Tequila's lunatic cousin
It’s been a while since we rode the mezcal train, so let’s begin with a brief primer. Actually, let’s begin with a shot. Good. Now, on to the primer. Mezcal and tequila are sort of like langoustines and prawns: we’d bet a shiny nickel they’re different, but if pressed for an explanation we’d have to say they both basically taste like shrimp.
Mezcal isn’t a seafood product: it’s any spirit distilled from the heart of the agave plant. This includes tequila, which is mezcal from a specific type of agave (agave tequilana) that’s produced in the Mexican state of Jalisco and from select regions in Guanajuato, Michoacán, Nayarit and Tamaulipas. But there are lots of lesser known mezcals from all over Mexico.
Sombra Mezcal ($40) comes from a small village called San Juan Del Rio, 100 kilometers south of Oaxaca. It’s made by baking the agave hearts in a conical pit lined with rocks that have been heated with an oak fire. They bake there for a few days, covered with banana leaf mats and a layer of earth, after which they’re crushed in a horse-powered millstone, fermented with local water and wild yeast and finally distilled twice in a copper still.
The Sombra bottle reflects this provenance. It’s a jug-like container made from recycled glass, flecked with tiny bubbles that give it worn-in feel. Pouring a shot of it, you’ll smell notes of bright green citrus, sweet pineapple and wood smoke. It’s even a little earthy, vaguely reminiscent of a barnyard in the same way saison beers can be. The taste is spicy, warm and sweet at first with a fruity, salty finish.
We like our Sombra as a shot(s) with a slice of citrus fruit, but mezcal could also be subbed in part or whole in cocktails that traditionally call for tequila. Look out for it in drinks at your local haute cocktail joint. Experiment at home. Hell, throw it back with a few langoustines.