Episode 043 - The Mezcal Episode

 Bartender Robin Miller pouring a drink at Espita Mezcaleria on 9th Street in Washington, DC.

Bartender Robin Miller pouring a drink at Espita Mezcaleria on 9th Street in Washington, DC.

What’s shakin’ cocktail fans?

Welcome back to another episode of the Modern Bar Cart Podcast. 

So far, we haven’t really delved too deeply into the world of agave spirits - things like tequila, mezcal, and other exotic spirits from South of the Border. But that’s about to change because I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Robin Miller (@robinzomg), who’s a veteran bartender at Espita Mezcaleria (@espitadc) here in Washington, DC.

And, to put it mildly, this episode has been a long time coming. So many of our guests have raved about how much they love Mezcal that we just HAD to make this spirit a priority. There was a little bit of pressure on us here at Modern Bar Cart to figure out the right questions to ask about Mezcal and the right person to answer them. But luckily, Robin at Espita was able to give us a really awesome crash course.

 

Some of the things that Robin and I discuss include:

  • Distinctions between different agave spirits like Tequila and Mezcal, and even some varieties you might not have encountered yet.
  • The biology and terroir of agave - particularly, how it’s cultivated, harvested, roasted, and distilled.
  • What terms and bottle attributes you can look for if you’re searching for a quality bottle of Mezcal at your local liquor store.
  • How to start working agave-driven cocktails into your home bartending repertoire
  • And much, much more

Throughout this conversation, I found myself thinking about the relationship between humans and the land and plants we use to create spirits. When you hear Robin describe the way that Mezcal distillers tend their agave and lovingly manipulate the forces of nature to protect biodiversity and create completely unique flavors, I think you’ll develop a newfound respect for the power and tenderness that go into every bottle of Mezcal.

Featured Cocktail: The Mezcal Mule

This episode’s featured cocktail is the Mezcal Mule - or the Oaxacan Mule. And yeah, if you think this is basically a Moscow Mule made with Mezcal instead of Vodka, you’re right.

There’s a couple reasons why this drink intrigued me when Robin brought it up during our interview. First, it’s starting to warm up outside as we transition to Spring, and so fresh flavors like ginger and lime are really exciting right now. And second, there’s something about Mezcal in a mule that’s just a bit uncanny. It takes the drink and makes it just a little bit unrecognizable at first sip, since we’re not used to anything quite so smoky and savory in our mule drinks. Usually it’s a clear spirit that takes a back seat to the lime and ginger. So I appreciate the way that Mezcal sort of re-orients our understanding of what a “Mule” can taste like.

To make one of these, you need:

  • 2 oz of Mezcal
  • 1 oz fresh lime juice
  • 4 oz of ginger beer

You can simply build this drink in a collins glass over ice by adding the liquor and the citrus and then pouring the ginger beer right on top. I usually give a little stir with the straw before I serve it up, and if I’ve got any fresh herbs lying around, I like to smack em around a little bit and float them on top as a garnish.

Show Notes

The real star of this episode is the Agave plant - really ALL agave plants. See, you may know that for something to be called "Tequila," it needs to be made using Blue Agave, but distillers in Mexico have been producing spirits using numerous other varieties for hundreds of years. 

How Mezcal is Made

 Trimmed Agave piña

Trimmed Agave piña

Mezcal is produced from the heart of the agave plant (called the piña). Distillers cultivate this plant and then harvest it when conditions are just right. Then, the piña is roasted slowly in a pit over wood coals for up to several days before its tough fibers are soft and caramelized enough to be separated manually and used to make a fermented mash. 

When the mash ceases to bubble (indicating the end of the fermentation process) the hard crust of agave husks are removed from the take, and the fermented liquid is distilled in either an alembic still, a pot still, or a traditional clay still. 

Unlike many other spirits, the heads and tails are preserved and often re-blended into the end product, yielding a flavor profile rich in esters and other flavorful compounds. This practice, paired with the roasting of the piña, is what gives mezcal its distinctive, rich flavor profile.

Other Agave Spirits

 Blue Agave

Blue Agave

Tequila - Of course, we all know Tequila. Some of us only too well. One of the major differences between tequila and mezcal is the Blue Agave restriction (mentioned above), the geographical restrictions, which we'll save for another day, and the cultivation practices. Most mass-produced tequila is made using root clones of Blue Agave plants, a cultivation practice that can result in genetic stagnation, a lack of biodiversity, and subsequently, disease and pests.

Sotol - Similar in flavor to some Mezcals, Sotol is produced using the heart of the Desert Spoon Plant, a member of the Agave family. This is noteworthy because a Desert Spoon Plant can take decades to reach maturity, which really enhances the effects of terroir on the end product. 

Bacanora - Perhaps the least known variety of agave spirit, and illegal to produce until 1992. Bacanora can only legally be distilled in certain municipalities of the Northwest Mexican state of Sonora.

Lightning Round

Favorite Cocktail

Anything negroni-oriented. I love the bitter-sweet flavor profile.

Favorite Spirit

When I started working at Espita, it was definitely Rye whiskey, but now it's most certainly Mezcal. 

Influential Books

Advice for New Home Bartenders

If you're getting into Mezcal, don't be afraid to sip it. The people who make mezcal don't make it for cocktails - they make it to be enjoyed on its own. Try treating it just like a nice Scotch and really dig into the flavor profile to understand it.

For home bartending, just read. We live in a really good time to learn about the complexities of mixing drinks.