shot glass of mezcal in Los Amantes. “You feel like dancing, talking, meeting people – it’s different from other kinds of drinks.”
Other mezcal converts believe the spirit, when it is made the traditional way, is healthier than other alcoholic drinks. “I like beer, but I enjoy mezcal a lot more,” said Maria Ines Valdez of Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city. “Normally with beer, or wine or tequila, I would have a hangover the next day, but mezcal doesn’t make me hungover.”
As mezcal emerges as Mexico’s hot new quaff, there remains a great deal of confusion locally and internationally about the difference between mezcal and its more famous cousin, tequila. Technically, mezcal is a name for all spirits distilled from agave plants, of which there are dozens of species across Mexico. Tequila, the staple of Mexican parties, baptisms and weddings, is the most famous mezcal. In the 1970s, producers in Jalisco and several nearby regions who made mezcal from blue agave plants were granted the appellation of origin by the Mexican government, which was later registered with United Nations’ World Intellectual Property Organization. The appellation of origin means that only mezcal made from blue agave in those specified areas can be called tequila.
What most spirit enthusiasts think of as mezcal, on the other hand, is made from any one of around three-dozen varieties of agave, the most common being the espadin, which is easier to grow and yields more mezcal per plant. In the mid-1990s, distillers in eight Mexican states were awarded the right to market their drinks as mezcal. Critics say the appellations of origin are grossly unfair because they have stripped thousands of mezcal and tequila producers outside those selected states of the right to call their product by its traditional name.