'Clap Your Hands' is the first in what will hopefully be a frequent series of posts where we plan to mention things that show up in Maine which were previously only available out of state.
Maine has crazy liquor laws no doubt. Other states do too so I'm not going to get into the whole 'Man, it sure would be great if we had access to _____.' Most states have their issues and if you live in one of the few that seem to be able to get anything...try not to rub it in.
But by all means talk, write and get excited about it. I love hearing/reading about booze. Even the stuff that is unlikely to make it to shelves up here. It gives me something to look for when I'm out of state and, on those rare occasions when it does show up...well, those are exciting days. Those are days when Sean gets some amped up emails. With lots of capital letters and exclamation points.
Maine has fortunately seen some great products make their way to liquor store shelves over the last year. Some genevers, a few different amari, and a bevy of notable aperitif wines including Byrrh and products from Cocchi and Dolin. All good stuff. There are a variety of other spirits and cordials that have shown up recently which sometimes makes me nervous. Like I should buy two bottles instead of one in case they disappear from the shelves like Cynar - unable to be restocked or special ordered.
Anyway, this is about mezcal. Because mezcal, good mezcal, is a special thing. And when bottles of Ilegal Mezcal popped up I was thrilled. Ilegal isn't cheap ($50+ for the unaged joven) but neither is scotch which, like mezcal, owes a lot of it's individuality to location specific factors. That and they both can hit you right up front with smoke. Scotch has single malts, some brands of mezcal, del Maguey for example offer single village bottlings. I don't know why I'm talking about scotch, tequila is mezcal's closest relative.
There are some key differences between mezcal and tequila. The type of agave used, where that agave is grown and how it's harvested are all factors that contribute to the differences in both taste and cost. The biggest difference and the one frequently cited as the basis of mezcal's smoky awesomeness is how the core of the agave plant is cooked prior to distillation. For tequila this is usually done in large steel ovens. Mezcaleros however, bake theirs in pits dug into the ground. Ilegal, during this stage, uses eucalyptus and mesquite wood to supply the heat. It can take a couple of days, during which the sugars slowly carmelize and the smoke manages to hang on all the way to the bottle. Eric Asimov has a great overview here which includes some notes on the better brands/values out there. If you're at all interested it's worth the read. And Michael Dietsch has some more details on the history and production of mezcal here.
If you're already tired of reading this post though and looking for a brief description to help you situate mezcal's place among other spirits consider this quote from Joel Cuellar of Brandy Library in New York - "Mezcal is to tequila as rye is to bourbon." It's a generalization of course, but I think his point is that bourbon is often mellower and a bit sweeter than rye which can be bigger, spicier, wilder.
Finally, I know debates sometimes get waged about whether or not premium spirits should be used for mixing. I tend to fall in the 'good spirits make good drinks' camp but appreciate that some things are best sipped straight (I'm looking at you, Blanton's). And in the case of mezcal...by all means drink it straight, it's worth it. But there are also some mighty fine cocktails for which it can be used. Here are two:
The Other Word - Eric Alperin, The Varnish, LA
2 oz Mezcal
1 oz Lime Juice
1/4 oz Yellow Chartreuse
1/4 oz Agave Nectar
1 barspoon Maraschino Liqueur
Shake with ice and strain over a large ice cube in a rocks glass.
The Dry Season - Kyle Davidson, The Violet Hour, Chicago
1 oz El Tesoro Blanco Tequila
1 oz Mezcal Vida
1 oz Cocchi Americano
1/2 oz Aperol
Stir with ice and strain into a cocktail glass.
I listed the brands because they're specified in the recipe. If you're using 1800 silver and Illegal Joven it might be a little different but still all kinds of tasty.
I realize the Ilegal's been available here for several months. Sometimes I blog slowly. Also, there are other mezcals that are somewhat new to the shelves around here, specifically Wild Shot and Scorpion. I'd read a bunch of good things about the Ilegal and opted for that one.