Like ramen, mezcal is, in its own way, a relatively recent phenomenon outside its country of origin. While gringos have been indiscriminately chugging industrial-grade tequila for the last century or so—the world's first (and maybe not last) breakout mezcal—rural Mexicans have continued to quietly produce infinite expressions of agave-based spirits largely for themselves and their own communities, as they had for centuries. In the mid-90s the Mexican government created a Denomination of Origin for mezcal—ostensibly to protect it from counterfeiting—but effectively limiting its production and exportability from nine Mexican states and the producers within that who can afford the prohibitive licensing costs.
- Polly Jimenez
- Agave rhodacantha
It's not just difficult (though certainly a lot of fun) to get grounded in all the different ways mezcal can taste, but you have to consider whether the rustic label you're dropping serious dollars on is treating the people behind it, and the environment it comes from, fairly.
And there are targets on both sides. "Mediocre and mass-produced products are already flooding the market, aiming to prey on both a general lack of education among consumers and those same consumers' raw enthusiasm," writes Jay Schroeder in Understanding Mezcal, a slim, delightfully designed volume that answers agave-related questions beginning with "What does the word mezcal even mean?"
- Polly Jimenez
- Roasting pinas
Words, concepts, and species are brought to life by illustrator Polly Jimenez, who founded nascent publishing house Prensa Press along with journalist Paul Biasco, who opened and for a time managed Quiote/Todos Santos and now runs the Mexico City Neapolitan pizzeria Dr. Pizza.
Understanding Mezcal is a quick read, but in short order you'll have a reasonable appreciation for the differences between pulque and pechuga, tobala and tepextate, clay pot and copper alembic. v