A short primer on mezcal | Drink | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A short primer on mezcal

It can range from earthy and smoky, like scotch, to grassy and floral

Humans have a magical touch for turning things into alcoholic beverages. We’re resourceful. We use what’s at hand and we’ll be damned if we give up. (Google “torpedo juice,” of World War II fame, to see how far we’ll go.) But of all these methods, the production of mezcal captures my imagination most tightly. 

For 500 years, Mexicans have been making mezcal from baked and fermented maguey (pronounced ma-gay), or agave. The first step? Wait seven to 30 years for a giant maguey to grow in the desert. Next, hike out in the heat and hack it down with a machete. Take that machete and carve the maguey to its piña, or heart. Back at camp, bury all piñas in a stone and earthen oven to roast for up to 30 days before being ground by a large stone wheel drawn by horse. The crushed maguey will carry its signature smoke flavor forever. After fermentation in large wooden vats, the pulp goes through double distillation and into bottles on bar shelves everywhere.

Rachael Hagerman, bar manager of Verde, in Garfield, poured three shots to give me the gist of mezcal flavors, from the agave-syrup-sweetened Del Maguey Crema de Mezcal to the briny yet buttery Ilegal Reposado. Unlike its cousin, tequila, which must be made from Weber’s Blue agave, mezcal can be made from many varieties. Different varieties produce different flavors, which is one reason mezcal ranges from earthy and smoky, like scotch, to grassy and floral. Equipping me with sangrita, a non-alcoholic, sweet and savory drink that serves as a back to balance the mezcal, Hagerman explained that, as with many liquors, aging also affects taste. But in contrast to scotch or bourbon, older is not necessarily better. With resting times ranging from two months to 3 years or more, mezcal is typically drunk quite young; many people prefer reposados aged from two months to a year. But whatever your preference, mezcal can accommodate as the perfect drink to beat the heat.