Anna King Shahab takes a trip to Mexico with mood-enhancing mezcal
Downtown Auckland's La Fuente gives patrons a true taste of Mexico via its selection of mezcales. I attended a tasting at the bar recently, hosted by owner Edmundo Farrera, to celebrate the NZ launch of mezcal brand The Lost Explorer. The experience piqued my interest in this spirit, produced from various species of the agave plant, not merely because the stuff tasted so darn delicious, but also because Farrera's passion for it is infectious.
Farrera, whose career as a sommelier has taken him around the world, was raised in the southern Mexican state of Veracruz and his interest in mezcal was sparked at a young age when he tried his first "half a teaspoon" of what he describes as an "opulent, explosive, and complex" spirit.
The history of mezcal is long and rich, but for a long time its fellow agave spirit, tequila, held the limelight, with mezcal viewed as an inferior choice. In the past decade or so, mezcal has enjoyed a stunning renaissance, and as Farrera told us over our tasting, premium mezcales are tightly held within Mexico. Mezcal offers a highly nuanced taste of place. Whereas tequila is produced only from blue agave and only in Jalisco, mezcal is made commercially from 42 species of the agave, and there are nine Mexican states that officially produce it.
Of those, Oaxaca is the beating heart. "It's the largest region", explains Farrera, "And also where the best examples are made – from clean, herbal styles all the way to dirty, wet animal skin and funky, and everything in between". No matter where mezcal is produced, it will tell a story of the place. "The soil types differ in their influence but other plants, coastal proximity, altitude also have a direct effect on profile and flavour", says Farrera. Above all that, "Wild yeast on fermentation is considered the biggest player, influencing what we end up with in the glass."
I tasted three mezcales from The Lost Explorer, made from three different agave species. Espadin (the most widely produced type of mezcal) was complex and smoky. The salmiana popped with bright, herbal green chilli flavour yet had a wonderfully silky texture. The tobala – the "king" of mezcal species used in the most premium examples – was rich and earthy. The number you see on a mezcal bottle refers to the age of the agave plant at the time of harvest – another of the many factors that makes up the flavour profile of the spirit.
If you're after a mood-booster, mezcal is your pal. Rather than being ruined by it, mother is likely to be up on the D-floor after a considered sip or two. "Whereas other types of alcohol are depressives", explains Farrera, "agave spirits are an upper – you'll get an energising effect when you drink mezcal and it can enhance conversations and creativity."
As one of the most ancient spirits in Latin America, mezcal is woven into the fabric of Mexican culture. "'Para todo mal, mezcal; para todo bien, también – for everything bad and everything good, Mezcal'... This famous saying encapsulates how we think about Mezcal in Mexico", says Farrera.
One of the best things about mezcal? Brands like The Lost Explorer, which puts sustainability and ethical practices at the heart of its ethos, are not alone – there's a lot of good news coming out of this spirit world.
"Mezcal comes from the poorest states in Mexico and is mostly made by indigenous people who are working to preserve our traditions for generations to come", says Farrera. Fertilisers and pesticides are happily not part of the story, and the fermentation process is natural. Initiatives such as reforesting, limiting what's taken from wild agave stock, and repurposing spent plant fibre as building blocks for local communities are becoming common.
Outside Mexico, we can experience a sense of place through tasting different mezcales. "The best mezcales give you a sense of terroir that is deeper and more connected to the land than any other product, as the agave, the local wood for cooking, and local soil or rocks for the cooking all add layers on top of the land where the mezcal is made", says Farrera.
And if you are keen on visiting the source? "Oaxaca is the motherland of mezcal, and a gastronomic Mecca", says Farrera. "You can visit ancient ruins with fermentation pools, mezcal bars (try to book for Mezcaloteca, usually booked three months in advance), visit distilleries, and do mezcal tours. The other states are great too, but there is nothing like the Oaxacan state to dive into the pleasures of mezcal."
La Fuente, 23 Customs Street East, Auckland CBD