Mezcal Undergoing a Minor Boom?

Mezcal

When celebrities get behind a category, there's usually something there.

That's what the uninitiated probably are thinking when finding out that country music star Toby Keith has his own mezcal, Wild Shot. But at the same time, at the other end of the spirit market, where cocktail geeks and farm to glass beverage fans reside, mezcal is also undergoing a minor boom.

Even when tequila shed its rambunctious reputation, its elder relative could unnerve even the most seasoned drinker with its rustic tang and smoky assault. If tequila was Robert Downey, Jr., a bad boy gone good, then mezcal was Charlie Sheen, unrepentant, unregenerate and bad down to the bone.

That was the image, anyway, one hard to erase, though a few voices continued to cry out in the wilderness. One man in particular, Ron Cooper of Del Maguey, persisted, developing great respect for the varieties of single village mescals he’s brought here since 1995.

Today, however, there are dozens of brands using a wide range of permitted wild agaves, at varying proofs and from different Mexican states. Bartenders across the country have increasingly included brands like Del Maguey, Illegal, Alipus, Fidencio, Los Amantes, and Wahaka, just to name a few, on their drink lists and back bar, and more importantly, as a cocktail ingredient.

That's where, to those who do not like their spirits neat, mezcal can really shine. Packed with the sorts of sharp edges, deep flavors and high proof that bartenders love to play with, mezcals routinely have the potency and robust smokiness that can cut through the densest sweet vermouth or amaro and come out on top. "Plays well with others" is one way to put it, though NYC bartender Ivy Mix (who recently opened her own place, Leyenda) recently compared it to a skeletal system for a complex cocktail, something from which one can hang different flavors and aromas and not worry about the entire edifice collapsing.

Where once a single brand might find its way on the back bar, today in some markets three or four are standard. Volume is still relatively small (about 50,000 cases last year, according to Technomic, Inc.'s SpiritsTAB), but some of the better known artisanal brands, like Del Maguey and Vago, are reaching their maximum production, with the latter most likely stopping at the 20 or so markets where the brand's various varietal mezcals are distributed. That's bad news for fans of this word-of-mouth phenomenon, but it's surely just another sign of how Americans are suddenly turning to the oldest spirit produced in North America.