Excerpted from Death & Co Welcome Home, available here.
The mezcals we love and frequently use in cocktails are artisanal products, each with its own unique flavor profile. But generally, mezcal adds smoky, briny, and vegetal notes to cocktails, often working in concert with other base spirits to avoid overpowering the drink. While there are aged mezcals, we almost always use unaged versions (blanco or joven) in cocktails. This is in part a cost consideration, but more than that, we gravitate toward the pure expression of the agave’s agricultural personality most evident in unaged mezcals.
Mezcal is a terroir-driven spirit resistant to simple categorization. Its flavor is drawn from the soil in which the agave is grown, the altitude of its region, the impact of years of weather as the agave matures, and the flora of the surrounding ecosystem. The types of agave used in mezcal also vary, from tiny wild species to massive cultivated forms. From there, the nuance of fermentation style and length, yeast strains, distillation technique, and the indescribable influence of the artisan distiller’s touch produce a vast spectrum of flavors.
With such variation, it’s hard to group mezcal into convenient categories. To make it easier, we’re going to focus on the most commonly used agave in mezcal production, Espadín, to demonstrate how a shared base ingredient can display itself in vastly different ways in the final liquid. The goal here is contrast; whichever mezcals you use for experiments, ensure they’re from different producers, regions and altitudes.
Tasting I: Paloma
While the margaritas is the first cocktail most think of when talking agave spirits, the Paloma is more commonly consumed throughout Mexico. A simple highball of grapefruit soda and (traditionally) tequila is a perfect match for mezcal.
Tasting II: Martini
Although Martini orthodoxy calls for gin (or vodka), the format is versatile, especially with other clear spirits. Floral, fruity, and minerally; these are all descriptors that can be attributed to both gin and agave-based spirits, so it’s no surprise that vermouth and agave have a strong affinity.
For this experiment, we’re modifying the standard dry Martini to better align with the characteristics of mezcal. The power of mezcal can sometimes overshadow the delicacy of dry vermouth. Blanc vermouth is a better match: the added sweetness helps lift the mezcal’s ripe agave characteristics. Additionally, to give the vermouth more room to express itself, we prefer this experiment with a fifty-fifty proportion of mezcal to blanc vermouth, which tamps the mezcal’s proof down a touch to let us focus more on how the spirit collaborates with the modifier.
Additionally, the Martini format is a great vehicle for exploring how garnishes amplify or modify flavors within the cocktail: citrus twists, olives, pickled onions, and so on.