Jack Robertiello: Making Sense of Mezcal

An agave field. Image: Getty

Jack Robertiello has worked with or written about wine, spirits, food and restaurants most of his adult life, for many publications, both consumer and trade. He speaks frequently at conferences and meetings, and judges at numerous competitions, including the annual San Francisco World Spirits Competition. Robertiello also gives private classes and seminars on tasting wine and spirits, and consults with producers, importers, marketers, restaurants and publicists about the field.

At the 2017 VIBE Conference in San Diego, taking place from February 27 through March 1, Robertiello will break down tequila's elder relative, mezcal. Its rustic tang and smoky assault can unnerve even the seasoned drinker with its rustic tang and smoky assault. If tequila is Robert Downey, Jr., a wayward boy gone good, then mezcal is Charlie Sheen, unrepentant, unregenerate and bad to the bone. Accounting for a tiny portion of tequila's volume, agave-based mezcal is increasingly interesting to cocktail makers and spirit fans. Robertiello will explore various types of agave used to make mezcal, how it differs from tequila, look at the traditional production methods, and guide attendees as they taste a few to reveal how, despite its reputation as a one-trick pony, mezcal offers a range of flavors.

Be sure to register now for the 2017 VIBE Conference, and plan on attending Robertiello’s presentation on February 28.

VIBE: Your seminar focuses on mezcal, both exploring the category and tasting a few examples. Why is a spirit with such a small volume in the US important?

Jack Robertiello: Good question. Yes, the amount of mezcal made and sold is tiny compared to the volume of tequila, and will never approach anything like its popularity. But that’s not the right way to think about mezcal, even if they both are agave-based spirits and tequila is, technically, a form of mezcal. Mezcal is an increasingly important spirit on-premise, and touches many of the trends that are seen as important these days: small production, craft, traditional, authentic, non-industrial (for the most part), powerfully flavorful, eminently mixable, supported by many craft bartenders, and small enough to be considered an insider’s thing.

VIBE: Okay, so for those who don’t know, how is it like and unlike tequila?

Robertiello: Unlike its more famous mono-varietal offspring, mezcal can be made from about 40 varieties of the agave species, often wild grown rather than cultivated. While tequila can only use the Weber blue agave, around 85% of mezcal volume is estimated to come from the espadín variety, although most brands don’t specify varietals and probably use a mix. Those made from other varietals – tobalá, dobadaan, Dasylirion, madrecuixe, Tobaziche and other species - are now emerging from the 7 Mexican states where production is allowed, although about 90% of mezcal is produced in the state of Oaxaca.

Some mezcal is made industrially in commercial facilities, but most are made artisanally; agaves roasted for days in underground pits, then crushed under a large stone wheel called a tahona, the juice often fermented in open wooden tanks with wild yeast, and then distilled twice in alembic or even clay stills. By contrast, tequila production is massive, modern and controlled.

VIBE: What about mezcals’ reputation as smoky firewater?

Robertiello: Well, these are, generally speaking, intense spirits. Even those without much of that smoky quality – Fidencio, for instance – is made “sin humo,” or “without smoke.” But there are brands at various proofs, prices and ages available. Many are higher proof, but even those that are not bring a potent flavor package to cocktails, which is why so many bartenders use them both as the base for new cocktails or as accent spirits, using a half-ounce or even a dash to brighten drinks up. What I hope to share at my session is how, beyond the smoke and rusticity, mezcal is filled with flavors: tree and citrus fruits, dried or fresh herbs, tropical fruits, brine… A whole gamut of flavors and aromas, good for sipping, mixing or as an accent spirit in cocktails.

VIBE: How does mezcal fit into a national account program? Aren’t many of these brands in limited supply already?

Robertiello: There are few of the newer brands available nationwide, though that has been changing as some of the mezcals slowly expand supply and distribution. And while some of the older brands don’t have the cachet of the newer, more artisanal mezcals, some of the major spirit suppliers already have national distribution brands, like Montelobos from William Grant & Sons. In February, Diageo signed a distribution agreement with Mezcal Union, a relatively new brand, with an eye to increase distribution in the US. And other major suppliers are said to be making deals or looking to create their own brands, so it is just a matter of time before operators have a choice of mezcals to consider for their beverage programs. For those chains that allow a portion of the spirit menu to be decided regionally or locally, they can (and some probably have already started) feature mezcal.

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