On a quiet street in an out-of-the-way Mexico City neighborhood where many chilangos fear to tread, there is a bodega about the size of a one-car garage. Inside is a veritable museum of agave arcana presided over by a man some call the Indiana Jones of mezcal.
Erick Rodríguez traverses some of Mexico’s most washed-out, potholed roads in his ill-equipped Jetta in pursuit of one thing: good, strong mezcal, produced in the most traditional style. What he finds in those remote villages—anything from huge glass jugs of twenty-seven-year-old hooch to a copper condenser so ancient that even the coins used to patch up the rusty spots are 150 years old—he stores here, far from Mexico City’s trendy barrios. The location of his tasting room may be low profile, but those in the know still find a way to sniff him out. Here, he gives Lucky Peach his quick-and-dirty guide to mezcal.
1. Make out with your mezcal.
“It’s best to start with small kisses. We have to warn the body about what it’s about to receive,” Rodríguez says, pouring a shot of 125-proof mezcal from the state of Puebla into a shallow ceramic cup (wider-brimmed glasses allow the aromas to open up). “The first sips can be very aggressive on the palate. After the third we start to perceive the notes and flavors of each mezcal.”
He puts the cup up to one nostril, then the other; then he pours a few drops into his palms, rubs them together, and fans them dry. He puts his hands up to his face and breathes in deeply, reporting notes of wet earth and tobacco.
“It’s just like a meal,” he says. “Through the smell you can tell which agave it is and from what region.”
2. There’s more to mezcal than just Oaxaca—and each region has its own terroir.
While mezcal’s official denomination of origin includes nine Mexican states, it is made almost everywhere in the country.
“Twenty-six states make mezcal,” Rodríguez says. “In Mexico we have micro-regionalization. Just like, say, wines from Burgundy, you know such-and-such family makes it in this community in this village, and each one has something totally different to offer. It depends on the type of agave that grows there, the processes each region uses, how it’s fermented, the water, if the agave grows in the mountains—all those things make a difference in the flavor. For example, if it’s from Michoacán, it smells sort of like cheese. It’s very distinctive.”
3. Don’t believe the hype—or the worm.
Few things chafe Rodríguez more than industrial distillers who abuse terms like “artisanal,” “sustainable,” and “organic,” which are often just the twentieth-century version of the worm at the bottom of the bottle: that is, little more than marketing.
“In mezcal there are many lies,” he explains, adding that if you really want to consume responsibly, you should closely scrutinize the label. According to Rodríguez, a good mezcal label should identify the maestro mezcalero by name, along with the state where it was produced, the type of agave used, what kind of oven it was cooked in, how it was milled, the date it was made, what kind of yeasts were used, how long it was aged—the list goes on. In general, the more specific the info printed on the label, the better.
As for the worm, well: “That was an invention of the 1950s, to make people want to finish the bottle so they can eat the worm,” he says. “It’s excellent marketing, but you aren’t tasting the flavors of each plant if you’re just trying to get to the worm.”
4. Don’t underestimate the blancos.
In the tequila world, barrel-aged spirits labeled reposado and añejo are often perceived as superior, with prices to match. But for mezcal, Rodríguez prefers blancos.
“[Barrel-aging] was inherited from Spain,” he says. “For me, wood destroys the finest flavors and aromas of the agave.”
Instead, he likes mezcals that have been aged in glass for at least six months—but the longer, the better.
“A young mezcal is more spicy and more aggressive on the palate. When you let it mature in glass, it’s sweeter and you can perceive the aromas from the agave, rather than the alcohol itself.”
5. Yes, chicken is sometimes involved.
Pechugas are finished mezcals that are redistilled with a mix of fruits, spices, and—wait for it—a chunk of raw meat (often chicken breast) suspended inside the still. This is usually done ceremonially, to celebrate a wedding or a funeral, according to Rodríguez.
“The meat is steam-cooked and [the fat] drips in the pot, and you can taste these flavors when you drink the mezcal,” he says. Depending on the region, the chicken might be swapped for goose, turkey, rabbit, sheep, suckling pig, or even iguana in green mole sauce. But the meat shouldn’t get immersed directly into the mezcal, so if someone tries to sell you a bottle with some flesh floating in the bottom, you’re better off skipping it, Rodríguez says.
6. Too much smoke is a bad thing.
Mezcal is famous for its smoky flavor, because its piñas, or hearts of the agave plant, are fire-roasted underground (compared with tequila, in which they are, for the most part, steam-cooked).
“When it has too much smoky flavor, it’s a defect, not a virtue,” Rodríguez cautions. “It was altered because at some point in the process, something bad happened.”
7. The best mezcal is the one you like to drink.
While very few mezcals in the U.S. pass muster for Rodríguez, he recommends the brands Rey Campero and Mayalen. Ultimately, however, Rodríguez says you should drink what you like. Attend tastings where you can try different kinds of mezcal and eventually you’ll find the type of agave that yields your favorite flavors. “The best mezcal is the one that makes you happy,” he says. “And when you see a brand that’s responsible, stick with it.”
To learn more about Rodríguez’s line of traditional mezcals, to schedule a tasting, or to book a tour of mezcal country, visit facebook.com/ALMAMEZCALERA.