The mys­ter­ies of mez­cal

You may never fully mas­ter the agave-based spirit as you could Scotch. And therein lies its beauty.

Esquire (Singapore) - - MaHB -

In the folk­lore of my fam­ily, there is one night that re­mains leg­endary. We had trav­elled to Cancún, the gaba­chos- in-big­som­breros Mex­i­can re­sort city that was built on the con­cept of a never-end­ing spring break, to cel­e­brate New Year’s eve with the proper mea­sure of ridicu­lous­ness. I don’t re­mem­ber much about it, but my sib­lings do. They re­mem­ber gaz­ing out at a dance floor in a night­club af­ter mid­night and see­ing me, then in my early 20s, writhing around in a man­ner that was per­haps meant to sum­mon the spirit of Quet­zal­coatl, the Me­soamer­i­can de­ity usu­ally de­picted as a feath­ered ser­pent. My brother and sis­ter could find me in the crowd be­cause I had man­aged to climb on top of a gi­ant am­pli­fier, which meant that my eu­phoric con­tor­tions were on full dis­play for ev­ery­one in the club.

This Walpur­gis­nacht of wild aban­don was later at­trib­uted to a lone cul­prit: mez­cal. I had downed a lot of cheap mez­cal that night, al­though I had no idea what it was. In those days, Amer­i­can tourists still liked to cling to the myth that the ‘worm’ float­ing around in the bot­tle would make them hal­lu­ci­nate. (You can’t

blame the lo­cals for per­pet­u­at­ing this prank.) By now, of course, US drinkers have grad­u­ated from such cal­low delu­sions, and this in­fin­itely com­plex agave spirit, whether stirred into cock­tails or sipped on its own, has been treated with the rev­er­ence it de­serves for more than a decade. In fact, there are so many com­pelling bot­tles on store shelves that it’s hard to keep track, and it’s a telling in­di­ca­tor of pop­u­lar thirst that Ge­orge Clooney and his bil­lion­aire Casami­gos com­rades have an­nounced their own plans to move into the mez­cal mar­ket­place.

If I’m be­ing hon­est, though, I still can’t pre­tend to have a grasp on what mez­cal is all about. It’s the sort of spirit that has a habit of elud­ing any­one who tries to pin it down. Which is why I met up with Yana Volf­son, the bev­er­age di­rec­tor at Mex­i­can chef En­rique Olvera’s two out­posts in New York, Atla and Cosme, for an af­ter­noon agave tu­to­rial. Join­ing Volf­son at Atla was Jor­sand Díaz, the head bar­tender and self-de­scribed ‘mez­cal nerd’ at both restau­rants. And the first thing the two of them stressed to me was that mez­cal mas­tery is even more slip­pery than an am­a­teur may re­alise.

“We strive so hard for that idea of con­sis­tency,” Volf­son said. “There’s re­ally no such thing.” Sur­ren­der to flux—from bot­tle to bot­tle, day to day, she ad­vised. “Mez­cal can taste one way one day and taste dif­fer­ent the next day. Just like no two chill­ies are ever go­ing to taste the same.”

“The more pas­sion that I have, the more ques­tions I have,” Díaz added.

But where to be­gin, if mez­cal qual­i­fies as such a mov­ing tar­get? It helps to start off by for­go­ing stereo­types. Per­haps you’re prone to bluff­ing your way through a bar or­der by ask­ing for some­thing “smoky,” which is like say­ing “funky” in a nat­u­ral­wine bar or “hoppy” in a craft brew­ery. Stop. Smoke is not al­ways the most pro­nounced el­e­ment in mez­cal, nor must it be viewed as the chief virtue.

In­stead of pair­ing mez­cal with the clichéd worm salt and wedge of citrus, Volf­son and Díaz will, at Atla, en­tice cus­tomers with curve­ball ac­com­pa­ni­ments that come across as a rev­e­la­tion. I sam­pled three bot­tles. Each bloomed on my palate when hitched to an un­ex­pected nib­ble. The first was an es­padín (from the most com­monly used agave plant) that mez­calero Joel Bar­riga had made for Vago; it was “milky” and “but­tery,” Volf­son said, and she paired it with choco­late-cov­ered es­presso beans. Then she de­scribed Ró­mulo Sánchez Parada’s 2015 madre-cuishe, for Rey Cam­pero, as “stemmy,” green­grassy, eu­ca­lyp­tus-tinged; she had me drink that one with slices of smoked salmon. The third por­tal, Rey­naldo Al­tami­rano’s wild-agave te­pez­tate, for El Jol­go­rio, brought out the po­etry in Volf­son. She paired it with blue cheese, declar­ing that it would take me “far up into the sky and deep, deep into the ocean, in terms of its flavour”.

Wait. Maybe mez­cal can make you hal­lu­ci­nate af­ter all. I sup­pose the trick is to open your mind first. “Walk through one door,” Volf­son told me, “and then I’ll open up another door for you.”

No worm zone:

pair­ings with Rey Cam­pero (left) and El Jol­go­rio (be­low)

mez­cals.

Bev­er­age di­rec­tor Yana Volf­son of New York’s Atla

and Cosme.

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